But online poker is not without challenges to its integrity, safety, and longevity. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is, without a doubt, the most obvious danger to online poker, as it involves the U.S. government and has already had a huge impact on the ease of funding accounts and posed a question that lawmakers will be addressing over the coming months. The Absolute Poker scandal, still awaiting full disclosure and admittance of wrongdoing by its executives, has left a sour taste in the mouths of many online players who feel that the security of their skill game may be in jeopardy.
There is an aspect of online poker that has yet to be categorized as a challenge or a danger to poker players, but those who have educated themselves about bots certainly have questions about their capabilities and potential effects on online gaming.
What is a bot? As explained here, a bot is simply a computer program used to play poker. According to the Wikipedia, a poker bot is a computer program that plays online poker disguised as a human opponent.
Software has been developed that can beat most people at games like checkers, backgammon, and bridge. There was even a famous match set up over ten years ago in which Garry Kasparov, the former world champion of chess, challenged an IBM computer chess program in a total of six games; Kasparov lost. Today, with the ever-increasing popularity of poker, especially online poker, software developers have become intent upon creating a bot that can beat the very best players in the game.
In 2006, the University of Alberta Computer Poker Research Group won the World Series of Poker Bots, and this year, they constructed a competition in which 28 teams participated to see which programmers designed the best poker bot. The details of the contest were chronicled here. As part of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in Canada, two poker pros were pitted against the Polaris computer program, and after a very tight set of matches, Phil Laak and Ali Eslami beat the computer in the heads-up limit poker event.
While poker pros were able to beat the bot this time, it was a close call, and the bots were admittedly quite difficult to defeat. Laak and Eslami were both incredibly impressed by the technology and hope that instead of using the programs to beat poker, the software can be applied in some way to help people. But according to some, such technology could severely impede the growth of online poker - actually crippling it.
Ian Ayres, an economist and lawyer at Yale, wrote an article for The New York Times in which he paints a dismal picture for the future of online poker if computer bots have anything to say about it. "In the very near future," he wrote, "online poker may become a suckers' game that humans won't have a chance to win. Bots are quite scale-able and it will be virtually impossible to prohibit computer or computer-assisted online playing."
Ayres admitted that online poker sites seem to be on the lookout for the bots and seize the assets of any accounts deemed played with bot software. However, he asserts that human beings can run the bots and randomize their strategies to make their existence virtually undetectable by poker sites. He goes as far as to suggest that the U.S. Department of Justice could consider using bots to "beat the average law breaker" and discourage online gaming.
Claiming to be an agnostic on the subject of the legalization of online gaming, Ayres made a rather damning statement. "High quality bots are an online gambler's worst nightmare. Bots won't kill poker. They'll just drive it off line." He contended that face-to-face poker competitions will still thrive, but he warned that the online poker community has an enemy in its midst that is close to being a true danger to the existence of online poker.
Professor Jonathan Schaeffer, co-founder of the Alberta computer research group, oversees the team's bot efforts but stated that the research being conducted does not pose a threat to online poker sites. He claims to be willing to "do everything in their power" to block players from using bot programs to cheat in online poker games.
Currently, there are poker bots on the market that can be downloaded from the internet, though their record of success has yet to be documented and proven. But the incentive to use the bots is there in that there are millions of dollars to be won on the internet. If one doesn't possess the skills to win the game fairly, cheating becomes much more appealing. Online sites continue to stress that their security systems can detect and disable players using bots, but the general public, especially those affected by the recent Absolute Poker cheaters, may be rightfully skeptical.
If a poker bot falls into the wrong hands, could someone modify it to look like a player and remain undetected by online poker sites' security mechanisms?
Will the U.S. government stoop low enough to employ such a tool to "prove" to Americans that online poker is a losing bet?
Can the incredible minds researching bots actually come up with poker software that is unbeatable?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, online poker sites simply must increase their level of security to fend off bots as well as disgruntled executives. And the poker public must be as vigilant as they have been during the Absolute Poker investigation - taking it upon themselves to research a situation or player who exhibits abnormal behavior at the tables. And quite possibly, the creators of such technology that could be so detrimental to so many millions of people might simply want to take their research in another direction and leave poker alone.