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Prepare For The Invasion Of The Poker Bots
by Max Drayman

If you've played poker online for any time at all, you've certainly heard of the infamous "bot" players. Bots can come in any number of variations, but the bottom line is that they’re computer driven player programs, almost always based on adaptive and/or Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Bots can offer some pretty impressive play, but as of yet they've never been able to fool or beat a pro-level player. One of their main limitations is that they can't bluff.

"Computers are programmed to perform the best strategy, but bluffing is based on unexpected, illogical actions," says Evan Hurwitz, a computer scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Enter Hurwitz's research partner Tshilidzi Marwala and the artificial intelligence bot they've developed named Aiden. Aiden is based on a neural network algorithm that usually forecasts stock market fluctuations. That's all very interesting, but the punchline is that Aiden has taught itself some very interesting behaviour while playing a card game called lerpa.

To make a long story short, the researchers played Aiden against three other similarly trained bots to see what would happen. "They began to develop their own personalities—either aggressive or conservative—depending on their past successes," Hurwitz says.

After a length sequence of bad hands, during which it consistently folded, one of the more aggressive bot players suddenly changed tactics: it began to play even when it had poor cards, in other words it had learned to bluff.

"This demonstrates that computers can learn this peculiarly human behaviour," says Philippe de Wilde, a computer scientist at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK.

"They generate the strategy from play, which is a very human way of learning."

Now for part two of our story: after a long run of unsuccessful play, a Full Tilt player named "SukitTrebek" decided to use Poker Tracker—a computer program that provides statistical analysis of Internet poker play—to analyze several player accounts which he suspected of being bots.

The Tracker results revealed that the player accounts in question had virtually identical playing patterns at the Hold'em tables. Such patterns are one of the key tools used to locate and identify automated game play, be it poker or any other turn-based game.

When SukitTrebek offered up the results of his analysis to the Full Tilt staff, they promptly locked the accounts in question . . . and then re-opened them a few weeks later. After two days of furious criticism, Full Tilt responded by announcing that, "After careful consideration, the evidence did not warrant the seizure of funds and permanent account closure." IOW, one of the top poker sites on the web can't or won't bar suspected bot players because they can't prove they are bots.

Darse Billings, lead designer of the Vex Bot recently told MSNBC he believes the odds are better than 50-50 that programmers have secretly unleashed bots on commercial poker sites. "Of course [their] results were inconclusive," he said. "Short of having a video of them cheating or using spyware to find a bot program on their computer . . . there's no way you can have 100 percent conclusive proof that they were botting."

Of course other poker sites, namely PartyPoker and PokerStars, have their own solution to the bot problem: they install spyware on the player's computer, which snoops around while the player is online to see if any bot programs are running.

But Billings doesn't think that's much of a solution either, "From what I understand even this can be easily circumvented."

I'll second that: the bot spies will only catch out the amateur botter. Anyone with any experience as a programmer or systems manager will be able to disguise the bots presence and will almost certainly be able to fool whatever rudimentary spy mechanisms the online sites install.

So what then is the solution? Since it's already too difficult to get conclusive evidence that bots are running from play records, that job won't get any easier when, not if, the Full Tilt bots pick up the tricks that Hurwitz/Marwala program has recently learned.

So there's only one real solution; and that is for sites to develop and enforce more invasive spying on player activity. Even then at best they'll only catch out the amateurs.

The pro botters will almost certainly continue to fly under the radar if and when they put their minds to it. Given the amount of money to be made it's pretty much a safe bet that they will.

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