July 22, 2024

Online Poker and Unenforceable Rules

Computerized “bots” may be common in online poker games according to a Mike Brunker story at MSNBC.com. I have my doubts about the prevalence today of skillful, fully automated pokerbots, but there is an interesting story here nonetheless.

Most online casinos ban bots, but there is really no way to enforce such a rule. Already, many online players use electronic assistants that help them calculate odds, something that world-class players are adept at doing in their heads. Pokerbot technology will only advance, so that even if bots don’t outplay people now, they will eventually. (The claim, sometimes heard, that computers cannot understand bluffing in poker, is incorrect. Game theory can predict and explain bluffing behavior. A good pokerbot will bluff sometimes.)

Once bots are better than people, it’s hard to see why a rational person, with real money at stake, would fail to use a bot. Sure, watching your bot play is less fun than playing yourself; but losing to a bunch of bots isn’t much fun either. Old-fashioned human vs. human play will still be seen in very-low-stakes online games, where it’s not worth the trouble of deploying a bot, and in in-person games where the non-botness of players can be checked.

The online casinos are kidding themselves if they think they can enforce a no-bots rule. How can they tell what a player is doing in the privacy of his own home? Even if they can tell that a human’s hands are on the keyboard, how can they tell whether that human is getting advice from a bot?

The article discusses yet another unenforceable rule of online poker: the ban on collusion between players. If two or more players simply show each other their cards, they gain an advantage over the others at the table. There’s no way for an online casino to prevent players from conducting back-channel communications, so a ban on collusion is impossible to enforce.

By reiterating their anti-bot and anti-collusion rules, and by claiming to have mysterious enforcement mechanisms, online casinos may be able to stem the tide of cheating for a while. But eventually, bots and collusion will become the norm, and lone human players will be driven out of all but the lowest stakes games.

But there is another strategy. An online casino could encourage bots, and even set up bots-only games. The game would then become not a human vs. human card game but a human vs. human battle between bot designers for geekly mastery. I’ll bet there are plenty of programmers out there who would like to give it a try.


  1. Taking this one step further…

    What is stopping a programmer from creating a group of networked pokerbots to occupy all but one seat at a table? If all these bots could communicate with each other and share all the information about their cards, their odds of winning would improve significantly.

    All he/she has to do is to wait for the next prey to come sit down then rip their wallet/purse to shreds.

  2. Bots Play Backgammon Too

    Responding to my entry yesterday about pokerbots, Jordan Lampe emails a report from the world of backgammon. Backgammon bots play at least as well as the best human players, and backgammon is often played for money, so the temptation to use bots in onl…

  3. Poker Bots: Friend or Foe?

    MSNBC has an interesting article on software programs designed to play poker online for money. Supposedly, the major online casinos are all working to block the software programs, or bots, from playing. I think this might just be marketing-speak…

  4. In the future, we’ll have bots in our heads, cognitive enhancements that will let us play poker and do mental calculations with perfect accuracy. Then even face to face games will be at a whole new level. Playing online will be good practice for the challenges of the future.

  5. jordan vance says

    Well, there is one way to test if someone might be using a bot. If inidividuals can find a bot, don’t you think some place like party poker could find a bot as well? Two of the same bots running on the same information will make the same choice. While it might require running a lot of bots on the same information, this checking wouldn’t need to be done in real time. The testing could be taken offline and done on a random sample to determine how widespread the bot-ting is, and then decisions made based on that information. There are many flaws to this idea, and I know that but I just thought I’d add my $2 bet to the table.

  6. Even mediocre bots might make money by playing in low-stakes rooms where the human skill level is relatively low. Simple, conservative strategies (just playing the odds) can gradually earn a small average return against low-level human opponents. These small profits could add up to something worthwhile if an operator can keep many bots running around the clock at different tables. Bots don’t get tired, and they can play in any number of games simultaneously.

  7. It seems to me the only way to disallow bot play is to include something that requires human thought to continue play. Maybe like a previous poster suggested, a mis-shapen word. Possibly a simple question or statement like, “what is the number after 3″ or ” what is dog spelled backwards”. You could even make ‘bot beater’ rooms a optional for those who don’t care if they are playing computers or not. The sad part is that we will never beat people using programs as assitance for human play though.

