This blog was written in December 2014 when I was Head of Poker at Microgaming.
In my last blog, I discussed the network’s stance on seating scripts. In this blog, I want to talk about HUDs – and for the first time ever, draw some conclusions based on real data and evidence.
For a long time, I’ve heard players and poker operators bemoaning HUDs. Lots of players complain that they are unfair. I’ve also spoken with several poker operators who think, based on nothing but speculation and their own personal feeling, that HUDs should be eliminated because the advantage that they give is too large.
My own stance is that the industry should have banned HUDs ten years ago, when third party tools were in their infancy, because they undoubtedly make the game less fun (both for the people using the HUDs, and their opponents). Now they are part of the game, like it or not, and too many players are too invested in the HUD lifestyle to go back. But I have never considered HUDs to be an unfair advantage, and I like tracking software – I think it’s very important to be responsible about your poker play, and tracking software makes it easy to track your results and improve your game.
Never has anyone actually provided any real evidence showing that using a HUD is an unfair advantage. In fact, nobody has ever proved that using a HUD gives an advantage at all. Nobody has ever bothered to do any proper studies, after all these years. Everybody has been guessing – until now.
On the MPN, we offer both regular tables and Anonymous Tables. We weren’t the pioneers of anonymous tables, but I think we might be the only network that has both regular and Anonymous Tables, with good traffic in both. On regular tables, HUDs and tracking software are explicitly allowed and we know they are used (although we don’t know what proportion of players use them). On Anonymous Tables, HUDs and trackers are useless, and for practical purposes they can be considered ‘HUD free’. This allows us to study the game conditions on both types of tables, and draw some inferences about the effect that the presence of HUDs has on the games.
Although I have made a great effort to be accurate, to use a statistically significant sample (about 175 million hands) and to compare ‘like for like’ (I’ve excluded Heads-Up play, Blaze Poker, tournaments, and any games or stakes where both table types are not spread) this is not a scientific study. This isn’t going to be published by a peer-reviewed journal. I am not going to release the underlying numbers, which are obviously confidential. So to some extent, you will have to trust me that my calculations are correct. If it helps, I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time.
With that said, here are my observations, comparing the HUD-free world of Anonymous Tables to their non-Anonymous counterparts.
Observation 1: Anonymous Tables are Less Popular, but still significant
No surprises here. Overall, 40% of cash game players choose to play Anonymous Tables. Anonymous Tables do tend to polarise players – many think they are a bad thing for whatever reason. In addition, players who like to use HUDs will obviously avoid anonymous tables. Nonetheless, 40% of cash game players playing in a game is a huge proportion – imagine how different the poker landscape would be if 40% of players played Blaze Poker, Jackpot SNGs, or Omaha.
Observation 2: Anonymous Tables get more popular as the stakes increase, to a point
The popularity of Anonymous Tables is lowest at micro stakes, increases for low stakes and further still for medium stakes, and then drops again at the highest stakes. My guess is that, the lower stakes somebody plays, the more conservative they are about their game selection, and that the element of the unknown brought about by Anonymous Tables is enough to put players off. The higher up the stakes you get, the more likely you are to recognise the benefits of Anonymous Tables and seek them out.
The drop in popularity at high stakes is interesting. It may be because at these stakes, games start less frequently, and perhaps game starters tend to prefer non-anonymous games. Perhaps there is more table selection going on (which only really makes sense in non-anonymous games). Or perhaps high stakes players will simply take any game that they can get.
Observation 3: Anonymous Players Play Fewer Hands
Playing with a HUD makes it easier to multi-table. So it’s no surprise that mass multi-tablers stick to regular tables. But there is another reason that anonymous players play fewer hands, as we will see.
Observation 4: There is Much More Action at Anonymous Tables
Everything you’ve read so far is just a preview to this, the main event! Anonymous tables are much, much juicier than regular tables:
- There are more called bets in each hand
- More money is bet and called in each hand
- The average size of each called bet is larger
- The average pot size is larger
Essentially, more money changes hands in anonymous games, per hand dealt. This is the case at every stake, but is especially prominent in micro stakes, where the average amount bet and called per hand is a whopping 20% higher at Anonymous Tables than at regular tables, and the average bet size is 19% higher. Rake per hand is also higher at anonymous tables, which is expected given the larger pot sizes.
There are several possible reasons for this. Maybe loose players seek out anonymous tables, but this seems unlikely. I think the most likely explanation is the inverse – tight players seek out regular tables, where they can use their HUD. This tight playing style means they give and receive less action, and pots are smaller as a result.
Observation 5: Winners Win More at Anonymous Tables
Because more money changes hands, winners win more money per hand played at anonymous tables than they do at regular tables. This is a no-brainer when you think about it – just because the pots are bigger doesn’t change who the winners and losers are. Good players are still good players, even when HUDs aren’t a factor.
