We needed to get ahead of the curve and ensure we had the tools necessary to fight the existential threat to online poker. Ever since the first real money online poker cards were dealt in the virtual arena over two decades ago, tech-savvy players have been trying to gain an advantage and potentially exploit flaws in the programming.
The poker rooms themselves put as much thought into keeping the environment as safe as possible, and this duel has continued ever since. Arguably, one of the biggest threats to the game’s integrity is the so-called Real Time Assistance (RTA), which has been in the headlines numerous times, especially in the last few years.
Recently, PokerStars published an update on its blog platform, in which the Head of Game Integrity, Francis Lincoln, gives an insight into the efforts to combat RTA.
Lincoln iterates on which aspects are considered, what kind of information is gathered, and what the entire process looks like. Specific details are not necessarily revealed, which comes as no surprise as it would otherwise compromise the game integrity efforts.
“We needed to get ahead of the curve and ensure we had the tools necessary to fight the existential threat to online poker,” the operator writes in its blog post.
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PokerStars has its own in-house game integrity department that has “existed for nearly 20 years.”
According to Lincoln, the operator uses “a wealth of data gathered from numerous sources” to identify unusual gaming patterns. This includes the real-time monitoring of player decisions and actions, such as mouse clicks at the tables, which previously led to the detection of so-called “fully-automated bots.”
The evolution of helping tools and Game Theory Optimal (GTO) platforms have since required constant innovation and research in order to stay ahead of the curve. Closing loopholes is just one part of the job from an integrity point of view. However, new threats will emerge all the time. According to the operator, GTO solutions were already identified as one of the core threats well before they became available on the market.
Tools and Detection Process
Our RTA detection tool is far more than just a database of solutions. We use many ways to identify the different types of cheaters. PokerStars also revealed that they have developed in-house detection and analysis tools and have fully integrated them into the operating system. The RTA detection tool is not limited to just a database but different methods — for example, how often perfect GTO lines are being used or what programs might run simultaneously in order to get advice. Furthermore, the technical setup of the player and how it interacts with the software client is also considered as well.
“Our RTA detection tool is far more than just a database of solutions,” the operator says. “We use many ways to identify the different types of cheaters.”
All of this is referred to under the umbrella of “differing and specialized methodologies” but doesn’t reveal the core details gathered. The ultimate goal not just of PokerStars but all online poker operators is an even playing field for each customer, whether they are experienced pros, ambitious amateurs, or novice users. Hand histories are available for analysis as long as the study sessions occur when the poker client has been shut down.
Automated alerts based on refined triggers launch a case by taking in behavior patterns and other data points. Experienced agents gather all necessary information and make an educated decision before a different agent reviews the case again.
Once that step is completed and foul play is indeed suspected, the account in question is temporarily suspended, and more information is requested. This may lead as far as conducting phone and video calls asking the player to record themselves during a typical session, among other things.
According to PokerStars, the proactive detection rate within the client itself is more than 95%. Players also have the option to report suspicious behavior and accounts, but the number of accounts closed in the current year that players first identified amounts to just 5%.
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Interestingly, the blog post comes just days after poker training platform GTO Wizard announced the launch of its “Fair Play Check,” an initiative in cooperation with online poker operators to combat various forms of cheating. In the initial announcement on September 19, 2023, only two networks were specifically mentioned as cooperative partners, including WPT Global and one US-facing offshore network.
PokerStars regularly publishes the numbers of closed accounts and confiscated funds. For example, in 2019 PokerStars redistributed $1.87 million to affected customers from exposed cheating. A zero-tolerance policy on Real Time Assistance use has been established, and players found in violation are barred from the platform permanently, which may also carry over to the PokerStars-sponsored live poker events as well. Whether or not that still makes looking up GTO solutions during an active session worth it is up to each player.
PokerStars is not the only major operator to take strict measures in the last few years. partypoker revamped the gaming integrity and fair-play guidelines several times. GGPoker made headlines in October 2020 when it banned more than 40 high-stakes accounts and confiscated more than $1.2 million in funds thanks to “enhanced RTA detection methods.” The operator is set to introduce new measures against late registration abuse in the very near future, according to an announcement on its dedicated Reddit forum.