Poker bots invade the virtual casino

General view of a poker tournament in Newport Beach, Calif.

Tess Vigeland: Last year, Americans placed $5.7 billion worth of bets online. And a big slice of those wagers were made in online poker rooms.

Cyber poker is still officially illegal in the U.S. and all the big poker providers are based offshore. But the industry estimates that eight to 10 million Americans played the game last year for real money. Nevada is moving to legalize online poker in that state, but right now the game is still one of the biggest gray markets out there. A bit of the Wild West in cyberspace.

And as Marketplace's Steve Henn tells us, the big poker rooms have to police themselves.


Steve Henn: Brian Jetter is a tough guy to track down. For starters, Brian Jetter isn't his real name. When I contacted him, Jetter would only agree to an interview if the phone line was virtually untraceable.

Brian Jetter: We have enemies.

Jetter is an online poker outlaw. His business is to make and market poker-playing robots: software programs that can log into an online poker game and play against human opponents for real money. They're known as poker bots. Jetter says playing against computerized poker playing robots is just part of the anonymous world of cyber poker.

Jetter: We see it as kind of a natural extension of the online version of the game of poker. We see it as just as natural a development as playing in your underwear, you know?

Thing is, online poker is struggling to go legit. Half a dozen states are weighing bills that could legalize the game. Having poker rooms infested with players who may not even be human doesn't help the cause.

And there's one more problem. Poker-playing robots are getting better.

Tuomas Sandholm: Oh very much so. It used to be that poker bots were actually rather weak compared to the best human players.

Tuomas Sandholm is a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon.

Sandholm: There has been tremendous progress and actually in heads up, limit, Texas hold 'em, the best bots have actually surpassed the best professional human players.

Michael Bowling helped build the best bot. He runs the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta. So how much money has Bowling made online?

Michael Bowling: I get that question a lot, and the answer is we don't play or program online for money.

Bowling is in this for the research. He's trying to teach computers to make great decisions even when they don't have perfect information. And poker -- where you don't know all the cards in your opponent's hand -- is a perfect test case for this kind of artificial intelligence. But Bowling doubts that the commercial poker bots that are usually sold for around $80 are any good. Otherwise, why would they be for sale?

Bowling: If you had created a program that could actually win money from other players, would you be selling it to somebody else or would you be using it to win money?

Even Jetter admits the bots he sells can't beat the pros.

Jetter: The way it comes out of the box is good enough to beat the lower stakes games, it's not good enough to beat the higher stakes games. For me, I make a heck of a lot more money selling picks and shovels than I do digging for gold.

The most popular poker bots have been downloaded tens of thousands of times and raked in millions for designers. So the biggest poker sites are hiring sophisticated computer scientists, including colleagues of Michael Bowling's from University of Alberta, to track, capture and kill the poker bots.

Last fall, these new bot-hunters at Full Tilt Poker caught hundreds players cheating with bots, confiscated their accounts and kicked them off the site.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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