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Online Poker - The Data-Mining Dilemma

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: May 01, 2010


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) programme. EPA’s are simply software or other download capable tools that can make data mining faster and more efficient. Furthermore, the EPA’s 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 programmes to give themselves a leg-up on the competition. Players who take advantage of these programmes 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 EPA’s as a violation of their terms and conditions, compromising player privacy. With a few quick keystrokes, losing players can instantly be spotted with EPA’s. It has become increasingly 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 programmes are all too often used to practically knock the tank over.

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

The Rules
So what do leading online poker rooms say about EPA’s? Below, you’ll find an overview of the rules listed in each site’s terms and conditions.

Full Tilt Poker
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 EPA’s offer.

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

Similar to Full Tilt, PokerStars states it has no problem with programmes that allow you to analyse your own game, but it draws the line at programmes 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 programmes, it does mention tracking other player’s actions within a paragraph about poker bots and artificial intelligence in their terms and conditions.

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 programme 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.

Bodog Poker
Bodog Poker also makes a point to clarify its stance on EPA programmes, 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 programmes and websites in the poker community.

Poker Table Ratings
Poker Table Ratings is a website that compiles tools designed to help poker players maximise 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 five 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 categorise, 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 programmes are web-based, the following focus on software downloads that are designed to track and import hand histories to databases that the user can analyse 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 spokesman Derek Charles 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.”

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

The software is available to any player willing to pay the $80 download cost and it can 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 its 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 programmes, 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 realise 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 cannot 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 its 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, remains up for debate.

In next month’s issue of Card Player we ask some of the world’s leading players for their opinions on this controversial subject. Spade Suit