Levelling the Field

Levelling the Field

Friday, 4 October 2013

Michael Copley asks whether poker software should be banned?

As Phil Galfond and Rob Yong call for the need to make wholesale changes in order to preserve the future of online poker, Michael Copley of PokerWinners argues that banning tracking software and databasing websites could be for the benefit of all.

As poker players it’s our job to maximise our profitability and to find every ethical edge we can gain. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the majority of serious poker players use some form of poker software, such as Hold’em Manager, PokerTracker, SharkScope, PokerTableRatings or TableScan Turbo, as a way to maximise their edges.

Through my position as MD of PokerStaking.com, I spend hours each day analysing players through Hold’em Manager to identify leaks or using SharkScope to identify strengths and weaknesses in game selection, as well using a HUD display in my own games to increase awareness of my opponents’ action. Contrary to popular belief, it takes hundreds of hours to learn the full benefit of these tools and only a few will ever learn to use them effectively.

You are probably expecting me, then, to argue the benefits of these tools and to fight to keep them, but actually I believe it may be for the greater good to move towards a more purist poker world.

What’s the problem with the current setup?

The problem is that online poker is in decline. The gap in skill between the recreational players and the serious players has never been greater, and yet the serious poker players are still finding it harder than ever to win consistently, as weaker players are being swallowed up at a faster rate than new players are entering the poker economy.

Players are simply not attracted to the poker tables like they once were. It’s not that the country is in recession or that people don’t want to play poker; it’s simply that many believe themselves to be at a distinct disadvantage, as they don’t have the time or the inclination to learn about the many tools available.

When new players find their way to the tables, they are likely to lose money initially before they become more accomplished and learn to hold their own. Each time the new players lose those funds they are then faced with a decision about whether to deposit again or whether they end their online poker careers.

When they hear that the level playing field they thought they had was actually not that level, as their opponents had access to software to aid their play and were able to find information about their profitability even though they had never sat at the same tables before, it’s not hard to see why some people decide against playing on.

Poker rooms have tried, in recent years, to artificially reduce the edge that serious poker players have over recreational players because they understand that it’s to their benefit to reduce the amount of money being withdrawn from the economy and increase the time that weaker players play before they inevitably lose their money – thus increasing the room’s ability to gather rake for a longer period.

My issue is that some of the changes the poker rooms have made are short-term solutions and, in my opinion, they are to the detriment of the majority of poker players at every level of the game. The main way that poker rooms protect newer players is to provide ring-fenced games for beginners that ensure they aren’t at the same tables as stronger opponents who can relieve them of their money in record time. This is a setup I fully agree with and one that benefits players of all levels in the long-run.

Secondly, poker rooms have gradually moved towards poorer-structured games, because the shallower the stacks are, the less time there is for good players to accumulate chips. This means the games become about pre-flop shove/call ranges. While sharks may be less likely to beat these games long-term, they are still better equipped to adapt their game as the level of the blinds increase, and my feeling is that new players are far less likely to gain enjoyment from the frustration of “not getting any cards” as the blinds eat their stacks too fast. It would be better for them to play a good-structured game that allowed them to get involved in pots without having to play for their stacks, and be able to observe opponents playing proper poker.

Thirdly, some poker rooms have closed down the accounts of the biggest winning players. This is a poor solution that punishes players for reaching the top of their profession, reduces the motivation of others to achieve success, and has no real effect on the poker economy as new sharks emerge to take their place.

Finally, the most controversial policy, and one which I believe crosses the line of acceptable ethics, is that one poker room operates a policy in which the cash tables that a player sees when he logs on are dependent on his ability. If the player is a big winning player, he will only be given the option of playing against other big winning players. If he is a losing player, he will only play against other losing players. As a result, no player’s edge over an opponent is ever that great.

