What can be done about prohibited poker datamining?

Allowing players to change screen names would help

by , Dec 21, 2009 | 1:53 pm

Paul Nobles


Dan and I have talked a long time about having me as a guest contributor to Pokerati, but we never could find the exact right angle. What we ultimately decided on was a discussion about online poker trends. As someone who does consulting for online poker sites and is an active member of the affiliate community, I have some insights that might be interesting and slightly outside of the scope of most of the poker discussion here.

I have been following a few threads on two plus two recently that I think could use a bit more attention. As many people know, there is a site called pokertableratings.com that data-mines all of the major online poker sites and provides visitors with charts and such. Really just enough information to whet your appetite to get you to buy some of their pirated data. For a long while they operated as a free site and, mostly, people did not mind them or feel a need to object until they started selling the data that sites like Full Tilt and PokerStars prohibit players from using.

When players are able to have access to information that they have not collected, that crosses a line. And when you know your opponents have more information than you do, it creates a temptation that puts online poker players at a crossroads similar to athletes with steroids.

This is a particularly frustrating topic for me because I am a co-developer of the Bluff Poker Software and the owner of Bluff.com. Certainly, we knew it was possible to do what TableRatings is doing, but it did not seem like a long-term winning plan to build a site that was essentially an enemy of online poker players and online poker sites. Our software (which is in Beta) allows players their own private database so they can review their play after the fact. While players can share hand histories with other people via our forums, each player is given the option to keep all of their hand histories private. We are basically a scaled down (but online) version of some of the information you get from Poker Tracker or Holdem Manager, which are programs that sites deem legal because it is your own information that you have collected.

So what do the sites have to say about this?

It does appear that PokerStars is bothered by it, but they are at a loss of what to do about it. Full Tilt seems to be paying lip service to stopping them but, in reality, they get a ton of traffic from TableRatings. With the recent Isildur1 matches, once people started to see the hands on TableRatings, Full Tilt benefited from a lot of gawker traffic. The person that should probably be the most upset is Tom Dwan, as he went from online poker hero to online poker zero in about a month with this type of information about his personal game being collected and theoretically shared with his high-stakes opponents. To be fair, Full Tilt does have language in its TOS rules banning sites like TableRatings, but they have not been able to stop them from collecting hand histories and selling the data.

What is the answer? How can this be fixed?

I believe that the only relevant answer is the ability for people to be able to change their screen names, perhaps as often as once a week. In fact, this option already exists on the Cake Poker Network. Many players love the site because it offers them anonymity. For the most part, Cake’s poker software is very lacking compared to the other bigger sites, but the fact that they have as much traffic as they do is largely due to the fact that they are so diligent about players’ anonymity. Everyone I know changes their screen names as often as they can, and they consider it a big advantage.

Why would anyone be against the ability to change your screen names?

Most of the regulatory bodies are against it because of the recent scandals involving UltimateBet and Absolute Poker. In my mind, they are adding up 1+1 and getting 7. While that was one of the tactics the cheaters used to hide their identities, there were many more internal issues that were likely a much bigger problem at that time.

Regular players are against the ability to change screen names because they have become increasingly comfortable with the data they have collected on their opponents using tracking software like Poker Tracker or Holdem Manager. If you are playing 16 tables, it is difficult to do so without information that you have historically collected from your opponents. As someone who develops software I am sensitive to this issue, but I think ultimately what is best for poker overall is often best for poker players. Said simply, the good players will adjust.

Lastly, from discussions I have had with various poker sites, they are scared of the reaction they will get from the regulars that fill up their tables every day.  Make no mistake about it, this would be a giant step for any site, and sites like PokerStars or Full Tilt stand to lose a lot of players if they make this dramatic change.

What is good for poker is typically good for poker players

Since 2006 and the UIEGA, it has been tough sledding out there for online poker players. In search of an edge, many of us have sought out training and software that allows us to analyze our play. For the most part, I think these are good things for poker, but when players are able to have access to information that they have not collected that crosses a line. Of course, when you know your opponents have more information than you do, it creates a temptation that puts online poker players at a crossroads similar to athletes that take steroids. Poker is a game of incomplete information; the more information you have allows you to make more correct decisions over time.