    Either way, I don’t want a great hobby to be ruined by bots. I love to play this game because of the human element. I may bet a huge amount on a hint, or fold a great hand on a feeling. My opponents may react the same way. Bots will only do what they are programmed.

  8. Jeremy Leader says

    The key is that in online poker bot+human is indistinguishable from really skilled and lucky unassisted human.

    Even with some mythical “trusted computing” platform, I could sit in front of it, with another private “bot” computer at my side, transcribing hands from the “trusted” screen to the bot system, and using advice from the bot to decide what choices to enter into the “trusted” system.

    Things like RSA keys and image recognition tests are helpful for locking out bots whose advantage lies in their speed of interaction, for example in twitch games or systems subject to abuse by overuse. But when the bot is an aide to a human, rather than a replacement for the human, then these defenses won’t help. It’s like having a radio call-in quiz show, and telling contestants that they aren’t allowed to use an encyclopedia or an abacus, or even a friend whispering in their ear.

    Perhaps the answer will be to forbid skilled or lucky players, as “card counters” are banned from blackjack tables today.

  9. Just the other day I signed up for a Yahoo group. Before I was allowed to register, I was presented with an image that contained a series of letters and numbers, and was asked to type in these values.

    Why? To validate that I was human (or not a bot).

    My only point being that bots are being used (and mis-used) in all manner of internet-related applications (poker, groups, mailing lists, etc). Savvy developers (are you listening Party Poker?) will develope Turing Test counter measures to beat back this tide.

    Like “real” life, it’s all about staying one step ahead of the bad guys.

  10. Netrek dealt with bots by ‘blessing’ clients with RSA keys…but no, it wasn’t perfect and was hacked a number of times.


    Granted, there was no money involved…

  11. From what little I know, Alan is right that the bots do well in limit games with bad or mediocre players. In general, even human v. human, there’s not a lot of money to be made in a low-limit game if all the players are good. Good players can still hang with the bots at those levels too. So the bots create another competitor for the good players who are trying to beat the crap out of the fish, but, as long as the fish are still around, there’s money to be made. Given the current trajectory of online poker, it’s going to take awhile before the good players + bots : fish ratio starts to swing towards an unprofitable level.
    You can say similar things about collusion. In online poker, you basically have to get reads on someone being a colluder just like you would try to get a read on someone being a better than average player. Basically, given the advantage of collusion, a player is more likely to appear better than average. So, you treat trickier situations accordingly with them, and look to feed on the fish instead.
    Now, no limit is a different story. The level of bot competition – particularly in heads-up strategy – isn’t as great. Game theory does help compensate, but it’s not consistently enough, from what little I know.
    (Jim McManus has a great chaper on bots in his book Positively Fifth Street, btw).

  12. The cutting edge of computer-assisted human poker play isn’t statistical assistance (the odds of poker are basically pretty easy to memorize) but is instead recordkeeping and analysis of opponents’ playing style.

    At the same time, the skill level of poker bots is such that they can take money out of games full of average players but that skilled players — especially those who know and understand the bot’s playing style — can make mincemeat out of the bots. The MSNBC article you cite quotes Darse Billings on just how hard it is to code a bot that can be successful in a full game.

    I think it is reasonably likely that there are bots playing poker online and taking money out of the games — and that many human players regularly play against the bots, beating them by exploiting their weaknesses, without even being aware that those opponents are bots.

  13. U of Alberta has a Computer Poker Research Group. I’ve heard a couple of talks by Jonathan Schaeffer from that group, and it sounds like fascinating research. Last I heard, he seemed to think that his group’s best bot was approaching the level of the best human players, and he hoped it would soon be able to beat them. Also worth noting is that several of the top human poker players are people with computer science backgrounds.

  14. Already there are programmers competing game bots in games like like Robocode and RoShamBo (Rock, paper, scissors). The latter is particularly interesting because the only strategic element of the game is predicting your opponents move. In comparison, poker, with it’s well-understood probabilities, must be child’s play. 🙂