Another one of those scandals that we in the poker industry have such a love/hate relationship with was on the verge of erupting last week. Some accounts on the iPoker network were suspected of being bots and when a couple of Customer Service representatives associated with two different sites on that network confirmed it and pointed to a t&c clause permitting the practice, the poker community flipped. Whether the allegations had any merits or not will probably remain forever lost in the muddled lines of the PR statement from iPoker claiming that all those suspicious accounts were already under investigation before members of the playing community pointed them out and that the customer reps were confusing a skill game clause with a poker t&c clause and no bots were in fact being used.  The very allegation was preposterous!
The crisis fizzled like a three week old bottle of coke.  Most likely due to the fact that sites’ or the network in question employing bots in that fashion does not really make much sense. I give them that.
But it certainly energized the industry’s absolute fear of bots before it calmed. And it also reawakened some constructive discussions about the concept of bots that I had last year with @nelsonicus who deserves a lot of credit (or blame) for this post.

To build on those discussions, I used twitter to start a discussion about bots under the #botsarebadwhy hashtag. The hashtag hasn’t really really caught on, but the bot debate has certainly flared into life. I’m amazed people still follow me after the barrage of tweets that ensued.

I’ve set out  to get to the bottom of why bots in online poker are considered such a pariah, what exactly makes them bad for the game (if anything) and if there are any exceptions to the general rule that bots are a plague that must be fought at all costs.

In order do this I have been fiercely opposing anti-bot arguments and done my best point out holes in those arguments Not because I think bots are awesome and have a natural place in online poker as some now believe, but because it’s the only way to reach well-grounded and potentially unexpected conclusions.

And the result so far is quite surprising. Because although I still don’t think bots as such have a natural place in online poker and should not be allowed to roam free, I do believe there may be some excellent exceptions. Bots, in fact, can be good for the game.

So…bring on the bots!

…sometimes.

I recommend everyone interested in this topic to wade through my twitter feed and the myriad of arguments, counter-arguments and questions from great people like @CourtHarrington @owenrua @billrini @seanismoney @pokercurious @hardboiledpoker @Philip_Porter @BZailey @BJNemeth @pokerscout @timmychuck.

The short version? Here are some bullet points:

  • Many times it would be virtually impossible to discern playing a bot from a regular grinder.
  • Bots can definitely have a positive EV. But they’re rarely the best players (heads-up excluded) at the table.
  • If playing for say $10,000 and given the choice, it is feasible, depending on the game, that people would choose playing bots over some of the more known faces in poker.
  • Even though they would not be able to tell the difference, and disregarding the result, many people would be upset in retrospect to find out they played against a bot.
  • Even the best of bots suffer  downswings.
  • Bots don’t insult opponents.
  • The only difference in the damage done to an online room’s economy by bots in comparison to the damage done by multi-tabling low-stakes grinders is that bot numbers can scale almost infinitely.
  • Even if a clearly labeled bot had a negative ROI after 10,000 hands according to reputable hand history data, some people would hesitate playing against it by assuming the data had been tampered with.
  • It’s all about perception. And the perception is that online poker is to be played by humans.

FOR AND AGAINST

There are a couple of things that I find strange about some people’s passionate objection to bots.

On is the opinion that there is a huge difference between playing a bot that has been told in advance what to do by a human and playing a human that is being told live by a computer what to do. This not a passionate defense of bots on my part though, rather it is an attack on the broad usage of computerized aid. Especially since these software aids are not automatically available to everyone.

The second is the notion that playing a bot would be a worse player experience even though, as stated above, the general view is that telling the difference can be hard. Experiences happen in the now. The game is as fun as it is when you play it.  So playing a bot, it seems, can be just as “fun” as playing a grinder.

The third is the assumption that bots will only ever exist if they are winning. And that it will always be possible to code winning bots regardless of how good players become. This is an example of what I believe is unecessary narrow-mindedness. A perfect example of the kind of assumption that it is limiting to make.

I did feel that two/three strong arguments have been presented in the #botsarebadwhy discussion that are harder to refute.

