I’m not sure whether it’s funny or sad that even after my post on why online poker is not rigged, I still get people emailing me trying to convince me otherwise. The funny/sad part is that despite the fact that I’ve all but called people who make that claim without hand histories or other empirical evidence idiots I continue to receive 1 – 5 emails a week telling me some bad beat story and QED, online poker is rigged. So with that in mind, I’m going to expound a bit on some new points as well as clarify previously made points.
First, let’s look at a casino’s motivation to rig an online poker game. The standard theory goes that the casinos deal action flops to generate more action and thus bigger rake. Fortunately, like most online poker is rigged assertions, this is patently false. Anybody who has ever played low limit poker either online or live in a casino knows that the house doesn’t need to deal an action flop to get lots of action. The average low limit hand is likely to have four or more players seeing the flop and at least three seeing the river. That’s not just online. This happens at every casino I’ve ever been to. There’s no such thing as a tight low limit table. Hell, I was at the Bellagio the other night in an $8/$16 game and guys were capping it pre-flop with A6o from UTG. With four or five players seeing the flop, every flop is going to be an action flop because with that many players, somebody had to hit something and at least one or two others picked up draws (to many low limit players, runner runner is still a draw).
But let’s just suppose that this casino owner is really, really greedy and he wants to milk every last penny out of the table. Wouldn’t rigging an action flop generate more rake? Surprisingly, generating more action probably wouldn’t increase the house’s take. Play 10,000 hands of $5/$10 full and then play 10,000 hands of $5/$10 6 max and tell me where you pay the most rake. Actually, I’ll make it easy and give you the answer; you pay more rake at the $5/$10 6 max game. With less players possible in each hand and the fact that 6 max games tend to have only two or possibly three people seeing a flop (and many hands never going to the river), the hands get played out faster and the house collects more rake. Dealing an action flop would only cause the hands to last longer which would negate any extra rake the house makes.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Let’s assume that a game that isn’t rigged sees only 10 more hands per hour than a rigged game that generates a lot of action. Let’s use 50 and 40 as our examples. Now let’s make another powerful assumption; the online casinos can’t juice every hand for action flops. If they did, it would surely show up in Poker Tracker results and would be glaringly obvious to even the statistically inept. And I think this is also a safe assumption since only the most deranged tin-foil hat wearing accusers have ever attempted to stipulate that every hand is rigged. I like keeping the math simple so perhaps we can assume that the room juices 10% of the hands. That is likely a monstrously gross over-estimate due to the fact that even juicing 10% of the hands would lead to peculiar Poker Tracker stats but I’m extremely lazy and would rather over-compensate than break out a calculator.
The rake range for PartyPoker on lower limit full games is $1 – $3. Let’s say the average rake is $2 (mid range between $1 and $3) and that a juiced deal will max the rake out at $3.
50 normal hands would yield a rake of $100.
45 normal hands would yield a rake of $90.
If they juice 10% of the hands (4.5 hands) and make an extra dollar per hand, the casino rakes an additional $4.50 for a total of $94.50. Now, even the thickest of skulls must admit that a casino would rather make $100 than $94.50 so where exactly is the incentive to create action flops?
Obviously any casino that ever got caught doing something dirty would be out of business within days so given the rather disappointing results from actively rigging games, what could a casino do to increase its rake without rigging games?
- Decrease the time to act. Most casinos give anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds for a player to act. Reducing that time down to 10 or 15 seconds would increase the number of hands played per hour.
- Implement time banks. Similar to the suggestion above, time banks would penalize players who take too long to act and would speed up the play of hands.
- Auto-post blinds automatically instead of making it optional.
- Increase the rake
Now, given the few off the cuff suggestions above, why would a casino risk its multimillion revenue stream to get a little extra rake when it could do any of the above and accomplish even better results legally?
The second major problem with the online poker is rigged accusation (if the above isn’t enough to convince you) is a result of logical inconsistencies. If you were to spend your time searching around poker message boards (as I have) you would soon discover a pattern that I like to refer to as the circular logic of paranoia. Essentially, what you’ll find are people who say that Site A is rigged but Site B is ok. The logic becomes circular when someone else says that Site B is rigged but Site A is ok. Both parties are convinced that online poker is rigged but they are as equally convinced that the site they play on is not. Either one of them is correct (and the other incorrect) or both are incorrect. It’s logically impossible for both to be right. In other words, even within the world of people who are convinced that online poker is rigged, they can’t even agree on which sites are and are not rigged.
