Sunday, May 13, 2007

Night of the Living Bots

Night of the Living BotsIn the wee hours last Wednesday morning, a frequent poster to the Two Plus Two forums started a new thread called “NL Bots on Full Tilt.” The post is a terrific read. It begins with a bold claim -- “I discovered NL bots on Full Tilt earlier this year” -- then proceeds to provide what at first blush appears to be convincing evidence that, indeed, he’d encountered four different players at the NL200 tables whose play looks as though it has been thoroughly determined by a computer program of some sort.

For the most part, the narrative trajectory of the post reads like one of those Invasion of the Body Snatchers/The Thing from Another World paranoia-fueled sci-fi thrillers. It is a normal winter’s day. Our hero decides to play some no limit HE and to prepare does some extensive datamining on Full Tilt. He notices bizarrely-similar stats for several different players, ultimately whittling his list of suspected “bots” down to three. (Later on, a fourth player will emerge as another “bot” suspect.) Having gathered 100,000+ hands for two of the players, 80,000+ for a third, and 40,000+ for a fourth, he notes how all four sport nearly identical numbers for voluntarily putting money into the pot, preflop raising, calling preflop raises, continuation betting (on all streets), folding blinds to steal attempts, folding to bets (on all streets), and so forth.

Later he’ll collect other evidence -- e.g., timing tells, the absence of chat -- that further fuels his suspicion that not only are the decisions being determined by a computer, but that the players’ actions (bet-sizing, mouse-clicks) have been accomplished by a script. In other words, just as he set up his datamining software to run while he was away, so, too, has someone set up some sort of program to run on its own -- only this one is actually playing poker.

Rather than alert Full Tilt immediately, our hero decides to play against the so-called bots, “trying to exploit their tendencies” for his own benefit. He enjoys some success, until one of the “bots” begins to alter its play. When the “bot” chats back at him, he knows definitively that its “owner” has taken over. He begins to recognize the difference between “supervised” and “unsupervised” play among the players. Then in early February he notices that every time he logs on, all of the “bots” instantly log off (apparently avoiding him). That’s when he decides to email Full Tilt to complain.

A few weeks after his email, our hero notices the “bots” are no longer appearing on the site. Finally, nearly three months after his initial complaint, Full Tilt responds to say the case has been closed. FTP won’t provide any further information about the matter, other than to say over 40 accounts had been thoroughly investigated. “It’s finally over,” writes our hero.

This is the point where the story changes into more of a Halloween/Friday the 13th-styled horrorshow. Last weekend, our hero sits down for a little NL on Full Tilt and what does he see? The “bots” are back! “Just seeing the usernames at the tables again made me physically angry,” he writes. He then concludes with a petition to 2+2ers to flood Full Tilt support with emails in the hopes the “bots” will be killed off once and for all.

Provocative stuff. Enough to ignite just over 1,000 replies within the next twenty-four hours. (At the moment, the thread appears to be losing steam at around 1,800 total replies.) Reading through the thread -- especially that first wave of crazed response -- put me in mind of another variety of horror film, George A. Romero’s zombie series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead), films that neatly combine both the us-vs.-them theme of 50s paranoid SF and the coming-back-from-the-dead motif of the “boogeyman” horror flicks of the 70s/80s.

Early in the thread, some Encyclopedia Brownesque detective work leads discussants to determine the “bots” to have originated from the Pittsburgh area. A couple of usernames allude to Pittsburgh sports franchises, and another turned up over on Pocket Fives as belonging to a player living in Johnstown, PA (about an hour-and-a-half drive from Pittsburgh).

Of course, the zombies came from Pittsburgh, too -- that’s where each of Romero’s Dead films is set.

There are other ways the issue and the thread evoke the zombie series. The whole discussion is tinged with apocalyptic dread -- as the original post suggests, “The threat everyone assumed was a few years away is already here.” While such “end of the world” fears are certainly warranted when dead people are coming back to life to munch on the living, it isn’t clear how such rhetoric contributes to the debate over poker bots.

