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Online Poker -- The Data Mining Dilemma

A Closer Look at the Rules About Data Mining

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Brian Townsend’s recent red pro suspension from Full Tilt has many in the industry taking a closer look at the rules of data mining and hand sharing across the various online sites. Townsend received a 30-day suspension after admitting that he gathered 30,000 third-party hands to supplement the 20,000 hands he played himself in preparation for a match against the high-stakes catalyst, “Isildur1.” After his match with Townsend, the Swedish pro then went on to lose $4.2 million to Townsend’s fellow CardRunners instructor Brian Hastings, prompting a heated debate over the ethics of data mining.

What Is Data Mining?

Data mining can mean any number of different things, but the popular definition is that it is a process of extracting patterns from data, or in poker’s case, a database of hands and/or results. Data mining can be done by the individual user, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on third-party data mining, whether it be through a website or an External Personal Assistance (EPA) program. EPAs are simply software or other download capable tools that can make data mining faster and more efficient. Furthermore, the EPAs also have the ability to interpret the results for the user, as well.

It’s easy to see why so many serious online poker players use data mining programs to give themselves a leg up on the competition. Players who take advantage of these programs have access to hand histories from opponents they’ve never played before, allowing them a blueprint for success before a match even begins. With that information at their disposal, a perceptive poker player can define a set of hand ranges for any particular situation and make better decisions on each street as a result.

The software has also made it possible for users to acquire information on whether an opponent is a winning or losing player, allowing them to choose their opponents more wisely.

So What’s The Problem?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play to the best of your ability and to continue to improve, but many leading online poker sites see EPAs as a violation of the site’s terms and conditions, compromising player privacy. With a few quick keystrokes, losing players can instantly be spotted with EPAs. It has become increasingly more common to see players not only use that external information to beat their opponents, but also use it to abuse them in the chat box. Someone who merely plays recreationally may no longer have the desire to log in and play if they know their losing statistics are readily available for all to see. As the famous saying goes, “Don’t tap the glass.” These programs are all too often used to practically knock the tank over.

Still, determining what programs fall within the rules and what has been banned is unclear. While some sites are very cut and dry about EPA programs, others fail to mention them entirely.

The Rules

So what do leading online poker rooms say about EPAs? Below, you’ll find a rundown of the specific rules listed in each site’s terms and conditions.

Full Tilt Poker

Full Tilt Poker prohibits the use of external player assistance programs (EPA Programs) which are designed to provide users with an unfair advantage over their opponents. Full Tilt Poker defines external to mean computer software (other than the Full Tilt Poker game client), and non-software-based databases or profiles (e.g., web sites and subscription services). Full Tilt Poker defines an unfair advantage as a user accessing or compiling information on other players beyond that which the user has personally observed through his or her own game play.From Website

In layman’s terms, Full Tilt Poker allows a player to review his or her own hand histories, but does not allow that same player access to mucked cards during showdowns in games they themselves did not participate in — a feature that some EPAs offer.

PokerStars

PokerStars shares the same stance on EPA programs, but they’ve taken the issue one step further in their terms and conditions by clearly defining which programs are acceptable and which cross the line. In fact, they’ve dedicated an entire page on their website to the issue. In their own words:

PokerStars prohibits those External Player Assistance Programs (“EPA Programs”) which are designed to provide an “Unfair Advantage” to players. PokerStars defines “External” to mean computer software (other than the Software), and non-software-based databases or profiles (e.g. web sites and subscription services). PokerStars defines an “Unfair Advantage” as any instance in which a User accesses or compiles information on other players beyond that which the User has personally observed through the User’s own game play.From Website

Similar to Full Tilt, PokerStars states it has no problem with programs that allow you to analyze your own game, but it draws the line at programs that collude to share hole card data. PokerStars has assembled a list of 57 prohibited poker tools and has an additional 17 that they allow only when their poker client is off.

Cake Poker

Though Cake Poker has no specific rules posted about EPA programs, they do mention tracking other player’s actions within a paragraph about poker bots and artificial intelligence in their terms and conditions.

