On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Bot

Written by David Kushner, Wired

Thursday September 1st, 2005

In the booming world of online poker, anyone can win. Especially with an autoplaying robot ace in the hole. Are you in, human?

It’s late one Wednesday afternoon, and CptPokr is logged on to PartyPoker.com and ready to play. Onscreen, the captain exudes a certain brash charisma – broad shoulders, immaculate brown hair, restless animatronic eyes. He looks like he should be playing synth in Kraftwerk. Instead, he is seated at a virtual table with nine other avatars, wagering on limit Texas hold ’em.

There’s plenty at stake. An estimated 1.8 million gamblers around the world ante up for online poker every month. Last year, poker sites raked in an estimated $1.4 billion, an amount expected to double in 2005.

Ever since the aptly named accountant Chris Moneymaker parlayed a $40 Internet tournament buy-in into a $2.5 million championship at the World Series of Poker in 2003, card shark wannabes have been chasing their fantasies onto the Net. Some even quit their day jobs and try to make a living at online poker. And why not? This shadowy world is driven by no less a force than the great American dream. As the tournament’s motto goes, “Anyone can win.” There’s one problem, though, as CptPokr is about to demonstrate: The rules of the game are different online.

CptPokr is a robot. Unlike the other icons at the table, there is no human placing his bets and playing his cards. He is controlled by WinHoldEm, the first commercially available autoplaying poker software. Seat him at the table and he will apply strategy gleaned from decades of research. While carbon-based players munch Ding Dongs, yawn, guzzle beer, reply to email, take phone calls, and chat on IM, CptPokr (a pseudonym) is running the numbers so it will know, statistically, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

Smart, skilled players are rewarded in the long run, especially online, where there are plenty of beginners who would never have the nerve to sit down at a real table. But WinHoldEm isn’t just smart, it’s a machine. Set it to run on autopilot and it wins real money while you sleep. Flick on Team mode and you can collude with other humans running WinHoldEm at the table.

For years, there has been chatter among online players about the coming poker bot infestation. WinHoldEm is turning those rumors into reality, and that is a serious problem for the online gambling business. Players come online seeking a “fair” shot – a contest against other humans, not robots. But an invasion of bots implies a fixed game (even though, like their mortal counterparts, they can and do lose if their hands are bad enough or opponents good enough). So the poker sites loudly proclaim that automated play is no big deal. At the same time, they are fighting back by quietly scanning for and eliminating suspicious accounts. “We’re making sure we never have bots on our site,” says PartyPoker marketing director Vikrant Bhargava.

That’s an impossible promise to keep, says Ray E. Bornert II, WinHoldEm’s elusive creator. He’s trying to flood the online world with his bot – and make a killing in the process. Bornert offers an elaborate justification for what many view as outright cheating: Online poker is already rife with computer-assisted card sharks and – thanks to him – a growing number of outright bots. Players should get wise and arm themselves with the best bot available, which is, of course, WinHoldEm.

There’s a quiet knock at the door of a hotel room in Atlanta. It’s Bornert. A stocky, wide-faced 43-year-old with a neat goatee and nervous manner, he’s carrying a router in a plastic bag. To demonstrate his software, he insists on meeting here in private, several miles from his office. He doesn’t want anyone from the poker business to know where he is. “Our guard is constantly up,” he says.

For Bornert, a former evangelical student, outsmarting the poker sites is not just a mission, it’s a market. A suite of WinHoldEm programs is available for download at www.winholdem.net. For $25, you get a bare-bones setup: run-of-the-mill poker-hand analysis software. For $200, you can buy the full package: a one-year subscription to the team edition, which includes the autoplaying bot and a card-sharing module that allows multiple players to communicate during a game. Bornert won’t say how many customers he has; he’ll admit only that he makes a living selling WinHoldEm.

For customers, buying the bot is just a starting point. The program works something like a music equalizer, but instead of adjusting bass and treble, you tweak betting strategies – how to play a pair of fives early in the game, for example, or when to fold cards that might look promising to a beginner. Most users customize the software by inputting a batch of rules, called a formula set. Bot aficionados scour poker manuals and online forums to cull the best strategies. They swap formula sets like gamers swap mods. “This is from Sklansky’s Tournament Poker for Advanced Players, pages 122-133,” reads a typical note posted to the WinHoldEm forums.

Bornert isn’t claiming he can create millionaires. Bots are subject to the same cold streaks as real players. But, unlike humans, the machines play with relentless cunning and tireless discipline, raking in small pots from low-limit tables where less-experienced opponents hang out. Traditionalists in the poker chat rooms scorn Bornert. “You are a pathetic immoral piece of shit loser,” reads a recent post, “completely devoid of morals and ethics.”

He hardly cares. Bornert insists that he’s bringing to light the hypocrisy of the gambling sites. It’s an unlikely role for a guy who grew up in Dallas and Phoenix as a self-described “geek jock” playing football and studying biblical history. “I’d always been taught gambling was evil,” he says. He went on to Oral Roberts University, where he became fascinated with cards after seeing a late-night infomercial for a blackjack scheme.

Bornert was pursuing a degree in computer science, and the ad intrigued him. He set up some simulations to test the card-counting technique and found that a player could, in fact, get the edge. That’s when a light went on: Blackjack wasn’t really gambling after all. With enough smarts, a player could master it and win. “No one could say I was addicted to a losing game,” Bornert says. “It was beatable.” After seven consecutive profitable trips to Vegas, Bornert got hooked on winning.

