Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Should Using PokerEdge Tracking Software Be Considered Online Poker Cheating?

This argument has been getting considerable discussion time in online poker forums recently, and I think it's a good one. After all, PokerEdge and other player hand tracking software allow players to do in an online poker game what they would never be able to do in a brick and mortar poker game, that is see and save opponents' hands after they're played, review a plethora of statistics on opponents' hand and table histories and use that information to exploit other players' weaknesses. Shouldn't online poker be based on brick and mortar poker, at which these computer-tracking skills are not available?

Of course many people will argue that since PokerEdge is available to all players online, those using it are not cheating. Yes, in theory. But in practice some players aren't using it for a variety of reasons, and when they are not they are clearly at a disadvantage when playing against those using it. In effect, online poker players HAVE TO use it to avoid playing at a disadvantage, or, if you will, avoid being cheated. This is a very interesting argument, and I for one would like to see PokerEdge and other hand-history tracking software banned (with enforcement) from online poker, not because I think it's online poker cheating but only because it takes a lot of human skill element out of the game. But removing PokerEdge from online poker rooms is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Speaking of this, I came across a very informative and well-written article on the subject by Chris Wallace. Please read it here:

Something isn't right in online poker these days. If you play on most major rooms, including PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, you either have an unfair advantage or many of your opponents have an unfair advantage over you. I know you don't like the sound of that, but it's true. The top nine poker networks all have the same problem, with the Cake Poker Network being the largest to mostly avoid this issue.

The major rooms and networks have put themselves in a very unpleasant position where they have outlawed things they cannot prevent from happening. Poker-Edge is a prime example. According the Terms and Conditions of PokerStars and Full Tilt, this software is strictly prohibited. You can't play on the site without agreeing to their rules and since Poker-Edge is against the rules, you are breaking them if you use it. By the very definition of the word, the use of Poker-Edge on PokerStars is cheating. If you aren't using it, then you are being cheated because many opponents are using it against you.

Poker-Edge has been around for years and banned for most of that time, but I don't know anyone who has ever been kicked off an online poker site for using it because the programmers go through great trouble to conceal the use of it from the sites. Right at this very moment, Poker-Edge is being used on all of the major sites and no one using it is in any fear of being caught. Those who are willing to break the rules have a significant advantage over those who do not break the rules and that is the crux of the problem.

When you outlaw something that you cannot enforce, you simply punish those who choose to follow the rules while rewarding those who break them. This pushes more and more people to break the rules and the few who choose to abide by them are punished even further.

Let's look at another example, hand history resellers. These sites sell massive quantities of hand histories from the major networks for a very reasonable price. Anyone with $20 can buy hand histories, load them into their favorite tracking software, and have a huge database on players they have never played with. PokerStars has banned this practice, but as far as we know, there is no enforcement in place or that is even possible.

That guy who just sat down at your table has thousands of hands on you and a very good feel for how you play, but you have never seen him before. The site you are playing on cannot do anything about the fact that he has that information, but they have asked you not to get it yourself. If you choose the honest road and don't use that resource, then you are at a disadvantage, but if you do it, you are cheating. What a mess.

Other prime examples are sites like Official Poker Rankings (OPR) and Sharkscope, which list the results of tournaments on a number of popular rooms. This is publicly available information and is no different than reading about who won recent live tournaments in the back of a poker magazine. Full Tilt recently banned the use of OPR, which is what brought on the idea for this article. When I heard about the ban, I was lamenting that I had not taken more notes while using OPR in the past. It occurred tome that people who have taken more notes from OPR now have an advantage over me.

I have a laptop and could certainly have it open to OPR while I am playing on my desktop, but that is against the rules. I know people are doing it. In fact, I’d imagine that thousands of players are and there is no way for Full Tilt to ever know.

I don't want anyone to go nuts here. These things have a minor effect on your win rate when compared to studying, taking lessons, reading books, or joining a training site. The games are certainly beatable without these advantages and I can be absolutely certain of this because I don't use them and make a good living playing online poker. These programs do not create such an imbalance that the games are unbeatable, but the policies are not fair, don't work, and they do what a rule should never do, punish the just.

I never like to present a problem without offering at least some ideas on a solution. In this case, there are a number of solutions that would work quite well.

The first thing the sites can do is allow everyone to use these programs. As I noted above, these programs are not making people instant winners nor are they going to seriously hurt someone who isn't using them. As you move up in limits, these programs have a larger effect, but by the time you are playing high-limit poker, you should have learned about all of the options available to you. The sites could allow these programs, everyone could use them, and those who are willing to break the rules would longer being rewarded.

The other potential solution is to do what the Cake Poker Network is doing and Bodog used to do: don't give people a way to track the hands. The Cake Network uses incomplete hand histories that don't list opponent's names and allows screen name changes once per week. If you take notes on a player, they remain even though the screen name changes, giving you an advantage.

This brings poker back to the old school, where it's tough to play more than a few tables at once and you have to take notes in order to know your opponents. Because the 12+ table grinders who rely on stats are not interested in playing on the Network, the games are much livelier, more interesting, and fish-filled. Playing three or four tables on Cake Poker, Doyle's Room, or any of the other network sites can yield just as high of an hourly rate as playing 12 tables on PokerStars. Then we can get back to using software to improve our games instead of relying on it to help us play.