Key NY Lawmaker’s Latest Concern On Online Poker Bill: Can You Stop Collusion?

August 3, 2016
Key NY Lawmaker’s Latest Concern On Online Poker Bill: Can You Stop Collusion?

New York came awfully close to legalizing online poker this year, and the poker community is hopeful the momentum of 2016 will get a bill across the finish line in 2017.

But there is reason to be concerned, as the way the bill died frustrated many online poker supporters.

A bill legalizing online poker in the Empire State, S 5302, easily passed the New York State Senate by a vote of 53-5, but died in the Assembly. Despite the overwhelming support in the Senate, it was not even brought to the floor for a vote.

What was believed to be a popular bill was left to wither and die on the vine.

If NY online poker is going to get done in 2017, it seems like online poker advocates will need to engage key lawmakers and quell some of their remaining concerns.

One such lawmaker is Assemblyman Gary Pretlow.

Pretlow seems like an odd legislator to target, since he’s been at the forefront of the state’s online poker and daily fantasy sports legalization efforts in the Assembly, and has authored the online poker bills that have been introduced in the statehouse over the past few years.

But Pretlow says he still needs convincing on certain issues.

‘Prove to me you can’t cheat’

I met Assemblyman Pretlow at the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States conference (NCLGS) last week and had the opportunity to talk to him at length about online poker’s chances in 2017.

After asking him if New York would get an online poker bill passed in 2017, I spent the bulk of Friday’s lunch discussing cheating and collusion in poker with the man who chairs the all important Assembly Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering.

According to Pretlow, his overarching concern is the potential for players to collude.

Pretlow remains unconvinced online poker operators can detect this form of cheating based on the information he has seen and received. According to Pretlow, online poker operators have touted their collusion detection software.

But he remains wary of it, having never seen it in action, and having to simply accept that it works.

Nothing is foolproof

Pretlow is obviously over-asking when he wants proof that cheating can’t occur. Nothing can be guaranteed.

Casino security is regularly breached by underage players, as are liquor stores and bars. People still try to rob banks and businesses even though these are criminal acts.

The real question Pretlow is asking is this: Can online poker sites mitigate the possibility of collusion to an “acceptable” level?

The answer is “yes.” Furthermore, the poker community and online poker operators should have no problem proving that it’s much harder to collude online than it is at a land-based card room.

A failure to communicate

During my discussion with the assemblyman, it became obvious he wasn’t well-versed on collusion or how an online poker site would detect it.

For instance, Pretlow seemed very surprised when I explained an online poker site has a history of every hand I’ve ever played, and can send me the hand history upon request.

He was even more surprised to learn that the site’s security teams would have access to hand histories showing these same hands with every players’ hole cards, allowing the site to quickly detect cases of overt collusion and many cases of covert collusion.

They can also track common opponents and see if two or more players always (or more often than not) sit at the same table together.

With this type of information at a site’s disposal, even Pretlow conceded it’s much easier to collude in a live poker game than online. And if that’s the case, than online poker’s anti-collusion safeguards should exceed the “acceptable” level.

A crash course on collusion

Before I delve into the actual safeguards in place at online poker sites, here’s a look at the different types of collusion and how sites go about detecting and punishing colluders.

The first thing we need to do is understand there are different types of collusion, and I won’t even get into unintentional collusion.

Overt collusion

The most common type of collusion is what I’ll call “obvious” collusion. This type of collusion is almost always perpetrated by bad players and is simple to detect online.

Overt collusion is so blatant that it becomes apparent to the other players in the game that certain players are working together. If their cards were ever turned face-up (as they are to the online poker site’s security team) they’d quickly be exposed as cheaters and booted from the site.

Covert collusion

Covert collusion is a bit harder to detect without seeing each players’ cards multiple times, and the perpetrators are usually more skilled, and understand when they can use the defense of plausible deniability.

That being said, covert collusion is easier to prove online than in a land-based card room, since the site has a record of every hand the players were involved in, and can see how often they sit at the same table together and if their strategies change when they do.

Situational collusion

Situational collusion is extremely difficult to detect without playing many hands against the perpetrators. While it’s harder to detect (if not impossible in some cases) its impact on the other players is minimal.

