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The Rising Threat of Advanced Cheating Mechanisms in Online Poker

Most advantage players understand that assistance from computers or off-table confederates may be a red line for casinos and gambling sites. Many land-based casinos have local laws to prohibit assisted play, and these device laws transform house rules into illegal activity that can send players to jail.

The legal landscape can be so biased towards the casino industry that, even without a device law, playing with gadgets can be interpreted as theft with worse punishments than bank robbers! But what if similar advantages targeted players instead of the house?

Unveiling the Dangers of Unfair Advantages and Cheating in Poker

Historically, as a card counting device, concealed computers have been taped to various parts of players’ anatomy when beating blackjack or baccarat. That being said, in games like poker, where the casino takes a rake and makes a profit regardless of who wins, the house is a lot less interested in preventing such unfair advantages. Some players have fought back, gathering proof to expose a handful of unethical individuals using team play and technology to steal millions from fellow rounders.

Despite a few successful exposures, the general attitude remains that preventing this activity is unfeasible, too difficult to police, or (worst of all) might hurt the game. With online casino sites like PokerStars prohibiting real-time assistance, going in the right direction, it is my opinion that without taking steps toward making these systems more dangerous and more difficult, dishonest players will continue to be attracted to the game. Cheaters will come up with a more sophisticated arsenal of methods to steal from innocent players.

I have a little skin in this game since I am a potential victim myself and can’t help but recognize the opportunities available for cheating.

I play in low-stakes cash games at a live casino online and track my wins, losses, and decisions with tracking software that also shows me a record of other players’ decisions at my table. There’s no harm in this. It aids my own decisions but does not in any way advise or recommend those decisions during a hand. Afterward, I can review my play and see where I went wrong and perhaps look up more examples of a given situation to improve decisions in the future (or not, as the case often is).

This is a process of study and improvement that lessens my losses and increases my wins if I work at it, and the tracker software is an excellent, worthwhile tool to track my standard of play. One aspect of these trackers is a heads-up display that overlays my poker-playing windows with player stats that I use to identify types of players. This HUD simply remembers what other players have done, but similar software could offer an immediate game theory optimal strategy for any active hand.

This is where things are going with online poker, and I know many would prefer to ignore these dangers for fear of losing income (or gaming options), but technology (and deceptive thinking) can easily defeat attempts to police this kind of cheating.

For example, some sites claim to monitor mouse movement while a user is playing in an effort to detect that player referring to a separate piece of software, but this might be easily defeated by running another computer, laptop, or handheld device alongside the one used for playing. With a little programming knowledge, a camera connected to a separate computer could read a screen and then consult GTO software that’s easily repurposed to give unethical players a real-time advantage.

I often wonder if players taking their sweet time to make calls (online) are playing multiple tables or referring to a GTO site for better options and if I were playing for the highest stakes. I’d be more concerned about undistributed secret software being written and shared amongst bad actors in the poker community. Software that might automate the entire process with increasingly sophisticated behavior that looks more human than online bots of the past.

Enhancing Player Education and Monitoring

First, I think we need to educate all players that this is possible and, at the same time, improve monitoring of player decisions to see who makes a sudden leap in strategic ability, who plays closest to GTO, and who acts in a manner that might be common to misuse.

Well-written software can elude such forms of detection, but the better it is at not getting caught, the less accurate and profitable it should be over time. A player’s bottom line can be a pretty powerful indicator that they may be riding more than luck and skill, and frankly, players may need to get accustomed to this as part of the online game.

Complete privacy may not be possible in order to better protect the online community, and this may be another cost that the community is not willing to pay for a fairer game. Personally, I’d lean towards any online card room that offered a fairer game, regardless of such concessions. Anonymity offers online cheats a much easier target and reduces their risk substantially, so I would much rather know exactly who’s who, wouldn’t you?

Need for Restrictions and Safeguarding Fair Play in Poker

Recently, there have been discussions about certain players using phones while playing at tables, with accusations that those players might be getting real-time assistance from an app or something as simple as range charts, which would be an unfair advantage. Accused players deny they were doing anything other than recording their hands for later analysis, but using such a powerful device to do so exposes them to accusations and opens the door to abuse in the future.

Discussing this in a podcast, Daniel Negreanu felt it would be impossible to ban phones at the table, and he may be correct, but this is the tip of a very dangerous iceberg for live and online poker, and I would explore setting limitations to how phones are used at the table; if they can do this in movie theatres, surely they can observe similar rules when gambling.

These devices are not only a risk when used overtly. Almost a decade ago, I fooled a room full of casino security experts with a Blackberry and a lipstick phone while beating baccarat; after being back-roomed and searched, no illegal devices were found, but the secret to our signaling system was right in front of them; they simply couldn’t see it because they weren’t thinking like a cheater!

As someone who has gone to great lengths to conceal devices in the past, the arrival of modern mobile phones has often caused me to wonder what we might have done with that technology twenty years ago. I now find it amusing that such powerful devices with multiple means of input - including the spoken word - are indulged at gaming tables. The fact that poker players can access their phones openly, perhaps to seek assistance from onboard data or software, staggers me. This should frankly be of great concern to all lovers of the game.

Could Technology Destroy Poker?

What’s needed right now is a much better understanding of how technology might be used against the game and how more sophisticated cheaters might use readily available devices in ways that might be invisible to players, dealers, or managers. With a better understanding of what’s possible, potential methods for cheating - from looking up the range on the fly to receiving intercepted data from RFID systems or secretly coaching players from the rail - might be anticipated and investigated more quickly.

As a player, I’m mostly an observer, but as someone who creates methods of deception, I can see possibilities many will never recognize and could easily be used by cheaters tomorrow. Players and game operators must invest in researching the current possibilities to anticipate what comes next and analyze how best to intercept current and future means of deception. To do this, they need to hire genuine experts in deceptive thinking.

Final Thoughts

In most cases, poker gives you a fair chance. However, the community must be proactive about potential dangers; players need to pay closer attention to where they play (and with whom) as well as what protections are offered by online or live card rooms. Game operators must take a greater interest in protecting games from bottom feeders who won’t hesitate to use or manufacture an unfair advantage.

In the meantime, it’s wise to be a little more aware and vigilant when risking your money on games of chance, but equally, try to avoid being paranoid (that’s my job). If suspicious, move to another game and avoid casting accusations without absolute proof.

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