Also forbidden is the use of any software during the game that is designed to track and display the actions of the other players on the site or any system or service to transfer funds to or from a player’s CAKE account to their account at any other site or the deliberate “dumping” of chips between any accounts on the Cake Poker Network. Usage of such methods will result in the closing of your account and be subject to confiscation of your winnings and funds. CAKE reserves the right to publicize information of any such documented abuse including your personal information.From Website

Cereus Network (UB/ Absolute Poker)

Despite both UB and Absolute Poker being part of the Cereus Poker Network, the two sites do not share a common list of terms and conditions. While UB does mention that it is illegal to use machines, computers, software and other automated systems to gain an advantage, it does not specifically address the EPA program issue. Absolute Poker, on the other hand, dedicates a paragraph to the issue. Both sites share from the same network of players, so it is unclear whether one site’s rules can apply to the other and vice versa.

AbsolutePoker prohibits external player assistance programs which are designed to provide an “unfair advantage” to players. Prohibited external player assistance programs include all computer software (other than the AbsolutePoker Software) that are designed to assist or provide information to the player and/or non-software based databases or profiles (e.g. web sites and subscription services) that compile player information. You are prohibited from using, accessing, or compiling information on other players beyond that which you have personally observed through your own game play.From Website

Bodog Poker

Bodog Poker also makes a point to clarify its stance on EPA programs, with the popular wording below.

Bodog prohibits players from using external player assistance programs (EPA Programs) which are designed to provide players with an unfair advantage over their opponents. Bodog defines these programs to be computer software, and non-software-based databases or profiles (e.g., web sites and subscription services). Bodog defines an unfair advantage as providing the player access to or gathering data or information on other players in a means that would not be accessible via their own first hand experience (e.g. observation or game play).From Website

The Key Players

So what tools are players using to mine information on their opponents? Here’s a rundown of the more popular programs and websites in the poker community.

Poker Table Ratings

Poker Table Ratings is a website that compiles tools designed to help poker players maximize their online profits. With their slew of available statistics, players can find softer tables, softer opponents and review past hand histories and other data.

By simply typing in a player’s username, an opponent can see charts and graphs that track a player’s profit, or lack thereof. In addition, players can view past pots won or lost with a hand replayer. Additional hand histories can be purchased and the price varies depending on what quantities and limits are needed. For example, $227.50 will get you 5 million imported hands of $1-$2 no-limit hold’em.

Despite being listed on PokerStars’ prohibited list, PTR soldiers on, tracking hands at myriad sites, ranging from Full Tilt to the Ongame Network and even the aforementioned PokerStars.

SharkScope

What PTR does for cash game hand histories, SharkScope does for tournament results. The difference here is that according to its site, the use of SharkScope is allowed by all sites. Even PokerStars allows their players to use the site, though they are clear to prohibit use while the software is actually open.

With the site, users can look up their statistics, as well as those of their opponents, for multi-table-tournaments and sit-and-go results. The site can categorize, sort and chart results from every game and limit, allowing its users to see which games they are more successful in and which opponents to play and avoid. The site offers five free searches per day to unsubscribed users, but unlimited searches to those willing to pony up the $29.99 per month cost.

Despite their exemption from the prohibited list, SharkScope nonetheless addresses the issue of fairness on their website, listing the reasons why they feel the site does not offer an unfair advantage to their users. Privacy concerns have been taken care of by allowing anyone to block their statistics from public view. Because the site simply monitors and then charts results, they feel it is a matter of public record, meaning that anyone with the time or patience to look up that information can do so for themselves. They simply make the process easier, for a price.

While the above mentioned EPA programs are web-based, the following focus on software downloads that are designed to track and import hand histories to databases that the user can analyze and implement into their game.

PokerTracker

PokerStars has included PokerTracker on their list of approved poker tools. For $89.99, users can download the software and fire it up during play. Using a Heads Up Display (HUD), players can overlay the software onto the game window itself, which will then show real time statistics for everyone seated at the table. PokerTracker boasts the ability to assist players in tournament tracking, table selection and even replay hands.

Card Player contacted PokerTracker about the ethics of data mining and they responded with the following.

There are obvious advantages to data mining and whether it is ethical or not is not our decision to make. We fully believe in a free market place with customer choice. If a site bans data mining, then the user can choose to play on another site which allows data mining.

