How much of a threat are poker bots to online poker?

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Online poker is a pretty incredible invention. Instead of having to visit a casino or gather your friends in the kitchen, players can log on, often even on their phone, and start playing real people from all around the world. Most of the time anyway.

Playing poker over the internet comes with a certain degree of anonymity. You can create a username that is nothing like your own, you don’t need to have a photograph of yourself, and other players have no way of seeing your real name or details about you.

As well as offering a buffer between the player and the often weird and wonderful people of the internet community, anonymity can also be used to mask other players, especially those who aren’t exactly ‘players’. We’re talking about poker bots, the futuristic gambling scam that is catching people out.

What is a poker bot?

Rather than an actual robot sat behind a laptop somewhere, a poker bot is actually just a clever piece of software that has been designed to play poker against humans and other pieces of software. Instead of using brainpower, skill, knowledge of the game or the ability to read other players, poker bots use mathematics and computerised strategy to make betting decisions based on possible outcomes (by figuring out the odds of a hand being a winner).

No matter how simple or how complex, anything that can play poker on its own is considered a bot. Based on bots effectively being advanced calculators, in theory they should be extremely good at poker, and indeed many bots can turn a profit over time, but poker is and will always be a game of incomplete information. Bots, like humans, will have to constantly make judgements and even guesses based on the information they have in front of them. Sometimes it’s purely pot luck if a bot wins or not.

Who uses bots?

Anyone who wants to buy one! Poker bot software can be found for sale online and as long as you have a PC, access to the internet and several online poker accounts, you can set a bot away with a bankroll and hope for the best.

What’s the advantage?

 

It’s well known that over time, decent poker players can make a decent profit just by playing. There’s an infinite supply of games out there, some of which are packed with beginners, hotheads or just poor players who can be taken advantage of. But, at some point a player who can read the odds and make simple moves needs to eat, sleep, go to work, or talk to their family. As long as the laptop or computer is left switched on, a bot won’t need to go to the toilet or grab a sandwich.

How can I tell if I’m playing against a bot?

This one can be tough and may lead to false accusations or leaving a perfectly good game of online poker. Some poker players are pretty mechanical when they play online, so may display bot-like traits, but there are a few clues that may help you to realise if the site you’re playing at has bots operating in its rooms.

Bots are computer programs, so use timings, data and calculation-based decisions. This means they’ll probably bet the same amount each hand, no matter what cards they have, take exactly the same amount of time to fold or raise, and will never respond on chat no matter how hard you try.

They may even sit out regularly when there aren’t as many players at the table, or join tables very quickly if there are only one or two spaces left, so keep an eye out for these tell-tale signs.

Do I need to be worried?

Realistically? No. If you play online poker regularly, you’re still pretty unlikely to encounter a bot. Plenty of online poker sites have bot counter-measures, such as regular captchas and requests for personal information every now and again, plus monitoring of bets if they believe an account looks suspect (i.e. non-stop Texas Hold ‘Em for 3 days straight)

Even if you do end up in a poker room with a bot in it, you’ll probably beat it hands down without trying after a while. Bots play the long game, looking only for profit, rather than taking advantage of good situations. If you use a decent poker strategy, such as maximising bets when you’ve got a good hand, then you’ll beat a bot that limits its bets if it isn’t on track to turn a profit.

The only problem with playing against a bot is that they are conservative, often to the extreme. They won’t be tricked by a bluff raise, they won’t be put off by you going all in, and they definitely won’t care about your ranking if your online poker service gives you one – all things that new players may not be able to get around.

Will bots get better over time?

Absolutely. They already create profit, and are of course absolute dream material for nerds, so they will definitely get more sophisticated as AI and computer programming improves. The only thing stopping bots from becoming as good as, say, chess-playing computers is that equations and code are dealing with a very small amount of information (the 2+ cards in front of them, the 3-5+ on the table depending on the game).

Advances like machine learning and quantum computing could be the kick-starters for better predictive computing, however, and may get to the point where it outperforms a professional human player who knows the game of poker inside out and can make informed decisions based on not just information, but experience.

Saying that, even the people behind the world’s best bots are still certain that Texas Hold ‘Em will never be cracked. With too many variables and outcomes, even complex, futuristic maths won’t be able to get around the unpredictability of the game, especially in online play where real cards are replaced by random number generators.

For the time being, bots are banned from every online casino out there and you’re highly unlikely to run into one. So stop worrying, fire up the computer or unlock your phone and load up your favourite poker site – you stand more chance of losing to a better player out there than a piece of software.

Tech Digest Correspondent