For as long as the world has become more and more mechanized the fear that our slaves will one day rise up and overcome us has been very much part of the human consciousness – and also the stuff of science fiction nightmare. The idea that the artificial intelligence that we create will soon become so sophisticated that it can out perform its inventors is definitely a potent one. It’s also one to be taken seriously if authorities as eminent as the late Professor Stephen Hawking are to be believed.

Every so often there is an example that hits the headlines and causes more than a few ripples around the world. One of the most memorable of these occurred back in 1997 when an IBM computer called Deep Blue took on the world chess champion Garry Kasparov and won after a six-game battle. The computer won two games, Kasparov one and there were two draws. This proved, beyond most people’s doubt, that computing power had reached a pivotal moment in its development.

Fast forward to January 2017 and another computer called Libratus was set a twenty day challenge of taking on four poker professionals to see who would win out in a series of games of Texas Hold’em. At the end of the game Libratus was more that $1.7 million to the good while its four opponents had all lost money. That a computer could win out in a game like poker where players only have imperfect information to rely on, unlike chess where nothing is concealed apart from your opponent’s thought processes, made this another key moment in the development of AI.

Although Libratus is a hugely complex and sophisticated computer, there’s a chance that anyone playing online poker will come up against a distant cousin of it in the form of a poker bot. These are pieces of software designed to hide behind the anonymity of the online game and to automatically take on all comers. Not surprisingly, they are banned from all poker sites but, unfortunately, this doesn’t always deter people from using them.

However, players who have been suspected of using poker bots have faced some serious sanctions in the past, including being banned from sites and having all their winnings confiscated. In terms of the law, the picture is not absolutely clear and to date no prosecutions have been made but having winnings frozen is probably the most effective way to deter the practice.

How to poker bots work?

Behind the bluffs and gameplay, poker is essentially a game of probabilities. So, using the information that’s available, players can guesstimate their chances of winning the hand. All a poker bot can do is to take the information that it has and calculate what action on its part will present it with the best chance of winning. Whether a computer can really be successful in a game which is so much to do with intuition and behaviour is obviously open to debate. There’s even the feeling that this may not be the primary aim of poker bots. Their ability to continue playing automatically for hours on end makes them the perfect tools for earning welcome bonuses which have strict play requirements before they are awarded.

It’s also worth noting that designing a poker bot takes a huge amount of time and effort so only the most dedicated of AI designers would have the inclination to go through the long and laborious process for such uncertain returns.

The strengths of poker bots

Having said this, there are some undoubted strengths to poker bots which can make them notable adversaries (although some of these can also be regarded as significant weaknesses too).

The first is that they are never affected by fatigue, unlike people. So any decisions that they make are unaffected by a lapse in concentration. And because money is essentially meaningless to a bot there is no fear involved in taking risks that a human player might balk at (although risk is not really part of a poker bot’s programming because all of the decisions made are based on mathematical calculations to establish the logical best course of action.)

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a poker bot will also have its own HUD built in that will be constantly sifting through the data it has on the game and player which will then inform its decision-making processes going forward.

 How to spot the bot

With more and more people playing in online casinos, even on their mobile phones, being able to identify a bot is becoming increasingly important.

As anyone who’s ever listened to a computer-generated voice on customer service line will know, even the closest imitations of human behaviour are easy to spot. The same is true of the poker bot. It lacks that certain X-factor that humanity brings, and this comes out in four distinct facets:

  • Poker bots frequently make the same sized bets time after time
  • They make repeated use of uncommon lines
  • They make all their decisions after a set time
  • They will not be using the chat facility

So when you notice a combination of these behaviours you can be reasonably sure that a bot lies behind them and the solution is to start using some tried and trusted ways to overcome the poker bot. They can and will be beaten, you just need to do some background research.

What are poker sites doing to stop the bots?

Naturally, integrity is vital for online poker sites, so they have many procedures in place to protect their genuine players. The first of these is to have a CAPTCHA system to check that there’s a real human being behind each new registration. Although not 100% fool proof these are becoming more and more sophisticated to deal with the threat. They also have security teams always looking to spot suspicious patterns of play which need further investigation and which, when proven, bring about the sanctions that we’ve already mentioned.

Looking to the future, we can be reasonably confident that the most reputable poker sites will always stay at least one step ahead of the bots. And, however complex they do become, they’ll never be a full match for the human intuition that goes into making a successful poker player either.