Microgaming’s Managing Director (MD) of Poker Alex Scott discusses online poker bots, and their potential use by peer-to-peer gaming sites as a tool to enhance customer experience.

Interview with MPN Head of Poker Alex Scott (Preface)

As technological advances have become more prevalent, the perceived threat of how online poker bots could potentially cause irreparable harm to real money internet poker games has spread to players worldwide.

However, long-time industry techie and current Microgaming MD of Poker Alex Scott believes a competent, proprietary program endorsed by a poker site could provide benefits to players of all skill levels — that would outweigh the existing perception among many players that “winning” or “net-withdrawing” bots are gaining an influential foothold and damaging the quality of online poker games.

Here is our complete interview with Alex Scott, which took place over the course of various conversations.

Interview with Alex Scott — Bots in Online Poker

Part Time Poker: <—1. For the past several years, many poker players have complained publicly that online poker ‘prohibited software’ is an existing, critical threat to the online poker industry — both from an operator and customer perspective. Would you agree with this sentiment, or do you believe the threat is actually less than what it is perceived to be?

Alex Scott: I think it’s less than it’s perceived to be. I do think that prohibited software, automation, etc. is a threat. I absolutely do. But I think the threat of bots in particular is exaggerated. I think that people believe bots are more prevalent than they actually are. And in particular, I think that people believe that winning bots are more prevalent than they actually are.

Winning bots are still very, very rare from my experience. And while they do exist, they’re not anything like as common as people might believe. Particularly when you see there are these challenges where bots play against each other — or against the best human players in the world. People claim to have solved games like Limit Hold’em, or Heads-Up Limit Hold’em, and things like that. But I think that the perception of the general public is that bots are more prevalent and skillful than they really are.

2. Before joining the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN), you worked alongside game integrity personnel at the world’s largest poker site and at Full Tilt Poker. What information about prohibited software (that you believe is appropriate to openly share with the poker world) did you learn — that you’ve been able to transfer over to your current duties with MPN?

Alex Scott: There were a few surprises for me when I started out in bot detection, many years ago. The first was this phrase:

“Bots are prohibited because the vast majority of players do not wish to play against them.”

It was the first time I had really thought about it that way, and it does ring true even now I think. Which is… the main reason that we prohibit bots is not because they have some sort of unfair advantage or some information that a human player wouldn’t have – in most cases anyway (there are a few exceptions). There’s no real unfairness about a bot if you will — it’s just the fact that people perceive them as something really, really scary and because of that, they don’t want to play against bots.

So we prohibit bots because people don’t want to play against them, not because they actually pose a threat in terms of integrity or unfairness. I did learn a lot about the detection of bots and the prevention of bots as part of that team, and obviously I’ve taken some of that experience and brought it here to Microgaming and further developed it since.

The bot detection/prevention tools that we have available to us now are a lot more powerful than they were back then. It was ten years ago when I was working with those tools. So things have advanced. It’s kind of an arms race. The operator side of things has become better at detecting bots. In response, as bot users have figured out how we’re detecting them, they’ve also advanced. The very best bots are far better at hiding themselves than they used to be. And similarly, we are a lot better at detecting bots than we used to be — at detecting the ones that try to hide themselves especially.

3. Much of the player concern when it comes to “poker bots” is that many software programs are openly available on the public market. Wouldn’t these programs pose an existing, immediate threat to real money online poker games?

Alex Scott: I think [publicly available bots] are the least scary of all.

First of all, if you make your bot software publicly available, it’s very easy for us to find out a way to detect that bot. The same goes for any bot profile that’s in the public domain. Many of the commercially available bots or software depend on you programming that bot, which tells it how to play in certain scenarios. You can also buy pre-configured profiles which are supposedly ‘winning profiles,’ but they never are. You can buy both the bot, and the profile to use with the bot, which tells the bot how to play.

Now if that profile is publicly available, we can program our detection software to look specifically for that profile. And that makes it very easy. So not only are publicly available bots generally easy to detect themselves, we can also detect the publicly available profiles relatively easily.

Think about it from this perspective. If you had a winning bot — and it was winning a lot — would you really want to make that available to other people so that you could play against your own bots in the games? You would more likely make your bot commercially available if it wasn’t very good. If it was winning a lot, you’d keep it to yourself, wouldn’t you?

And in our experience, that’s what happens.

The scary bots (the ones that do win), they’re very rare. But they tend to be created by a very smart programmer working on his/her own, and who’s built something bespoke or custom. That makes it harder for us to detect because it’s not like other bot software that’s out there and commercially available. And generally, that’s the type of software that’s most likely to win, although not guaranteed to win of course.