PokerTracker has no interest in pushing the boundaries of what is and what is not allowed in order to preserve the integrity of the game of Poker. We are committed to protecting our customers and fully comply with every site’s rules and regulations. Therefore, if a site does not allow data mining, then we attempt to make this process nearly impossible using PokerTracker products.Derek Charles

Hold’em Manager

Hold’em Manager is a program very similar to PokerTracker, and it is allowed by PokerStars’ terms and conditions under EPA programs.

The software is available to any player willing to pay the $80 download cost and it is able to be run simultaneously with the poker client. The website advertises the software’s ability to not only replay past hands, but also see opponent’s mucked cards.

Though Hold’em Manager outlines which poker sites their software is compatible with, it does not go into detail about which of those sites allow or prohibit its use.

The Major Issues with the Status Quo

Unauthorized EPA software and other similar tracking sites pose a unique problem to these leading online poker sites. Some violate terms and conditions, compromise player privacy and it can be argued that they give players who acquire databases of player profiles an unfair advantage. As data mining’s popularity continues to explode with online poker’s growth, the industry is having a difficult time identifying what is and what is not acceptable practice.

Most poker sites have the ability to scan your computer for unauthorized EPA programs, but that doesn’t solve every issue. Players themselves can and are being policed, but only repeat infractions result in the closing of accounts. The simple truth is that most players don’t even realize that what they are doing is against the rules, since clear and uniform rules do not exist. The desired outcome for the sites is a consistently level playing field where no player feels as though he or she is having their privacy violated.

Potential Solutions

One possible solution would be for sites to offer anonymous cash game tables, where anyone who sits down would be assigned a randomized number and play would continue from a blank slate. Others would like some tables to be hidden altogether, so that they can not be observed by curious onlookers and potential profiteers alike. The problem here is that the feature would make most sense in the high stakes games that draw large traffic to the site in the first place.

Many feel the problem lies with the ability to trace results back to usernames, and some people advocate allowing players to change their handle with regularity. Cake Poker currently offers that feature on their site, but it is currently available only every seven days.

Whatever solutions the sites come up with, it is inevitable that some group will become dissatisfied. But one thing is for certain — as long as big money can be won in poker, studious and dedicated players will always try to find an edge. Whether or not the data mining outlined in this article and the edge it provides is ethical, that remains up for debate.

 
 
 
 

Comments

Gnorzo
almost 7 years ago

First of all, I hate my own stats. Playing is a lot less fun when everybody can see I'm a certified fish.

In B&M poker rooms, you need somewhere between one session and half a year of playing to find out what an opponent is made of. On the web, you might know your opponents better than their own parents even before sitting down.

On the other hand, every soccer team or tennis player will study the next opponent on video tape before an important game.

Anyway - there are lots of arguments for or against, and even the discussion about ethics might be very interesting from a philosophical standpoint.

But one thing is for sure - This adds another source for queasy feelings in a place where everbody already is paranoid about being cheated. And with that type of negative publicity, luring new fish into the tank has just become a lot harder. Too bad that both internet and B&M cardrooms as well as pro players need that constant influx of the newbies fresh money for survival....

 
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dc_
almost 7 years ago

Sounds like I'm switching to Cake. Whats the best rakeback deal there?

 
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BJ Nemeth
almost 7 years ago

This is the best, most comprehensive article I've read on this topic. Excellent work, Julio.

 
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SevenKidsPoppy
almost 7 years ago

The solution is obvious. Making everyone anonymous in both cash games and tournaments would neuter mining programs as they currently exist; they would be forced to resort to more invasive measures. As easy as it would be to assign players a number that corresponds to when they registered for a tourney or when they sat down at a cash game, Tilt, Stars, Party, UB, Bodog, and the rest of them would never do it.

 
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SevenKidsPoppy
almost 7 years ago

I agree with BJ. Excellent article, Julio.

 
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paulstar
almost 7 years ago

You can't be anonymous!!
Are you people not thinking?
The poker site says it's ok to remember what you OBSERVE - yet there's no point in remembering what you observe if you play with the same player the next day BUT DON'T KNOW IT'S THE SAME PLAYER BECAUSE THEY ARE GIVEN A KNEW IDENTITY EACH SESSION.
WTF IS THAT?