In my opinion, online poker sites have a duty to protect the integrity of the game. This issue is no less important than the cheating scandals because it affects a wider audience. The consequences are also more extreme. If you are a bad player or you play poker as a hobby, having someone tell you in chat that they know you are down $40,000 for life might just make you want to take up another hobby.

Paul Nobles (aka “Beanie”) is an occasional contributor to Pokerati, publisher of Bluff.com, and has four WSOP cashes to date.

32 Comments to “What can be done about prohibited poker datamining? ”

  1. Justin

    So how does pokertableratings.com get all these hand histories?

  2. gabe

    I keep getting thoughts about getting back into online poker. But for the reasons mentioned that people will know my history and my style even after a few sessions I’m sure I’ll stick to the live games around town.
    Besides, there’s better food at the casinos than in my fridge.

  3. TOCurmudgeon

    One idea I think I heard on Poker Road makes a lot of since: The option of anonymous tables. These tables, which can be completely optional would simply identify players in a cash game by seat number. Multi-table tournaments would require a more elegant solution. One group that would oppose this would be HUD reliant grinder’s for obvious reasons. Also, I suppose it wouldn’t be much fun to start a thread titled: “Who is Seat Number Six?”

  4. Tom Schneider

    This is one of the biggest problems in online poker. I’m a dumbass and don’t have any of the tracking software. That’s my fault, but I don’t want to spend the time learning all of this new software since I don’t play that much. The fact that others have it and are experts at using it makes me want to play even less. Therein lies the problem. In order to compete online, one must devote a lot more time to learning software which has nothing to do with poker. I want to play poker not data mine.

    I have seen the software in use and it does give these people that use it an advantage. I don’t like it.

    I can’t imagine people going into a casino and playing in a game where some players had more information about you than you have about them. This would kill live poker.

    The other consideration is that all of this info will allow people to develop programs to play for them. It’s not unreasonable to think that at some point in the future you will log on to a poker site and it will ask you which program/bot you want to play for you. It will play for you while you go to work.

    This is all bad for poker. So many of the people we need to keep good poker games going are put off by all of this. They don’t feel it is fair. I understand that it is fair, because this software is available to all, but, it changes the game that the fish want to play. They want to play poker. As my friend says, “don’t tap on the glass, you piss off the fish” and that’s what all of this software does.

    I would play on a site that assigned a random screen name every time you signed in and would have a different name in each game…one that does not provide data to any of these data mining sites.

    You could have one main screen name that is used for announcing your results after a tournament is over and that name would stay the same.

    That’s real poker…having to adjust on the fly to various players and their patterns.

  5. Beanie

    To answer your question Justin it is possible to collect observed hand histories with special software (Idleminer for FTP is one). My guess is they are tapping a feed of some sort. Scraping would seem almost ridiculous at the level they are at but I am sure there are people that can speak to that better than I can. The rooms have a tough decision, people like observing their friends and such and even without the ability to observe tables it is likely still possible to gain access to HH’s.

    Obviously the sites are scared shitless that if they did something akin to what Cake is doing everyone would leave. I think the opposite, I think more of the right type of customer would show up, the kind that is actually willing to gamble.

    I agree with Tom, having to adjust on the fly is not something new in poker, so good players will adjust.

  6. DanM

    I’m just not so sure it can be stopped. (I like Beanie’s idea for allowing players to change their name … and Gabe’s reminder of The Poker Beat’s idea for having anonymous tables.)

    And where do you draw the line? Tilt has always taken a pretty hardline stance with its own players when it comes to rules … but is looking over a friend’s shoulder (essentially) ever really wrong?

    The music business had to deal with this sorta stuff in the early Napster song-sharing days … and while they got that pretty much worked out (with lots of court help) it’s still not illegal to have a friend over to your house to listen to the music you’ve downloaded. I mean fugk, you’re even allowed to talk music theory together, even though that gives you an edge over other musicians if you are trying to make a living at the music game.

