Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Poker Bots Continue Online Cheat Gains

Cheats online continue to threaten online poker with colluding bots.

By themselves, bots are a major threat to online poker. Bot software has been readily available to the public for a long time now, and at very affordable prices. The reason even ordinary bots are a threat to online poker is because it’s not very difficult to code bots that will beat the small games, both limit and no limit. Small games are the lifeblood of the poker economy and the $100 losses at $2-$4 are ultimately what feed the $1,000-$2,000 games at the top. In a normal small stakes game, incompetent players fill many of the seats, and the few good players can make quite a killing in the long run.

But with Bots, the keyword is "short run." They have the capability to be in hundreds of games simultaneously, so they will make that killing much quicker. They will continue to expand and fill seats until someone stops them, or until it’s no longer profitable, which might only be when everyone is playing with bots, the grim outlook I already had two years ago in my book "Dirty Poker." What this means is that the legitimate good players will lose profitable games because the bots are taking too much money from the poorer players, who will be put to ruin and eventually quit playing online poker. Without their money in the games, the entire online poker foundation would collapse.

More threatening still are colluding bots, and even more threatening than that are colluding bots with "artificial intelligence." Bots can communicate with other bots and share hole cards. Say someone writes a colluding bot program and sits it in three seats of a game. The bots share hole cards with each other and instantly adjust their strategies based on the extra knowledge. A well-coded bot of this type would be extremely formidable even to strong players.

If poker sites want to survive and keep their gold mine running into the next decade, they need to tackle the bot problem head on. The adoption of Captcha technology (the distorted image of scrawled letters you type in to prove you're human) to distinguish bots from human players has not been as effective as first thought because "botters" watching over their bots can intercept it. If, for example, someone is playing at three computers with a colluding bot on each computer, they can power the bots to play, and at the same time monitor the action to look out for captchas. It’s a solution for the nickel-and-dime botting at the very bottom, but as soon as there’s meaningful money involved, people will sit there just to type in captchas.

Or hire people to do it. A new corrupt cottage industry of "outsourcing bot cheats" has sprouted up on the Internet. Lots of people in Third World countries are happy to earn ten bucks and hour to sit at home and type in captchas.

It’s going to be extremely difficult to win the war against the all-pervasive invading armies of bots, and poker sites will need to attack the problem much more aggressively if they want to keep their businesses going strong. Ultimately, the online deck of cards is stacked against them. There’s no iron-clad solution. Bots can run remotely so the bot software is entirely undetectable on the client machine. Poker clients would have to ban the use of all sorts of "macroing" and other automated input programs to stop it, but the diehard, and I mean die very hard, botters will always be one step ahead.

Another method botters use to greatly reduce their footprints on the client machines is to run the bot on a separate computer. The bot could simply suggest plays (informed on the hole cards of other bots) on that computer, and a hired person could execute the plays in real time on the client machine. The hired player could respond to chat, enter captchas, and otherwise appear like a completely normal player. This could be done in workshop-style offices on a large scale in places like Eastern Europe where kids can be hired very cheaply. The only recourse the sites would have is the labor-intensive collusion detection available to them. But if the botters collude intelligently and selectively, by not colluding on every hand, they could escape detection for quite a while. Lest you think this is far-fetched, such "bot workshops" have existed in China to play online computer games and sell virtual property.

Unfortunately, as I said at the end of "Dirty Poker" in 2006, online poker may still face extinction if the bots and collusion problems don't go away. Add them to all the other online poker scams we've seen over the last 12 months and you have a sort of "Cuban Online Missile Crisis" in online poker. For the skillful honest online poker players, this is a disappointing reality, but maybe if we saw an organized stance taken against bots and collusion play the same way we see that stance taken to get online gambling legalized in the US, we might, as a united online poker community, find a way to win this war.