Another similarity concerns the almost comprehensive failure to recognize the irony surrounding the original poster using a computer program to play poker, then discovering -- horrors! -- another player is using a computer program to play poker. (See Kick Ass Poker’s smart explanation of this facet of the story.) The Dead films also frequently provide examples of how the living resemble the dead -- and how the living fail to recognize the similarities.

Finally, all of the Dead films feature survivors failing to work together to confront the threat they are facing. Such a failure to communicate effectively leads to the living often killing each other before the dead can get to them. This theme flares up occasionally in the “NL Bots on Full Tilt” thread as well, with posters frequently turning on one another in non-productive ways. Anyone who doubts the original theory regarding the bots is immediately suspected as being in league with the programmers. (Anyone with a low post count is also to be distrusted.) Even betraying some link to Pittsburgh gets a poster some grief.

What’s the moral? Well, it ain’t the end of the world. (In fact, none of Romero’s films end that way, either.) It ain’t even purely “bots” here, either. Still, the case does illuminate how online poker can never really be the sort of authentic interaction between real live humans that happens in the casino. On Thursday evening a representative of Full Tilt started a new thread -- “Official Full Tilt Poker Response to Bot Thread” -- that says “We take bots very seriously” and that given the “inconclusive” evidence of the case “We stand by our decision” to unfreeze the accounts. Some responded to say they would no longer play on Full Tilt Poker. Perhaps they are justified. But if they move on to play on other online poker sites, they’ll necessarily encounter the same mixture of man-and-machine across the table there as well.

You frequently hear attempts to gauge what percentage of poker is skill and what percentage is luck. When it comes to online poker, it is probably more apt to ask what percentage is human and what percentage is not. ’Cause 100% “living” it ain’t. Not ever.



Blogger eblonk said...

I guess it´s an advantage to play non Texas Holdem games, especially avoiding no limit. Let someone try to write a bot for that. And if they do that, I can always move to another game. Steve wrote in Super system 2 about being the hedgehog or the fox. Online almost any game is available, so you´d say the arguments fails there. But poker, being the game that it is, will always find a way to make it basic rules true whatever form the game takes. Those who diversified beyond Texas Holdem have a distinct advantage. Viva Omaha. Or, come to think of it, HORSE :D :D

5/13/2007 10:13 AM  
Anonymous richard said...

Yeah, I heard about this from a friend that used to play at FT. He told me there were a lot of bots there. Didn't give me any proof, but I believed him and I guess all this stuff lately about bots on FT proves it.

I think the scariest thing about bots for me is the human and computer interaction when we expect and human and human interaction. And the fact that it's difficult to tell if we're playing against a bot is the interesting thing, in terms of does the player get the same enjoyment out of playing against a bot? Does it matter?

I think I saw on Television show a while ago, how people were developing these computers screens that had facial expressions and could talk to people and hold a real conversation. And they planned to market this to kids, so that when their parents were at work that someone could keep them company.

I think it just makes the world all the more lonely.

5/13/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Cadmunkey said...

I've also followed that 2+2 thread with great interest. Sites like that scare me, the 'lynch-mob' style attitude of some members mean I would never dare post there. Or equally so at somewhere like 'pocket fives'.

Love the comparison to Romeros flicks LOL!
Keep up the good work bud, I'm loving it as always.

5/13/2007 5:26 PM  
Blogger Cell 1919 said...

Agree with munkey...the posters on there generally need a good and painful lesson in humility.

5/13/2007 5:35 PM  
Blogger Aquaman said...

Any blog post that can combine Zombie movies and poker is a must read! Well done Shamus.

5/14/2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger microlimitdonkey said...

Twoplustwo and pocket fives are very clicky making it almost impossible for new posters to feel welcome there.

As for the bots, I really don't know what to think about it.

Oh and thanks for tagging me mate :p

5/15/2007 10:01 AM  

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