Thursday, November 06, 2008

After All...I Mean All The Cheat Scams and Scandals, Is Online Poker Safe Or Ever Going To Be Safe?

Is online poker safe? Is is safer in the UK than in the US and the rest of the world?
After the UltimateBet and AbsolutePoker cheat scandals rocked the online world, let's see how safe online poker really is.

For years people have filled forums and chat rooms with their crackpot theories about how online poker is fixed. It seems like anybody who’s ever had their Aces cracked or bluff called down has hit the net, telling all and sundry that the online game is rotten to the core.

These conspiracy theories have been shot down by anyone with half a brain, and were refuted by this magazine just a couple of years ago. The evidence against cheating is fairly substantial, but overriding every argument and counter-argument is the big question: why would online operators want to cheat players out of money and risk losing everything, when they make so much money legitimately?

The biggest sites in the business rake in over $1m-a-day profit, so why would they need to cheat you out of your paltry bankroll? Getting more bad beats online? You need to remember that you play lots more hands online, and people play much looser, especially at the lower stakes tables. Still losing and you can’t explain it? Get better at the game...

Smoking gun!

Unfortunately, that sort of explanation doesn’t cut it any more. Not after the smoking gun was found. It emerged that a former employee at Absolute Poker had access to a ‘superuser’ account that enabled him to view his opponents’ hole cards. Poker’s an easy game when you can see all the cards, and using this information, an account under the name Potripper played a ‘perfect’ game and watched the money come flooding in.

The problem was that it flooded in a little bit too quickly and it didn’t take long for the calls with Ten-high and unorthodox pre-flop play to raise warning flags among the online community.

After much speculation, accusation, explanation and denial, a statement was issued by Absolute Poker that cheaters had indeed found a way to see players’ hole cards, and the world of online poker was turned upside down.

Incredibly, while forums were filled to bursting with people saying, "I told you so," a second scandal broke involving sister site UltimateBet. Former employees of the company had placed ‘unauthorised software code’ on the servers, which granted specified accounts the ability to see opponents’ hole cards.

It transpired that for three years these "superuser" accounts had demolished some of the world’s finest players and then mocked them as they counted their winnings. WSOP bracelet winner Todd Witteles was one of the victims. "I personally lost over $15,000to the Absolute Poker cheaters," says Witteless. "The person behind the account wasn’t just satisfied quietly stealing money from the site’s highest limit players – he got some sort of perverse and sadistic enjoyment out of the whole thing, often obnoxiously celebrating his victories and taunting opponents from the rail after beating them and leaving the game."

Safety Second

Both UltimateBet and Absolute Poker had been acquired by Tokwiro Enterprises, which inherited not one, but two cheating scandals. What initially looked like a couple of profitable acquisitions, now promised to stand for everything that was bad in online poker.

Paul Legget, chief operating officer of Tokwiro Enterprises, explains how they set about restoring customer faith in the now tarnished brands and ensured that the same thing could never happen again. "Once Tokwiro discovered the cheating scandals, we reacted with a determination to do everything we possibly could to protect our customers in future, and to reimburse them for their losses in unfair play."

Refunding players that have been cheated and putting in much more stringent safety and security features is one thing but the question posed by many players is, "Why weren’t these security measures in place before?" Why did it take a bunch of internet players to notice irregular betting patterns that should have been picked up by elementary checks online? And how about naming the perpetrators, whose alleged names are being whispered across internet forums the world over?

According to Legget, there’s nothing he’d rather do, but he says the company’s hands are tied. "We’ve collected a massive amount of evidence...key addresses of people who’ve accessed the cheating tool," he said in a recent online interview. "I’m confident in my own mind that I know who the perpetrator is, but unfortunately I can’t just come out publicly and condemn someone – we’re not a court of law and we have to be very careful what we say. Our lawyers have specifically forbidden us to name any names at the moment because we’re involved in very complicated legal action, and we hope this legal action will result in recovering a very substantial amount of money... The perpetrators may come out as a result of the legal action, which would be very satisfying."

It sounds convincing, but is it a classic case of slamming the door shut after the horse has bolted? A lot of players aren’t in the mood to forgive and forget. And why should they, when there are plenty of other places to play? But then that begs the question, are other poker sites any better?

We spoke to Joe Legge, poker product manager at Virgin Poker, which is part of the Boss network. He’s adamant that what happened to Absolute and Ultimate simply couldn’t happen in its games as the hand history is only generated once the hand is settled. This means that hands can be replayed by the fraud and customer service teams after the event, but they can’t access the hands in real time, making it impossible to abuse the system. The world’s biggest online site – PokerStars – says the same.

Rise of the Robots

But even if you can trust the site and its software, what about the external threat? With all the talk of superuser accounts, the threat of "bots" seems to have been forgotten about. But surely as technology improves, the idea of a poker bot, programmed to optimum strategy and hoovering up money night and day, is a recurring worry?

To hammer home the fact, it seems like all you have to do is conduct a simple Google search and you’ll find dozens of companies currently advertising their own poker bots, which they guarantee will clean up online. Slogans such as, "Make $1,500 while you sleep... EVERY NIGHT!!" scream out to attract the gullible, who can’t resist the lure of easy money. You can obviously ignore all of these amateurish commercial offerings. If they actually made money it would make more sense for the developers to keep them quiet and make money from playing. We tested one of the better-known ones – WinHoldEm – back in 2006 and it bust our account overnight. Also, the better known the program is, the more chance that you’ll be detected and have your account closed and assets seized.