 
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paulstar
almost 7 years ago

and besides, the whole 'information advantage' thing is a pile of nonsense. Your on-line with no supervision!!! These are modern times and on-line with no supervision means unlimited information access. It's part of the game. If I spend the time to LOOK CAREFULLY at the data I have compiled, then I deserve to have an advantage. Too bad for you if you don't want to gather the information available to you!!!! It's how the game is played in modern times idiots, so stop whining or go play live where they won't let you write down every hand of info to take home and study!!!!!

 
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scootterxlch
almost 7 years ago

data mining will sucks and will continue t o ruin the game.it can be stopped and should be stopped in its entirety. take notes on an opponent all sites havethat feature if you do it yourself. but data mining is bad bad bad

 
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mr permafrost
almost 7 years ago

Ethical Dillema? Really? Is it? Are steroids an ethical dilemma or a clear cut case of an unmitigated violation of the spirit of competition? Any player who uses an EPA is cheating - violating the fundamental tenants of "sport" - and he/she kinda knows it. An EPA is you, the poker player, on cognitive steroids. Just like the juiced ballplayer (who is likewise not "playing with the cards he/she was dealt") they enable a player to have abilities of memory and analysis that they don't otherwise possess. Suddenly, a mediocre strategist is transformed into David Skalansky

If EPA's are truly a grey area, why not have the EPA make an action recommendation on every street - a bluff/value raise probabilty meter in the face of a big river bet. Let's all just buy poker bots for ourselves and may the best funded, most dynamic bot win. We can sleep through some of our most epic sessions and tourney victories. Right?

This isn't one of those moral high wire acts. It's clear cut cheating. Online poker suffers enough from suspicions about the card generator and collusion, as well as being passively banned here in the states. With nonsense like this out there, and disingenuous claims of a grey area, it's no wonder the federal govt (US) isn't jumping on the chance to assemble a giant cyberforce to regulate online poker.

You're a fine writer. I think you may have missed an opportunity to take a stand.

 
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craftyveteran
almost 7 years ago

Speaking of suspicions. I stopped playing online years ago because of collusion. It is simply way too easy to cheat and win. Unfortunately, i'm too lazy to make the effort. I know I'm preaching to the choir but now more than ever, with cell towers everywhere, you can be sitting next to 4 of your buddies raping the game. Why would anyone sit at a full table and not think you're being cheated. Forget EPA programs, at the higher stakes, is there an honest game online? How do sites prevent this? They can't!

 
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terrybreedlove
almost 7 years ago

The solution to this problem is very very simple. Allow a player to setup a sub account with a new name. The new sub account name will be good for no more than 90 days. The account will allow a player to set up a unique player ID, the Data Miners have no record of this user name. Since the sub account is good for only 90 days the Data Miners can still do what they do, but they will just have a whole lot of new and soon inactive accounts that are totally worthless. All proceeds will flow back into the master account. This could be an option for the player if they are worried about this. Let's face it, after all the crap from the past couple of months the online companies need to step up and be very proactive with this problem.

 
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SanDiegoPoker
almost 7 years ago

Collusion is unstoppable, online or in brick and mortars. Up to the individual to pay attention and avoid those players/situations. As for data mining, I've had people at FT chat about my stats...now I should wise up and report them. If you cheat, don't get caught.

 
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SLarocque
almost 7 years ago

ON CHANGING NAMES RANDOMLY:
People talk about allowing players to change their names on a whim. You aren't allowed to put on disguises when you go into a brick and mortar (B&M) casino... what would make you think that you are entitled to some heightened level of anonymity online? Here's another situation: at a B&M casino, you might not sit at a table on Saturday night that has 4 regulars seated... why should you be put in that situation online because the site allows people to disguise their identity?

 
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SLarocque
almost 7 years ago

WHAT THE REAL OFFENSE WAS:
I think the real culprit here is sharing hand histories (HH.) There are tons of people/companies who open up all of the high stakes tables on all of the sites collecting HH and then sell/trade them online. This is what Brian Townsend did, in spirit, and frankly 30 days suspension isn't enough. The solution is simple, don't allow trackers to track hands that you aren't involved in and don't allow trackers to export HH. In addition, outlaw those sites that collect and show HH like Sharkscope and PokerTableRatings. Truthfully, this should have been the ONLY focus of this article, as everything else has been hyped to some level past reality...

