How safe is online poker?

Forget TV, forget the WSOP, the main reason poker has become a multi-billion dollar industry is the Internet

It is impossible to go through life without trust: That is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.’ Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear wasn’t written about the world of online poker but you’d be wise to let the words bounce between your ears as you navigate through the paranoid landscape of Internet cardrooms.

With so many conspiracy theories, fears, scams and near-apocalyptic predictions of poker doom it’s understandable you’re worried that the game you’re playing isn’t on the straight and narrow. But play with fear in your heart and doubt in your mind and you’re about as likely to win as Sunderland are to be playing in the Premiership next season. (And I can say that, I’m a Sunderland fan.)

From hordes of calculating poker robots to software that shows your opponents’ hole cards, from rigged sites to brigades of colluding Czech comrades, join us as we blow hot air into the darker nooks and crannies of the World Wide Web. Take a brave step, my friend, and set yourself free.

Big business

Online poker is big business. And by big, we mean bloody huge. PartyGaming – owner of Party Poker – floated last year for £4.6bn, making the four individual owners overnight billionaires and placing the company above British Airways on the London stock exchange. And as you’d expect, it’s in the interests of big players like this to make your online experience as secure as possible from the moment you sign up. They use sophisticated encryption to transmit credit card information in the same way that online banks or blue ribbon online retail stores do. To register you have to have the full card number, expiration date, home address and CV2 – that’s the three little numbers on the back of your plastic friend. Full details are not held by the poker sites, which retain only the last four digits of your card for reference. If there’s one thing you definitely don’t need to worry about it’s getting your money into your account!

‘Online sites are crooked!’

But once the money’s in your account are you ever going to get the chance to take any out? Or are online poker sites virtual sting operations, designed to take your money and never pay out, no matter how well you play?

Despite the cries on rowdy forums on both sides of the pond, online cardrooms fiercely defend themselves, claiming it would be financial suicide to gamble with their reputations. When they’re already pulling in close to a million dollars a day profit, why would they risk it all by fleecing customers, especially the ones on low stakes tables? Bear this in mind the next time one of your opponents starts typing in accusations in a $5 sit-and-go.

But still the accusations come. Is it fair to say that they’re all from people that can’t deal with bad beats or is there something more sinister going on? Common complaints from users are: • ‘They let me win my first few games to get me playing but I haven’t won since.’ • ‘I put in large bets with big pairs and still get called by hands like 6-3, which always flop straights. It makes me question how random the cards are.’

Benjamin Lukas, operations manager at, says, ‘A crooked room would quickly be found out by experienced players. It’s the equivalent to asking why an online retail shop would send products out to customers when they could make more money by pocketing the money and keeping the goods.’ It’s a valid point. If online sites were rigged, players who make a living from the game would be subject to the same rigged software. And you’re not going to get a legion of players boasting about making a comfortable living from beating a rigged game.

Okay, how about this one…

• ‘It’s in the site’s interest to keep people in a hand as they take a rake from the pot. That’s why the lead always switches and hands are always made on the river.’

Putting aside the fact that low-limit tables always generate action, statistically, online poker sites make more of a rake the more hands are played. It wouldn’t be in their interests to promote action. Plus, even if a poker site wasn’t happy with the vast profit it was making, there are much easier and legitimate ways to increase their rake without resorting to juicing the game. All they need to do is increase the number of hands played and they can do this by doing something simple like cutting down on the time they give you to make a decision.

And, despite all the cries of foul play, no one has ever been able to produce any evidence to say that big online sites are rigged. If the practice was commonplace, and considering the numbers of people employed, it’s simply inconceivable that we could get this far without a single shred of hard evidence being made public.

Burden of proof

But if you feel it’s up to the online operators to prove that they’re legitimate, they’re more than happy to provide credentials. Online poker software utilises RNGs (random number generators) to ensure that the cards are ‘shuffled’ and dealt fairly and by chance. And fully independent auditing agencies such as Gaming Associates and BMM make sure that software providers that power the sites, such as the Tribeca (VCPoker), Excapsa (Ultimate Poker) and Boss (Virgin, networks, produce cards as randomly as the operators claim.

In fact online ‘shuffles’ are actually far more thorough than at a home game or casino as only the very best dealers in the world can claim to do a perfect shuffle. The players down your local cardroom – and we’ll include ourselves in that equation – only ever achieve a partial shuffle. It’s good enough, but it’s never totally random., like the other online operators, creates its random numbers using a frightening Dr Who-like device called the zener diode. Putting ridiculously overblown scientific names to one side, it creates numbers that are – according to its website – ‘provably nondeterministic by the laws of quantum physics’. In English that means it’s nigh on impossible to predict what the next card off the deck is going to be, given that all… 80,658,175,170,943,900, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000 shuffle combinations are equally likely to have happened. Wait for that many shuffles down your local card club and you’ll be dead before you’ve played one hand.

‘Why do I see so many bad beats playing online?’

