With all of the recent scandals involving online poker cheating I thought I would take a few paragraphs to describe all of the various ways people can cheat at online poker. A definitive guide to online poker cheating, if you will. First off, “cheating” is a pretty broad term as some may consider abusing the disconnect protect feature on a site as cheating while others may simply view it as angle shooting within the bounds of the rules. Also, some things fall under poker scams rather than cheating as they don’t actually involve poker play. If I have missed something that you think should be included let me know.
Disconnect Protect Abuse
Many poker sites offer tables that have disconnect protection. The way this works is that if the software detects that the player has become disconnected the player’s hand will not be folded and he will be allowed to see the river without putting any more money in the pot.
The reason for this feature is that going back to the early days of online poker many people were still on dial up internet accounts that were unreliable and players would often become disconnected in the middle of a hand and they would be folded when they were unable to act in time. Today the feature carries over as poker rooms expand into new territories where the internet infrastructure is still immature and unreliable.
Unfortunately this allows a player who may feel that his opponent has him beat to pull the internet connection on his computer and thus see whether or not he has the best hand without putting any more money in the pot.
Poker rooms typically attempt to stop the abuse of this feature by only allowing players a set amount of disconnect protects. After they have reached their limit they will be folded if they fail to act in time. However the abuse still continues because players will often ask to have their limit reset and barring other players complaining the poker room will typically honor the request. Obviously, the best way to avoid people shooting this angle on you is to complain when you feel another player is abusing it. When he asks for a reset the poker room will see that other players have complained and will likely not reset his limit.
This is more angle shooting than cheating but a lot of players will buy into a NL table with the min buy-in and look for the opportunity to get all their chips in the pot on a big hand. After they double up they leave the table and go sit at another table with the min buy-in and repeat the process. I can come up with some arguments why this might actually be -EV for the short stacker as well as see how it’s frustrating to players who have just doubled up some angle shooter but as long as they’re not sitting back down at the same table they are playing within the stated rules of the game and it’s something players need to adjust their game for.
Trojans, Virus, Phishing and Keyloggers, Oh My!
I’ve been using computers (and the Internet) for roughly 17 years and I can count the number of times I’ve been hit by a virus, trojan horse or some other nasty on a single hand. And I used to play around with virus code just to see how they did what they did. In other words, it boggles my mind how many people fall prey to downloading and installing malicious software on their computer.
If you allow someone to install malicious software on your computer all sorts of bad things are possible. Since this is about online poker the most likely scenario is they write something that either:
a) Communicates your hole cards to them
b) Records all of your passwords
Perhaps in another post I’ll outline security tips to lock down your system but most hackers don’t even need to go that far. They just send people emails saying that in order to collect your bonus you need to confirm your login information by going to some site they set up to look like your favorite online poker room and people simply hand over their login details to them. No online poker room is ever going to ask you to do that!
Social engineering is a term from the computer hacker world. Essentially it means to get someone to give your information. For instance, I can try to break into your computer by brute force – trying all sorts of random passwords – or I can simply call you up at work and tell you I’m from the IT department and I need you to confirm your password to me over the phone or I’ll have to lock your account.
Similarly, scammers will often get you to hand over account passwords or other information in order to gain access to your online poker account. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone typing into a chat window that he is a system administrator and he needs you to confirm your account details. Sometimes the scammer will send you to a link which asks you to login using your poker room account information in order to get a special bonus offer.
No poker room would need you to confirm your login information. The passwords are stored encrypted so even the poker room employees don’t know them so they would have no way to confirm whether or not you’ve given them the correct password. Also, never click on a link in a dealer chat window that doesn’t go to the site you are playing on. In other words www.ultimatebet.scammersite.com is not the same as www.ultimatebet.com.
Collusion is when two or more players at a table work together to defraud one or more other players at the table by sharing information. It could be as simple as two guys using IM to warn each other when they have a big hand. More intricate collusion methods include employing specific strategies to get other players to put more money in the pot. The standard method is the squeeze play. In the squeeze play two players trap a player between them and raise and re-raise each other forcing the player in the middle to keep calling. One of the two colluding players will have a monster and the other can have anything because he will fold his hand on the river.