    OK, maybe that metaphor doesn’t hold up, but I would like to point out that Fawcett (go Batfaces!) knew something wasn’t smelling right. Sure enough, with unprecedented dollars at stake, there had to be more to the story than just the turns, rivers, and re-raises.


    Not to get on my political soapbox, but where else, in any activity, can so much money trade hands without some federal and international regulatory types monitoring it all? The only thing I can come up with is major-major drug deals.

    Now think of the pickle they’d be in if it turned out Isildur1 had won a bunch of money against Full Tilt’s pros, but had done so with the help of TOS-violating data mines. Seriously, I don’t know what I do if I’m Tilt’s top brass there. Go after Isildur and his money — looking like sore losers — or letting it slide and appearing like you’re not willing to stand up for your pros and their bankrolls.

  7. Kevin Mathers

    Isildur1 won a bunch of money off Tom Dwan right after he became a part of Team Full Tilt. Martonas (an earlier mystery person from Sweden who went on a big run before losing it all) was allegedly a neighbor of Isildur1. If Isildur1 was to get money back, would he then be compelled to give money back to Durr if Martonas/Isildur1 shared hand histories?

  8. Beanie

    I think you really can’t look at the Townsend issue in the same way. My understanding is that they didn’t merge their databases to show mucked cards, if that is the case and I completely believe that it is then what they did is the same as talking strategy with a friend. You can be guaranteed that each and every one of those players that sat in those games watched hand histories they did not participate in. They would have been dumb to not do that with so much money on the line.

    I know Townsend is taking heat (as well as Stinger and CTS) but would anyone in their shoes do anything different? I actually think the rule is stupid if the sites aren’t going to protect the players. Sharing mucked hands would obviously be a different matter. To that extent I am certain that Isildur1 had the same information available to him that Stinger had. Let’s also not forget that Stinger ran like god.

    In regards to the political angle things are broken but it isn’t like they can’t be fixed. Sure there are some hiccups but I am not all that certain that I am willing to pay the price regulation may cost us all. Nor am I all that certain that it would be an improvement at all. I think if you said to some 74 year old Senator that the $1000-$2000 game on the internet needs some rules we might just have one less Senator after that discussion. What is normal in our world is abnormal elsewhere, we might be better off if they just left us alone.

  9. Mean Gene

    Apparently most of our financial institutions were operating without any FUNCTIONING regulatory bodies, so there is some precedent.

    I think it’ll be hard to figure out if Isildur and Martonas shared HH, when we don’t know who Isildur is, we don’t know who Martonas is, we don’t know if they’re neighbors, and we don’t know if they’re neighborly. Heck, even if they are next door neighbors they might hate each others guts and fling herring at each other (or whatever Swedes do when they’re pissed).

    Sussing out what is/isn’t legal and/or ethical in online poker is something the sites and players need to figure out if/when it’s legalized here in the US. People say they don’t know what the sites’ TOS are, they don’t know what’s legal or not. Well, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and while people complain about there not being any recourse for players who break the rules, if the government gets involved there might be recourse out the wazoo.

    Maybe some future regulatory body looks over this situation and says, “Mr. Townsend, thank you for coming clean about what you did. You violated the Terms of Service, and so you are banned for life from all US-facing online poker sites. Have a nice day.” We don’t know how draconian US regulators might be but I think they’re gonna see things in far starker terms than “Oh, we’ll take away your red pro privileges for a month”.

  10. Kevin Mathers

    Speaking of Isildur1, PokerNews had an interview with him/her discussing his loss to Hastings, which will be on the website tomorrow.

  11. Beanie

    btw I really like the option of anonymous tables. Let the market decide.

  12. KenP

    That ugly saw about “if you’re going to be raped…” seems to apply. There are weird rules and advantages thrown about in the B&M world too.

    Do you have a right to know your opponent? How far does that right extend? Always to the angle shooter’s advantage — regardless of media.

    Basically, you want to let televised (B&M) players play with a sack over their heads. That’d be interesting. But then so would Helmuth with a ball gag.

    So, relax and enjoy; or wizz into the wind.

  13. Johnopolis

    This is a very interesting topic and one of the most important issues to online poker after the UIGEA in my opinion. As an average online player I love the idea of having the option to be anonymous and I’m very against the data mining.