 
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scottf
almost 7 years ago

Why don't the poker sites do anything to enforce their rules, for instance taking their enormous bankrolls and suing the offending sites into submission.

 
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craftyveteran
almost 7 years ago

"up to the individual" to recognize collusion??? Thats pretty funny buddy. Online, you are being cheated, and you would never know it! ever!

 
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joeknapp
almost 7 years ago

It's all part of the game, baby. I don't care who tracks my play. I'll still beat the crap out of you. In fact, the more you know about how I've played hands in the past, the less you know about what I'm liable to do in the future. It's elemental game theory boys...

 
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batcaver
almost 7 years ago

I agree with the majority here. "Online poker" hasn't really been poker for quite a while and the only people pretending otherwise are the ones with a conflict of interest. What it is now is mostly an exercise in multi-tasking and data interpretation, the lion's share of which can be done for you by software. I don't have the free time to deal with poker tracker or hundreds of thousands of hand histories, and though I enjoy playing online I am certainly not going to put more than maybe an occasional $10 or $20 bucks on to pass some time when I know I'm at such a huge disadvantage.

As the article and a few posters before mentioned, site's should at least offer the opportunity
to play anonymously. If they worry about their pros playing anonymously then make it part of their sponsorship deal that they play a certain amount under their own name. I know something this good for the long run will happen while everyone in poker is busy getting their own piece of the pie, but these big gaming company's might want to take a look at the housing market in the US if they want to see what being consumed with short term profits does to future markets. Legislation is already cutting the legs out from under the online poker economy. If we keep new guys DOA as soon as they get their money on( if they even can) then how long will they continue trying to deposit?

 
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batcaver
almost 7 years ago

*meant to say I know something this good for the long run will NEVER happen....

BTW, kudos to Cardplayer on finally giving some more attention to this issue. If there were more articles like this instead of boring and shameless ego massages for sponsors and big pros I might actually subscribe again.

 
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snigglebeach
almost 7 years ago

No one should be able to see hands i mucked in the past. Seems like no-brainer. Maybe final table hands. but really, come on.

Your gonna talk about how the pros hands are shown on TV, so they already are facing these challenges, but that is totally ignoring the sheer number of hands being mentioned. 50,000 hands. 50,000......

I have seen Ivey on TV for years, and i bet i have seen his hole cards no more than a 100 times. the amount of info that u can probably find in 50,000 hands. that is a PHD in tendencies.

And last, most of us are nobody's. if this is as wide-spread as i am now suspecting, what hope is there for regular folks trying to improve. I am just building the database for these nerds to take me down with.

 
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Eric Stoner
almost 7 years ago

Those that complain about this are just worried that their advantage is being taken away.

If I'm shrewd enough and creative enough, I can come up with a disguise and act entirely differently in a casino. Phil Laak did it the WSOP two years ago.

Look, I have no problems with Poker Tracker or Hold 'Em Manager tallying results and statistics on tables that one is an active participant. Sharing HH or purchasing them is cheating. The steroid analogy is apt.

Play poker without these methods. If you are still a winner, then you are an excellent player.

 
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TXMaxx
almost 7 years ago

Plain and simple this is cheating, just as collusion is. Ban them from all sites, screen for people using them and close their accounts.

On line poker is getting a worse rep everyday and that is why it needs to become legal and REGULATED in the US. All these off shore companies that run the sites have no regulation and are ill prepared for the cheating that takes place....besides it is our money being stolen, not theirs!

If you personally take notes and remember what others do that is fine, you still do not know the mucked cards. Using these programs is plain and simple cheating...Sites need to fix the problem or face another scandal that just may shut down on line poker altogether.

 
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mikeyb111
almost 7 years ago

Are you Joe Knapp from omaha?

 
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seamarfan269
almost 7 years ago

supply = demand!! the "demand" to be cheated/ripped-off is at an all time high and there seems to be an endless "supply" of idiots to play online. Nuff Said.

