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July-06-2005,
Poker Bots: (part 2 of 2) How to Crush the Robots...By Dr. Java

Last week I discussed how players can avoid detection of their robots. Now, it is time to crush the robots! Death to the robots!!

The thing about robots (and computer programs in general) is that they are pretty stupid and pretty fast. They can only do what a human being decided they can do under a limited set of expected conditions. This means they can be easily tricked when you make an alteration that a human being can either adapt to or wouldn`t even notice.

There are several methods available to the poker sites (all involve some programming changes) to disable the robots, render them ineffective, or just plain make them lose. I`ll also discuss a method using "Maneuver X-14" from the old "Get Smart" TV show for the players to use.

The automated programs (robots) rely on one of two methods to know what is going on in the game. The first method is to monitor (tap into) the communications between the game software and the site. The robot just reads all the player, cards, amounts off the data stream. The second method is to view the screen graphically, identifying the actions the same way a human being would. This requires the robot to know the layout of the game board, how to recognize chips, cards, etc.

I`ll discuss defeating the second method first, since that`s easiest to explain/understand. Change the layout a bit! Moving the cards a few pixels over, changing the style, moving the chips will all confuse/blind "visual" robot. Minor changes like this will not bother or be noticed by human beings, and will certainly not prevent them from playing. To be most effective, I suggest the poker sites modify their software to have several layouts and then (after everyone is using the new version), send a command to all of them to switch to the new layout. The robots should drop like flies. Take notes.

Now, back to the robots that monitor the data stream (this includes robots that monitor the stream, but merely advise a human player). Robots ignore any command they don`t recognize and their programming includes only the ones they know (or care about for play). In the next version of the poker site software, the books need to add some new commands or change the meaning of existing commands. (Actually, activate a command that will set a flag to alter the meanings.)

If you alter command codes to new ones, the robot will be unable to follow the game, become unresponsive and drop out. This can also be accomplished by changing the alignment or order of data structures.

The robot can be further confused by mapping the seating positions to a different order. For example if the robot is at position #1, change the data stream to use postion #3, but have the game program know to convert 3 to 1 for the display and play of the game.

Another option is to encrypt the data stream. Now, the robot/programmer would have to have to decode and reverse engineer the actual game software to get the data (or break the encryption). Such skills may be beyond the programmer that just monitors the stream.

Yahoo, and others have a simple deterrent against robots generating accounts: a graphic image with distorted letters that the human user must identify. To stop the overnight robots, all a poker program has to do is pop-up one of these distorted graphics and challenge the player to type in the letters. A robot can`t do this. Run this test once or twice an hour for a few days. Flag all the accounts that fail this test and check their past behaviors for robot patterns.

I strongly disagree with the policy of confiscating accounts/funds of bot owners as the "proof" is usually circumstantial. (Banning and confiscating bonuses is more within a book`s digression.) The final method will deplete the account of a robot program by forcing it to play poorly, where a human would not.

Finally, the nasty method is to alter the codes for the cards themselves by adjusting them by one or two. For example, if whenever the player gets a 3, the site sends the code for Ace (and the game program correctly decodes it internally to a 3 for display). However, the robot "thinks" it has an Ace. To a human, the game plays the same as always, but the robot will start folding on Ace-King and raising on 2-3.

Oh, yeah, my "Get Smart" reference. In the episode "Dear Diary", Max and 99 are trying to identify a double agent. With no leads, Max suggests they try "Maneuver X-14" (which 99 points out has never worked yet).

Max then asks the suspects: "Which one of you is a double-agent?"

While, Max was met with the expected silence, the human player might do a little better. It is my understanding that the players can chat with each other. A robot will probably not chat. (Though there are chat robots that can simulate conversation, it is burdensome for poker programmer to integrate this into his program as well).

So, ask another player, "Are you a robot? If so, say nothing."



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