Players are never aware who they are playing against or how they are categorised, and most are unaware of the policy that exists. If they were aware, they would soon realise that there is no reason to try to improve because they will always be playing at a level that will be hard to beat long-term. In the short-term, it may benefit the poker room and newer players, but in the long-term I think it has the potential to cause great damage to the game we love.


How can we solve this?

The conclusion that I have come to is that the industry must act to level the playing field in ways that are ethical. Short-term, this would require serious players to adapt, but long-term I think it would increase the potential to make strong profits, because a good player’s edge comes from the fact that recreational players enjoy playing poker and see the value in playing purely for entertainment in the hope of a big win, but don’t begrudge any losses they incur.

Firstly, tracking websites such as SharkScope and PokerTableRatings, which provide information on opponents (even though you may never have played against them), should be banned so that players are not able to search opponents to view their profitability and make assumptions about how they are likely to play.

New players don’t necessarily know about this software, but imagine their disgust when first discover it and they log on to see their losing graph and realise how much their hobby has cost them. A few might be driven on to find out why they haven’t been winning, but the majority will say enough is enough.
It’s not right that our poker investment should be on display for everyone to see, against our wishes, and it can be highly embarrassing for poker players of all levels when friends or opponents are able to see their losses.

Secondly, personal databases such as HEM which track our opponents’ every move, essentially observing the table on our behalves, should be banned by the poker rooms so we move back to the days of taking notes on opponents, rather than notes being taken for us.

The strong players will still have a huge edge – perhaps even a bigger edge long-term – but it will level the playing field and remove any doubt about how much these tools aid their opponents. I’ve heard many a complaint about how HEM tells players what to do and how it’s impossible to beat the software cheats. This is far from the truth, but it’s these false perceptions that put players off playing the game.

What would be the effect for players if these were banned?

If tracking sites and personal databases were banned tomorrow, I don’t believe the stronger players would see a great decline in their ability to make profits, either in the short or long-term, but newer players would be more enticed to play poker and as a result we would move back towards poker growth and sustainability.

Today’s HEM wizards would have to adapt and, gradually, the large edge a good player may have built up through their in-depth understanding of the tools available would start to decline and the leaks would begin to creep back into their game more and more, as it’s harder to self-analyse to constantly stay ahead of the game.

This would be countered, however, by increasing numbers of recreational poker players and, although the good player’s edge over these players may be smaller than it is today, the increasing availability of action would provide the same earning potential, if not more.

The players who have learnt to use these tools effectively would be able to adapt without a HUD. Many would reduce the number of tables they play in order to be able to observe the tables better, but in actual fact many would probably enjoy moving away from the routine of playing from statistics in favour of playing a purer form of poker once again.

As players generally drop the number of tables they play as a result of not having HUDs, the social aspect of poker would return, which again can only be positive in terms of attracting new players. Many players currently don’t watch the tables because the stats can do this for them, and so they don’t see who they are playing against, the situations that occur or any chat that is aimed at them in the chat box. When the majority of poker players are back to two- to six-tabling as a maximum, it becomes more sociable and player enjoyment increases. Poker can be a lonely game and anything we can do to make it more sociable must be a good thing.

I’ve helped a lot of players make a lot of money over the past five years through teaching them to understand their games, the leaks that exist, and encouraging them to work to optimise their performance in every decision they make. Tracking websites and personal data-mining tools have become an essential part of my daily routine, and I’d say that I probably understand the benefits of these more than most – but the truth is that the reason that we have been successful isn’t because we have learnt to use software that’s given us a free meal ticket; it’s because we have wanted success more than our opponents and we have worked harder than our opponents to analyse and understand how we can stay one step ahead. Place everyone back on a fairer playing field, implement changes to bring back the wider appeal of online poker, and the players who want it the most will still dedicate themselves to staying ahead of the game. Meanwhile, poker as a whole will be a lot healthier and a lot more enjoyable to the masses.

For more strategy, training, news, tips, forums, community and advice visit PokerWinners.com. Winning is your choice.

Tags: Michael Copley, software, strategy