Poker’s popularity is surging again. The Covid pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns, saw a huge wave of players return to play online. When the real world re-opened, poker continued its march with this year’s WSOP notching huge numbers and the second-biggest Main Event ever.
But there are storm clouds brewing. Poker has always had to contend with bad actors, but recent high-profile scandals have made people question just how fair the games they’re playing online are.
It’s a question we shouldn’t duck. And it’s a question occupying some of the smartest minds in the space. Thanh Tran, co-CEO of A5 Labs, has history here that tracks back to 2005 when he tasked his computer science students with building the first solvers and bots for poker. Now he’s on a mission to safeguard what A5 Labs sees as crucial to the long-term sustainability of online poker – game integrity and fairness. The solution? Cutting-edge tech.
A5 Labs recently issued a White Paper on game integrity and sustainability – Advanced Technologies for Secure, Fair and Fun Online Poker – and we encourage you to read it in full. It sets a blueprint for a collaborative future where operators work together with standardized high-tech solutions to ensure online poker is safe, fair, and fun for everyone.
Cross-brand cooperation emerging
The current poker landscape is fractured. Poker operators rule their roosts with varying levels of tech. It’s a closed-shop environment that doesn’t encourage debate, and it’s not going far enough, according to Tran.
“We realized that the industry of competitive online games is very low tech,” Thanh says. “We are passionate fans, we play games, we play poker. We understand that the industry is facing threats to its sustainability.”
Recent moves have been made, with PokerStars announcing that anyone caught cheating on its site will also be banned from its associated live events.
With the introduction of its Poker Integrity Council, GGPoker has taken it a step further. The PIC currently has five members – Jason Koon, Andrew Lichtenberger, Fedor Holz, Seth Davies, and Nick Petrangelo – and will review any suspicious activity on GGPoker and deliver appropriate sanctions.
As well as a ban from GGPoker, these sanctions could see players barred from a wide range of major live tours, including the WSOP, WPT, Triton Poker, Poker After Dark, King’s Casino and the Asian Poker Tour. It’s a good step towards cross-brand co-operation.
Crucially, however, when online cheats are identified, they’re currently free to play on other sites.
The future is here
A5 Labs wants to see operators work together to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future.
It has developed a system that starts by categorizing players based on risk factors and skill levels. It has built GTO solvers that can compute optimal strategy and devised scoring mechanisms to grade players against this optimal line. They can also look at deviations from the optimal line and assess whether the mistakes are part of a player’s efforts to disguise foul play.
Machine learning solutions can automate the process and show if a player’s behavior is consistent across sessions, or whether they’re displaying signs of bad practice.
All of this tech is built into what A5 Labs calls “the kernel” or the “A5 Inside” that will give operators a secure seal of approval, easily visible to players.
Information on a player could then be shared securely between sites without violating individual privacy, through a system of verified NFTs. Put simply, there would be nowhere to hide.
This would need to be handled deftly to ensure a balance of privacy and transparency, but it could provide the framework for a safe and secure future for online poker.
To succeed, the operators need to be on board and there’s a huge amount of work to do to get cross-site agreement on a unified path forward.
Traversing that path with everyone in tow might seem improbable, but the poker community is razor-sharp with plenty of strong, campaigning personalities who want the best for the game, not just for themselves, and it can drive real change.
There’s been a call for cross-site cooperation from some high-stakes players. In a lengthy Twitter thread, Chance Kornuth said that operators acting independently isn’t enough anymore and that change is needed.
Matt Berkey has called for a “brighter light” to be shone on bad actors and said it’s time for the poker community to “deal with our issues head-on”.
Phil Galfond is one of the most trusted players in the industry and knows game integrity issues well after opening his own online poker room, Run It Once, in February 2019. His site is now shuttered but he’s hoping to re-open in the future.
He’s optimistic that high-tech solutions can stop cheats in their tracks. After the latest raft of online scandals, Galfond tweeted, “The strength of machine-learning (which can be used to detect [cheats]) is progressing rapidly as of late.”
“As AI continues to advance,” Galfond went on to say, “it will get stronger and stronger at spotting irregularities that show up from the ‘manual’ forms of cheating. So, I think that in the overall battle between sites & cheaters, technological advancements from here are to the advantage of sites.”
Player power might not be the answer to poker’s problems, but it can definitely help usher in a better future.
A5 Labs ends its white paper with a call-to-arms. It wants poker players to demand more from operators and to push for greater transparency. This might be a challenge for operators, but we think it’s one they should be ready to face head-on.
Join the debate. The A5 Labs White Paper, Advanced Technologies for Secure, Fair and Fun Online Poker, sets out a holistic vision for a safer future for online poker. You can get more info about its long-term mission to make poker secure and sustainable at A5labs.co.