Monday, October 25, 2004

The Demise of Online Poker

I guess it was inevitable that in time the computer boffins would try to exploit the online poker industry with the use of what has been nicknamed BOTs. BOT is short for ROBOT, a definition invented by the science fiction writer Issac Asimov (1920-1992), in a collection of short stories written in the 1940s and onwards, to describe machines capable of independent and intelligent thought.

Chess was the first game to be conquered by a computer. There are no human players, not even the grand masters, who can beat the most sophisticated programmes that exist today. Other games, such as backgammon, bridge and go quickly followed suit. Poker is the last cornerstone where a human can outwit a computer. It is only a question of time before this last bastion of intellectual warfare between two or more human beings is conquered by a machine.

There are two battles being fought here. One is the ability to create an artificial intelligence which is adaptive enough to beat even a world class poker player. The other battle is the ability to infiltrate online casinos undetected, and to use these programmes in a manner which is profitable.

The online gaming community takes this threat very seriously, and quite rightly too, as their continued existence is at stake. There is a great amount of money involved in online gambling. In the UK alone, online gambling increased six fold, to £38 million, in 2003. The largest share of the market is the US, where a larger population enjoy more widespread internet access and surplus income.

The threat comes from a lack of confidence. Are you prepared to play against an opponent which has a massive edge over yourself? I am not making an argument that a computer programme cannot be “beaten”, or that you are unable to win a hand. I am discussing long term edges. The type that if you play this same opponent over a long period of time, the result would be you would have made a loss. An opponent which has a complete database on your play. One which can adapt to varying styles of play. One which can play for 24 hours a day without requiring a break. One that doesn’t suffer tiredness, fatigue, stress or hunger. The only reason why you make any money at poker is because you are exploiting small edges over your opponents. You are outplaying them in some way. So I ask again, “Do you want to play against a computer?”

The online casinos have quickly realised the implications of a lack of confidence which could arise and rapidly escalate. Hence the development of anti-BOT software. If you download a BOT programme, the casino will detect it and take action. You could face your online account being frozen, and be unable to withdraw money from your account. A war has started. One which is very similar to the war between hackers and anti-virus developers. On one hand are the computer boffins who are attempting to make the perfect poker player. One the other side are an army of computer programmers trying to prevent the use of these programmes in cash games.

The boffins are asking themselves, “How can it be done?” when they should pause for a second and consider, “Should it be done?”

If people lose confidence in online gaming, they will leave. What at first will be a trickle, will be followed by a tidal wave of departures. Those who are too stubborn or ignorant and continue playing, will end up facing an increasing number of automated players, until they too succumb to the rise of the machines.

At present, BOTs are not very sophisticated. They can be detected both by the casino and by careful observation at the table. A tell-tale sign is your opponent making very rapid decisions, and not engaging in chat. However, more sophisticated programmes now pause, making it appear like the BOT is considering what action to take. Also, I can imagine that it is possible for a person to engage in chat and still have a BOT running as well. A good player can outwit them… for the time being.

BOTs are currently operating at $2/4 ring games and lower. This in itself is a major problem. The people playing at these limits generally are average players at best. Poker has many different levels to suit the whole spectrum of player ability and skill. Consider these levels as a food chain model in the natural world. There are a few large predators which feed off a greater quantity of smaller prey, which in turn prey on even greater numbers of smaller organisms. And so the chain continues until at the very base are microscopic plants and animals which everything else is dependant on. Just as the natural world requires a foundation, so too does the poker world. The small stake players provide a base which feeds the mid-limit games, which feed the higher staked games. Unfortunately, the BOTS are targeting micro and small stake games, and will quickly overrun them if not prevented.

Soon, BOTS will gradually move to higher limit games as their operators gain confidence in using them. Eventually, the only players left will be BOTS, one machine trying to outwit another. An industry which has enjoyed exponential growth over the last few years, faces a crisis far greater than any US legislation trying to ban it. If the control of BOTS remain unchecked, I predict that the online poker industry will not exist within the next five years. It would seem sadly ironic that that the very tools which have helped increase the popularity of poker, could also be instrumental in its rapid decline. In order to maintain some integrity, poker may have to go back to its roots in brick and mortar casinos and home games.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stopped reading where you said computers beat humans at Go. Not true. Go is extremely hard for a computer to play and there is a large cash prize available for anyone who can write software that can beat a strong human player. By strong, I don't mean the very best, but just someone in the top 10%.

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