Youll never beat poker robots - Wednesday 30th of November 2005

THE time is 5am. A watery dawn light is bringing a new day into my study; Im reaching the weary end of a bottle of brandy and a gruelling six-hour internet session on Paradisepoker.com. And Ive just haemorrhaged a packet.

It all started so well. I broke even for the first few hours. But since 2am, Ive lost £670. They say you should never play poker with any more money than you can afford to take to the bottom of your garden and burn; I cant afford to burn £670. So now Im playing like a wild man, trying to claw some funds back. I no longer care about odds or stats; I just want to play every pot, regardless of my cards, and Im paying out money like a broken fruit machine as a consequence. Its what is known in the trade as playing on tilt - emotion, not logic, is the driver. Im every poker players dream opponent.

My sleepless, ruinous night should be music to the ears of the billion-pound online poker industry - after all, the more I play, the more they make in commission. But, as I am about to discover, these poker giants are sleeping even worse than me.

Because the computers they rely on to coin them their fortunes are being turned against them. And it could cost them their entire empires.

To explain why, we must fast-forward 24 hours after my marathon poker disaster. Because now Ive made a new friend to help me with my online poker, and hes making me decent money - at five tables simultaneously. So far were averaging £20 profit an hour - and my friend doesnt take breaks. Hell go on playing forever, hell never flag or make a wrong call and he wont become depressed or euphoric. This is because he is, of course, a computer.

Its very simple, its legal and no one on the other side of the screen will ever know. Ive run a cable from the PC showing the game - or, rather, games - into a laptop running some specialist poker software. This displays an information-only Etch A Sketch-like rendering of the poker tables; the cards, the betting, the players contending the pot. The laptop is making millions of different computations based upon the strength of my hand and how the others are betting. Then it places my bet. I dont have to lift a finger or even be in the room.

If youre a poker player, this is merely unethical. But if youre an executive or shareholder in one of the top poker websites, the advent of programs that play for you is very bad news indeed. Online poker is a £3bn-a-year industry - £3m is gambled on online poker every day in Britain alone (were now the fifth biggest gambling country in the world). But this depends on the punters knowing theyre getting a fair game. When theyre up against expertly programmed computer players, then they are, quite emphatically, not. And if these programs evolve as fast as the experts predict, online poker is nothing more than a busted flush.

One expert in this powerful new software, Chopper, tells me, Its amazing to think of how much we gamble on online poker sites - mainly because there is no such thing as a fair game of online poker. It just doesnt exist. The game is completely corrupt; it has zero integrity. Online players are secretly using every means at their disposal to fleece you --and at the forefront of their campaign is the use of poker robots. When all this becomes public knowledge, the amateurs will leave and the game will die.

Ten years ago, poker in general was nowhere. Now its huge. In August this year, poker tournaments were broadcast on nine separate UK TV channels. Organisations such as the World Poker Tour have shaped the game into a small-screen adrenaline hit; theres even been a poker storyline on The Archers.

GAMES UP? Sites such as Party Poker have proved popular but can they find a way to combat the cheats?

Online poker has ridden on the back of pokers new appeal to become the internet success story. Its easy to join in - you sign on to a site such as 888.com or Party Poker, submit your credit card number and start to play on a table showing yourself and your opponents. Only you can see your own cards, of course; everyone can see the five shared cards that feature in the most popular poker variation, Texas Hold Em, and with which you make your strongest five-card hand. All those who are still in at the end of the last betting round have their cards revealed, and the computer flags up the winner, adjusting everyones cash totals accordingly.

As well as winning on the night, if youre good and lucky you can also win entry to high-rolling tournaments associated with the website; all of which explains why American-owned Paradise Pokers average daily profit in one month earlier this year was £169,000.

Of course, what the huge billboards dotting the country dont tell you is that an astonishing 90 per cent of online players are habitual losers. Theyre known as fish. These inexperienced players have very little grasp of odds or strategy and might as well bet on raindrops rolling down a window. But the credit card deposits they make are the lifeblood of the new poker boom. They trickle down to the huge TV pots that ultimately draw in shoals of new fish.

What is crucial for the boom to continue is that these fish think theres no cheating. In the beginning of online gaming, the big and obvious worry was collusion - groups of supposed strangers in fact conferring by phone. Its impossible to win against such a group, because when you get a strong hand, you dont rake in as much as you should to cover the losses from all your weak hands, since your opponents will work out who among them has the strongest hand and the rest will fold. But the websites stopped this - terrified that their cash cows would falter under this threat, they spent millions creating software to automatically monitor patterns of play and sniff out these collaborators.

This story first appeared in the Mail on Sundays brilliant new magazine, Night & Day Live. To arrange home delivery of the paper visit www.mailonsunday.co.uk

Which is where the poker programs --or poker bots - came in. From a tiny start, theyre creeping into games everywhere. Of course, the whole point is that it is impossible to quantify exactly how widespread they are, but those in the know say you could quite easily expect all the other players at a typical table to be computers - in which case, if you are anything other than a very capable player you can surely only lose.

Take Dave (bot-running isnt illegal, but like other bot-runners he wants to keep his identity concealed from the casinos). He is a British computer programmer whose bots have played some 300,000 online rounds. He was approached a year ago by a syndicate of pro poker players eager to build a bot to take advantage of the new money pouring into online poker.

He says, Im doing pretty well. I have two computer systems, and each one can run four poker bots, and each of those four can play up to five tables at once. At worst I make on average £2.90 an hour at each table. Thats a minimum of £116 an hour if I can get all the bots running at once.

Right now Im working on getting two bots at a table card-sharing, but cleverly so they cant be detected.

Ultimately well get to a stage where if you want to win anything, youre going to have to use some kind of poker bot just to keep you in the game.

INTERNET POKER: How it works

Ray Bornert II is the creator of the WinHoldEm software that is the most popular of these intelligent poker bots. Bornert began work on his card-beating program shortly after approaching casino companies as a security consultant. When I realised that profiling - thats the software that tracks the performance of all online players - could be successfully eliminated, but that bots could not, my entire world changed almost overnight.

Bornert harbours an almost evangelical belief that online poker is institutionally corrupt. The sites are helpless. Its obvious - casinos cannot control what a human player does with the game information once it graphically arrives on his or her screen. A player typically has 30 to 60 seconds to make a decision when their turn arrives. Think of what a computer can achieve in five seconds, let alone a minute. And thats the casinos problem. People want to play against humans that have weaknesses, not robots. They wont stand for it.

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