  14. Beanie

    Another option that wouldn’t kill pirated data but would significantly impact prohibited datamining is to have the option to play at either observed or non-observed tables. This is about a 5 minutes line change of code, it may not affect TableRatings (if for instance they are tapping the feed of the sites) at all but if this was done no one could really complain as the players will play where the games are.

    I mentioned this on 4, traditionally the sucker makes the rules in poker. It is up to the good player to adjust. So the only thing really stopping this is the fact that the sites would lose some rake from some nits. That shouldn’t be the reason why you do or don’t do something important for the game. Over time though I think they will come out way ahead.

    One thing is for sure, someone is already doing it (Cake Poker) the only reason the market isn’t speaking in this regard is because their software is abysmal. Lee Jones has been mentioning that they have new software coming out that bests FTP and Stars, I highly doubt that but it likely won’t matter, all they need to do is get close. For a site like UB/AP this is a no brainer, they need to be the first to market with something like this, they have a pattern of following what the other people are doing and therefore they never create a market. It would be nice to see UB/AP take the lead on this one.

  15. DanM

    Ken, did you really just invoke the old Clayton Williams line about rape that cost him the Texas governorship?!? Not sure it’s quite appropriate here (or anywhere, ever).

    But essentially, you’re saying, hey, if you can’t do anything about it, just sit back an enjoy it? And you’re thinking about Phil Hellmuth in a ball gag. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’ve got issues dude … and that’s exactly why some people wanna know the players they are up against, so they can avoid them altogether.

  16. JW

    Ban the rankings conmpletely. Is is incredibly unfair to allow a talented player that extra edge on knowing you lay down to re-raises mostly pre-flop, etc. without “earning” this information through your own play and analysis. If you already know my “aggression factor” before I even get a chance to sit down and see how you and the rest of the table plays is incredibly unfair and detrimental to the long-term success of the online game of poker.

  17. DanM

    so is it unfair, JW (and Tom) if I am about to sit in a cash game with 9 strangers, but you know one of them and as my friend you tell me, “hey, the dude in the 9-seat has this tell …”

    Just askin’ …

  18. Tom Schneider

    Hear Hear, JW.

  19. tommytwotoes

    as someone who has written data mining software and collected huge amounts of tournament results, and someone that plays alot of poker and is finally a application architect.

    the simplest way of combating this is not to allow players to change their names, doing this causes problems with the limited number of usuable player names. who really wants to sign up as g695g43 and have to remember that … cause that is what would eventually happen. all the “usuable” names would be taken as people on a routine basis change their name. the other option people through out there was the anonymous table option… i dont think that is viable either… as most of the dataminer players will avoid those tables… and it still makes their data valuable… and the players that always want to find a game might be left with only the option to play at a non-anonymous table…

    thus a hybrid of sorts is a good solution. People can change their name 1 time(the only reason for this is for people to be able to shed their past in preparation for the next step). the next step would be to enable a “check box” that allows their screen name to show up as “player1234” or whatever other random name, that random name is in use for that player until they finish thier session at that table or tournament. they can even go deeper and have a check box that allows your name to be displayed in the event that you make the final table of a multitable…. cause as private as some would like ot be they would still like to get that recognition from their peers and friends that they won such and such event. this approach would allow every individual player the option to make their own choice. and be able to toggle their choice back and forth or form table to table…

    just some thoughts.

    from the technical side of things… OCR gets more and more difficult to handle the more the background images change when text is in front of it . randomizing the BG and doing a few other tricks can prove useful. but most technical things can be over come it just depends on that persons dedication. I wasnt very dedicated and after having to change my code for the millionth time I gave it up, plus i was just an individual not a group/team of app devs.

  20. DanM

    tommy, long time no see … good to hear from you around these parts.

    as a programmer and architect of datamining software and systems — and as someone who runs their own small forum where you presumably see all your members as friends — where do you draw the moral and ethical lines when it comes to this sort of technology being deployed in the online poker world?

  21. Beanie

    Tommy what do you think of the non-observed tables option. That would severely reduce datamining sites capabilities while giving the players the ability to retain the use of the software they now know and love.

