Skier's app & The evolution of poker software

A new simple application built by user skier_5 has created a firestorm in the online poker community over the past month, sparking debate as to the ethics of using different helper softwares to assist someone while playing online poker. As far as I understand it, the software is not very advanced, technologically speaking. However, in my opinion, it is a big evolutionary step which has opened some doors many players haven't wanted to see.

I have created a proof-of-concept replication of his software. It was thrown together quick and is not very well done. Originally, I intended to show and demonstrate the use and capabilities of this software, as well as releasing it to the public in this blog post. But I have changed my mind. I would rather talk about the eventual consequences and effects that helper software in general will have on online poker. So the rest of this post will be dedicated to that topic.

The spark

A week or two ago, I was browsing the "News, Views, and Gossip" forum on 2+2, and a curious thread topic caught my attention, titled "Pokerstars allowing automated decision software".

As far as I understand it, skier and a few of his friends were killing the HUSNG games, and people investigated their stats and accused them of botting. That, along with bad press from other websites, caused most users to be outraged and demanding scalps.

It turns out, he had just created a unique software solution, which allowed him to retrieve different preflop hand charts via voice control, which allows retrieval in a very quick manner that had previously been impossible. He calls up the relevant chart, finds the correct play, and then makes the correct play. That, combined with meticulous group study and practice, allowed the players very good results. Before they ever used this software, approval was asked for and granted by PokerStars. Despite the software not being very advanced, skier deserves all the credit for such a creative solution to his problem.

In response, PokerStars has recently started a new topic proposing some rule changes and asking for community feedback.

Player/Company biases

Its probably a waste of time to read both this and the original topic, because 90% of the posters/players either do not fully understand the scope of the issue, or they are just idiots with their own agendas. People were originally outraged toward skier simply because he was beating them at the tables. Others were mad/jealous because they don't have access to the same software. The private vs public availability of the software is a joke of an argument that will not even be addressed here. Others still said it was the equivalent to a bot.

The kneejerk reaction in the two threads has been to insta-ban skier's software. However, these same players who want to ban this new software, are the same players who are heavy users of HUD software. HUDs are not too far removed from what skier is using, and in fact, HUDs can probably be extended to do something very similar. Recreational fish are outraged when they find out professionals are using HUDs and datamined stats. The pros have tools and information that the recs don't. But these same professionals are similarly outraged when better pros have better tools and better information. Its a double standard.

NoteCaddy, one of the most popular HUDs, even sent out an email, spamming their customers and requesting that they go into that PokerStars topic and voice their support for NoteCaddy. It is funny to watch the email get posted to the thread, and then all the sheep come flowing in, registering new accounts and shilling. This is why all the talk about allowing HUDs because all they display is 'stats' is irrelevant. Because NoteCaddy add-ons are getting more and more powerful and blending the line.

The Last Question

It all comes down to this:

     What helper software should and shouldn't be allowed in the game of online poker?

There are many thoughts and arguments and proposed solutions to answer this question. I will address some of the more common ones below. However, before any of that will even make sense, I think its important to first understand...

The end game

Poker is a game based on mathematics, specifically probability and statistics. So, given enough time and computing power, full game theory optimal solutions will be found. How far away are we from that happening for 100bb NLHE? Who knows. But eventually it will happen.

So, with the question above in mind, we must consider what to do if/when someone comes in possession of the full solution to a game.

This is why people were originally so afraid of (ro)bots in the games. If a strategy could win consistently, then a bot could be programmed to just sit in the game and make all of the decisions. However, if the strategy was a losing strategy, of course no one would care if that bot was in the game. A bot which blindly shoves every hand all-in preflop? Are players gonna complain to PokerStars about that bot in their game?

Obviously, as shown by skier and his friends, solutions for subsets of games are already being generated that are 'strong enough' to have very good results.

Flawed solutions

  • Manual vs Automated decisions

    To combat the bot fear, rules were set in place long ago that no "automated" decision making software was allowed. You can not run a program to automatically fold for you, every time you get 27offsuit. You have to click the Fold button yourself. But if someone has a complete solution to the game, it is trivial to manually click the button.

