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WPN Boss Nagy Touts Anti-Bot Strat: It's About Pixels

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As one of the online poker sites that has been a frequent target of bots, the Winning Poker Network is always looking for ways of counteracting them. The poker community therefore eagerly devoured the blog post on this topic posted by network flagship Americas Cardroom, published Nov. 22, 2019. Entitled, “Update from our CEO Phil Nagy Regarding Bots on the Winning Poker Network,” this article promised to reveal “a major discovery” that implied that a powerful new strategy for fighting against automated playing software was now possible.

WPN Fighting Against Bots

More About the Discovery

Blue Button

Phil Nagy has come under quite a bit of fire for the actions he has taken or failed to take regarding bots on the WPN. Therefore, it was only fitting that Nagy himself discussed the new developments in this field. His blog post read, in part:

We devoted some manpower in analyzing how exactly bots work and how they interact with the poker client. As a result, a major discovery has changed our approach in how to attack them.

Our security teams discovered that both commercial and private bots process the information at a poker table (what cards they have, what position the bot is in etc.) by reading the graphical pixels. We found this was a common trait among all bots we tested.

Exploiting This Knowledge

According to Phil, WPN developers have been taking advantage of this information by deploying graphical updates that throw bots for a loop at least until programmers can update these surreptitious pieces of disallowed software to account for the new fonts, table layouts, and card images. There have been four WPN software updates this year that have focused on altering the graphics, and they were implemented on the following dates:

  • May 20
  • Sept. 5
  • Oct. 15
  • Nov. 14

According to Nagy, posts on botting forums indicate that these updates caused the most popular commercial poker bots to stop working correctly as they were unable to parse the new graphics accurately. This lasted until the creators of the bots were able to upgrade their code to cope with the new graphics. Nagy characterized this new strategy as “considerably effective.”

Following up on this success, site security was able to identify those user accounts that had played significant volume before each update yet put in much less volume afterward. These customers were then asked to complete a “BOT protocol” that required them to produce videos of their gameplay to ensure that it did not diverge too much from the style, number of tables, and session lengths demonstrated earlier.

Players who fail these tests, according to Phil Nagy, are banned from the site. Those who pass are cleared of suspicion of being a bot, and their playing privileges are reinstated in full.

WPN Behind the Times?

Hourglass

Everything Phil Nagy discussed was logical, sensible, and certainly a valid approach to combating bots. There’s just one problem. The knowledge Nagy shared in his blog post is a decade or more behind the times.

It has long been recognized that most poker bots employ screen-scraping technology to read images as they appear on users’ monitors. That is, they monitor specific parts of the table display in real time, looking for expected graphical elements, to gain an understanding of the cards in play and the actions taken by opponents. Thus, Phil’s announcement that bots operate “by reading the graphical pixels” is kind of like announcing that water is wet.

Phil Nagy Examines Pixels

Indeed, the phenomenon of “pixel botting” in video gaming dates back to at least the late ‘90s and probably earlier. It’s not a technique that’s exclusive to poker bots; rather, poker bot designers merely replicated already well-understood algorithms to bring this functionality to their creations.

We don’t expect Phil Nagy, as the leader of a multi-million dollar enterprise, to be completely up-to-speed with regard to the technical minutiae of poker bots. That’s one of the reasons why he has a security department in the first place.

However, we feel that these security personnel have dropped the ball if the discovery that bots use screen-scraping techniques was news to them. They should have already known this and used it as a starting point for deploying countermeasures long before the date of Phil’s post.

WPN Effective in Fight Against Bots?

Two Swords

This isn’t the first time that the Winning Network has had to confront the threat that bots pose to the online poker ecosystem. As far back as March 2018, the WPN confiscated bots’ funds and redistributed them back to honest customers who had incurred losses as a result of “unfair gameplay practices.”

This wasn’t enough to dissuade botters from plying their dark arts on the network though. After considerable criticism from observers who felt that not enough was being done, Phil Nagy debuted a new Verifiable Refund Policy in April 2019 whereby the screennames of banned bots are publicly listed along with the amounts confiscated from them.

By accessing the list of accounts blocked by the WPN, we can see that a total of 46 of them have been kicked off the platform since April 2019. Yet, the most recent of these bans is shown as being made on May 15, meaning that it has been more than six months since any addition has been made to these records.

Banned Users at WPNA List of Banned Accounts Is Viewable on the WPN Website

Nagy did elaborate that there are additional accounts that have been shut down that have not yet been entered into the database. Still, even if we double the number of closed bot accounts, this still comes in at fewer than 100 such cheaters detected over the course of more than half a year.

PartyPoker Blazing the Trail?

PartyPoker is another room that has been making a name for itself by cracking down on bots. In October, Party shut down 57 illicit accounts, and this was just the latest body count in the site’s ongoing efforts to clean up its games. Here’s how the monthly tallies of booted bot accounts at Party look:

  • December 2018 – March 2019: 277
  • April: 94
  • May: 42
  • June: 67
  • July: 121
  • August: 48
  • September: 16
  • October: 57
  • TOTAL: 722

It’s clear that Party seems to be targeting bots and taking them down more effectively than the Winning Poker Network does. Although Party is a larger operation than the Winning Poker Network, this difference in size is relatively modest, so it's not by itself responsible for the fact that more bots are caught at Party.

We suspect that Party possesses what Phil Nagy can presently only dream of: a savvy security department with innovative and modern approaches to sussing out bots.

The Bottom Line

Calculator

While we appreciate Phil Nagy's commitment to ensuring a fair gaming space at the Winning Poker Network, we're worried that his enthusiasm has outpaced his capabilities. He has excitedly shared new insights on botting technology that are, in fact, many years old. It appears that the WPN security department needs a refresher course on how to do their jobs, and they could perhaps benefit from consulting with their colleagues over at PartyPoker.

WPN Still a Fine Poker Venue

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Despite the widespread press given to poker bots lately, we feel that this phenomenon has been blown out of all proportion. The Winning Poker Network is undoubtedly struggling with this issue, but it is making life tough for botters with frequent software updates. Taking everything into consideration, we still feel safe playing here although we do urge all grinders to remain observant and report all suspected bot users to site security.

You can open an account at Americas Cardroom to get a 100% up to $1,000 bonus as well as $50 in free cash upon making your first deposit. Additionally, through our exclusive ACR bonus code PRB10FREE, it's possible to claim a $10 credit with no deposit required. Read our fact-laden Americas Cardroom review for further details.

If you're rather leery of giving the Winning Poker Network your business, at least until they make bigger strides in anti-bot enforcement, then you have a variety of other options. Consult our USA online poker guide for a complete rundown of other legal online poker venues for Americans.

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