Here would be an example of the squeeze play in action:
Colluder one is dealt 72o
Mark is dealt KK
Colluder two is dealt 66
Flop comes 69T rainbow
Colluder one bets
Colluder two re-raises
Colluder one re-raises
This continues on every street and then Colluder one folds to a single bet on the river and never shows his 72o.
Another variation on this is Colluder one and Colluder two to just raise and re-raise some third person out of the pot.
Colluder one is dealt 72o
Mark is dealt JJ
Colluder two is dealt 56o
Flop comes ace high and Colluder one and two get into a raising war which makes the Mark lay down the best hand fearing that one or both colluders hold an ace.
Fortunately, collusion is one of the more simple forms of online poker cheating for both players and the poker room to detect. Most players catch on pretty quickly and either refuse to play with the two colluders or they can report them to the poker room who will investigate and take appropriate action. The poker room itself likely has checks in place that will alert it to suspicious activity. For instance, two players who always play at the same tables might set off an alert. At that point a human will step in and review the hand histories and attempt to determine if there is something fraudulent is going on.
The Inside Job
This seems to be what happened over at Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker. Some employee, ex-employee, consultant or someone who has access to the poker room’s systems builds a little back door that allows them to somehow gain an unfair advantage against other opponents. In the case of Absolute it was an ex-employee/consultant who had a way of looking at other people’s hole cards which allowed him to make amazing calls with a hand like ten high and take the pot.
While most poker rooms are pretty honest Absolute Poker’s response speaks loudly about how difficult it can be to do something about this type of online poker cheating. First Absolute denied it and then they admitted it but said it was very limited and then it came out that it may have been far wider than previously admitted. Poker rooms have a reputation to protect to even if they are aware of the cheating they would like to treat it very hush-hush as Absolute tried to deny when they initially denied any problem. If it wasn’t for the fantastic sleuthing and data analysis of message board posters on 2+2 Absolute would have likely continued the “no cheating happened” company line and then fired those responsible behind the scenes.
The good news about this type of cheating is that players can do their own research. If another player is winning a statistically improbable number of hands and he’s calling down bluffs with ten high then he’s going to be pretty easy to root out. However the bad news is that because of the Absolute and Ultimate Bet scandals future crooks will likely be much more careful. Instead of trying to get too greedy and win every pot they’ll only use their advantage on the critical hands that can give them a massive edge in a tournament. A guy who makes a four or five critical plays to his advantage in a tournament isn’t likely to set off too many warning bells. And as long as the crook doesn’t abuse the power he has he can probably go undetected for as long as he wants to. Granted, a guy winning every big Sunday night tournament is going to look suspicious but it wouldn’t be too hard to clear a few million a year in cash games in tournaments and just be considered a really solid player.
The only real solution here is more transparency from the online card rooms. They can’t be regulated by organizations that have a vested interest in keeping cheating hush-hush. They need audited by outside third parties who answer to players or a regulatory agency rather than getting a paycheck from the card room. Players with access to certain types of systems need to be bonded and submit to thorough background checks. That isn’t to imply that there’s anything unscrupulous going on currently in these relationships only that if you want real security then you have to eliminate not just actual bias but potential bias as well.
Multi-Accounting is when a player plays multiple accounts at the same time on the same online poker room. Several high-profile cases have been uncovered over the last few years where a player entered a tournament under several different accounts. The worst case scenario is the player has two of his own accounts at the same table and thus could engage in all sorts of acts considered to be collusion. That is random and relatively rare compared to the fact that this one player simply gets multiple shots at the same prize as everyone else.
This has come to light more recently and basically when a player plays a tournament and is then offered the opportunity to sell his stake in that account to another player who then takes over the account and completes the tournament for him. The biggest problem created by this is that this is usually done when the tournament has worked its way down to a final few players (maybe the last 2 – 3 tables or even the final table). All of a sudden another player takes over the account and plays much differently than the original player eliminating any tells other players may have picked up on that player over the course of the tournament. Compounding the problem is that the purchaser of the account can ask the seller for his read on all the other opponents and can even go back through hand histories and figure out all the other player’s playing styles.
