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|The rise of the bot player
| Robert Blincoe
Online poker is a huge business. And easy, players are told. You
don't even have to get dressed to play, just sit there in your front room. And,
of course, the poker player's dictum of "if you can't see the mark, it's you"
(that is, if you can't see a weaker player, you're the one who'll be cleaned
out) doesn't apply; you can't actually see anyone else. They could be dressed,
undressed - or even, perhaps, "bots": programs written to make money from
Guardian has learned, bots are indeed inhabiting some poker sites, where they
are winning money from humans. It turns out that the only thing keeping the
human gaming community in with a chance is the sheer difficulty, tedium, and
cost-effectiveness of running the bots at a profit. The Guardian spoke to one
former poker bot master. (He requested anonymity because naming him could
affect his employment prospects.)
"The kind of
bots that I've run are playing low-limit [less than £50 a day] games
picking money off the weak players. They're not a threat to the good players at
all. The good players would kick their arses, which is why I put them in the
low-limit games," he says.
bot man managed to make an annual return of around £40,000 working on
gaming sites. That's about the same as an experienced programming job, but
tax-free - you don't pay tax on gambling winnings.
"My bots aren't bad,
they're good enough to beat the weak player, which is all I was ever trying to
do. Getting to that stage is interesting and fun. It's the nasty
implementational stuff around it [that isn't]. It's the arranging the
sequencing of them to all come online and offline, the 'Oh dear, the screen
scraper - the stuff that's interfacing with the poker program - is broken again
and needs fixing'."
The latter problem arises because the poker sites,
aware of the trouble if it is known that computers are making money off humans,
deter bots by constantly tweaking their own software. This means constant
tinkering for the bot master to keep his players in business. Furthermore, the
bots can't play 24/7 or they'd be caught.
"It becomes a really rather
dull programming job," says the bot master.
People also think they can
spot bots because they win and don't chat during games. But good players don't
chat either, especially if they're playing eight or more games simultaneously.
This isn't a problem for the bot master, but it's the reason that the online
pro John Tabatabai got kicked off one site by mistake.
bots isn't easy. There's the AI knowledge (a combination of probabilistic
calculations with some stochastic search for our bot man's poker army), the
programming experience and the understanding of the strategy of the game at
which you're planning to win money.
The University of Alberta, Canada,
has an army of PhD students working in its poker research group. It has created
great bots. Dr Darse Billings, a consultant with the group, says: "If the
average schmo, who knows a bit of programming, is going to write himself a bot,
then he's going to be donating to the poker community at least for a number of
years, if not indefinitely. If there are programmers who are sharp at both
programming and poker, then it is conceivable to write a bot that can win. But
someone that smart can take a hell of a lot more money legitimately than by
writing a poker bot."
Our bot developer is now back doing regular
programming. His response to Billings' comments are: "Your average schmo writes
a shit bot. The ones you buy off the shelf are rubbish." But for him, the
problem isn't writing the bots. It's the logistics. To avoid investigation, you
need your bots to win modest amounts and stay below the radar. Instead of one
winning £1,000 a day, you need 100 bots that win £10 a day. "But
you have to have 100 accounts, 100 user names, and 100 credit cards to get the
money out. That's harder than writing the bots themselves."
methods of getting multiple accounts, but the online gaming sites monitor for
this. Changing IP addresses can be done with downloaded software, but getting
multiple credit cards is hard. Once you've exhausted friends and relatives you
still haven't got that many different bits of plastic. "I didn't want to go
down the organised crime route. Buying cloned credit cards off someone: it's
not somewhere I wanted to go," he says.
Writing bots and playing them
online is perfectly legal, it's just a violation of the sites' individual terms
and conditions. They can't call the police but they can throw you off the site
and seize money from your account.
"Limiting the number of bots you
can use [through the difficulty of having multiple accounts] is a major
stumbling block," says our bot man. But he hasn't ruled out going back into
"It was worth my while, if only it hadn't felt like such a
job," he says. "If I wasn't able to get a job as a programmer, I'd go back and
make money at it. But it took a bit more ingenuity and hard effort, and a lot
of fiddly, annoying stuff."
Playing for the house
possible he could get a job on the other side of the fence. Many online gaming
sites use bots on their sites, but most won't admit it. "It's for liquidity
purposes," said one, off the record. Which means they always have someone
online to keep the games going.
Anyone fancying a crack at being a bot
master may prefer to tackle backgammon, where the software development has
already been done for you. In 1995, an IBM academic, Gerald Tesauro, presented
the "temporal difference learning technique", and the resultant neural network
backgammon software TD-Gammon. Its successors, Snowie 4 and the open-source GNU
Backgammon now trounce the world.
Obviously, all the account problems
are the same for this game as for poker. And because the software is so well
known, the sites offering it have automated systems that look for similarities
to the way computers play. It's almost like fingerprinting, and you're likely
to be caught. It seems amateurs don't have that much to fear from the bots -