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Much Ado About Unfair Advantages
The online discussions are swarming with reports of people's accounts being locked for using forbidden software. PartyPoker has gotten active in response to some of the more recent data services; users of Poker Prophecy and Poker Edge are getting notices in email to desist; on second notice, their accounts are locked and their funds are forcibly withdrawn. So far, I have only heard of funds being pushed back into their bank accounts or Neteller accounts; no funds have actually been confiscated for using this software.
Services like Poker Prophecy and Poker Edge collect data on all the players they can observe. They collect the data from observation of many, many tables through client software -- more than any one individual could possibly watch. Then, when you run their software while playing, it reports statistics about your opponents directly over your poker table. They are commercial data services.
There are also single-client applications like Poker Tracker and Poker Office, which gather information on poker games as you play, or which are observed from your computer. While Poker Tracker is primarily intended to collect data about your own play for analysis, you can collect a large database and then use a third-party add-on like GameTime+ or PlayerView to show player's stats directly over poker tables as you play. Poker Office adds more in the way of "real-time" features, such as showing you pot odds and player statistics while you play. The chief difference between the single-client applications and the services is in the volume of data an individual can collect, versus a system collecting through dozens or hundresd of clients which aggregates all the data into an enormous database.
There are also a variety of applications which pertain more to actual hand of poker than to the players at poker -- things like pot odds calculators, draw calculators, and hand strength evaluators. These tell you nothing about the other players, but can help inform you about the quality of your hand and the value of playing it in a given pot.
Lastly, there are programs like WinHold'em which allow you to custom program logic which will automate all play decisions, and even make those actions for you. This allows you to create a fully automatic poker bot for play decisions.
Future programs, or revisions of existing programs, are liable to blur the lines. Poker Office includes some features which are realy hand value calculators. There's also a tool called Hold'Em Memory which tracks how you play in certain circumstances, but is not intended to let you analyze your play -- it's intended to let you make a 'player profile' which will then tell you how to play your hand, effectively becoming a poker bot. Since they encourage sharing 'profitable' profiles, it clearly falls under the "bot" category rather than the self-analysis category.
The support staff at Party affiliates who respond to questions about what is or is not allowed have not helped clarify the situation for players who use these tools. The "party line" is that they do not want anyone using a tool which can give them an unfair advantage over other players. In practice, however, the only tools which we can confrim have actually evoked action on Party's part are Poker Prophecy, Poker Edge, and WinHold'em.
Party certainly condones software such as Poker Tracker -- in fact, they began their practice of writing hand history files to users' hard drives in large part to accommodate users of Poker Tracker (the users would otherwise hammer Party's servers with requests for emailed hand histories.) They would, however, prefer that users use the software outside of actual play time for personal analysis, as opposed to using it during game play to get statistics about opponents.
The Terms of Service that players agree to when opening an account do not lay out what sort of software is or is not allowed. It does, however, force the player to give Party permission to snoop on their computer to look for traces of banned software, whatever that may be. . .
The argument that "others can do it, too" does not justify being allowed to do something. Others can try to cheat, too; should we use that to justify cheating? Are we to assume that if everyone can cheat, then cheating is fair? A cabal of players with many accounts (illegally) can communicate in a chat client, knowing what everyone holds, and totally slam some games or tournamnets. By rotating their accounts, and selectively slamming, they may be able to go unnoticed for quite some time. Now, anyone can form such a cabal -- all you need is a couple of players and a chat client like AIM. Does that mean it should be allowed? How about condoned?
Of course not.
Party's position, whether we like it or not, is simple and clear. They are attempting to provide, online, the classic game called "poker," where players sit down at a table and play cards for money. They have chosen to take a stand against tools which give some players in-game advantages over other players -- advantages other than superior skill at the game. The game requires understanding money and odds, understanding hands and probabilities, understanding players and likely holdings/actions. . . these are all part of the game.
Making a stand
Party's stand is against tools which automate or computerize those aspects of the game. Things like GT and PV automate the identification of player types. Things like Poker Prophecy take that to a new level, by having many computers/accounts conspire to gather information together.
Like every poker room trying to run a fair game, they need to draw a line beyond which people cannot go. Clearly, they can't try to ban the use of books, tables, and calculators online. . . it's simply not feasible. But clearly, they can not condone the existence of outright cheating software, like Pokerbot (which comes in a "team" version that even shares hold card info.) There's got to be a line drawn somewhere in between.
Party has made clear where they're drawing the line for now. No, not in the confusing emails written by tech support, and not in the ambiguous wording of their Terms of Service. It's been made clear from their overall actions that they are doing everything they can to put the sleeper on commercial programs which gather data from many sources and then display it for you on the table. Such programs allow too many (in their opinion) people to get into a behavior which, for the majority of recreational players out there, constitutes an unfair advantage.
UPDATE: Party has posted a policy document addressing this issue on their website. Quoting that document as of August 22, 2005: "The use of certain programs on websites on the PartyGaming system are blocked outright. These are: WinHoldem, PokerEdge, Poker Prophecy, and PokerBot Pro."
Don't they lose money if they scare the "pros" away?
While the (few) full-time players may generate a lot of rake, it's simply egotistical to think that's worth more to Party than all the recreational players who come and go. . . and more will come if they do not fear that the game is unfairly seeded with both pros and people using software tools to get a leg up. There are more and more news stories about "pros" online, about poker-playing bots, about databases that know people's habits better than they know themselves. . . and it scares people. People who fear computers to begin with. People who suspect the game is rigged. People who fear jumping into shark-infested waters.
Party has to protect their game. Every gambling establishment has to protect their game, or they go out of business. I don't blame them.
So, for now, some tools are allowed. No, they're happy with them. . . Party doesn't like them, but they're not hunting people down for every possible tool. It's just not possible. They're hunting people down for the big, commerical, shared-data tools, for automated card-playing bots, and for blatant cheating. Some other tools are still game. Fair enough. We can live with the grey area; we must.
If they get stricter in the future -- we'll deal with that in the future. Meanwhile, it's clear what level of application is not allowed; email warnings are flying, accounts are getting locked, and their money is being (forcibly) cashed out to them. That's more than fair for someone who is caught doing something they don't allow. After all, it is their poker club; they get to make the rules, and we simply choose whether to play.