If the players engaging in this are very stupid then it should be easy for the poker room to catch them as one player logging in from Los Angeles, Ca suddenly disconnects in the middle of a tournament and then logs back in from Russia a few seconds later should set off a few alarm bells. But if the two players happen to be in the same room and they simply swap seats it is a very difficult accusation to prove because many players will change up their playing style at various stages in a tournament. The poker room would need to go back and look at a large data set of previous tournament data and see if this was an unusual shift in playing styles. And even if they did conclude it was out of the ordinary who’s to say that the player didn’t just get done reading a chapter on late stage tournament play and was following the advice given in the book?
Poker Bot Software
I’m going to throw any sort of aided game play including tools that tell players what to do even if they have to take the physical action of clicking the buttons. However that is not to be confused with tools that simply give you information about your hand but do not recommend how you play. I tend to draw the line at the recommendation level. Some might question that and say that a tool that tells a player the pot odds and the odds of making his hand might as well be making a recommendation but I would answer that those are simply data points the player could have calculated himself anyway. Equally important would be what range of hands you can put your opponent on, how he plays draws vs. made hands, whether or not he can fold a big pair if a scare card hits, and a lot of other data points which may be as valuable or more valuable than the simple pots odds and odds of making your hand.
Personally I think poker bots get far more attention than they deserve. No poker rooms have ever published any data on how many poker bots they suspect are on or have been on their systems but I would guesstimate that it’s relatively low compared to the amount of hysteria that the media, fear mongering politicians, and anti-gaming advocates portray it to be. That’s not to say that poker bots should not be vigilantly pursued and stopped but when someone says that they don’t want to play online poker because of all the bots it says to me that someone has put the scare into him without putting the problem into proper context. I remember the same scare tactics used in the early days of the internet when people said giving their credit card information to Amazon was akin to financial suicide. While payment systems security has improved some over the last decade or so since those sorts of headlines were mainstream, the main shift has been that the convenience factor won out over fear. As people became more educated about the risk they made better informed decisions and now eCommerce is a commonplace activity.
The reason I lean in the direction of thinking the threat is overblown is because most poker bot software sucks. It’s the lack of knowledge about how poker bots work and what they can and cannot is what both fuels fear as well as the greed that causes people to plunk down hard earned cash to buy these crappy products. Think about it, if you had a license to print money would you start selling the know-how to other people for $200 or $500?
At the most basic level a bot is simply a piece of software that can take certain actions. A poker bot can be programmed to push fold, call, raise buttons based on some sort of semi-complex array of if/then statements and scoring. That sounds a lot more voodoo-ish than it is. This blog that you’re reading also makes hundreds of if/then decisions every time someone visits my site. What page was requested, is the user logged in, what theme should be displayed, etc, etc. Semi-complex decision trees are what computers are designed for any every program does them.
So what makes poker bot software special? Nothing really. In fact, poker bots are nothing more than automation tools. You tell the poker bot that if you have pocket aces that it should move the mouse over the raise button and press it. You tell the poker bot that if you don’t have the pot odds to make a call on the turn it should move the mouse over the fold button and click it. Obviously they get more complex than that but that is basically what you’re stating off with.
The problem is that your poker bot is only as good as the poker strategy you program into it. And the vast majority of the poker bots you see being sold by internet hucksters simply aren’t that good. One of the more “popular” poker bots is a heaping pile of crap. But it allows the user to write his own code to customize it with his own poker strategy which seems to be its biggest draw.
Now let’s do a little ROI calculation here:
If you can beat a $3/$6 limit game for 3BB / 100 hands and you buy this software and have to customize it every hour you spend customizing the software is an hour you’re not earning your 3BB / 100 hands. And to make it even worse, even on the seller’s own developer forums most of them are either losing money with their poker bot or they’re making a miniscule profit. Even if we grant the guy 1BB / 100 hands he’s got to run three instances just to break even with what he could be doing on his own.
