I don’t know who the first person was who claimed online poker was rigged, but I’m pretty sure they’re older than the Baby Jesus. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous wolf-criers and Chicken Littles have turned any claim that online poker is “rigged” into a bad joke in the eyes of many people.
While the vast majority of accusations about boomswitches and doomswitches are likely unfounded, the possibility of altered or manipulated deals is real. If you play online poker seriously, I would suggest that you approach any claims of nefariousness with a healthy dose of skepticism – but also an open mind.
Today I wanted to talk about two recent 2+2 threads related to these issues.
Triple Draw at PokerStars
According to this thread, with confirmation from PokerStars representative Alex Scott, PokerStars has altered their deal in triple draw.
In non-community card games, it’s frequently possible to run out of cards. For instance, if you play an 8-handed stud game, if every player were to see the river it would require 56 cards (plus burn cards). In a 6-handed triple draw game, theoretically speaking each player could consume up to 20 cards each (drawing five cards on each of the three draws), requiring potentially up to 120 cards total (plus burn cards).
Now obviously we’re never likely to see a legitimate hand of triple draw that consumes anywhere near 120 cards. But occasionally more than 52 cards are consumed. In that case, the accepted protocol is to reshuffle the muck and use the discards to complete all the draws.
PokerStars has chosen to alter this protocol slightly. They reshuffle the muck as you would in a brick and mortar game, but they deal out the cards such that no one will receive a card that they have previously discarded. Presumably, before they deal a card to you, they check to make sure you haven’t gotten it already… and if you have, then they deal you the next card.
Quoting Alex Scott:
I can confirm that this is correct. It is not possible to draw a card which you have already discarded at PokerStars, even in Triple Draw.
It’s not an error – the decision was made after much discussion and consultation with Team PokerStars (in fact, the original suggestion came from one of the most respected pros on the team). The theory is that no player would want one of their previous discards back, but there is no way to achieve that in a live game. Online, it’s easy, so why not do it?
I have to say, I think this is really quite a bad decision on PokerStars’s part. Here’s why:
- Online poker is designed as an explicit analog to brick and mortar poker. In other words, by explicitly mimicking the look of a live game (using the same deck, same table look, same deal, same betting structures and rules, even going so far sometimes as to recreate fake dealer boxes), online poker sites are also making implied assurances that the game will behave like a live game as well. In other words, that the cards will be dealt in a random manner and that each card is equally likely.
- In a live game you could (and would) never deal the cards according to the rules PokerStars now uses for triple draw.
- Therefore, this rule change betrays the implied assurance that PokerStars accurately simulates live play.
I find Scott’s shrugging rationalization bothersome: “The theory is that no player would want one of their previous discards back…”
Well, no player wants to get dealt 7-2 in hold’em either. Maybe PokerStars would be more fun if no one ever got dealt offsuit trash hands.
Now one might quibble with my analogy in that removing offsuit trash hands would have a huge effect on the game while this alteration to the rules of triple draw is (admittedly) a pretty minor one. But I think the difference between the two is in degree, but not in kind. They are altering the deal to juice the game – albeit in an extremely minor and subtle way.
If you are tempted to ask, “Why not? What harm could it do?” I would ask, “Why?” If the change is minor and subtle, why make it at all? Why break that implied principle that online poker should simulate live poker for such a silly reason?
I see no reason to manipulate the deal in this way or any other for any reason. Making players happier is a terrible reason to manipulate the deal. Indeed, the rule change itself bothers me less than the justification of it. The same justification could be made to support other deal manipulations that could have effects the PokerStars people don’t fully comprehend… or that they do comprehend and benefit from. In my opinion it’s best not to open that can of worms at all.
A Doomswitch For Regulars?
PokerStars gets the finger in another 2+2 thread. This time some regular posters are suggesting that they and some of their friends who are also regular players experience significantly worse than expected results in all-in pots. Basically the thread raises the question that perhaps PokerStars has a built-in doomswitch designed to cut into the winrates of successful regular players by intentionally screwing them sometimes when it deals out cards in all-in pots.
I have seen no evidence thus far that convinces me in any way that PokerStars has implemented this policy.
I don’t really want to talk about the murmurings on 2+2 about PokerStars and regular players because I have no documentation or specific knowledge with which to pursue that topic. But I do want to talk in more general terms about deal manipulation.
There’s two things I’m pretty sure about:
- Manipulating the deal in software is a nearly trivial task.
- Poker rooms have both a short and long term financial incentive to tweak the outcomes of hands.
The first point is relatively simple. Any logic that you can think of regarding who should get what cards and how often and in what situations these tweaks should occur can be translated relatively easily into code. To implement most tweaks, it would require less than one day of work for just one developer. If the code needs to be hidden, that could take a little bit of doing, but there are numerous available ways to hide code that are clever and nearly undetectable.
Simply put, it’s entirely doable for any online poker room to “alter” its deal in any way it sees fit and also to hide those changes effectively from a standard, moderately thorough third party audit or inspection.
Can they? Yes, they can.
Would they? In my opinion, they might.
No-limit hold’em is the most popular online poker game right now, and online poker rooms are stuck spreading it whether they like it or not. So far it’s done well for poker rooms, but at the same time it’s not a perfect game from their perspective… assuming a perfect game would generate the maximum possible revenue for them over the medium-to-long term.
I’ve seen it suggested numerous times that online poker rooms would like to see the “fish” come out better than they do in a typical online no-limit game. The theory is that the longer the fish stay in action, the more tables will be going at a time, and therefore the more rake the cardroom will net.
I think the actual dynamics are a little more complex than that, but it seems a relatively easy conclusion that there are some tweaks that a cardroom could make to the game to improve its profitability. Whether that might be tweaking the game to favor fish or some other change, I think it’s essentially undeniable that cardrooms do have some financial interest in altering their games to improve profitability.
So they can do it, and doing it (intelligently) would probably make them more profitable. Sounds like something most businesses would jump at. Yet we online poker players generally assume that no poker rooms are, indeed, altering their deals. Why do we assume that?
Do we think the guys that own these sites would never stoop to something so dishonest? Probably some owners are honest enough, but obviously it’s laughable to assume that all owners of online poker rooms are cut from the most ethically upright cloth available.
Do we assume that the risk of getting caught wouldn’t be worth the extra profit? Many people do assume that, but I think the assumption is flawed for two reasons. First, greed commonly overcomes common sense. Even if it were true that the risk would be too risky, that’s not going to stop some people. Second, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that it’s too risky. If the tweaks were subtle enough, and possibly if they were varied from time to time, it could be very difficult to detect them to any reasonable level of confidence just by analyzing collected hand histories. It’s entirely possible they could do it for years and years and never really risk getting caught.
Bottom line. Do I think online poker is rigged? Not really at the moment. At least good players can still pull a very nice (and fairly consistent) winrate out of the games. But there’s probably some cheating and botting that cuts into any regular player’s winrate. And there may be some subtle deal manipulation on some sites that also cuts into regular players’ winrates as well. I really don’t know, and frankly no one else does either.
I do know that manipulating the deal is relatively easy to do, and I also know that it quite possibly could be profitable to cardrooms to do it. Do I trust them not to try? Frankly, I don’t.
I see no reason to strip naked and go running through the streets screaming, “OMG IT’S RIGGED!!!1″ But I think it’s entirely responsible for all regular players to examine the data periodically and try to uncover any irregularities. If you don’t find anything, great. But I won’t be too shocked if one day we find out that someone, somewhere, has been playing some tricks with the deck all these years.