4. So as far as winning bots are concerned, you’re saying that a highly capable, lone wolf programmer would pose a much greater threat to the games than programs that are known?

Alex Scott: If I can use an analogy, let’s compare it to some types of criminality or illicit activities. If there are groups of criminals out there who are disclosing their tactics on internet forums, discussing the topic publicly, and perhaps selling ‘how to perform illicit activities‘ manuals… compare that to someone who’s working alone and in secret. Someone who doesn’t reach out to the public, who doesn’t share strategies or techniques. Which one of those scares you more? I know which one scares me more. So whether that’s law enforcement, or software detection specialists in our case, those ‘lone wolf’ bots have not done anything to be publicly detected really. They’ve worked on their own. They’ve worked in secret. But they are also very limited in number.

5. Could you ever see a scenario in which an online poker operator might facilitate open access to certain types of automated poker-playing software, granted they are confirmed by said operator to be ‘losing’ bots/profiles? And therefore not removing any real money funds from the poker ecology?

Alex Scott: I don’t think such a practise should be dependent on whether the bots ‘lose’ or ‘win.’ I think the important thing is that the player ‘attitude’ towards bots needs to change.

Right now, we know that the vast majority of online poker players don’t want to play against bots. And it’s because they have this view that the bots are going to defeat them. They feel like bots have an unfair advantage. And what we see in chess and backgammon, and other games out there — video games for example — is that people challenge themselves against bots. They practise against bots. In chess, for example, people will try to challenge themselves against the best computer players in the world as a test of their skill. And I could see that happening with poker if the public perception of bots changes.

6. In what ways do you believe such a poker site-created ‘bot’ could benefit the online poker playing community as a whole?

Alex Scott: I think some bots could be used as a really great training tool.

Playing against a bot could be a great way to practise your game without risking more than you intended. One of the issues with sitting down and playing against human players is that you might get taken for more than you intended. If you were playing against a bot, then it would be simpler to set a specific loss limit. I could see the use of bots as a training tool and as a way to test your skills being something quite interesting in the future.

Poker site-created bots could move at a pace that is geared toward each specific player as well. One of the very difficult things at the moment with creating some type of poker training software is that everybody learns at a different pace. And you never really know when somebody is ready, and you never really know if your training software is too fast or too slow for the player.

I was also going to say that there’s one more perspective on this. Which is that if the attitudes of players to bots were to completely change, then bots would be a great way to ensure that liquidity was always available — at any time of the day — in any game you wanted to play. So if you wanted to play 2-7 Triple Draw for $4/$8 stakes at 4 o’clock in the morning, then the game would be available for you to play. Even if no humans wanted to play against you at that time, in that format, etc. Of course, this could only work if operators were completely transparent about it.

7. What are some of the roadblocks you anticipate that x-poker site might have in creating such proprietary bot software?

Alex Scott: It’s a very difficult problem to solve. It’s very difficult to create a piece of software that plays poker well. And if you look at the people who have the most experience working towards a ‘solve’ for this problem, then it is people like those at the University of Alberta who have worked on the problem for a long time and continue to do so.

Earlier in my career, I worked with some of their alumni and they were some of the smartest people I ever worked with in this business. I think they could have some influence on this subject.

8. In a May 2016 conversation with Poker Life Podcast host Joey Ingram, you were very open about your view that bot-detection is a larger burden for mega-sites (such as the ‘current market leader’) than it is for smaller service providers. Do you still believe this way? And if so, could you explain why prohibited software users might pose more of a headache to the largest online poker sites?

Alex Scott: I do believe this yes, but it’s a matter of volume and workload more than anything. I am not suggesting that playing on the larger sites is more of a risk. The larger the site, the more players they have and the more unethical players they have to deal with. For any cheat, it’s risk versus reward. The bigger the site, the larger the potential reward, and the more incentive to cheat. But in my experience, the larger sites have done plenty to defend themselves against this.

9. Do you believe a ‘Poker PvE’ online experience could eventually provide a solution for licensed, ring-fenced markets that otherwise may not have human player liquidity to fulfill game variety needs that players desire?

Alex Scott: Potentially, but that needs a change in mindset from not only players but regulators too. In some regulated markets, like the UK for example, a site could operate AI opponents in this way as long as they were fully transparent. But the UK is a large enough market to sustain a wide variety of games with human players, so the benefit is less obvious – it’s the smaller markets where this idea has the most potential. —>
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SOCIAL MEDIA CONSIDERATION (TWITTER): @AlexScott72o, @Microgaming

* This article is directly funded by Part Time Poker.

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