Recently, instances of cheating at Tokwiro’s AbsolutePoker.com and UltimateBet.com have sparked fresh concerns over the integrity of all online-poker sites. Sure, many casino rooms might say they’ve stepped up their efforts to undercut cheating, but most people reason, for every person or site busted there must be several more out there getting away with it. Common sense, after all, dictates that wherever there’s lots of money, there’s bound to be people willing to cheat to get they’re hands on it. So, with the explosion of Internet poker’s popularity, aren’t the few instances when cheaters get caught just the tip of the proverbial iceberg?
Actually – and contrary to all the good sense you might have rattling around in your head right now – this question isn’t half as rhetorical as it sounds, and its answer is a resounding “No!” No, incidents like those at Absolute and Ultimate aren’t widespread, and no, unless you’re playing in a casino room that isn’t subject to any government oversite and hasn’t earned the approval of third-party inspectors, you won’t run into many scams if you play poker online.
But just so we’re all on the same page here, let’s go over the facts as they stand:
Obviously, we know that cheating in the universal sense is nefarious and always changing. When online poker crashed onto the scene several years ago, one of the first complaints heard in forums and chat casino rooms was that the games were rigged. In almost every instance, the accusations were lobbed at the poker sites themselves, and it seemed that any time some loud mouth had his aces cracked, you’d immediately hear cries of foul play.
These claims are ridiculous because, for one thing, conspiracy theorists – like the poor suckers losing their nest eggs making bad calls – will be with us always. And, too, while it did take some time to assuage peoples’ fears, in the end, this initial wave of complaints broke on a wall of sheer common sense: Why, after all, would a poker operator need to cheat in order to turn a profit; why would a company risk its reputation and possibly forever tarnish its commercial image when it was already raking in tremendous profits? Some poker rooms were earning more than $1 million per day by the time rumors of internal cheating started circulating. Why would online operators throw all that away? Simply put, they wouldn’t.
So, while accusations of site dishonesty still surface, they’ve never really been taken seriously. However, soon after these early scares died down a new scam swept through the online-gambling community: “collusion.” The very nature of online poker meant that collusion (or the exchange of vital information with another player at the same table) was always a distinct possibility. It didn’t take long, then, before many dishonest players began engaging in such activities and, consequently, ripping off scads of their honest counterparts. It’s no mystery why sites weren’t very happy to discover such schemes going on within their Web-based premises. Collusionists can shake down even the best players and, eventually, end up discouraging non-colluding players from playing – which, in turn, cuts down on the amount of vigorish the sites collect.
So did collusion happen? Yes. Does it still? Sometimes….
Today, collusion is still something of a drain on the industry. And, while most major poker casino rooms have attempted to defend their more ethical (or, perhaps, less savvy) patrons by tracking, tracing and banning any player they catch doing so, a small number of veteran collusionists have survived. That being said, every top-tier room in the industry employs sophisticated software that identifies irregular betting patterns for the express purpose of purging the community of these wiliest of wily nuisances, and the number of players attempting to collude has decreased steadily since its introduction. So the idea that there are still loads of collusion syndicates out there waiting to pounce on anyone who logs on to a poker site is like thinking a lion might eat you on your way to work: It simply doesn’t happen unless you’re someplace you shouldn’t be to begin with.
Another concern was the age-old fear that computers could be trained to play and win – to outsmart humans based solely on their ability to make sophisticated computations. “Bots,” some speculated, would never go on tilt and could do things like calculate out and pot odds in a fraction of the time it takes a human. This fear was realized on some fringe sites. But, again, most poker casino rooms promised to never employ such methods, and all the major third-party auditors have done a good job clamping down on those that break their word. There are occasionally rogue operators who pop up offering magical returns (generated through the use of bots, no doubt), but none of them survive in the marketplace. Today, the more active a bot is, the more likely it is to be detected – and the more likely it is the poker community will avoid the site entirely.
Of course, playing at some of the lesser-known poker casino rooms often involves a greater risk, but if you look at the major U.K. companies, you’ll realize that they all try their best to maintain a squeaky-clean image – thanks in no small part to government regulations. The Gambling Act of 2007 sets down strict guidelines when it comes to advertising and promoting poker sites in the U.K. And it’s widely held that, if and when the U.S. government legalizes online “skill games,” American legislators will take a page out of Parliament’s book. Why, then, would sites risk losing their operator licenses just to pull in a few extra bucks? Again, it’s obvious, they wouldn’t.
The major poker rooms insist that online poker is as safe as ever, and as players we have absolutely no reason not to believe them. After all, their future depends on convincing us that online poker is secure, and they’ve sunk millions of dollars into doing so. We know, of course, that attempts at cheating are ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that cheaters pull off their intended scams any more often in online rooms than in brick-and-mortar venues. Hopefully, it will stay that way, and incidents like those at Absolute and Ultimate will remain as rare as they’ve been so far. But to suggest that such examples are only the tip of a cheating iceberg or the symptom of a much greater illness is sheer paranoia. Online poker is, in fact, as safe – if not safer – than its land-based cousin.