Online Poker’s Bot Problem Resurfaces in Voice-Activated Assist Debate

Computerized programs assisting with the playing of online program, commonly referred to as poker “bots,” are back as a topic of concern given one of the latest developments to come to light — a voice-activated assist program which allows its user to access a refined database of pre-determined strategies on the fly.

iStock_000002430830XSmallThe debate over the program, the use of which was admitted by three players in the select, high-volume HUSNG (Heads-Up Sit-N-Go) community, has retriggered heated debate about what constitutes a bot, what sort of software aids should be allowed.  It’s also led to deepened concern over how online poker itself can continue to provide a fair and balanced playing field for all types of players — recreational types and high-volume grinders alike.

Let’s allow the specifics to define the story and its potential impact on online poker’s future.  The HUSNG “community,” if one describes it as such, is a highly competitive, highly automated niche within the much larger scope of online poker.  The niche is dominated by a few hundred players who exist on tiny edges, playing an automated form of poker that bears little resemblance to the full ring games or tournaments favored by many other players.

Heads-up, sit-n-gos are a form of no-limit hold’em, though it’s possible to use the HUSNG format with other poker forms as well.  There are even turbo and hyper-turbo HUSNGs, which start with smaller stacks and allow shorter response times per play.

Given the game’s natural constraints, it’s a relatively simple game, with few deep strategic ploys possible.  That’s among the many reasons why the game has become a primary practice ground for all sorts of automated software to assist in play.

Some sorts of software assists, such as HUDs (Heads-Up Display programs), have become de riguer for the dedicated participants in these specialized formats.  Whether or not HUDs or other commonly used programs, such as seating (“bumhunting”) scripts should be allowed in online poker is it’s own, separate debate, but they have their own role in defining the larger software problem as well.

The Skier_5 ‘Allowed’ Bridge to Bot-dom

However, it’s the formally unnamed “skier_5” program that’s alarmed both the HUSNG niche and the larger online-poker world as a whole.  The program bridges the gap between non-assisting software aids (generally allowed by sites) and bots and other live-time strategy aids (which are generally barred by sites).

Skier_5, a UK, London-based HUSNG player, decided to automate a large assortment of strategy charts in a new, novel way: by setting them up within a large database program affixed with an automated retrieval system — the user’s own words.  By calling out the hole cards to the program’s voice-recognition capabilities, the program then accesses an appropriate chart or series of charts that provides recommended strategies, likely pre-sorted according to the relative stack sizes of the players, the number of big blinds at start of hand, and which seat the player is in.  [Author’s note: This update corrects the initial version of the story, which referred to the flop itself as being included.  According to skier_5 himself, the voice-activated assist is based on pre-flop information, which would necessarily include the hole cards.  The charts themselves are thus likely ordered according to this “game state” information.]

The unnamed program written by Skier_5 also appears to include a randomizing element in the strategies it recommends, which is an important part of any bluffing or bet-varying poker strategy.  [Update per skier_5: A randomization for bluffing / bet-sizing is part of the overall process via a separate program, but is not part of skier_5’s chart-retrieval automation.]

Is it a bot?  According to the terms of service (TOS) as dictated by PokerStars and other sites, it probably isn’t.  As Skier_5 cryptically stated himself in a heated discussion thread on a major poker forum, “There is no automated decision software.”  This appears to be a careful parsing of words; Skier_5 seems to say, “It’s the player that has to click the buttons, not the program.”

Indeed, the program as it’s been described does not even need to be connected to the online-poker client being run, whether PokerStars or another site.  That’s what many view as part of why PokerStars initially gave the program its approval, when provided with a description of how it works by Skier_5.  Skier_5 has disputed that assertion, noting that Stars has allowed the program’s use, independent of other factors, because it involves only the automated retrieval of strategies from a series of static charts.

Skier_5 has also allowed at least two other players to use his private software in exchange for a share of their profits, and all three players, according to other HUSNG player accounts, have been profiting immensely from the software’s use.

The Software ‘Arms Race’ in Online Poker

The Skier_5 voice-automation program likely represents the next evolutionary step in the never-ending race to develop better player-aid software.  The HUSNG online-poker niche is rife with such aids, and its high-volume practitioners invariably rely heavy on purchased software aids… or produce their own.  In some ways, the niche represents the worst aspects of the online game, wherein the traditional psychological aspects of poker have been crushed by pure computerized, processing force.

In HUSNG, and to a lesser extent, in all of online poker, it’s becoming less about being a good poker player and more about becoming a good programmer.

That’s not good news for the marketing of online poker, nor for the game’s longterm health.  But exactly how the technological genie goes back in the bottle, no one’s quite sure.

The “Skier_5” program may not be a bot, and PokerStars has confirmed that the program was approved based on the way it was constructed.  Since automated chart retrieval is allowed, and since the program takes no actions on its own, it very narrowly skirted Stars’ TOS restrictions against certain types of software aids.

However, the combination of the software and the player himself — Skier_5 or one of the other players using the voice-recognition program — is very arguably a bot when looked at as a collective unit.  The program is “recommending” the decision; the player clicks the button.  That’s sort of an “Iron Man” approach, in which the metallic, computerized shell (the program itself, in this analogy), provides superhuman capabilities to the otherwise slow, weak human encased inside.

