Poker bots are a rising phenomenon in the online gaming world, and we're starting to see a proliferation of them not only at the smaller amateur sites, but also at some of the larger international online poker sites. What was once the coding pastime of a group of talented hobbyists has now become mainstream, and there are even commercial websites where you can purchase your own poker bot, and a plethora of forums where different poker bot formulas for winning are discussed.
But is any of this legal? If it isn't, then why aren't lawmakers doing something about stamping out the problem? If it is, then why are poker sites fighting so hard to stop people from using poker bots?
Two sides to the argument
There are two basic schools of thought with regard to poker bots. On the one hand, you have the poker bot hobbyists who actively use the software, and on the other hand you have the online poker sites trying to prevent them from doing so.
Hobbyists put forward the opinion that poker bots are the way of the future, and that eventually everyone will be using them. If you are open about the fact that you use a poker bot, then surely it is up to other players to decide whether they want to play against you or not.
That sounds fair enough, but to understand why online poker sites are so against the use of poker bots, you have to understand how poker bots are being implemented in the wild. The problem is not to do with how individual poker bots are being used, but rather more to do with how their owners are deploying them.
Let's explain what that means. A poker bot is a piece of software that can play online poker in place of human. It watches the behaviour of its opponents and learns about them, and makes poker playing decisions based on a set of rules that its owner can program.
In this way, the poker bot is almost exactly like a real human player - it is no better than its set of rules allows it to be. It may have a very advanced formula for making poker decisions, but it can never improvise or think outside of those rules.
If this were the extent of poker bots, online poker sites would probably not have any problem with them. However, the problem is that poker bots cheat.
The fact is, poker bots are using collusion tactics to rip people off. How this works is, say that given online poker table has eight players at it, but that four of them are actually poker bots. Moreover, all four are owned by the same person.
The four poker bots at the table are using an external server to share their hand to with each other, in an almost completely undetectable way. Since all four are mutually aware of what cards their partners are holding, they are able to make the most strategically effective decisions to earn the most money.
It doesn't matter which of the four wins a given hand, because all of the winnings are collected by the bot owner.
This kind of collusion practice is on the rise, and this is why online poker sites are desperately trying to stamp out poker bot use.
Why don't lawmakers help?
Since the majority of poker bots are actually cheating rather than providing fair competition to human players, why isn't their use illegal? How come lawmakers aren't creating punitive rules to punish people who use them, since they're obviously trying to rip people off?
The answer is complicated, and largely wrapped up in the legal state of online gambling globally at the moment. Online gambling isn't legal everywhere in the world - individual territories their own laws around the subject, and there is a great deal of disparity. In fact, some territories will issue licences for running online gambling sites on the condition that none of their own citizens are granted access.
This creates a huge grey area, and lawmakers are unlikely to step in, because many of them believe that playing poker online in the first place is illegal - so why should they help criminals police other criminals?