    Seems like a good solution in my eyes, what am I missing?

  22. tommytwotoes

    i dont have a problem with people using the software and sites for an “edge”. it still takes common sense and knowledge to apply the information that the sites and software gives you to make decisions.

    I think in todays world everyone is aware of the systems and sites that are out there thus it is their choice to use or not to use them, everyone has an equal opportunity to use them. All of my data was free but even if it were paid for I still would not have an issue with it.

    what I would have an issue with is if that data were only given to certain players, like, we are only going to give this info to players whose ROI is over x%… or those players that can prove they have blonde girlfriends… or whatever other crazy criteria. as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to that data I dont have a problem with it.

    you also brought up the scenario that happens all the time of your friends telling you that seat x is soft or is over agressive or whatever else. that was not data that you compiled through your own play and it is pretty much just like the sites and software… heck it is even more dangerous and useful than the sites and software. sites and software can only take an analytical number crunching approach. people verbalizing that in such and such situation he grabs his ear then bluffs can be 100 times more useful, than 40% of the time this person bluffs on the river.

    and I dont have a problem with either things. as an intelligent person I know that these thing happen and that this software is out there and I take it into acct when playing, and to me it is all part of the game.

    on another note. in my mind is people are circulating a petition they need to steer clear of the “privacy” argument. the reason for this is that people are playing in public events and thus these data mining sites are essentially reporting the news and are allowed to and protected by the US constitution(if that site resides in the USA). by the same token that doesnt mean that the sites should just make it easy on data miners. I am jsut saying that people dont have much ground to stand on when they just played in a multiple public events and are mad that someone is reporting that they lost 900 tournaments in a row, if you value your privacy that much then dont play.

    now to ramble about the ramifications of allowing anonymous play.
    the main argument against anonymous play is that it is less like live play. in other words… if you sit down at a live cash game and you know that from your past experience that the lady in seat 3 sucks and is tight passive and the guy next to her loves to over bet and be uber aggressive with mid pair and that the guy next to you always check raises with draws… that is a huge knowledge advantage that you have collected by playing with them multiple times…if all of a sudden people were wearing bags over their heads and playing and you had no idea that these three were sitting at your table … you lose your advantage… that advantage is one of the skills that we as “poker” players want and look for in our seat selection. to take that away harms what we consider a skill game and pushes it more towards a game of luck. so what you all face in this argument to ban stat sites and software …well for lack of a better phrase and to make it short… “it’s a double edged sword”

    on yet another note… banning sites is futile and the only ones that wont go to these sites while playing are the people that abide and follow the rules… thus many will “break the rules” and still go while playing. and technically while it maybe pheasible for the FTP or PS software to interfere with you going to these sites and usin x software there are a million ways around that . further these poker sites cant threaten to sue data sites and software whose companies are based in the USA, cause to sue they would likely have to come into the USA and we all know that they dont want to do that.
    I had a lawyer tell me that if I got an email from a poker site asking for cease and desist to not worry about it and that if it did go to court the first thing we would do would be to subpoena the heads of those companies, which are under threat to be jailed upon entering the USA, thus its a mute point.

    what yall are discussing is something the poker sites have been dealing with and discussing for years. they are damned if they do and damned if they dont … they are trying to make the decisions that best benefit the customer and in turn will benefit them in terms of more rake and players at the game. the ugieaiouaua law that was passed did damage cause the casual player gave up. it became to hard or inconvenient for them to deposit money(loss of neteller). in my opinion that is what they need to be spending money and time on getting rid of. it also psycologically told the donks that it was illegal to play online poker, you and I know this is not true, but to the casual player (the ones that are bringing dead money to the game) it was true and they left the online game by the thousands.

    sorry for the ramblings….

  23. DanM

    no ramble-probs, TTT … this is all good stuff, and i think you bring up plenty of valid points.

    in general, the people who say “ban it!” are lacking a bit of reality grasp. (hi tom.) after all, that was what the UIGEA set out to do.

    banning creates a gun situation … where people who play by the rules are screwed by those who don’t. i mean shit, if we’re gonna ban stuff in an effort to create the kinda world we really want to live in, let’s just ban war and ugly girls.

    yeah, that will work.