Now let’s factor in that the guy has probably spent weeks or months getting his poker bot fine tuned which was lost income of 3BB / 100 hands and he’s going to need a better win rate than break-even to make up for all of the time he’s put into it. He’s got to put up 4 or 5 machines. And he doesn’t get to go sit on the beach all day as the money comes rolling in because even the best strategy is going to take a variance whacking so he’ll probably want to watch over his poker bots while they play in order to make sure they don’t go crazy on him and drain his entire bankroll.
Over time the owner of this little poker bot could also find himself up against live players who exploit flaws in the strategy programmed into the bot causing his returns to go into the red. I know I’ve played against a few poker bots and they always seemed to have an easy to identify pattern that could be exploited. Some had trouble playing against super-aggressive players. Some gave away way too many free cards if they had weak hands.
Now that I’ve tried to dismiss most concern about poker bots I do have to say that there are more sophisticated poker bots that people should be concerned about. They utilize artificial intelligence (AI) in order to learn and adapt to the game. They are more difficult to beat and can be very sophisticated. Unfortunately someone good enough to create such a piece of software is likely smart enough not to do anything that would set off any red flags. That’s good news in the sense that you likely won’t find something that powerful mass-marketed to any idiot with a few hundred bucks in his pocket.
The reality is that poker bots and poker rooms play a game of cat and mouse. One side comes up with a way to detect and block them and the other side finds a way around the new defences. The good news for players is that the poker rooms seem to be doing a fairly good job and unless things turned decidedly in favor of the poker bots it’s as safe to play online as it is to be on the internet in general. Yes, there are some bad things out there, malicious software, phishing scams, etc but if you exercise a little common sense you can head off most problems.
The Big Heist
While online poker rooms directly ripping off customers is fairly rare it has happened in the past and will likely happen in the future as long as the industry remains relatively unregulated. Many of the early card room failures were the result of player monies being co-mingled with the casino’s assets which can often prove to be a tempting pool to dip into if a cash-strapped casino/card room is looking to make a big marketing splash or perhaps even an acquisition.
If you play at any of the top card rooms the chances are very low you’re going to get ripped off like this. However if you’re playing at Offshore Jack’s Zany Poker Room because of the 1000000000000000000% deposit bonus your funds are only as safe as the ethics of the operator.
The creativity of scams is only limited by the imagination of the scammer. The most common types of scams are other players asking for loans, handouts, or some sort of trade. For instance a player on PokerStars may need to get money into his Full Tilt account so he’ll post on a message board that he’s willing to trade $101 on PokerStars for $100 deposited into his Full Tilt account. The scammer accepts the offer and then gets the Mark to transfer the money first and then never transfers the money on the other site.
Since the poker site can’t confirm whether or not a transfer has occurred on another site they usually will not get involved in these sorts of disputes. Your best protection against this type of scam is to never transfer money to other players that you don’t know very well and can trust. Set up proper deposit and withdrawal methods that will allow you to handle your own finances rather than relying on the kindness (or greed) of strangers to move money from one place to another.
Chip dumping can be done for various reasons but the one that tends to impact players is during tournaments or cash games where one player intends to give all of his chips to another player. In cash games it can result in lots of unnecessary re-raising which drives other
players out of pots and during tournaments the goal is to give the target player a nice big stack so he can go late into the tournament. Both are a form of collusion though the two (or more) players involved in the collusion may not have any concern about taking chips off the other players. Their goal is to pass chips from one player to the other.
Money laundering usually isn’t directed at other players but it can impact other players if the means is via chip dumping and/or fraudulently taking control of another player’s account to move money around. Basically the idea is to take illegitimate money and make it look like legitimate money via winning.
I’ve discussed fishing elsewhere so I’ll just mention it here as a placeholder as it does qualify as a type of fraud.
Cheating is always going to happen in poker. It goes on in live games and online. Live games have opportunities to cheat via dealer cheating, chip grabbing, and all sorts of other scams. Online poker cheating is simply an extension of many of the common cheating methods used in live games.