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The Poker Ethicist: Heads-Up Displays

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Jan 27, '11


As “The Poker Philosopher”, and in honor of one of my favorite non-poker blogs, I occasionally consider the ethical dimensions of a high-profile controversy in the poker community. In this edition, I address a long-standing controversy in the online poker world, in response to a question about Heads-Up Displays (HUD’s) posed in a recent comment. Older editions of The Poker Ethicist are available in the archives.

In response to a recent post I made about using a HUD, commenter “Elmer Fudd” asked,

“I would like you to comment on the ethics of using a HUD in the first place. It most certainly gives you an edge over players that don’t use such software and provides you with stats that you couldn’t readily obtain during a live game. I guess I’m an old-fashioned poker purist, but anything that gives you a slight edge over other players is cheating. “

I would say anything that gives you an unfair edge is cheating. Sleeping and eating better than my opponents gives me an edge. Reading more books than they do gives me an edge. Using a second monitor gives me an edge over opponents attempting to multi-table on a single monitor. Yet none of these is unfair, because my opponents have equal opportunity to take advantage of them.

An edge becomes unfair when it violates the rules of the game as defined by the casino or site hosting the game. Even if you disagree with a particular rule or believe that other players are violating it, violating it yourself is unethical because it is essentially dishonest. By playing on a particular online poker site or at a particular casino, you are promising your fellow players that you will abide by a particular set of rules. This defines the parameters of the game, the ways in which players may and may not seek an edge.

When I sit down at a live game, I accept and agree that physical tells will be part of the game, and that signaling to a partner at the table will not. My opponents, in turn, agree to the same. They know that to keep up with me in this contest, they will need to practice their face-reading skills but not their sign language. If I were colluding with another player, this would gain me an unfair advantage, because it is one my opponents are not expecting me to have and one that they have themselves agreed not to pursue.

On sites that allow them, HUD’s are a legitimate part of the game. Insofar as they do not violate a site’s terms and conditions, then everyone playing on the site implicitly agrees that they are allowed. Some may use them more than others, and some may choose not to use them at all. Similarly, I might choose not to attempt to pick up physical tells during a live game, but this does not make it unethical for my opponents to do so. As long as I have the same opportunity, the playing field is level.

Using a HUD on a site that prohibits it, even if you were to find a way to make the HUD work and to evade detection, would not be ethical. Doing so would violate your agreement with the site and with your fellow players on that site. It would give you an edge that your honest opponents would not enjoy, and this would be unethical.

Online poker is not merely a derivative form of live poker. It bears many similarities, but also many differences. Just because something would not be allowed or possible in a live setting does not mean that it is unethical when done online, any more than a rule prohibiting cell phones at the table at the Rio would it make unethical to use a cell phone at the table at MGM. Different venues have the right to establish their own rules. Some players may prefer the rules generally found in a live setting to those found online, but they may not impose their preferred rules as an ethical obligation on their online competitors.

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer, and teacher. He is also an avid hiker and traveler and a passionate advocate for urban public education. You can find dozens of his poker strategy articles at and more information about group seminars and one-on-one coaching at

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of


almost 11 years ago

Hi Andrew,

If that is honestly the case, could you please write up a detailed explanation on which programs are best to use and how to correctly use them in which game formats, on which poker websites, etc? Or if you know of a good link that explains all of this, please post it. I have not been able to find one.

Congratulation on your PokerStars promotion! Much deserved. What will your job duties entail? Are you aloud to post your salary?

Hope you are well.



almost 11 years ago

Thanks! I don't think I'm supposed to discuss the exact terms of the deal, though, sorry.

Hold 'Em Manager, which includes a HUD, is the only program that I use while playing. There are people out there who are much better at it than I am, but if you want my take on how to use HUD stats, I've just started a video series on Poker Savvy Plus on this subject:

The Software forum on 2+2 is a good resource for learning more about what programs are out there and how to use them:


almost 11 years ago

I can buy your argument about it being appropriate to use a HUD. However, using a database full of statistics that would other wise be impossible for the human mind to collect, is not poker. While this is a philosophical and fundamental observation it really comes down to the eye of the beholder as far as what constitutes real poker.

The extreme multi-tabler's has driven me from online poker both as fan and as a player. I 100% believe sites allowing players to use HUD's is wrong. There is no way anyone can effectively win playing 10 tables, much less 20+, at once with out using a HUD and the statistics they provide.

I love poker because its a human game. I mean you play the player not the cards right? Except your being aided by a computer to assist in the decisions you make.

In my mind its not illegal or against the rules however, its unethical using a HUD while playing poker.


R.J. Stuffnpuff
almost 11 years ago

Live poker is different from online poker



almost 11 years ago

I was never 14-tabling, but I used to 9-table and win at 5/10 NL without a HUD. Only in the last year have I started using one seriously.

Your point about being aware of their existence is a good one. I made a follow-up to this post that addresses this consideration in more detail:


almost 11 years ago

I can see where you're coming from. To some extent, people are just going to differ in their opinion of what the game is "supposed" to be about.

I would encourage you to express your dissatisfaction with HUDs to the poker sites you play on or would consider playing on. Personally I think you will always be in the minority, but if they hear from enough people, they may consider changing their policies.

It wouldn't break my heart if HUDs were disallowed, but as long as they are allowed, I'll be using one.


almost 11 years ago


You shouldn't assume what people can or cannot do. I know of at least one individual who was winning at $400 - $600 NL 14 tabling with no HUD. HUDs are just a tool. Saying its impossible to win multitabling without a HUD is like saying its impossible to win live without sunglasses.

I do think HUDs are somewhat unfair though simply because I think the clear majority of non serious players are simply unaware of their existence. Live tells are ubiquitously associated with live poker so everybody knows what they're "in for". But having databases that collect and analyze all your hands then display statistical figures of your opponents as you play them.. Well that's far from a universally acknowledged part of online poker and for obvious reasons the sites seem content to maintain this disparity of knowledge. And that, in my opinion, is what makes HUDs still an unfair edge.


almost 11 years ago

I can see how using a HUD would be considered unethical, cheating or whatever adjective you want to put here, but since they are available to anyone, it in no way can be considered cheating, if someone wants to cry about it, then get a HUD and stop crying to level the playing field. I am a poker purist, so I do not use one.


almost 11 years ago

I tried it for a while and didn't really like it. It is par for the course for online though I think. I play a lot more tournaments than cash game so I don't know if it would really help me or not. I do make notes on as many people as I can though and that has been more helpful than anything else i've tried.

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