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Despite all the similarities between live and online poker, the major difference between them will always remain the same, and that is the detail of information you can acquire from your opponent during the game.

You can have all the rain man qualities you like, remembering past hands you played against opponents from years back, but the online player can acquire a wealth of third-party software to help profile the enemy in a clear and concise manner, each hand, every hand, and no program is more key to this, than poker-tracking software. In this field, two companies rule the roost, Poker Tracker, the old guard who has been the standard for this type of program for a number of years, and Hold’em Manager, the new kids on the block who have been making waves since it’s birth.

Poker-Tracking software works by storing the hands that you play, along with the hands of your opponents on your tables, into a database that can be manipulated in a variety of ways by the user to aid you in your poker career. Need to know how much you should have made in the last 100k hands, check out the EV-Adjusted line graph. Or if you want to exploit a regular fish at your tables, check out his previous hand histories and stats to write notes on his actions. The way this software can help is endless, and for many online players today, it is essential to becoming a winning poker player, especially at a professional level, and it does all this, while keeping within the rules of many sites’ “restricted software” guidelines and can be used in-play, such as on Pokerstars.

But, can poker-tracking software carry on in the future, and for what reason would this be considered in the first place? It’s a more realistic view than you might think.

Is it ethically correct for players to pay for additional software to give a significant edge over opponents who may not have the same program?

In my view, this is a simple question to answer. While it does cost money to acquire the software, it’s at a price that can be paid by many, especially now both Poker Tracker and Hold’em Manager have produced reduced-price versions for micro-stakes only. In terms of giving an edge against others, it’s similar to hiring a fitness instructor at a gym to get fit. They can give you all the information and exercises you need to get the buff body that you desire, but if you decide to spend more time in front of the vending machine instead of on the rowing machine, the information you get is useless. It’s the same with poker-tracking software, you can have all the stats, notes and graphs in front of you, but if you don’t put in the effort to analyse the data, it cannot help to improve.

What has it done to the games today, and does it help promote the game to players?

To answer this question, I want to go to an article that I read from the magazine PokerPlayer, back in 2007, involving a player interview with Phil Laak, on his career before poker:

He encountered wonderfully degenerate gamblers, like a rich dude in New York who played 10 people at a time for $2,000 a point and routinely dropped $200,000 in a single day. Or the action junkie who travelled the world for business and paid off Laak in frequent flyer miles instead of cash. For a brief period he picked up extra dough by steering sports bettors to an illegal bookmaker in Manhattan – Laak’s disinterest in sports doomed the enterprise – while he lived in a cheap apartment near Times Square and loved life. Then, suddenly, with the spread of a computer program called Snowie, the learning curve for backgammon shortened dramatically. Mystique drained from the game and action quickly dried up.

A game that was once so juicy, suddenly drying up because of the introduction of a piece of computer software. Remind you of a similar game?

The difference between players from 2003 during the poker boom, and today, shows a similar story. Back then, fish were aplenty in even the highest stakes, now, there are multi-tabling regulars even at the micros, promoting a more robotic style of play that doesn’t encourage action. This comes from tracking software being able to compensate the lack of focus you can give to each table you play. You would think with all the tables played, it means good rake for the poker sites, but it may not be as clear as that.

Partypoker has led the fight against tracking-software, with Anonymous Tables.

Partypoker has led the fight against tracking-software, with Anonymous Tables.

Yes, more tables mean potentially more rake, but the robotic style of play that tracking software promotes gives little action on the tables and tougher games for the fish. Bad players today will get punished in most of the games they play, and it only takes a number of re-deposits before most tend to give up, some losing players love poker regardless, but most look to try and make a profit, and quit if they don’t. In the end, the balance between the “professional” and “recreational” players become unbalanced, leaving the site struggling to make rake. And as the games get tougher, it’s less likely recreational players will join. Eurolinx, a skin on the Microgaming network, was an example of this, where high rakeback saw games become so tough and robotic, that many high-stakes players jumped ship to Full Tilt as the games was juicier. In the end, Eurolinx went into liquidation, and no money was returned to the players with bankrolls left on the site.

Does poker-tracking software promote cheating?

In essence, poker-tracking software does not help to cheat. It only uses information on opponents that you’ve accumulated, and while it helps to analyse your game, it can’t give real-time advice on what action is best to take at any given situation. However, it only takes a little creativity from some players to have it help in gaining unfair advantages.

It most recently occurred back in 2009, when Brian Hastings had managed to take $4.1 million off of Viktor “Isildur1” Blom in a single session, the most anyone had taken off another player at one time. However, shortly afterwards it was found out that Hastings had been given help by fellow high-stakes players Cole South and Brian Townsend, which included thirty thousand hands that Townsend had acquired without direct play with Blom. It was this that breached the rules and regulations laid down by Full Tilt Poker:

Full Tilt Poker prohibits the use of external player assistance programs (EPA Programs) which are designed to provide users with an unfair advantage over their opponents. Full Tilt Poker defines external to mean computer software (other than the Full Tilt Poker game client), and non-software-based databases or profiles (e.g., web sites and subscription services). Full Tilt Poker defines an unfair advantage as a user accessing or compiling information on other players beyond that which the user has personally observed through his or her own game play.

Townsend was considered the only one of the three to have broken the terms and conditions, and had his red pro status suspended for a month. The problem here, was data-mining, acquiring a number of hands without playing the opponents, to have a better understanding on their actions before playing them. And anybody can do this.

Sites such as handhq and hhsmithy sell hands data-mined from poker sites to other players, at HandHQ, I could buy seven million up-to-date hands at 200NL 6-Max, for just $200.90. For one buy-in, I can acquire a hand history that Dusty “Leatherass” Schmidt has taken a lifetime to create. The edge from this by a player who uses poker-tracking software effectively, is vastly significant when against a fresh-faced opponent.

Today, poker-tracking software has split the audience right down the middle. While Pokerstars and other large networks still accept its use, other sites are using methods to negate it’s effectiveness. Cake Poker allows it’s players to change their usernames once every seven days, preventing a build-up of hands on them. Sites such as Ladbrokes, Bodog/Bovada and PartyPoker have created “Anonymous Tables”, preventing players from knowing the names of the other players they are against, and preventing poker-tracking software from building a database of hands on anybody (although HHSmithy has already found a way of dealing with that.)

Poker-tracking software is far from extinct, the essence of the program is to promote effective study of the game, and to play by the rules. But with the noticeable changes to some sites’ views on the use of the programs at their tables, the companies that produce Poker Tracker and Hold’em Manager should look at reviewing the ways their software works, before more decide to ban it too.

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Perry Garland