As the poker boom hit the Net, Bornert found himself working for the house. He took a job as a senior systems engineer with RealTime Gaming, an Atlanta-based developer of online casino software. While working on blackjack software in 2001, he started tinkering with his own card-analysis software on the side. Such programs – Poker Tracker, Poker Edge, Holdem Winner – have since become an acceptable and indispensable part of the scene. They’re used like calculators to keep tabs on shifting stats. It didn’t take long for Bornert to make the next logical connection – what he calls the “golden goose” of online poker. Rather than consult card-analysis software while playing, why not hook up the software directly to the game?

Bornert had no ethical qualms about creating a poker bot. The way he saw it, the poker sites were duping people into believing that a game of hold ’em online was as safe and secure as one at any casino in Vegas. “The reality is that the game changed the moment it moved to the Internet,” Bornert says. Bots and bot-aided collusion were inevitable. Rather than seduce anyone into thinking such things didn’t exist, Bornert had another notion: Put the power in the players’ hands. By democratizing computer-assisted firepower, he’d make it part of the competition. “It’s like football – if you don’t wear a helmet and pads, you’re going to get hurt,” he says. “A poker bot is your equipment.” And if that is considered unethical, then so be it. “I’d rather be unethical than be a victim,” he says. “This is intentional civil disobedience.”

In 2003, Bornert quit his job at RealTime Gaming and devoted himself to writing WinHoldEm. He quickly had a working prototype, which serves as the template for the bot he sells today. When a user boots up the software and logs on for a game, all the players’ cards and chips are represented onscreen. WinHoldEm first scans the screen for information. The data is put into memory and analyzed according to the player’s formula set. Each action – calling, raising, going all-in – is controlled by a series of yes-no formulas.

By fall, Bornert was ready to test his software. He logged on to a $5-limit hold ’em tournament on Paradise Poker and watched the program go. A crucial element of the test was to see how long the application could stay online without being detected. Eventually, Bornert went to bed – but the bot didn’t. The next morning when he checked his computer, WinHoldEm had won. It wasn’t a lot of money, only $30, but it proved a point. “I almost shed tears,” he recalls. “I know what Dr. Frankenstein felt like. It was a totally intoxicating experience.”

On Super Bowl Sunday 2004, Bornert began offering his program online. It didn’t take long for the poker sites to catch on and fight back. Within weeks, they were scanning games to see if anyone was running WinHoldEm, and users were getting booted off poker sites before they could cash out. “Players no longer feel comfortable if they think they’re playing a computer,” says Scott Wilson, director of operations for Paradise Poker. “You would lose credibility fast if they felt your environment wasn’t human-to-human.”

Players themselves also took steps against the bots, using a site’s chat function to smoke out the software. Moneymaker likes to engage players in small talk between hands. “Poker bots can’t make conversation,” he says. Meanwhile, bot users started developing their own counter-countermeasures, like limiting their time at any one table to minimize the appearance that a relentless machine is involved. And they can control their bots from a remote computer to evade detection by poker sites that scan for WinHoldEm on a hard drive.

The battle goes beyond Bornert’s app. Other bots are appearing on the scene – including some that were never intended for online play. For the past 14 years, computer scientists at the University of Alberta Games Group have been building the poker version of Deep Blue: a program that can beat a top player, just as IBM’s bot trumped Garry Kasparov in chess. “I’d love to be there when the computer raises the stakes by $100,000,” says UA’s Jonathan Schaeffer. “I want to see the bead of perspiration going down the human opponent’s forehead. That’s my dream.”

There’s reason to sweat even now. Not because Schaeffer’s bot is taking on world champs – that’s a few years off – but because bits of the underlying UA code have escaped into the wild. Schaeffer licensed his team’s software to the makers of applications like Poker Academy, which trains players in the game’s finer points. But hackers have extracted the underlying code and are putting it to use in their poker bots.

Poker site operators say there’s nothing to worry about, and for them there isn’t. For now, sites continue to earn healthy profits because they make money by taking a percentage – the “rake” – of every pot. “If anyone’s losing money because of the bots, it’s the players,” says Poker Academy CEO Kurt Lange. “It’s inevitably going to become a serious problem when they figure out that bots win hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.” Indeed, PartyPoker reportedly has 100 employees scanning for the presence of bots.

PartyPoker’s Bhargava insists that the game is still fair. “There are people who spend all their waking hours dreaming about how to bring us down,” he says. “They can dream about creating fantasy bots that will play for them or make them money while they sleep, but that’s not going to happen.”

“All right, we’re on!” says Bornert, as the two laptops in the hotel room fire up WinHoldEm and join a game of Texas hold ’em on none other than PartyPoker. “Awesome!”

As the bot folds onscreen, Bornert leans back in his chair and soaks it in. Though he’s watched this scene countless times, he’s still impressed with his own technology. He imagines a day when sites acknowledge the presence of bots and when players embrace them as part of the action. But this won’t happen, he says, until players take up the cause. “You’ve been woken up,” he says, as the bot rakes in its chips. “Now what are you going to do?” Bornert hopes they reach the obvious conclusion: Use a bot, too.