Robot Wars: How Long Before Real-Time Assistants Threaten the Viability of Online Poker?

  • Technological advancement poses an existential threat to online poker through the use of RTAs
  • The issue has worsened recently, with RTA providers flooding poker discord groups with offers
  • GGPoker has taken action against this, banning any assistance more than a basic preflop chart
  • German poker player Fedor Kruse hit the headlines in 2020 for his use of a ‘dream-machine’ 
  • RTA set-ups are becoming more refined, making life difficult for online poker operators
Person with poker chips on laptop
Real-time assistants are causing real issues for online poker operators as the technology behind them continues to improve. [Image:]

The natural evolution of information

The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce… instantly.

~ Demetri Martin

We are an impatient species. Our world is built on biology but once we begin to understand it, we transform it into technology. In defense of the ‘wizards’ who were changing the poker landscape around him, poker pro Phil Laak once told me that the creation and adoption of poker software was simply “the natural evolution of information.” Unavoidable. Inevitable. He considered it part of the inexorable march of new technology. 

What if that ‘dream machine’ could tell us the best thing to do within 20 seconds

Taken to its natural conclusion, though, technological advancement does pose an existential threat to online poker. Sure, we can ‘reminisce’ about our hands, put them into a solver, and analyze the output. That’s a form of studying. That’s post-mortem. However, what if these solvers become clever enough that a player can get game theory optimal (GTO) solutions ‘instantly’? What if that ‘dream machine’ could tell us the best thing to do within 20 seconds to an extremely high degree of certainty?

Well, this is not the future that I am describing. It is very much the present and, right now, as you read this, dozens of ‘elite players’ are using ‘push-button bots’ to optimize their decision-making in high-stakes online games. Some of them are the guys you probably rate as the game’s best. 

In recent days, poker discord groups have been flooded with advertisements for ‘Real-Time Assistance’ (RTA). The widespread use of such software is an existential threat for online poker. Canadian poker pro Jaime Staples commented on the issue on Twitter earlier this week:

One person, one hand

In some ways, online poker has proven a safer space than its live counterpart in regards to the problem of cheating. If a player has a suspicion that two opponents are colluding against them, they can bring those concerns to the poker site’s security team who can go back and analyze the hands, scrutinizing them for suspicious patterns. In a live setting, you have no such recourse. 

sites now know when players have third-party software open

There is, however, one poker rule that has never been possible to properly police in online poker. Although fundamental to the integrity of the game, ‘one person, one hand’ has never been enforceable on the virtual felt. A poker site cannot verify who is actually sitting behind the computer and this has left the game vulnerable to ‘ghosting.’ Detection methods have improved over the years and sites now know when players have third-party software open. This has enabled them to implement a ban on programs like Skype, hampering a would-be ghoster but certainly not stopping a determined one. 

Those same detection tools have allowed sites to curtail players further. For instance, some have decided to ban heads-up displays (HUDs) in an effort to level the playing field. Through this, operators aim to enforce one player, one hand and prevent programs from gathering statistical data on opponent tendencies. More important, however, is applying a ban on real-time assistance (RTA). 

What is RTA?

Strictly speaking, real-time assistance is anything external to players that helps them make their decisions whilst playing online cash games or tournaments. An advanced game theory optimal (GTO) solver running on a super-computer, capable of running hands millions of times in a matter of seconds, making decisions based on its findings a split second before the time limit expires is a clear example of something which should be banned.

poker sites are tasked with the decision of where to draw the line

In contrast, a post-it note stuck to the side of a player’s computer with the phrase ‘Fold Ace-Jack off-suit to 3-bets’ also provides a form of external help but nobody in their right mind would consider that meaningful cheating. The point here is there is a spectrum of RTA (push-fold charts, lists of pre-solved opening ranges, range calculators, and ICM analyzers) so poker sites are tasked with the decision of where to draw the line.

GGPoker, for example, decided to draw the line at anything more than a basic preflop chart that defines starting hands to play from each position. The emphasis is on ‘basic’ here as the reading material may not contain stack size, relative positions, or any user-defined situations. Some argue that this is too strict. Top poker pro Olivier Busquet is not one of those people:

The first high-profile RTA case

Back in September 2020, German online gamer turned poker player Fedor Kruse hit the headlines when his flatmates blew the whistle on his use of a ‘dream machine.’ In this case, this consisted of a two-computer setup designed to fool mouse-tracking systems (another detection method used by the sites). Kruse played on one computer while quickly pulling out the applicable pre-solved spot and following the decision tree to make GTO decisions on the second. When he finally broke his silence, Kruse said that the use of ‘dream machines’ was widespread, stating that ‘Russian bot farms’ were in the $5 sit and go pool. 

the operator seized around $1.2m from thirteen of the banned accounts

Kruse had enjoyed a meteoric rise from grinding $0.50/$1 cash games to taking shots at $200/$400 in under 12 months. GGPoker ultimately banned the German and confiscated $250,000, while other sites returned his balances before locking his accounts. Later that same month, GGPoker banned 40 more accounts for RTA usage and issued final warnings to 40 others. In total, the operator seized around $1.2m from thirteen of the banned accounts. 

GGPoker put a statement out, explaining its methods in broad terms. It said:  “Massive increases in data analysis are a big part of our new process. Our team deeply analyzes poker hands based on our proprietary algorithms with the assistance of some of the brightest poker minds. Their insights and contributions continually improve our algorithms. Through this process, we can quickly establish whether GTO poker play has occurred. Once we have made this determination, we look at a variety of other factors to determine whether said GTO play involved the use of RTA.”

It is worth noting that there was some backlash to GGPoker’s decision to ban those players. In any case, poker sites are judge, jury, and executioner in these situations. Undeterred, GGPoker has banned more players since. 

Lead in the boxing glove

Fortunately, some areas of online poker remain a bigger challenge to solver technology. Multi-table tournaments are certainly not impervious but different stack sizes and ICM complicate things enough to limit the effectiveness of RTA. Players of progressive knockout tournaments can certainly feel a lot safer for now. 

RTA set-ups are being refined and optimized

It’s been over 16 months since the Fedor Kruse scandal and in that time, the technology has continued to progress. RTA set-ups are being refined and optimized. According to rumors, some high-stakes players are engaging in ‘my RTA is better than yours’ robot wars. Unseen in the background, behind closed doors, more and more lead is being slipped into the boxing glove.

The fact that RTA-makers now have the temerity to openly advertise on poker discord groups demonstrates a shamelessness not previously witnessed. If it becomes easier for players to get their hands on RTA, more may succumb to the temptation to cheat. The integrity teams of poker sites have their work cut out for them as the never-ending game of cat and mouse continues. 

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