Another possible explanation is that the very best players seek out anonymous tables, knowing that they would be avoided at regular tables. Anonymity gives them a chance to get action that they wouldn’t ordinarily get, because they’re so good.
Observation 6: Losers Lose More at Anonymous Tables, and Go Broke Quicker
Despite Observation 5 being so obvious, I think this will be a bit of a surprise to many. Again, because more money is changing hands, losers lose more. Bad players’ mistakes are amplified because pots are larger. When they bluff the river and get snapped off, that river bet is typically bigger.
This will probably shock those operators who bet the farm on Anonymous Tables, thinking that they would protect new and weak players. Our evidence says that they don’t. In fact, weak players lose more and have an even shorter lifetime than they would if they played regular tables. This is the other key reason that anonymous players play fewer hands – they have already gone broke.
Observation 7: Variance is Higher at Anonymous Tables
With bigger pots and more showdowns, it makes immediate sense that there is more variance in Anonymous games, just as there is more variance in Omaha compared to Hold’em. So even though on average, winners win more and losers lose more at Anonymous Tables, a player who is a long-term loser has a better chance of winning in the short term.
By the way, if you ever wondered why some operators like to push Omaha and other non-Hold’em games, this is a key reason – long term losers have a better chance to have a good experience in the short term, because variance is higher. They still lose, but at least there’s a better chance of them coming back.
To share a little anecdote with you – a while ago we did some SNG research, looking at which variant was the best in terms of survival rate for new players. The worst? No Limit Hold’em Double Ups. New players had almost no chance to win. Even Omaha Hi/Lo, an incredibly complex game for new players, did better. When it comes to giving new players a chance, variance is a good thing.
Observation 8: A Winner’s Win Rate, Net of Rake, is Higher at Anonymous Tables
Even though winning players pay more rake at Anonymous Tables, they also win more money. The net of this (winnings – rake) is higher at Anonymous Tables than it is at regular tables – i.e. the increased rake is more than made up for by the increased winnings. Could it be that playing in games with a HUD actually costs you money?
From these observations, I think we can make some pretty clear statements about the effect that the presence of HUDs has on the games.
- In games with HUDs, there is less action. Players bet less, and when they do bet, the bets are smaller. Pots are smaller as a result.
- In games with HUDs, players multi-table more.
- In games with HUDs, winners win less, because pots are smaller.
- In games with HUDs, losers lose less, also because pots are smaller.
- In games with HUDs, winners pay more rake per Euro they win (but less per hand, because pots are smaller).
- In games with HUDs, variance is lower, and poor players are more consistent losers as a result.
Those are some pretty damning conclusions for HUD users. They are also damning for the ‘HUDs are evil’ crowd, because the data doesn’t support the idea that HUDs give you an advantage. In fact, the very opposite – the data suggests that HUDs make the game tighter, less fun, and make everybody win and lose more slowly. Although in HUD-filled games you will pay less rake per hand, this is simply because pots are smaller. In the course of your lifetime, you’ll pay more rake per € won in games with HUDs.
HUDs are probably an advantage if you are the only one with a HUD. But are they an advantage in games where everybody else is using them? Not that I can tell. Using a HUD is a bit like choosing a sniper rifle and camping on a rooftop in Call of Duty. As long as everybody else is running across open ground firing pistols, then you have a nice advantage. But if everybody else becomes a camping sniper too, then all of a sudden the game stops being fun.
So in 2015, why not give Anonymous Tables a try? There’s no camping allowed.
Epilogue – About Cheating at Anonymous Tables
The most powerful argument against anonymous tables is that they must be a magnet for fraud and collusion. Players can’t police the games if they are anonymous, and report suspected collusion and cheating. This is also an argument that is often used to support datamining, a practice which is prohibited by the MPN.
But the fact is, players just aren’t that good at spotting cheating. On the network side, we have sophisticated tools to detect collusion and other types of unethical behaviour, and we are improving these all the time. We can investigate millions of hands in a very efficient manner. Players cannot do that, and that is borne out in the statistics too – 97% of the Game Integrity cases we investigate are proactively generated, and just 3% are reported by players or operators.
Our evidence shows that cheaters sometimes do choose Anonymous Tables, but of course, this is no impediment to our tools (the tables aren’t anonymous to us). In fact, the use of anonymous tables can sometimes be a dead giveaway – it is difficult to find somebody you know at an anonymous table, because you can’t see their alias. If two related players end up on the same anonymous table – or even multiple anonymous tables, then contrary to what you might expect, such players actually stand out from the crowd and become easier to catch.