This blog was published in October 2014, when I was Head of Poker at Microgaming.
On the MPN, we’re very transparent about our approach to third party assistance tools, like trackers and HUDs. For those that want to use them, or don’t mind playing against players who might be using them, we have plenty of tables at which they are allowed to be used.
For those people who prefer not to use such tools, or who don’t want to play against people using HUDs or trackers, we have Anonymous Tables, where their opponents’ names are obscured. At these tables, there is little point in trying to track opponents because the game doesn’t specify who they are.
We believe that this distinction is a fair one, and it accommodates everybody. Want to use your HUD? Sure, you’re welcome to use it at regular tables. Want to avoid players using HUDs? No problem – play at Anonymous Tables. We support this policy by taking active measures to make it harder for people to use HUDs at Anonymous Tables. We have asked the maker of the two most popular tracking tools not to support HUD use at these tables, and we’ve done things to break HUDs on purpose, like changing the names of all Anonymous Tables to be the same (which also helps to deter collusion). We’re now at the point where a HUD is all but useless in these games.
We also don’t support HUDs and tracking software in Blaze Poker. This attitude has undoubtedly made Blaze Poker less profitable for us, but we feel that players should have a genuine choice between tracking and no tracking.
All in all, this approach, and other aspects of the way we run the network, gives us the best game ecology that I’ve ever seen. I have worked with several major poker sites and companies, and the MPN has a higher proportion of winners than any of them. Put simply, it’s easier to win on the MPN than anywhere else, at least in my experience.
Recently, I’ve started to see a great deal more discussion about a particular kind of third-party tool, the seating script. There are many different types of scripts, but the kind everybody is concerned about is the type that monitors the tables for weak players, and then instantly seats the user with a weak player when one is found.
The poker rooms on the MPN have received occasional complaints about seating scripts, and some of this feedback gets passed on to me. Incidentally, all of the complaints are from serious players, and not casual players (who are hurt the most by the use of the tools). Casual players simply aren’t aware of these scripts, and I think most would be horrified to find out about them.
The systematic targeting of weak and casual players is undeniably predatory, but is it fair? Is it right for us, as the network, to allow this to happen? Good game selection is one of the most fundamental principles of winning poker, so should we get involved in determining what types of game selection are allowed and which are not?
In order to seat their user at a desirable table, a seating script needs access to a database of players, because it needs to know who is weak and who is not. So generally, such a script interacts with a tracking program to get that data. This means that seating scripts don’t work at anonymous tables, because tracking programs can’t gather data on who is a winner and who is a loser at anonymous tables. At first glance, our current policy appears to be doing its job. Don’t like scripts? Play at anonymous tables.
I’m often asked why we don’t take action against scripts already. One reason is that we have games where scripts simply don’t work, so the problem simply isn’t as big on the MPN as it may be on sites which don’t have anonymous tables. But another reason is that we don’t currently have any reliable way to detect when somebody is using a script to sit at the tables. On the forums, players have stated with some authority that it must be easy to detect when a player is using a script. Certainly, if you designed your software from scratch, bearing in mind that you would want to detect scripts, then it would be fairly trivial to detect them. The problem is that it is absolutely not easy to build this into software that already exists. Not impossible, but very difficult and very time consuming.
Players have rightly pointed out that this isn’t a reason NOT to ban such tools. There was a time when it was difficult for companies in the industry to catch bots, because we didn’t have the tools that we now have. But it was easy to fairly enforce a ban on bots – when you caught one, generally it was a black and white case. The problem with seating scripts is that the cases are often grey areas, and it’s extremely difficult to apply a ban fairly and consistently across the whole player base. Arguably, such a ban could result in a more uneven playing field than before the ban.
On a personal level I am concerned. I’m a diehard poker fan, and the game is becoming something that I don’t like anymore. It is evolving in a way that is taking it away from its roots as a game of personal skill and honest competition among peers. I don’t want poker to become a game where the person who has the best software, or who is able to best take advantage of their software, is the ultimate benefactor. In my opinion, poker should be a test of wits – you versus your opponents. Who has worked the hardest to improve their game? Who has the guts to make the hero call? Who dares to move all-in on a bluff, knowing that if they are called, it’s all over?
There is also the very serious issue of mobile. Six MPN poker rooms offer our mobile software, and there are many more on the way. Players using the mobile software (many of whom only play on mobile) can’t use tracking programs, HUDs, or seating scripts. So unlike with our regular download client, these players can’t equalise the advantage given by third-party tools, even if they wanted to. Since the industry is irreversibly heading into the mobile age, that means that more and more players every day will not be playing on a level playing field.
There’s nothing wrong with looking for an advantage. There’s nothing wrong with tracking your own results – in fact, one might say that it’s the only responsible way to play. I have nothing against winners – I think they should be celebrated and looked up to, so that new players can aspire to be winners themselves. Our network certainly does not discriminate against winners (even though we do reward operators for bringing in players who are not winners, with our True Value system). But we know from experience that when the game organisers allow some players to gain an excessively large advantage, the games die.
The video games industry knows this very well. Take Titanfall, currently one of the world’s most popular first person shooter games. Played exclusively online, Titanfall has had no less than eight updates to date, adding new functionality and rebalancing the game when necessary – say, when a weapon was found to be too powerful.
In the days before online poker was popular, No Limit Hold’em had all but died out in poker rooms. It was typically played with no limit on the maximum buy-in. New players sat down with a fortune relative to the blinds, and lost huge amounts of money against their more experienced opponents. It wasn’t fun, so the casual players went to play Stud or Limit Hold’em instead. It was only when online poker came along, with its 100BB cap on the buy-in, that No Limit Hold’em was rebalanced and became fun once more.
Arguably, we are now at a point where the game of online poker needs to be rebalanced again, just like Titanfall. The weapon that is the seating script has become too powerful, and there is a lot more at stake than just points – the entire future of the online poker industry hinges on whether the game remains fun or not.
On the MPN, seating scripts are currently allowed, but that will not be the case forever. When we have determined a way to reliably detect such tools and fairly enforce a ban, then we will rid the game of them without a hint of regret.
In the meantime, we will be making lots of changes in 2015 aimed to make third-party programs less powerful. Winners will still win, and losers will still lose. But the game will be more fun for those that play.