  • Static vs Dynamic information

    This has been the drift of the main discussion, and the revelation of skier's software has really caused me to think about this topic. Essentially, there is no difference between static and dynamic information.

    Suppose I sat down with pen and paper, and calculated the solution for how to play Q6offsuit at 10bb stacksize for a simple push/fold heads up game. This is "static" information. Its a sheet of paper on my desk that I solved already. When this situation comes up in-game, I look at my sheet and then take the appropriate action. On the other hand, using 'dynamic' information would be: me inputting the game into a computer while I am in the middle of the hand, and then the computer calculating the correct play and telling me.

    The reason why 'dynamic' is frowned upon is because essentially the computer is playing for you. You didn't have to decide for yourself which action to take. Even if you manually click the button, you are a bot.

    But, is referencing my pre-calculated sheet of paper allowed? It should be, right? I sat down and did the homework myself. I calculated the EVs. I deserve to be rewarded for my work. Now, suppose I did that for every situation, and have 500 notebooks full of sheets. My only problem would be finding the correct sheet in time, in the middle of the hand. This is essentially what skier's software solves. He used PokerStove/CREV/whatever to generate solutions. He has a bunch of 'static' solutions, and the problem then becomes one of retrieval, not of calculation.

    If you think about it, the debate really comes down to memory. If I memorize all of my solutions, who can prevent me from simply playing from memory?

  • Strategic vs Non strategic

    This seems like a decent solution (but of course I may be biased): Disallow any strategy based software. Strategic software would include everything that is being discussed in this blog post: tracking software, HUDs, PokerStove types, etc. Anything that helps me make decisions, and anything that causes me not to have to use my memory.

    Non-strategic software would include everything that doesn't help you learn to be a better player, but instead simply offers gameplay conveniences. That would be things like table management, and hotkeys, and popup blockers, etc. These would be tools such as StackAndTile or TableNinja. Of course, this would ruffle many feathers because so many people currently rely on tracking software and HUDs. But, even if you like this solution (or another solution of simply "ban everything"), you still have the problem of...

Enforceability

Hackers are gonna hack, and cheaters are gonna cheat. Poker players have long been wary of the poker sites installing spyware onto their systems alongside the actual poker clients. Players should rightfully be concerned about this.

But players are also concerned about bots and colluders infesting the games, and one way to mitigate that is to allow the security team from the poker site to conduct searches or define heuristics to determine if illegal software is running on a user's machine. I am always in favor of privacy, so my stance is against such spyware. But I can see the case for it from the other side. I have no proof that any sites are doing this currently, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is.

But, this is another thing that makes skier's application unique and interesting, because the voice controlled application should be enough to demonstrate just how difficult it will be to enforce any of these such rules. That application doesn't even need to be run on the same computer. I could have a separate laptop on the side which is listening for my voice. No poker client would ever know. I speak my request to my other computer, and the other computer gives me the solution.

This will be difficult.

Conclusion

In the meantime, how do the poker sites handle this situation going forward? Their best customers are those who pay the most rake and keep the largest deposits on the site. These same players customers are the grinders who rely heavily on software which is becoming more and more questionable, such as poker trackers and HUDs. PokerStars has rightfully earned its reputation as the market leader, and they usually take their time and make good decisions in these matters. However I would not want to be in their shoes for this one. My guess is that they will make incremental changes to their rules which will be nearly impossible to enforce, and then the process will repeat. Another software will push the boundaries of the rules, and more rule changes will follow. And chasing down the cheaters will be a never ending process until eventually..

Poker will end up in the same position as chess or backgammon: a game that can be played better by a computer than any human, because the computer knows the correct solution every time. Therefore, gambling on such a game while playing over the internet will not make any sense, simply because integrity cannot be proven. Why would you gamble on a chess match over the internet against an anonymous screen name, when that person could simply be relaying the moves into their chess supercomputer? Some players are also correct to compare online poker to the financial markets, where success is just as much a function of technological capability as it is of strategy.

Luckily, my poker software StackAndTile doesn't provide any strategy advice. So at least it should be safe for use, as long as they don't "ban everything". =)