Amarillo Slim, the greatest proposition gambler of all time, held to his father’s maxim, ‘You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.’
– Michael McDermott in Rounders
There was a time (possibly around two years ago when I first started thinking about writing these) when this would have been my longest article. Regulated American online poker looked like it was on the precipice of a renaissance. It seemed like the glory days were about to be reborn in full, and online poker was going to have a glorious resurgence.
But that didn’t happened.
Regardless, ROW online poker has proceeded steadily while a handful of Americans have kept playing on a handful of grey market sites. But in that two years one debate has cropped up more than I ever thought it would. And that debate is this: how should poker players utilize technology? Should we allow every tactical technological edge that the internet can provide so that the professionals may win more readily? Or does that deplete or diminish the limited number of fish and amateurs playing online? Is third-party software the practical equivalent of skinning the sheep instead of shearing them?
It’s a debate that has been ongoing for a handful of years, and had I written these articles years ago, I may have raised some yet unrealized notions. But honestly, I’m a little late to the party on this one. Bovada introduced anonymity and the recreational model several years ago, and if you pay attention to the PokerStars’ policies and practices of late, you’ll see that they too are little by little following in Bovada’s footsteps. These big sites seem to have their own notions about the poker economy and about what keeps the gears lubricated.
In my opinion of course tools like tracking software and HUDs assist in the elimination of the amateur. How could they not? The professional is already so talented, and tools like these make his or her edge sharper than it already was. Razor sharp in fact, so that it cuts too deep. Like a hand of poker itself, the poker economy is all about balance. And I think that balance tilts too heavily towards the pros when tracking software, HUDs, and the like are used completely unchecked.
However, before I start listing, let me also acknowledge that lumping some of these tools together is a little unfair. Online poker tools are as varied as the poker variants themselves, so to say HUDs and results-tracking sites are one and the same is a bit of a stretch. Obviously, most can agree that features like script-seating are substantially more detrimental to the poker economy than HUDs are. I don’t intend to delve into the minutia of each technological tool available to the online-playing poker public. Rather, I’m looking at the general theme for all of these tools. And that theme is simple: these tools make the professional so good that their short term EV is heightened so much that it hurts their long-term EV by eradicating the very amateurs who generate those profits. Some of the reasons that these tools skew too heavily toward the pro are as follows.
1. Many amateurs aren’t aware these tools exists
From what I understand many of the online poker tools and training sites began springing up at the end of the Golden Age of Poker in 2007 when (not coincidentally) the UIGEA was passed. Now for the most part these tools weren’t prevalent in and around 2005 when poker was at its strongest. I certainly didn’t know of their existence until roughly 2009, and I had played a pretty decent amount of online poker up to that point. I know of them now of course, just as you do. But as a whole most poker players aren’t like us, and they don’t think about the game day and night. They play it recreationally and socially and partially as a form of escapism. And so many poker players, especially at the lower limits, don’t bother with training tools and books. They assume the game is the game and that’s it. They honestly don’t know about the tools at their disposal.
Now are we required to educate all of our opponents as to all the advantages the internet has to offer? Of course not. I’m simply saying some of these amateurs have absolutely no clue how deeply they are being analyzed.
Information of a similar nature has begun to surface recently about DFS. If all the amateur DFS players that feed that ecosystem had any idea of the complex charts and algorithms the professionals were using to gain their edges, then I imagine those amateurs would either step up their game tremendously… or get out of it completely.
2. The software costs money
Not a lot of money, obviously. Maybe a couple hundred at most. However, money is still money and some people simply can’t or won’t afford that extra hundred or two. Especially, if they are playing at the lowest limits. Were I playing $2 SNGs, I certainly wouldn’t think buying $80 software was a necessity. But there are people using HUDs at every level of the game. Every single level.
It’s not a point worth harping on too much, but since HUDs and result-tracking sites often require a fee, then it is simply not an advantage everyone has. Even if it is an advantage everyone is offered.
3. Pros can play so many more tables than they previously could
When I was essentially an online pro from about 2008-2011, I only sparingly used a HUD. And I don’t think I used it particularly well – just a couple very basic stats around each player. Nevertheless, it let me autopilot a little easier, especially when I would play several MTTs at once.
HUDs let you pay far less attention. For example, if I saw my opponent only plays 10% of hands, I could apply that to PokerStove and essentially always know his or her range. This makes my opponent easier to play against. And if my opponents’ playing style can be manipulated into a series of ranges, then I can let the software do most of the work. When a new table pops up, the correct play is all in the numbers: this opponent has a fold to check-raise on the turn of 100. Time to check-raise the turn.
With HUDS, pros can play remarkably well and remarkably efficiently. But without HUDS, 24-tabling becomes a lot, lot harder. And the pros are not able to take the amateurs’ money at 24 times the speed they would at one table.
4. It’s not always information you could have gotten on your own
Sites like PokerTableRatings used to sell hand histories, but they have since shut down. I am not entirely sure what, if anything, has sprouted up to replace them. But whatever has taken their place surely does no good to poker’s general economy. Most stat-collating software claimed to simply provide information you could have gotten and created on your own if you simply had the time or wherewithal to do the math and charts yourself. And that is for the most part true. I could calculate my opponents’ VIP % on my own were I so inclined, but HUDs make that infinitely easier.
But if you can get stats from somewhere else on a player, and know exactly how he plays before you ever even play one hand against him or her, then forget unethical, that is borderline cheating.
Thankfully, sites like PTR have been mostly eradicated, and this practice seems to have become increasingly a practice of the past. It gives me hope that we as a community are on the right track.
These four reasons are all practical examples of how tracking software and other online tools perhaps shift the balance of power too heavily in favor of the professional. Part B will examine more of the theoretical effects that take place. Effects that have lasting impacts on both the economy and ecology of the poker landscape.
I know many will disagree with this article. It’s a very polarizing subject even within my own mind. So as always, feel free to let me know what you guys think and where we overlap or disagree on ideas. Thanks again for reading. And as always, good luck out there.
Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.