One of the recurring issues that has left players on the Winning Poker Network feeling distraught is an alleged explosion of bots at the tables. These automated software packages are designed to play poker without needing to be directed manually by a human. Poker forums have been busy with users exchanging stories about the high population of bots at the WPN's tables – and an apparent lack of interest in tackling the problem among site personnel. We would love to hear your comments on this!
Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is not as simple as just declaring bots verboten because botters are, almost by definition, people who don’t generally abide by the rules.
[UPDATE: April 30]
In mid-April 2019, the Winning Poker Network began a new crackdown on bots – and it appears to have achieved quite a fair amount of success already.
There are now 10 usernames listed on Americas Cardroom's “Banned Accounts” page. The dates listed for when each account was banned range from April 11 through April 26. In total, more than $400,000 has been seized from these cheaters and distributed back to the players affected by their underhanded activities.
These booted players don't appear to be just long-gone cheaters or dormant users but rather recently active botters. After this wave of bans, there has been a noticeable lack of bots at the tables recently as indicated in this forum post:
As part of the WPN's new Verifiable Refund Policy, a list of all banned nicknames is shown along with the money confiscated and how much of a refund every affected player got. The way that this cash is distributed and the formulas involved, both in cash games and tournaments, are publicly displayed on the website too.
At its heart, a bot is a piece of code that contains strategy rules enabling it to make folds, calls, bets, and raises at online poker tables by itself just as if it were a real, legitimate player. In order to acquire information about the game state, bots generally use screen-scraping algorithms, and they then follow preprogrammed profiles to determine which action to take. You can learn more about bots and their impact on the online poker ecosystem by reading our overview of poker bots.
Poker, being a multi-player game of incomplete information, is very challenging to beat for any significant amount of money through formulaic, unvarying play especially at higher stakes. Nevertheless, botters can derive substantial income by running these programs in smaller games, where opponents are generally unskilled enough that bots can achieve a modest win rate.
Bots can operate 24/7 and can sit at multiple tables at the same time effectively limited only by the computing horsepower of their owners' CPUs. Thus, even a low per-table-hour earn rate can be attractive due to the sheer number of hours that bots can put in at many tables simultaneously. Add in the ability to clear bonuses, collect rakeback, and achieve prizes in leaderboard competitions, and it becomes clear that botting can be a lucrative occupation even if the hourly returns per game are rather paltry.
Online poker sites can identify bots by having the poker client scan the list of running executables for known bot processes. However, this raises privacy concerns and can also be circumvented through the use of virtual machines and other obfuscatory technology. PokerStars for example, while having the best security in the industry, also spys on virtually everything you do on your PC, Mac, or phone. Whether they use that for malicious purposes we can only hope they do not.
In order to avoid raising red flags, botters sometimes open several different poker accounts at the same site, spreading out their playing schedules so that a single screenname doesn't put in marathon sessions that would be impossible for a human user. VPN and other IP address-cloaking services are a tremendous assistance to them in this endeavor.
Allegations of bots at the tables are nothing new at the Winning Poker Network. Indeed, much controversy was aroused in February 2018 by a video produced by Joe “Chicago Joey” Ingram on his YouTube channel about this very topic. Joey accused poker room management of doing nothing to combat these illicit bots, which were alleged to inhabit a startlingly large percentage of the tables at Americas Cardroom and the other WPN sites.
Belying Chicago Joey’s assertion that management didn’t care about what was going on, the Winning Poker Network issued a round of refunds to players in early March 2018. Without stating explicitly why this money was being returned to customers, the network did reveal that it was related to “unfair gameplay practices.” Those in the know concluded that this reimbursement came from the accounts of bots, which were closed down by the site.
Further waves of transfers to those impacted by cheating occurred later in the month. However, this was far from the end of the bot menace at the Winning Poker Network.
For several years, concerned members of the poker community have been comparing notes about suspected bots. While the vast majority of bot reports are over-hysterical complaints from losers who feel that botting is the only plausible explanation for their aces being cracked twice in a row, there’s a more sober contingent of observers who prefer to amass solid data rather than flinging absurd allegations around.
Perhaps foremost among these dedicated individuals is twoplustwoer “HandOfGod666.” He has gone through his database of Pot Limit Omaha hands at WPN – covering stakes up to $2,000PLO – over a period of months and has identified accounts that he claims are bots. He logs the results of his analysis in a spreadsheet that lists suspected bots along with some of their statistics. He has identified individual screennames that appear to be part of a ring of botters who employ virtually identical playing strategies, leading to the conclusion that these bots are all instances of the same or similar programs running on multiple accounts rather than separate pieces of illicit software.
Among the markers of these bots, according to “HandOfGod666,” is a very high flop c-bet percentage multiway – 70% or even higher. Making their multiway c-bet frequency stand out even more is the fact that the bots c-bet less often in heads-up pots than in those with three or more players – almost unheard-of in the case of actual flesh-and-blood players. Other distinguishing traits are very high Won Money When Saw Flop (W$WSF), Aggression Factor, and Aggression Percentage figures.
These metrics are noteworthy not just because the alleged bots are all within a few percentage points of each other on these measures. Their numbers are also quite different from the styles of legitimate winning players in these games.
There are other ways to spot these bots. They have a bug where if someone else straddles preflop, they'll either min-raise or fold rather than making their normal-sized opening raise. They always buy in for the maximum allowed, and they frequently stay at tables even when the game breaks. No one of these behaviors is a smoking gun in and of itself, but they are part of a pattern that, in combination, makes it easier to spot users who may be bots.