Situational collusion isn’t designed to slit opponents’ throats at the first opportunity; rather, it’s meant to subtly increase the colluders’ win rates while escaping detection.

The good news is this type of collusion is rarely encountered in low-stakes games, as the colluders need to be high-level players to pull it off. And outside of really high-stakes games the benefit (a slight increase to a player’s win rate) doesn’t outweigh the risks associated with getting caught. And yes, this type of collusion has been sniffed out in the past.

Essentially, anyone capable of pulling off this type of collusion is already a winner, which is why you don’t see many cases of it. Not many people earning $100/hour playing poker are going to collude to increase their win rate to $102/hour.

In regulated markets, this type of collusion is much harder due to the player verification process and the rule of one account per person. All the more reason to legalize online poker.

A look at the anti-collusion measures in place

As I already noted, online poker sites have several safeguards in place to detect collusion.

The first line of defense: Software

Online poker sites use several embedded programs to detect collusion.

First would be a screen-scraping program. You’ll notice the terms and conditions at most online poker sites allow the site to take screen shots of your computer to see what programs you’re running.

What they’re looking for is banned software that would give a player an advantage, and potentially useful programs like Skype or some other method of instant messaging where information could be relayed.

While this will uncover lazy collusion, it’s an embedded program designed to detect non-standard, potentially collusive play that will uncover the majority of colluders. This algorithmic program, which has access to every single hand a player has participated in, is why it’s much harder to collude online than live.

The second line of defense: Reported accounts

If the site’s software fails in detecting colluders the players at the table, it can still file a report if they suspect other players are colluding.

According to an Amaya presentation in front of the Michigan Senate, PokerStars deals 12 million hands of poker a day, and PokerStars gets about nine collusion complaints per day, and just three complaints of bots per day.

The Amaya representative, Director of Operations Steven Winter, didn’t provide information on how many of the complaints turn out to be colluders or bots, and how many are false alarms.

In the same presentation, Winter went on to explain how the site’s security team used software and human experts to detect collusion, the latter being the next line of defense.

The third line of defense: Experienced human eyes

If an account is flagged, an expert poker player can then look into questionable hands to see if they “make sense” so to speak.

  • Does the unorthodox play only occur when they are in a hand with a specific player?
  • Do these unorthodox plays always pay off for the accused players?
  • Does the player make other unorthodox plays that would be detrimental if they knew another player’s cards?

If a pattern of questionable play is uncovered, the site can take action against the offending players.

The final line of defense: Self-policing

Sometimes, when all else fails, the poker community is able to assemble a case against colluders. This typically happens when the collusion is subtle, and an experienced player’s intuition that something is amiss kicks in.

One of the best examples of this was the Stoxtrader investigation from 2010.

A case of moving goal posts?

Since online poker sites do a good job of insuring game integrity, and can provide the proper evidence to back this up, the real question is whether Pretlow’s collusion concerns are real. Are his concerns based on the safeguards in place not being properly communicated to him, or is this just the latest concern Pretlow has cooked up to explain why online poker didn’t get a vote in the Assembly?

It should be noted that after the bill failed, Pretlow said he pushed for DFS but not online poker because poker wasn’t a game of skill; there was no mention of collusion concerns. The assemblyman told he questioned poker’s skillfulness because you can change the size of the bet, whereas DFS has a fixed entry fee… sort of like a poker tournament.

Pretlow’s reasoning was, shall we say, suspect. And not just to online poker supporters.

New York State Senator John Bonacic, who championed the bill that passed in the Senate, didn’t buy that explanation. Following Pretlow’s comments, Bonacic told, “When I asked him if he was going to move the bill, he said he didn’t know. He never said to me what he told you.”

Bonacic’s criticism of his Pretlow didn’t end there, as he told PokerNews:

“He could have just said that he didn’t have support this time to get it to the floor.

“That would be better than what he said. Why say that when the bill is not going to change? I don’t know how he is going to backtrack, unless he says he spoke to a lot of poker players and changed his mind.”

What Bonacic seems to be saying is Pretlow came up with the “it’s not a game of skill” argument after the fact. Which should make us all wonder if his concerns about collusion are real, or just the next iteration in the classic political game of moving goal posts.

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