You are here

DDoS Strikes Cripple PokerStars: Largest Offline Poker Site in World?

Logo of 'Stars

The world's most well-populated online poker site, PokerStars, has been experiencing technical difficulties that have rendered it unplayable for many users for four days in a row. These service interruptions started Sunday, Aug. 12 and have recurred every day since then until Wednesday, Aug. 15.

More About the Problems

Info Icon - Blue

Beginning on Sunday at around 3:30 p.m. ET, users reported being disconnected from the site and unable to reconnect. Several of 'Stars premium weekly tournaments had already started, including the $200 + $15 Sunday Million and the $530 Bounty Builder $300,000 Guaranteed. Affected players took to the forums to share what was happening:

User Reports PokerStars Disconnection on 2+2
Another Player Cannot Play the PokerStars Games

Most players around the world experienced this difficulty with the notable exception of customers in a few areas, who appeared to have been unaffected. The main countries that were able to continue playing were Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Belgium. As their opponents were disconnected and unable to play, users from these locations were able to steal their blinds and chip up significantly.

About an hour after the first disconnections occurred, PokerStars froze all running tourneys. These tournaments were then canceled, and the poker room awarded credits according to its tournament cancellation policy:

PokerStars Tournament Cancellation Policy When Not Yet in the Money

However, PokerStars applied this “Roll Forward” prize distribution based on the players remaining and chip stacks at the time the events were canceled, not when the disconnects started happening. As a result, many people had been blinded off in the meantime and were not compensated at all. Meanwhile, the lucky players from the few countries that were able to play like normal had amassed huge numbers of chips and became the chip leaders, entitling them to big payouts.

Sunday Million Lobby Aug. 12, 2018Sunday Million Lobby From Aug. 12 - Note the Prevalence of Romanians Among the Chip Leaders

Reasons for the Technical Problems

A few days later, PokerStars posted a tweet explaining the situation:

PokerStars Explains DDoS Attacks

This message confirmed what many suspected: that the room had suffered a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack. These cyber-strikes are conducted by criminals who wish to take down the internet infrastructure of the targeted organizations by overloading them with bogus traffic. In most cases, their objective is ransom money, which they demand in order to halt their activities. PokerStars thus joins the ranks of many other poker firms, most recently the Winning Poker Network and PartyPoker, in being the recipient of this kind of unwanted attention from online malefactors.

The fact that PokerStars' tweet mentions working “with law enforcement” lends credence to the idea that the attackers demanded a payment to stop their nefarious deeds. Yet, it's often very difficult to trace where these DDoS incidents originate from, and criminal convictions are rare.

Continuing Issues

Computer “X”

After a few hours, the service outages on Sunday were resolved. However, they returned on Monday and again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Customers were irate, not just because of the continuing inability to play the poker games they love but also because of the way PokerStars handled the payouts from the suspended MTTs.

Many felt that the crediting of refunds based on the chip distribution at the time of tourney cancelation was unfair and benefited those few users who were able to keep playing to the detriment of others who were disconnected. PokerStars seemed to agree with this line of reasoning and stated:

PokerStars clarifies its MTT refunds policy

However, as of Aug. 17, there still remain customers who believe that they have not yet received the amount to which they're entitled.

Ordinary Players Unhappy

Unhappy Face

As you can well imagine, PokerStars is taking a lot of flack for its technical failures and its ham-fisted way of distributing the prize pools back to the participants. Some opined that a certain level of ineptness was only to be expected at smaller poker rooms, but as the global online poker market leader, PokerStars should have done better especially with regard to customer communications. Check out a couple of the comments left on popular poker forums:

Redditor Laments PokerStars' Poor Communications With Customers
Twoplustwoer Frustrated at Continuing Server Downtime

What Can PokerStars Do?

Red Question Mark

Apart from investing in server upgrades and perhaps retaining the services of a company that specializes in countering DDoS attacks, there are a few improvements that PokerStars can make. Some have suggested that anytime a certain percentage of the field in a tournament is disconnected, the software should automatically pause the event. This would prevent the affected players from losing their chips, and therefore their equity, through no fault of their own.

Others urged the site to just pay the ransom money. However, this is a path with both upsides and downsides. Paying off the extortionists may indeed eliminate DDoS strikes in the short term, but it creates a perverse incentive for more such attacks to occur in the future by making this type of crime more lucrative.

PokerStars had better do something, or else it risks its position as the most popular internet poker destination in the world. Imagine what would happen if one of its premier tournament series, like the WCOOP, is interrupted? We've already seen this happen to Global Poker's Rattlesnake Open, and the aftermath wasn't pretty.

Many Other Poker Providers Available

Exit Sign

If you wish to avoid DDoS issues at PokerStars, then there are a number of other poker rooms for you to play at. Even if you elect to continue playing at 'Stars, it can't hurt to open another account elsewhere as a backup. That way, service interruptions won't put you out of commission because you'll have another place to enjoy card games. The particular online poker sites open to you will depend on your geographic location, so read our guide pertaining to your specific country: