One of the biggest concerns that people have in getting seriously involved in online poker is how to avoid being cheated or scammed. Unfortunately, scandal sells. So each cheating or scamming incidents get heavily reported and sensationalized on forums creating the impression that cheating and scamming are common. The reality is that cheating in online poker occurs in relatively few circumstances compared to the large number of poker sites and players that play.
Despite the incorrect but popular public impression of a online poker’s lawless environment, it is important to become as versed as possible on how to protect yourself so you don’t open yourself up to join those who have been impacted by being scammed and cheated. There are two general categories of who can cheat you; institutional and individual.
There are literally hundreds of different companies who host online gaming and offer online poker. For every single poker room, it is in their long term interest to create a safe and secure environment for their players to play. Happy and trusting customers are their best advertisement for future growth.
Unfortunately, over the last decade a few short-sighted individuals at a handful of online poker rooms have violated player trust and manipulated some aspect of their services to profit unfairly at player expense. The most notable and egregious have been Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet that access the software to see cards, “super-using” players to the tune of millions. Additionally there have been security lapses at Cake and other rooms. Most recently, Full Tilt Poker violated player trust by co-mingling player funds with operational funds, and enriching owners at the expense of securing player funds. Each instance undermines the trust for the whole industry and is costly to the poker rooms who must repair their software vulnerabilities but more importantly their reputation. All online poker rooms should provide SSL encrypted technology to ensure a safe and secure environment for its players or risk losing their entire customer base.
For the player, you should always keep an eye out for suspicious activity from the software. Some players will mistakenly assume if they suffer some bad beats that the random numerator generator (RNG) is somehow rigged, but the reality is that it isn’t geared to favor any particular player but rather a certain strategy or style of play. Knowing what positive expectation plays to make will always put you in good position long term.
Talking to other players on popular poker forums can also help keep you abreast of any issues at a particular poker room. Each room is regulated by some outside organization like body (e.g. AGCC, ARJEL, Malta GC, or Isle of Man) that you can contact directly in cases of serious concern. In the end, the poker room has a strong long term incentive to ensure a fair game and not have security lapses, so most invest considerable resources to detect and thwart fraud and collusion.
The reality is if you are to encounter cheating and scamming, it is likely to be from fellow players on a poker site than from the site itself. The powerful pull of human greed leads to players trying to cheat each other. Poker is a game of edges and some players lose their ethical boundaries in the pursuit of a profitable edge. The most common types of cheating at the table that you may encounter are chip dumping, soft playing, squeezing, bots, multi-accounting and ghosting. If you’re going to deposit real money, please keep in mind the below:
Chip dumping involves one person intentionally losing a hand to someone they know to help them. In a tournament, it can influence the outcome of the event as one player gains a lot of chips and the power they hold, while in cash games you may witness players using chip dumping as a means to transfer funds that is relatively harmless to uninvolved players.
Soft playing in cash games involves two or more players not playing aggressively against each other. It’s possible they are friends or have an unspoken rule to not challenge each other when there are easier and weaker players at the table to pick on. In their confrontations, they will often check down hands that they would otherwise raise to keep the pots smaller. In tournaments, soft playing can delay a players elimination and affect the overall table dynamic.
Squeezing involves two or more players teaming up on an unsuspecting player forcing them to fold by coordinated strategy. One or more of the colluders doesn’t have a strong hand, but they coordinate their aggression and raising to eliminate the other player and then one of them folds at some point so the hands aren’t ever shown down.
Bots involves the use of software that plays the hands instead of the individual. Bots are against the terms of the online poker sites.
Multi-Accounting involves a player playing more than one account in a SNG, tournament, or cash game. It is expressly against the rules for one player to play more than one hand or be aware of the cards of another player as this gives them a significant advantage.
Ghosting involves someone else playing the account. Sometimes a player will contact a better player to step in for them when they are in a tough heads up match. Sometimes a tough player will purchase the account of a losing player so they can give the false impression that they are a losing player to encourage action they wouldn’t get if they revealed their true identity.
Most of these methods are enhanced and facilitated by additional real time communication and coordination through social media services like instant messaging or live talk. This is a clear violation of the “one player, one hand” rule where no other player at the table should know your hand during play of that hand. When you suspect any of these forms of cheating, you should document it and contact the poker room to make them aware of your suspicions. Each poker room has fraud and collusion departments that can try to determine when it might be an anomaly, isolated incident or an egregious pattern. Other resources to consult are active poker forums and player hand databases that can help corroborate or deny your suspicions. Cheating accusations are very serious and only with enough data can you remove the statistically unlikely probability scenario before you make a public accusation.
