Poker, with its outlaw image and Midwest jargon, is an oddball sort of game. But it’s also uniquely academic, in that the game remains ‘unsolved’.

While algorithms exist that can play more-or-less unbeatable games of chess, backgammon and draughts, poker – at least, today’s popular ‘No Limit’ version – remains something only humans can fathom.

At least, that was the accepted wisdom until one January afternoon, when an online poker player known as ‘Trebek’ logged onto his usual poker site…

Counting cards

That day, there were hundreds of games in progress, but Trebek wasn’t there to play: he was conducting reconnaissance. He tapped a few usernames into PokerTracker, a data-mining application popular with online poker players.

He had configured PokerTracker to silently observe several weeks’ worth of games, providing him with a rich cache of data he could crunch to reveal weak players – ‘fish’ with potentially profitable weaknesses.

As Trebek prowled for prey, three players – ‘1forthethumb’, ‘full_tilting’ and ‘0_drunkenboxer’ – caught his eye. However, as he pulled up their data, he realised something remarkable – each of the three played an identical strategy.

He had collected dozens of statistics on each – how often each player went to ‘showdown’, how often they made a continuation bet on the turn, how often they raised on the river – and each stat was similar.

Furthermore, these players spent hours playing each day, with no break. Across the whole poker site, among tens of thousands of players, nobody put in more hours than these three players.

Rise of the poker bots

Trebek had been looking for fish. Instead, he’d found bots. “I just sat back in my chair stunned, watching them for a while, trying to absorb the significance of what I was watching,” he posted to his poker newsgroup. “It’s one thing to talk about bots, but it’s quite sobering to actually see them playing in front of you.”

Online poker

Perfect poker

Poker bots put the creepers on poker players. To understand why, you need to understand that playing good poker is a lot like trying to lose weight: the information is all there, but few people have the discipline to do it.

Poker strategy is a mixture of maths, psychology and self discipline. Countless externalities – like how much sleep you got or whether you had a bad day at the office – can affect whether you win or lose in a session.

So much so that poker legend Doyle Brunson devotes part of his classic book, Super System, to knowing when you shouldn’t play poker. Take to the tables after an argument with your spouse and chances are you’re toast.

As a result, a large amount of today’s poker strategy guides focus on capitalising on other players’ mistakes – errors triggered by tiredness, distraction or a phenomenon called ‘tilt’ – where a player begins to play recklessly after losing a big pot.

The big fear with bots is that they suffer from none of these frailties. They simply know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.

Meet the bot-builders

These days you don’t have to have university funding to build a poker bot. Various freely available software tools exist, such as the open source product OpenHoldem, which can be used to build a bot in minutes.

A community has formed around ‘botting’ – part hobby, part business. “I’ve been botting for going on three-and-a-half years,” says Matr0x, a member of this poker botting community.

“Truthfully, I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for at the time in Google, but I ended up at www.PokerInspector.com, a utility that can be used to build a basic scripted behaviour type bot. Couple it with a screen-scraper like Frogbot, and you have a fully automated, easy to use bot.”