Online Poker -- The Data Mining Dilemma
A Closer Look at the Rules About Data Mining
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.
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 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 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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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