1. Bots don’t can’t express emotions or for that matter, express themselves at all. As such they cannot and will not participate in the social game of poker.

2. It is less satisfactory to beat a bot than a human being – regardless of whether the human was actively being guided by a bot playing in the background.

One could argue that beating a bot is equal to beating a bot because the bot was obviously programmed by a human, but the opponent not being there to experience the loss actually makes serving the beating less enjoyable. That is my feeling anyway. Experiences happen in the now.

3. The scaling argument is also very relevant. Since bots can be cloned almost infinitely it would be very difficult to maintain a stable and diversified player liquidity if they were allowed to run rampant. But this argument assumes that their numbers cannot be controlled. It does not, as such, argue against say one single bot.

BRING ON THESE BOTS!

So far I have come up with three scenarios where I can see bots potentially being used in fashion that would be positive for the game and the industry.  My hope is that  further discussions will either effectively kill these  suggestions  or rally support for one or several of them.  I also look forward to hearing other suggestions.

The payback bot

I’ve often argued against rakeback on the basis that it is an uterrly passive reward. It does not require further engagement from players in order to be collected. The payback bot changes this. Instead of passively rewarding players based on whatever share of rakeback the site has decided they have played a part in the site collecting, the payback bot site would fund an army of crazy bots with the rakeback/loyalty reward budget and randomly (weighted based on  on the percentage of rake collected at various games/stakes) throw these bots into games to play losing poker. They’d be programmed to follow different, and shifting, strategies but always play bad enough to lose in the long-run. This would not only better for the site because it will keep players playing, it is also better for players because it will boost table activity. In essence, they would make games more fun to play.

The boot camp bot

Premature churn, that is players who stop playing before they’ve invested much money in the game, is one of the greatest issues facing sites today. Players simply don’t get a positive enough experience early on to keep playing. This is due to complex sign-up procedures, unintuitive GUI and software design, paywall fear, low-priority on beginner functionality, horrible bankroll management and the fact that newbies are eaten alive by experienced grinders.

The boot camp bot is the solution to all those horribly boring “20% something up to something” campaigns. The boot camp bot site invests its acquisition budget into creating a series of ring-fenced liquidity pools brimming with dumb bots carrying pool-specific traits (like super-aggressive). All new players are invited to deposit and play for real money against these lobotomized bots. By knowing the different themes, players will have a massive edge. Not only are they likely to win, they will also start to learn (a little) and get a taste of the immense strategic depth of the game.  This is one of the key motivational drives that keep players playing. Once you realize how much depth there is to poker, you simply have to dig deeper.
Stakes will be low enough (although they can increase as the complexity of the boot-camp bots increases) to deter any experienced player from even bothering.

Simply being able to market the fact new players WILL get to play for real money against players guaranteed to be dumber than them once they find their stride would be a nice upside.

Bot vs bot

The two options above relate to site’s employing bots. This third example is directed at players. Human players, a lot of people have argued (and I don’t necessarily disagree) are wired to play other humans. That is the general perception. Playing bots is not an option.  
But that doesn’t stop bots from playing… other bots right?

Sites and networks, like iPoker in their response to the above almost-scandal, claim to have 100% grip on the bot phenomena. Let’s for the sake of it assume that they are not lying. Then why not set up tables and tournament specifically for bots? Let human players test their strengths against other human players through bot proxies. Either ban all no-bots to enter or allow anyone else to join as well under the disclaimer that there will be bots there and they may respond to your insults by wiping your credit card records. Or something.

Programming a bot takes skill almost the same way playing well takes skill. Especially in the above scenario where bot leaders would have to adjust to the ebb and flow of best practice strategy depending on the current style of all the other participating bots. The rake collected can be invested right back into the human population games.

Hopefully this blog will ensure that a much needed discussion does not die out. Online poker needs to keep reinventing itself. And it’s the job of people like me to find ways for it do so. Maybe I crashed on this occasion. You tell me.

If do think so however, please note that it was written by a bot.