The far more likely scenario is that different sites have different personalities. For instance, when Full Tilt first launched it was frequented by pretty hard-core players. The games were tight and very tough. As the site has grown, that profile has changed but it is nowhere near the complete maniac playground Party is. Personally, I got crushed when I went from a weak/tight site (Paradise) to Party. It took several tries for me to adjust to the raw aggression of the Party tables and avoid getting lured into becoming too aggressive myself. Overall it made me a better player because I can now play against a wider variety of playing styles but if I can certainly see why someone ignorant of hand strengths to think a site is rigged. Fortunately, though deceptively simple to believe, it’s highly unlikely. Aces will get cracked far more often on a loose aggressive site than they will on a weak tight site. If you’re not adjusting your game to the types of opponents you’re up against it’s likely you’re going to experience beats that you normally don’t. And given the choice between believing an argument that is dependant on circular logic or one that seems self-evident to those who have played in various types of games, I’ll take the later.
A slight variation on this theme is the argument that online casinos make certain players win or lose to suit their business objectives. One type of argument states that when you cash out of a site then you start losing. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Cash Out Curse. Another variation is that online casinos want the fish to win and the better players to lose because the fish give more action and thus make the site more money. All variations of this argument stipulate that the card room has built a sophisticated system that can profile player actions and then adjust the cards based on some set of criteria.
The big question is whether or not this is plausible. First, let’s look at the casino’s motivation. According to the poker is rigged theory, poor players are good for the site and people who cash out need to be punished. Are poor players good for a site? In theory, poor players keep good players coming back because they can beat them. But if you purposely make the good players lose so the poor players can win, the most likely outcome is that you have a site full of bad players that the good players can’t beat because the casino is fixing the cards. The good players would quit playing at that site and move on thus your core clientele, the ones who eight and ten table and generate tons of rake, would bolt and you would be left with nothing but recreational players who would be doing nothing more than pushing chips back and forth to each other until they all go broke to the rake.
Another logical flaw in the argument is that a table has nine players and only one of them can win the pot (ignoring split pots). If the site is rewarding one player they are screwing the other eight. How would the site stay in business by rewarding one player and screwing eight? Mathematically this doesn’t even make sense. The most likely response you’ll receive when you pose this dilemma to the online poker is rigged accuser is that the site spreads out the wins across the other seven (the accuser is never lucky enough to benefit). If that were the case then it sounds like no rigging is going on at all unless we are to assume the site’s owner has singled out a single individual at the table and decided to screw him over. I’m willing to entertain arguments that at least have a thread connecting them to reality but this simply isn’t one of them.
Additionally, we have to believe that the casino hopes to punish people who cash out. What would be their motivation for this? Perhaps the thinking is that by causing someone to lose money they would re-deposit. While plausible it’s highly unlikely as the casino doesn’t make money on cash that isn’t in play anyway. If I have a $3000 bankroll and I play $3/$6 then the likelihood of anything more than $300 or $600 of my bankroll being in play at any given time is almost zero. In other words, when I sit down at four $3/$6 tables with $150 each, the casino is only earning rake on the $600 in play. The other $2400 generates no income for them (unless they have some sort of interest bearing money fund which would be minimal anyway). Why would the casino care if I pulled out $1000 to take a trip to the Bahamas next month? I’m still actively wagering the same $300 – $600. And even if they did throw me a streak of bad cards and I lost some money and had to re-deposit, I’m either going to continue playing at the $3/$6 level and create a net wash for the casino (they neither make or lose additional money) or I’m going to move down in limits to $2/$4 and generate even less rake. If the casino was going to rig the game they would motivate you to play at a higher limit rather than forcing you to play a smaller game.
Now even if you dismiss all of what has been presented above, this entire line of arguments relies on some very critical, but unlikely, assumptions. First, you have to develop a system smart enough to do all of the above. While possible, if you look at the overall quality of online poker software, it seems highly unlikely. For instance, are we to believe that PartyPoker, who can’t even keep the number of players at each table up to date in the lobby, has built a highly complex player ranking system that not only figures out how to rig each hand but is also smart enough to cull through the millions of players in their database to figure out who is the most deserving of being dealt good and bad hands. As a software engineer I know that this is possible but as a software engineer I also know that software engineers capable of creating such a system wouldn’t leave so many blatant errors in the client software. Even a minor bug would eventually show its ugly head once enough hands were analyzed. And with no such anomalies having been discovered in the billions of hands that have been dealt one must either assume that the card rooms have the best software engineers in the world or accept that the accusation is false.
The second major flaw in this argument is that the CEO of CheatingPokerSite.com can’t write this code him/herself. They would have to instruct the software engineers to do this and anybody who worked on or around this code would notice it so they would need to be sworn to secrecy as well. In a large company like Party that could mean anywhere from 10 to 20 software engineers would have direct knowledge that the site is cheating customers. How valuable is that information? Once even one person knows they can blackmail the company for any amount of money. The more popular the site is the higher the stakes for the company. They would need to be paying those software engineers millions upon millions of dollars a year in hush money and even then, if even one of them feels disgruntled he’s going to snitch and bring the whole thing down.