 
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pokerrickk
almost 7 years ago

Data minning makes online play mechanical.. Who needs it? The poker puriest which I a member of will eventually quite online poker. Poker requires making decision on the spot with your experience and logic, not dervied from software.

 
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Symon
almost 7 years ago

This is a great article and particularly the way it is presented as an ethical dilemma. Some commentators are quick to label data mining as cheating but there certainly are grey areas. A player’s online hand history is publically available information i.e. the information is available to everyone who wishes to view it and use it. As long as everyone has access to this information, what is the unfair advantage that denotes cheating? Trying to prevent players from using this information could be compared to securities markets banning investors from obtaining information about companies they wish to purchase shares in unless they have previous/current investments in them.

A poker room needs to set rules about how players conduct themselves, but when money is involved, a rule that can’t be enforced is not a good rule. Collusion is dealt with effectively online, and anyone who has doubts that online poker room’s shuffles are fair should simply not play on that site. I suspect Townsend’s slap on the wrist reflects Full Tilt’s view on swapping hand histories. While they have to be seen as policing their rules, they are also aware that all serious high stakes online player collects and reviews ALL available information on their opponents.

The poker rooms have done much to build credibility with players. Data mining has been a factor for many years and has not deterred the phenomenal growth in online poker. Perhaps horse racing is a good comparison. I am familiar with a Hong Kong based syndicate, considered the most successful in the world, which records races and uses extensive data mining. Based on this data the syndicate successfully wins significant amounts of money every year. Those close to the horse racing industry are well aware of this – yet the punters still line up to place their bets – despite hundreds of millions being diverted from the betting pools.

For those playing online poker without an EPA, chances are you are either a losing player or still on the statistically luckily side (or playing micro stakes). If anyone is going to jump down my throat on this please check your stats on one of the tracking sites mentioned first - and I’d be keen to hear from you.

Purchasing or swapping hand histories (while against the rules of most sites) is available to everyone, and can’t be effectively policed. Collecting this information and even using it at its most basic level (are my opponent tendencies loose/tight – passive/aggressive) will provide a player with an advantage over coming up against a player they know nothing about.

So if you agree that collecting all available hands histories:
1) creates an advantage,
2) can’t be policed effectively and therefore players will continue to participate in this behaviour,
3) is immoral/cheating and you will not do it;
then perhaps playing online poker for money is not for you.

Maybe an ability to play anonymously will become a factor in the future - but my bet is that like the horse racing example above - punters will turn up regardless. If you are going to be a punter then, no use trying to persuade lawmakers that poker is a game of skill.

 
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Gangsta Boogie
almost 7 years ago

I would love to see all 3rd party programs banned and not used on these sites. And on top of that I hate that people can see my cash game stats. So can the IRS.

 
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SJW54
almost 7 years ago

EPA's and other Data Mining programs/methods are precisely the reason that I NEVER play cash games online. They are Cheats pure and simple, and until these Cheats are banned/blocked I will continue to restrict my money play to B&M locations, and use online games purely for practice at the free/play money sites.

 
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Spimothy Leary
almost 7 years ago

to be brutally honest, Data Mining is an issue but Collusion has always been and always will be my worry. I switched to Free Only online and stick to cash games Live only about 3 years ago. IMHO its just too dam easy for 1 or two guys to run multiple accounts and strangle you on a table, its just not worth the risk with my money. I found a free only site and we play high stakes free for fun and its nice, no pressure

 
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cudlphish
almost 7 years ago

Brian Townsend is nothing but a big cheater. You ever wonder why some people are good online players but not good in person. Simple, its easier to cheat online. All these guys do is think of ways to cheat.

 
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floppadenuts
6 years ago

Terrific article and a very thoughtful discussion from most contributors. After reading this article, I've decided to curtail my online poker to tournaments or multiple table SnG's only, this way the threat of collusion is limited and the knowledge gained by dataminers is of limited value because it's simply not worth it for "professional" players using that data to gain an advantage unless it's big stakes, which I stay away from anyway.

Another way to beat the dataminers is for someone to develop a software that somehow blocks the information, does anyone have knowledge of a product like this?

 
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