Poker is a game where you remember your bad beats. It’s almost like they’re burnt into your memory bank. Conversely, you conveniently forget the times you suck out. But this doesn’t explain away every grievance harboured, especially… • ‘I play live and online and some of the things that happen online never happen in real life.’

It may seem that more bad beats occur online but it doesn’t follow that the game is rigged. There are lots of other factors to consider. The average number of hands you’ll see each hour online outweighs live games by at least two to one, so you’ll see more cards and more outdraws, especially if you’re playing multiple tables.

‘Internet players tend to be looser than their live play counterparts. Loose players that call more will result in more turns and rivers – more turns and rivers will lead to more bad beats,’ suggests Lukas. He argues that it’s a lot easier to click the attractive little Call button in the safety of your own home. And it’s true. It’s also true that there are more distractions for you sitting at home playing online, which reduces concentration levels and makes for looser play. If you’re sat in a casino or cardroom, you can only look at your cards. Or your opponents. Or the dealers. And online you don’t have to physically move your chips, and there’s no one to laugh in your face as you fail to hit that 8/1 shot that you’ve been chasing way over the pot odds.

‘If the sites aren’t screwing me, maybe you are?’

But say you agree that the sites are on the level, is it still possible that your fellow players are cheating you? Technically, yes… Collusion is the name given to two or more people co-operating in a poker game to gain an unfair advantage. It’s not exclusive to online poker – collusion has been around since the days of the steamboat where players revealed their hole cards and actions through illicit signals, hand gestures and code words. Colluding players can scare you off a pot by squeezing you with oversized bets and re-raises before you have a chance to act, or dump chips onto a friend in a sit-and-go or tournament.

It follows that it’s easier to collude online. If you’re in a cardroom, and actively telling someone on your table what your hand is, it’s not going to take long before you’re carted off to the back room for an introduction to Mr Hammer. Online, there’s precious little to stop you phoning your mate and letting him know you’ve got a pair of Aces. Or typing it in to MSN Messenger. Or shouting across the room. Thankfully, while it’s easier to collude online, the security measures built into online poker mean you stand a much higher chance of being caught.

‘Collusion is not as big a problem as people may perceive. Online poker means that it will be easier for players to collude compared to land-based casinos but makes it far more difficult to get away with it,’ says VC’s Lukas. ‘Online poker rooms record every hand played and those detected cheating will have their accounts frozen and cash refunded to the other players affected.’ head honcho Matt Dale agrees. ‘Games are monitored both by automatic security systems and live personnel. Any pattern indicative of collusion or other suspicious activity can be detected both in real time and over an extended period.’

All online sites employ a dedicated team of technicians to combat collusion, on top of detection software that scans player histories for unfair practices. All the sites also rely on feedback from players themselves, so if you think you’re being scammed contact the site administrators.

Collusion can also be a one-man job if you register multiple accounts. Online sites track the IP addresses of all players and if more than one account is active from the same address a red flag is brought up. Which is how the successful online player JJProdigy was recently caught with his fingers in the cookie car – to the tune of $180,000.

‘Are you a bot?’

Like collusion, poker bots definitely exist – you can buy them on the Internet – but how good are they? See Netbusters (over the page) for the rather predictable answer. And even if they could play properly Andrew Beveridge, chief executive of industry watchdog group eCogra, doesn’t see them as much of a threat.

‘Win Hold’em seems to have a small following but most poker rooms catch anyone using it quickly. Despite some grandiose claims, and there is controversy on this even among users, we doubt there are many bots out there and very few, if any, in the bigger rooms where counter measures tend to be more intense.’ It’s obviously in the interest for those flogging their bots to say that they’ll make you a mint. We didn’t. And we don’t know anyone else who has.

‘Maybe I’m not being cheated, but I’m still losing’

The very nature of poker means that you’re not going to win every game. It’s the element of luck – the outdraws – that make the game so good (and so painful) and it keeps the fish coming back for more. And it’s these fish that will eventually pay you off if you play good cards.

You will go through a run of cards, which seems completely unbelievable. Sometimes your cards will be so bad that rigged software seems like the only rational explanation. Our egos are fragile things and it’s hard to believe that when you play good cards, someone can beat you. But they will. Take the bad beats that come your way with good grace and humility, play without fear and you’ll be a better player and a better person.

We’re not saying that cheating doesn’t occur. But we’re saying it’s extremely rare and that 99 percent of the people who try and cheat will end up getting their fingers burnt.

If you suspect someone, make sure you report them. Every reputable online poker site has a route through which you can register complaints and suspicious goings-on. If you’re playing in a 10-man sit-and-go and suspect there’s chip dumping going on between two Spanish players, called desde un (from one) and a el otro (to the other), contact the site’s support network straight away. Take a screen shot for easy identification (hit the Print Screen button on your keyboard and paste the grab into a paint or graphics application). Hand histories stretching all the way back to when the players registered can then be studied for recurring ‘ambiguities’ and ultimately accounts can and will be frozen. Leaving you to play the game the way God intended.

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