Because poker rooms know their future depends on convincing poker players they won’t be competing with super computers, they’ve put lots of resources into the problem.

Stephen Winter, senior manager of PokerStars Game Security, explains, "We recognise the fact players don’t wish to play against bots and we take our responsibility to detect and remove bots very seriously. PokerStars has, without question, the industry’s leading bot detection system. It is to our credit that many bot operators openly advise their users to avoid PokerStars. Dedicated servers are running constantly to detect bot activity, backed up by a team of specialist "bot hunters."

All well and good, but while the poker rooms claim that they detect the majority of bots, it’s still possible to imagine a bunch of MIT students building an undetectable super computer to take the world by storm.

We asked the man behind the University of Alberta’s much lauded Polaris programme if he thought an advanced poker bot could be put together by enthusiastic amateurs. He explained, "Based on our experience, I think anything close to Polaris’s level happening outside an academic institution is unlikely. It’s taken 15 researchers over five years to reach this point. In addition, we’ve made use of various high performance computing resources – for example, months of time on a 30-node computer cluster containing quad-core machines each with 8GB of RAM."

Split Personality

A simpler way to get an edge over your opponents is to play with multiple accounts in the same game. The theory is that in addition to giving yourself multiple chances to win a tournament, you also stand the possibility of having two or more of your accounts ending up on the same table where you can increase your chance of winning.

Several major tournaments have been scooped by people controlling more than one account. In 2006 the online player JJProdigy won the $500k guaranteed PartyPoker tournament and collected the $140,000 first prize. Unfortunately, he won it using a second account he was in control of, and when details of his multi-accounting reached PartyPoker the site suspended both accounts and confiscated a total of $180,000 in winnings.

More recently, other high-profile cases have been uncovered by vigilant online sites, along with instances of players "selling" their tournaments once they’re deep into the money for a better player to finish off. This was the scandal that mired popular online player Sorel Mizzi late last year. It might not seem as blatant a case of cheating, but whether the player has already played or not, it puts the other players at a big disadvantage. Imagine you’ve been playing against someone for a couple of hours when, unbeknown to you, a switch takes place, and you’re suddenly up against a completely different style and one of the best players in the world?

This abuse really hit the headlines when PokerStars caused a massive stir by revealing that the winner of its flagship 2007 WCOOP series and richest online tournament ever, TheV0id, had been disqualified for account irregularities. This case played out in great detail online, and it turned out that the account belonged to Natalie Teltscher, the sister of well-known UK pro Mark Teltscher. Rather than taking it on the chin, Natalie Teltscher decided to chance her arm and take PokerStars to court, effectively forcing the online site to prove its security team could provide detailed and concrete evidence. Thankfully it could, and Teltscher withdrew her case and was ordered to pay PokerStars’ legal costs. All of these high-profile cases prove that players playing multiple accounts is a problem, but it also proves the top sites are on the case, and won’t let players get away with it – even if it means dragging its name through the courts.


Which brings us to the problem that most online players in the know are concerned about: collaboration. People communicating their hole cards through instant messaging or over the telephone can prove to be powerful allies and gain a massive advantage over their opponents, no matter how good they are.

Thankfully, collaboration is also one of the easiest problems to detect. All the major poker sites hunt cheaters statistically, flagging any players who are playing together and regularly winning more than a specified limit and analysing their play. This form of analysis makes online collaboration much more difficult and accounts are immediately suspended if the evidence backs up the site’s suspicions. And, in addition to tracking collaboration, every reputable online cardroom should be happy to fully investigate allegations of collusion made by their players. If you make a complaint and you don’t feel it’s being taken seriously by your operator, let the site know you’ll be taking your business elsewhere if you don’t receive an adequate explanation.

But ultimately, why should you have to trust in people power, or the words of a third-party business which is obviously in the game for the money? I`m hoping that reading this makes you feel easier about playing poker online, but I`m not trying to hoodwink you into thinking that cheating never happens. It happens in online poker, in live poker, in football, and even in business... Unfortunately, cheating happens everywhere. What is important is that you know you’re playing at a site you can trust, that’s properly regulated and run correctly.

Unfortunately, if you’re a US citizen you’re on your own. By effectively making online poker illegal and refusing to take any responsibility for its own citizens, there’s no protection for American players through law. Thankfully, authorities elsewhere have done things differently, and this makes it much easier for you to claim recourse, providing the site you play on falls under the correct regulation.

In order to gain a license in one of these territories, a company will have to be stringently audited and this in itself will go a long way to proving its integrity. This is much more of an issue for players who live in countries where poker is outlawed, as the big reputable companies are more than likely not operating there. If you’re not sure whether the site you’re playing on is under the lawful umbrella, there’s an easy way to check. Give customer services a call and ask them. Or play on the sites that advertise in PokerPlayer. Since the UK Gambling Act came into effect last year, publications cannot accept advertisements from any company that’s not regulated in the UK. Every advertisement you see in UK magazines is proof that the operator is working under strict UK regulations, which gives you the ultimate comeback if you think anything untoward is happening. Plus, if anything happens to the site itself you’ll have a very good chance of recovering any money you have deposited.

What it boils down to is this: online poker is safe, and it’s definitely safer in the UK thanks to properly regulated sites. But there are dangers out there and wherever there’s money you’ll find people that want to cheat you out of it. Play on a reputable site though, and stay vigilant, and the only way you’ll lose money is by being beaten, fair and square. Now you’ve just got to hope your Aces don’t get cracked!