It shouldn’t be allowed, in this writer’s opinion.  But exactly how does PokerStars or any other site defend against this sort of programming attack, when such a program doesn’t even need to be linked to Stars or another poker software client to be effective?

Rethinking and Limiting Third-Party Software’s Role

The marked imbalance between more-recreational players and high-volume grinders isn’t anything new.  Numerous sites and networks have taken steps to limit the effectiveness of third-party software aids, with varying degrees of success.

The most radical approach, to date, has been the “recreational player model” introduced by Bodog a couple of years back, which is also employed on its US-facing Bovada skin.  Under Bodog’s approach, all players are anonymous.  This utterly defeats one half of the computerized-play conundrum, that of data-mining large quantities of hands on other players and thus gaining an edge on those players through the ability to identify tendencies without actually having played those opponents.

The approach comes with a tradeoff: Bodog (including Bovada) is somewhat more susceptible to collusive, team play.  Only 24 hours after the fact can Bodog/Bovada players receive hand histories with hold cards displayed, at which time a manual examination of any suspect hands or games can occur.  That’s a bit of a process, and it’s likely that only the most blatant forms of such collusion are uncovered.

A few other small networks have employed things they also term a “recreational player model.”  In large part, those are giant crocks of shit, with no added player protections.  Instead they’re just excuses for some of these networks to bar profitable players, with no correlation given — or needed — between targeted players’ profitability and presumed computerized play.

Most networks and sites haven’t taken such radical steps.  One of the reasons is the tacit admission that assisted play allows these high-volume players to play many more hands than they’d be capable of, without the computerized help.  All those extra tables and hands add significantly to these sites’ bottom lines in the short term, though the long-term damage to online poker’s image and essential “fairness” is also clear to see.

It’s unlikely that a site such as PokerStars would seriously consider going to an anonymous-player model, a la Bodog, for a slew of different reasons.  Stars’ revenue models necessarily include a healthy portion derived from high-volume grinders, who are small in relative number but account for a disproportionate percentage of hands played.

De-emphasizing high-volume play would also reduce the effectiveness of many sites’ and networks’ player-incentive programs.  There’d even be a lessened need for certain types of sponsored online players; at Stars, for instance, whole hierarchies are built around achieving volume-based goals such as Supernova or Supernova Elite.

Can Stars just do away with the troublesome game formats?  In a nutshell, HUSNG is a pisshole, overrun by coders who view online poker as an activity to be manipulated for profit by any means possible.  It’s at the extreme end of all poker variants in that regard, though such behaviors are certain found throughout all of the online game.  Stars has also dropped controversial formats before, as when it did away with “double or nothing” (DON) sit-n-gos, not long after the discovery of massive rings of players — including a large ring from mainland China — that were manipulating those formats to derive profits as a team.

The constant improvement of the third-party software itself also has to be considered. The computer-assisted play has two goals: Identifying weaknesses in one’s opponents and exploiting those weaknesses, and separately, optimizing one’s own play.  As mentioned, the Bodog solution only blocks the first half of that formula.

Exactly how online-poker sites and networks will respond to the challenge of the second half remains to be seen.  The true bane of the Skier_5 program revelations is that the episode proves that such software can be operated remotely to the game, in a manner that is not directly detectable by Stars or other sites.  In that way, it matters very little if Stars changes its own TOC to declare such programs illegal.

The only way sites can detect such programs as Skier_5’s automated chart retrieval is through sophisticated, after-the-fact analysis.  Worse, it’s not at all clear that poker networks have the skill or the desire to do this sort of work in policing their games and products.

Mitigating the Damage

Should all third-party software be blocked by responsible sites?  That’s a question a lot of people are asking.  Certainly, anything that can be construed as offering live-time aid needs to be questioned, even though policing such programs’ use may prove impossible.

A better solution may be to find ways to reduce these programs’ effectiveness, particularly when it comes to the other side of the equation, the process of analyzing the play of others.  Bodog’s solution is one possibility, but not the only one.

Most third-party software would have greatly reduced value, for instance, if players were allowed very frequent screen-name changes.  Should players be allowed to change their online handles?  I think the answer to this has clearly shifted into the “yes” category, and it has to be allowed frequently enough to counter the cumulative advantage such analysis programs offer.  On Stars, for instance, I could see allowing players to change their screen names every six weeks or 10,000 hands played, whichever came first.

The devastation this would cause to the third-party data-mining and hand-scraping market would be, in all frankness, a delight.  Neither these data sellers nor the third-party software providers have any particular entitlement to sell their wares, and it’d be best for all of online poker to take hard steps against those underbelly industries.

Even with such changes made, online poker has some hard decisions ahead.  There’s a particular sense among casual players that the big boys of the industry haven’t done enough to keep their games fair to all.  True or not, that perception is likely to stay until one of the industry’s major players takes harsh action against the script kiddies.

It might be PokerStars; it might be someone else.  But that day is coming.

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