The credits issued by the Winning Poker Network in 2018 to compensate users for cheating raised hopes that most of the bots would be booted for good. However, this doesn't seem to have happened. “HandOfGod666” suspects that dozens of them still remain although he does mention that WPN did appear to catch a few of them:
Making matters worse is anecdotal evidence that these bots might be breaking the rules in other ways too. Some contend that they're sharing hole cards with each other, which would add collusion to the list of nefarious crimes of which the botters are guilty. Especially in a game like PLO, where each player gets four down cards, two or three participants transmitting their hole cards to each other in the middle of a hand can gain a substantial edge such that their honorable adversaries simply cannot compete effectively against them.
Beyond the PLO ring that we've been discussing, there are bots in other formats too. There have been reports of NL Hold'em cash game bots and similar automated playing software in tournaments on the Winning Network, but these are almost certainly separate and independent programs that are not part of the ring of bots active at the PLO tables.
Before we come down too hard on the WPN for this problem, it's important to realize that almost every major internet poker site has confronted similar situations at some point. Even the largest operations, which have the wherewithal to employ dozens of game security personnel and deploy robust technical countermeasures, have suffered from infestations of bots in the past.
For example, acknowledged global online poker leader PokerStars faced a botting scandal in 2015 that soaked unsuspecting victims for more than a million dollars before the site got wise to what was taking place. More recently, rival PartyPoker shuttered the accounts of 277 bots in April 2019 and returned $734,852.15 to the innocent parties who were cheated.
In both of those cases, the poker rooms (eventually) responded to what was going on and attempted to make honest players whole by redistributing the funds contained in botters' real money balances. The recent criticisms of the WPN have come about not merely because of the fact that bots exist at the network but because of the public perception that higher-ups at the company have been uninterested in combating them and restoring the ill-gotten cash back to the original, legitimate customers.
Lest any aspiring bot-lovers get the impression that the Winning Poker Network is the place for them to practice their underhanded deeds, we must inform them that their good times may shortly be coming to an end. We already got an idea of what the network does to try to identify botting and other disallowed behavior when we visited its offices in Costa Rica in December 2018. It appears that this aspect of the WPN's operations has been beefed up recently and will spell trouble for bots and their ethically challenged owners in the future.
On April 17, the Winning Poker Network announced a Verifiable Refund Policy whereby all caught bot accounts are listed on the public websites of the WPN operators along with a breakdown of funds returned back to other players. There have already been two botters who have been banned since April 12, 2019, “Gluckauf” and “FoxRox,” with more than $200,000 refunded back to those affected:
Both of the culprits were active in multi-table tournaments rather than cash games. Curiously, they were also both from Latvia: one of the countries singled out by bot watchers as being an epicenter of botting activity. $175,728.80 was confiscated from “FoxRox” and $25,134.60 from “Gluckauf,” but the stated policy of the WPN going forward will be to refund a maximum of $25,000 per bot discovered.
The CEO of the Winning Poker Network, Phil Nagy, has revealed that this is just the beginning of the crackdown to come against bots. Eight additional bots have been exposed, and refunds related to these users will be issued on April 26.
Speaking of his plans, Phil elaborated:
“I want to get all the cards on the table about bots at the Winning Poker Network and what we’re doing now. This is the start of the Winning Poker Network enforcing transparent, verifiable policies. Stay tuned, because this is the first policy among many.”
Phil will be a guest on various Twitch.tv streams in the coming days where he will discuss the entire bot situation and receive feedback from viewers. More specifically, the discussions will focus on how the refunds are calculated and possible ways of devising a fair system of determining how much is returned to each customer who lost money to the bots. Nagy has also agreed to appear on longtime critic ChicagoJoey's “Poker Life” podcast on April 29.
One thing that has been made abundantly clear by the various bot scandals over the years is the importance of the involvement of the player community. Much – if not most – of the time, botting is uncovered by individual players who have made observations and compared notes with each other. Only then do the poker rooms become aware of the botting that's taking place.
With millions of hands being dealt online every day, it's almost impossible for the sites to uncover every instance of cheating that's going on unassisted. Thus, the only policing of the games that's likely to be effective, at least in the current environment, is that in which the players themselves take an active role.
Once tipped off to the possible presence of bots, those running the games do have additional tools that they can bring to bear, like complete histories of ALL hands a user has played, information about how frequently any two given screennames sit in the same games, MAC and IP addresses used by each customer, and the trail of money moving into and out of various user balances. But they won't delve into all this exhaustive information unless they have a good reason: either because some activity has triggered a security review or suspicious behavior is reported by other players.
If you ever see something that's amiss at one of your tables, we urge you to get in touch with support staff. That way, they can follow up on it and take the appropriate steps to address it. Also, please share your experiences on poker forums because community involvement is one of the keys to keeping internet poker safe and enjoyable.
Even before the recent announcement by CEO Phil Nagy and his crew, we found the Winning Poker Network sites to be top-notch destinations for playing some cards. Now that they've committed to enhancing their game integrity, our recommendation in favor of them applies even more strongly.
You can obtain a complimentary $10 credit with no deposit required at network flagship site Americas Cardroom through the use of our exclusive bonus code PRB10FREE. Then get another $50 for free and 100% up to $1,000 in bonus funds when you make your first deposit. Read our detailed Americas Cardroom review to learn more.
If you'd rather wait and see the results of the bot cleanup before playing at the WPN, then perhaps you might be interested in other reputable online poker providers that serve Americans in the meantime. Browse over to our USA real money poker guide to read what we have to say about them.
We would love to hear your comments below!