Lastly, the programmers would need to know what your actions are going to be. If I get dealt KJ off suit in early position I’ll probably fold that hand at most tables. I’ll play it in middle or late position in an un-raised pot. I might even raise with it myself if I’m in late position and it’s been folded to me. But how are the site’s programmers going to know how I’m going to play this hand? My decision to play or not to play is a complex mix of factors such as position, who else is in the pot, whether it’s been raised or not, whether or not I can get other players to fold, etc. along with a small dash of whatever mood I happen to be in during that hand. Even if you could predict when, where, and how I would play that hand, the software couldn’t possibly also predict how every other opponent will play their hands against me. Since their actions will impact how I play the hand it would be a monumental software development effort to build a system so sophisticated that it could calculate all of this information in real time. They can’t even build a bot that can beat a human but we’re supposed to believe that they’ve built a system that can not only deal you second best hands but predict how every single player at the table will play their hands?
We’ve examined the motivations of why the poker site might want to cheat customers but I think it’s equally important to examine the psychology of why people would speculate that online poker is rigged without any evidence to support the claim. It’s easy to make fun of such paranoid rants and think these people of some form of lesser intelligence. I know because I do it often. But it really doesn’t explain why seemingly intelligent people make the claim.
For anybody who has gained any sort of mastery of poker they understand that poker is a game of many frustrations. You can be playing perfect poker and still lose. You can completely outplay your opponent and still lose. The beauty of the game is that even the fish can beat the sharks every once in awhile which is what keeps the fish coming back to lose even more. If the sharks always devoured the fish the fish would soon catch on and refuse to play. Those that prescribe to the online poker is rigged theory seem to lack this very fundamental understanding.
The ego is a fragile aspect of human nature and losing a hand when you’re a 90% favorite to win can make one feel as if the system is rigged. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you simply can’t lose to people who play as poorly as the opponents that you’ll find online. But that’s poker! Sometimes massive favorites lose. When that cruel mistress called Variance visits us at the poker table it can often lead many to search for a meaning. Unfortunately, even many well educated people don’t fully understand probability and so they equate losing with poor play (which it often is) and since they don’t believe themselves to be poor players, they are forced to find an alternative explanation.
Blaming the site for being rigged serves the same psychological purpose as the belief that if one can just play at a high enough limit he can be a successful player. Both online and live players will often declare that they can’t seem to beat the $1/$2 limit but if they had the bankroll to play $30/$60 where the good players are they could be a winner. The erroneous nature of such utterances is obvious to anybody who has paid their dues at the micro limits and worked their way up to middle and high limit games. A major, major portion of being a winning player is learning how to play under a wide range of circumstances and against an array of opponent playing styles. If you’re at a table with seven players seeing every flop, your pocket aces are going to get cracked a lot more often than in a tight game where heads-up flops are the norm. Lots of callers favors suited connectors and other hands that can get the proper odds to draw. Heads up games favor big cards as you won’t often get the proper odds to draw. If you can’t make those adjustments, moving up in limits will only drain one’s bankroll even more quickly.
You can sense the frustration felt by these players in their numerous message board and blog posts. Their arguments abandon reason and almost immediately nose dive into emotional rants filled with wild accusations, cursing, all-caps, and defensive attitudes. It’s quite obvious that these are not people who have coolly considered the facts and have arrived at a conclusion they wish others to consider. These postings tend to be an emotional outlet that allows the accuser to project his failures at the table onto some mysterious conspiracy out to punish his superior skills.
This psychological barrier to admitting failure is not unique to the poker world. When I used to work on the brokerage industry it was more common than not to have clients attempt to convince you they profited on a trade when you’re staring at the transaction history which shows a massive loss. I’ve yet to meet anyone who lost money in the market crash of 1987. Everybody I’ve ever spoken to got their money out just days before the crash due to their savvy trading skills.
People hate to admit failure. Poker seems like such a simple game that to admit defeat playing .50/$1 limit games seems like a reflection on their intellect. You almost never hear the online poker is rigged accuser saying that he is a mediocre or beginning player. No matter how low the limits the person is playing they will always claim to be a near expert in the game with at least a decade of experience playing live games. So the accusation is really an admission of their lack of understanding of how the game works and their frustration due to their skills not matching with how good they think they are.
Until I’m shown empirical evidence of online poker being rigged, I’ll be forced to ridicule those who insist on advancing that theory.