Rumors of automated computer programs invading online poker rooms surfaced as long ago as 2004. In September of that year, MSNBC reported growing concern “in online chat rooms and news groups devoted to poker that sophisticated card-playing robots – known as ‘bots’ in the nomenclature of the Web – are being used on commercial gambling sites to fleece newcomers, the strategy-impaired and maybe even above-average players.”
Given all of the advances that have come about in the years since then, it should come as no surprise that what started out as mathematical assistance for online players has burgeoned into an industry of its own. One current bot builder offers “the most sophisticated and undetectable poker bot software for online Texas Hold’em, compatible with up to 22 poker sites.” Another boasts of “the most advanced poker bot ever developed for online play.”
But just how good are these poker-playing programs? Are they really a threat to human players or just another scam dreamt up by software sellers to siphon stakes away from the tables?
Man vs. Machine
Nearly a decade ago, researchers at the Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG) of the University of Alberta, Canada developed an artificially intelligent automaton to play Texas Hold’em. Dubbed “Vex Bot” because of its ability to frustrate human players, it was capable of playing poker at the master level. The only problem then was that its gambling genius could only be applied to heads-up games.
More important than the machine itself, however, was the thinking behind it. In games like chess or blackjack, developing optimal strategies is all about number-crunching. Poker, on the other hand, involves bluffing and laying traps for opponents. A huge amount of information is unavailable, so a layer of artificial intelligence (AI) is required in addition to the capacity for calculating probabilities.
According to Vex Bot’s makers, AI allows their machine to model an opponent’s behavior. The bot has neither shame nor fear and can intimidate humans. Some players who have sparred with Vex Bot refer to it as a “tilt monster,” capable of inducing “a lot of anger and emotional upset.”
“It has no compunction about doing whatever it will take to win,” explains Vex Bot’s lead designer. “It will raise you with any two cards if it thinks that it has a very slight advantage based on your history.”
Upgrading the Bots
Out of this ground-breaking research came more bots, whimsically named Poki, Sparbot, Polaris and Hyperborean. The latter, invented in 2006 has since been enhanced to play No Limit Hold’em in ring games (cash games). The Canadian researchers also began licensing software to PokerStars.com as the core of the web site’s “Poker Academy,” designed for computer-automated training and analysis of Texas Hold’em games.
It was only a matter of time until savvy programmers began building their own bots. Many have been tested against the CPRG’s inventions in an annual Computer Poker Competition, conducted since 2006 as part of Toronto’s yearly Conference on Artificial Intelligence. Games include heads-up Texas Hold’em, both limit and no-limit, and 3-player ring Limit Texas Hold’em.
Until 2008, the bots were good, but not very good. As New York Times reporter Gabriel Dance put it: “Humans were better at the nuances of the game—at bluffing, for instance—and could routinely beat the machines.” By 2011, that had changed, said Dance, to where “poker bots are now good enough to win tens of thousands of dollars on major game sites.”
The Invasion Begins
Shanky Technologies, the developer of Holdem Bot and Omaha/8 Bot, began making their software available to online players in 2006. Over the next three years, programs like Smart Poker Bot and Online Poker Bot followed—literally thousands of bots downloaded for an average licensing fee of $92~$129 per year.
As MSNBC correctly evaluated the situation, “Widespread use of bots capable of beating your average player would pose a significant problem for the red-hot online poker sector, which has grown exponentially in recent years and is expected to top the $1 billion revenue mark…. Without some way of verifying the identity – and humanity – of players, the business could be significantly undercut.”
By 2010, players on PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker began complaining about the use of commercial poker bots on their web sites. This led to a crackdown by the poker room operators that uncovered hundreds of bot users, who were swiftly excluded from play.
Michael Josem, a security manager at PokerStars, described the site’s policy regarding use of the technology: “When a player is identified as a bot, PokerStars removes them from our games as soon as possible.” He explained that their winnings are confiscated and the company will “provide compensation to players when appropriate.” At Full Tilt, more than $50,000 of bot users’ money was reportedly seized prior to Black Friday.
Although CPRG has demonstrated that bots capable of beating players can be created, online poker industry consultants say the ones commercially available right now are still not that good. Meanwhile, poker sites are showing little interest in putting them to the test against human customers and will continue to ban bots at the table.