Bots and Trackers: A Helping Hand (History)

Before our launch in early 2019, I began to share feature and policy decisions with you in posts just like this one.  As those of you who read them are well-aware, many of the decisions we made when structuring our offering were based on what we believe to be the two biggest threats to the future of online poker:

  1. Botting
  2. Rising loss-rates and loss frequencies of recreational players.

One of our policy decisions pitted these two threats against each other, making it a very difficult one for us: Our Hand History policy, which I discussed here.

To sum up, we decided to keep Hand Histories anonymized (like our games) and display all hole cards.  We feared that without anonymized hand histories, mass database analysis and potential advancements in stat-based player-identification in anonymous games would increase the loss-rates of recreational players and would compromise the anonymity of our games, creating an unlevel playing field.  We also knew that we’d already designed our cash games to be the least bottable games available from a structural perspective.

While botting and real-time assistance (RTA) software have continued to advance, we aren’t aware of any advancements along the lines of our previous fear above (in part, I’m sure, because there aren’t many anonymous sites).

The reason I’m posting today is that we’ve decided, after listening to the community, having many internal discussions, and with more information than we had before launch, that our initial Hand History policy likely isn’t the best one available, and we are going to change it.

Making Adjustments

Concerns about botting and RTA software have been discussed at length on social media and on forums over the last couple of days.

We as a company have always believed that the only way to properly combat botting is a combination of deterrents, prevention, detection, and punishment.  The future of online poker depends on creative solutions to stay one step ahead of the threats wherever possible, which is why we built our cash games the way we did.

We are well on our way towards launching SNGs, which, while unique, won’t include built-in bot deterrents in the same way our cash games do right out of the gate. 

We have discussed changes along these lines that we plan to introduce in the future, but frankly, we have seen very negative effects of offering games that are different than what players are used to.  In order for Run It Once Poker to reach the long-term, we need more liquidity, and based on the feedback and actions of our community, it seems that in order to attract many of you and get that liquidity, we will need games that are strategically similar to what you’re currently playing.

We’ve already made changes to our cash games based on feedback from the community. For example, we introduced a more traditional progressive rewards system and, more recently, a lead(e)rboard promotion, both of which have been very popular and effective in growing our traffic. So, for now, we’ve decided to launch our additional offerings in ways that are closer to ‘normal’ than originally planned, and to build in the unique, sometimes game-changing features, over time, once we can afford to (from a financial and liquidity standpoint).

With those changes to our planned SNG offering, it has become all the more clear that our initial Hand History policy isn’t what’s best for us and our players in the future.

Player IDs 

The new policy, which will not be implemented in the immediate future (I don’t have an ETA for you at this moment – I wanted to get this post out quickly) is as follows:

  • We’ll change the screen names listed in our hand histories to ones with unique player identifiers, not tied to their account names or table aliases in any way.  
  • We’ll no longer show hole cards for players who didn’t reach showdown.

This is in line with what the community has been telling us they want in order to feel as safe as possible in our games.

In order to reduce the potential downsides which we were trying to avoid with our previous policy, we’d like to have these unique identifiers reset every so often.  Whether that length of time is 3, 6, 12, or more months is something that we’ll be reviewing and discussing with the community.

Hand Histories and Trackers

This brings up another topic I’d like to discuss, not as the founder of a poker site, but as a player who has been around for a little while.  This is a bit of a tangent, but I believe it’s an important one, and now seems like the time to talk about it.

We’ve seen PartyPoker take away Hand Histories and then give them back based on community feedback (bravo).  There are other sites which don’t allow HH downloads and prohibit the use of trackers and/or HUDs.

While we’ve never prohibited trackers, we don’t allow HUDs, but we do so in a very unique way – we severely limit the value of them with our Table Alias system, and we devalue them further by providing much of the information they’d convey over small samples with our Dynamic Avatar feature.  We also have another addition coming soon which will disincentivize them further.  Of course, we also don’t have instantly downloadable hand histories or a chat box, in addition to plans to detect and punish potential rule-breakers.

What I’d like to say, as a player, is this: Trackers and HUDs are not bad

Trackers (which we allow) help the community self-police, help players work on their games and identify leaks, and they, along with HUDs, add an interesting element to the game that a lot of players enjoy. 

We decided against allowing HUDs on Run It Once Poker, not because we think they are evil or because we believe they should be disallowed everywhere – we just chose to do something different for our games and our players as part of our unique offering, and we feel that all of our features and policies combined allow us to effectively enforce a no-HUD rule.

I feel that sites which aren’t taking proper measures to devalue, disincentivize, and prevent the use of HUDs and trackers but are still officially banning them are doing the community a great disservice.

It’s my belief (again – speaking for myself as a player) that if you have a site with screen names and no built-in HUD-like information, you cannot effectively ban HUD use.

It might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but when HUDs (or trackers) are banned ineffectively on any site with reasonable volume, some players will use black-market HUDs and trackers, putting both the unaware players and the aware-but-ethical players at a disadvantage.

Furthermore, this is taking business away from the affordable and honorable tracker businesses.  You may think you have no reason to care about that as a player or a poker site, but what’s taken away from them is being given (more incentive, more resources) to developers willing to create more expensive black-market software to get around those unenforceable rules.  

Properly incentivized, these developers and companies can pour resources into staying a step ahead of poker sites’ detection and prevention measures – not only with trackers, but with bots and RTA software.  The work that goes into scraping data and avoiding detection for “banned” trackers can be used to do the same for bots.

Finally, a small but related point: As governments continue to legalize and regulate online poker, there will be non-poker-playing legislators determining the rules and regulations that sites will have to abide by.  

It doesn’t take much to convince a layman that tracking software is a bad thing and shouldn’t be allowed.  If we as a community talk about trackers and HUDs simply being “bad,” it’s all the more likely that legislators will ban them by law, which leaves sites no option but to do so, whether they have proper preventative measures in place or not.

For reasons I’ve already explained, this is a very bad thing. I only say all this to encourage the community to be mindful of the way we discuss software. Everyone is entitled to share their opinions, of course, but nuance is important, and the lack of nuance can have negative consequences, especially when read by those without a complete understanding of the topic at hand.

Looking Forward

I’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available on our plans to implement our updated HH policy.  Things will remain as they are for the time being.

I’d also like to invite the community to let me know if you believe there are players I should speak with – members of our community who are well-versed in the threats facing our industry – to offer suggestions and advice that may shape our future policies and offerings.  

We are a small site with limited traffic and resources, so our impact on the overall community has been a small one, but I hope to be much more than that one day.  Even if that day never comes, I’d like Run It Once to be an example to other poker sites.  If our policies and features don’t end up shifting the trajectory of our industry on their own, they can at least provide our community and other sites with ideas to help preserve online poker’s future.