One dynamic regarding cheating is that the likelihood and temptation increases at higher level. The risk/reward equation doesn’t typically justify or motivate individuals to cheat players at the lowest levels. So while low stakes players and amateurs are most fearful and wary, they are least likely to be targeted. Small stakes players just aren’t worth the time of most organized cheaters.
Another subset of cheating, involves being scammed by individual players. This may involve transfers of funds on a site or backing/staking arrangements that go bad.
Being aware of the different forms of cheating you might encounter is the first step to combating it. Below are five additional steps to help you minimize the chance you are ever cheated.
Poker is no different from any sport, business or life situation. There will always be people looking to take advantage of others, whether it is in the stock market, “juicing” in sports, or manipulative relationships. Keep a reasonable perspective so you don’t globalize or over-sensationalize the high profile poker cheating incidents that have happened before. Not everyone is trying to cheat you, in fact the vast majority are ethical, moral and fair poker players just like you. Take prudent precautions as you would in other areas of your life to avoid being cheated. Prudence, not paranoia, is required.
- Be Observant and Diligent
Pay close attention when you play online. Notice any anomalies or out of the ordinary occurrences. Your “gut” is a powerful and sensitive sense, so don’t ignore it. If you feel something is off. Step back and review the action from a different vantage point to see if it makes sense or not. If you know the math and probabilities associated with the game, you can better notice when things deviate from the expected percentages.
Noticing relationships and patterns of play between certain players can reveal signs of collusion. In the case of bot, they will often have very robotic repetitive styles of play, so pay attention to their patterns of play. After a session, you can utilize your hand tracking software to analyze they play to help determine if unusual activity occurred. If everyone is winning within a certain range, but one player is way above the norm, that could be a sign something is amiss. If showdown hands demonstrate that they are making “extraordinary” plays against you, it could be that they have an unfair advantage. Don’t be lazy when you suspect something out of the ordinary.
Just because you lose a few hands in a row or have a bad session doesn’t mean you are being cheated, but it’s still worth taking a break to evaluate. In almost all cheating scenarios that were evident early on that were overlooked or ignored. It’s not about being paranoid, but rather giving due attention to the signs around you that something might be “off.”
- Cheating Involves Inequity
It could be argued that any relationship where one is gaining at the entire exclusion of the other is a form of cheating. Whenever you deal with other poker players notice if that relationship seems one-way. If they want to borrow money, sweat you, learn from you without any return for you that is a sign of being taken advantage. You shouldn’t feel bullied or pressured into doing anything you wouldn’t do naturally on your own. Stand up for yourself and establish boundaries that respect your beliefs and poker playing ethics.
- Trust is Earned, not Given
Scamming and cheating are usually just different types of confidence games. Don’t give your trust easily. Have other players earn your trust over time by their tangible actions, not simply words. Observe their track record in the past. Any black mark or questionable decision in the past is rarely isolated, but rather demonstrating a likelihood or pattern of questionable judgment. Don’t buy into the public hype or another person’s voucher or word, unless you trust them explicitly as well.
Trust is something given more freely in the poker world than in many other areas of life. The poker culture is ripe with exchanges and transfers on poker sites, along with a lot of loaning and staking. Poker players make and lose money regularly and can be found asking for assistance often. Some players feel guilty if they don’t join in that loosely monitored exchange of money. You don’t have to participate in that exchange. It isn’t compulsory. You can politely indicate that you don’t.
- Limits and Discipline
One of the best steps to minimize any cheating is your own playing discipline. Establish limits to your play. Establish a firm stop loss, so whether you are running bad, playing bad, or running into some cheating situation, you will always minimize any potential damage. They can’t take your money if you stop playing. Having a healthy respect for your money is always a major advantage.
Just because you have seen top players loving to gamble and a disregard for the value of money doesn’t mean you should. As for loaning and transferring money, I’ve always kept to the idea that you should never loan money that you can’t do without, which protects your in case you don’t get it back.
Online Texas Hold’em for Real Money is an incredibly fun and challenging game to play, but one where every player is looking for an advantage. Learn to be vigilant, cautious and disciplined in your observation and play to make sure you don’t put yourself in a situation to be taken advantage of. The same discipline and diligence that is required to study and play profitable poker is also required to ferret out potential cheating.