  24. Beanie

    so Tommy your opinion on non-observed tables is…….

    I really am interested in your opinion since you have a great deal of experience with datamining.

    Would non-observed tables even work? Are they grabbing feeds?

  25. TOCurmudgeon

    Tommy mentions that dataminers would simply avoid anonymous tables, but isn’t that the point. If someone prefers to play at tables where their user name is known and trackable, fine. On the other hand, if the player prefers not to be known or tracked, again fine.

  26. Beanie

    I am not suggesting these tables would be anonymous. Does everyone understand that they datamine these tables as faux observers. Therefore if you take away the option to observe you take away the datamining.

    I however believe that people should have access to their own information and non-observable tables would not change this one bit.

  27. Mean Gene

    One problem with letting players switch names or have anonymous tables–branding. Would online players trying to make a name for themselves want to be known as “Table 4, Seat 3” or “Table 8, Seat 7”. Tom Dwan isn’t “Tom Dwan”–he’s durrrr. Many players are better known by their screen names than their real names, and if you make all online players anonymous (or if they have more aliases than Dirk Nowitzki’s girlfriend) it makes it harder for them to make a (singular) name for themselves.

    Of course some players, like Isildur, want to be anonymous. But for those who don’t mind at least a little attention and glory and slobbering fanboyism they’d like credit where it’s due. And under their own screen name.

  28. DanM

    gene, i kinda agree there, too … and in general think the market will decide.

    if you had two online options — one that was totally anonymous and not data-minable, the other being with avatar characters and data-mining masked as fully public bragging rights — i suspect the current pool of online players would split 50-50 on where they play. Maybe 60-40, but not sure which side would hold the majority.

    actually, i imagine many players would have accounts on both sites, and where they played would depend on how they are running.

  29. TOCurmudgeon

    Mean Gene, my concern is not with players who want to build a reputation. Very few players fall into that category. In any case, there is nothing that would require that recognition seeking player to sit at an anonymous table. My concern is for the recreational player who would like to sit down at a cash game and have a good time without the adverse effects that come with datamining.

  30. Zero

    I am one of those casual players. I have the skillset to use datamining information. However, I typically choose not to. The time invested in such a thing to do it right isn’t worth it to me for the amount of time that I do play online. So for me, I am at a dsiadvantage to those that use my playing against me, which in turn makes me less likely to play online.

    Since the levels I play at, it really isn’t that big a deal, I don’t really worry about it so much. However I can see at the higher levels it could be an issue.

    Take away datamining and you level the playing field to some degree. The edge in poker is good decision making with the information you have at hand. If the amount of available information is equal to all at the table, then the edge you have is your poker skillset over the other guys at the table. Which is what all the poker books basically teach you. IMO take away some of these extra tools makes online poker more like live poker.

    If anyone watched 2M2M, there was an episode where those guys picked up on a betting tell where the opponent was betting pot sized bets almost everytime he was bluffing, they figured this out and cleaned the guy out. They didnt need any datamining data for that online poker tell. That is poker in my mind.

    I don’t really see what poker as a whole has to gain my allowing datamining.

  31. DanM

    *** I don’t really see what poker as a whole has to gain by allowing datamining. ***

    but the word “allow” … can it be stopped?

    even if people are limited to amassing only their own data, what’s to stop someone from saying, “hey all my friends, let’s get together and pool our data, you know, compare notes (at this new fancy online site i created for our ‘community’?”

  32. Beanie

    The point of doing it Dan is progress. Certainly your scenario could exist and did exist before sites like TableRatings. According to Compete they had more than double the traffic of your site last month. This wouldn’t be an issue if it was just a few people, it’s a lot of people.

    Non-observable tables isn’t the end all be all answer that some people would want but it is a start and would significantly impact the ability of the mass dataminers to make money. The two major ways people get hands to stuff into their HUD’s is Idleminer and purchasing them from TableRatings, this move puts them out of business. So for any site out there it is put up or shutup time, don’t pretend you actually care when there is an option that would protect your players and you didn’t take it.