If you could fire a six-shooter over the Internet, Greg "Fossilman" Raymer might have been a dead man. Two years ago, the future World Series of Poker champion was playing a Hold 'Em variation called Omaha Hi-Lo online. Facing two players, one with few chips who appeared to be betting too strongly, Raymer sensed weakness. He raised to draw in that dead-money player, hoping to scare off the potential threat from the player in the middle. But the middle player didn't back down. Raymer won a huge pot.
As the middle player saw his virtual chips (and real dollars) slide away, he snapped: Raymer and the weak player, he shouted over the site's instant messenger, were colluding against him. In another era, the middle player might have thrown the table, pulled a gun, and cleared the saloon. Instead he filed a complaint with PokerStars.com.
"I wasn't colluding with [the weak player]. I was taking advantage of his" low chip count, Raymer, 40, said he told the site. "That's not illegal."
It's not, but his accuser's suspicion wasn't unusual either. In an anonymous world where everyone is after your money, and where lying and preying on the weak are encouraged, it's easy to get paranoid that others are cheating. And in fact, others are cheating—or trying to. The same qualities that have made the rest of the Internet a wonderland for deviants, thieves, and nihilists of all stripes—near-perfect anonymity, the ease of taking on multiple personas—encourage behavior most would be too scared to try at a poker game on the Vegas strip. As the Web poker fad has exploded ($178,873,992 was up for grabs in online tournaments on Sunday alone, according to PokerPulse.com) the possibilities for cheating have grown. In 1999, for example, a flawed shuffling algorithm at PlanetPoker.com leaked out, allowing players who'd studied it to win at will. Rumors about players, hackers, and even the sites themselves screwing the system are rampant on discussion boards like rec.gambling.poker.
Here's what they're talking about:
Collusion. This is the most common form of cheating, in which several players at the same table (or one player using multiple computers) share information. Raymer was accused of "foot-sawing," where a weak-handed player helps out a strong-handed co-conspirator by staying in the game and raising to convince others to bet more.
But there's a catch. Good colluders have to be able to play their combined hands well, and they have to win enough for it to be worthwhile after dividing their money throughout the group. Experts say you're more likely to find collusion in lower-money games with empty seats—places where cheaters can make up a larger percentage of the table and are less likely to face experts. As a result, their takes are bound to be smaller. So despite the multiple cases each day on PokerStars, most colluders lose money, said the site's poker room manager, Lee Jones.
Software cheats. The marketers of "Cheat On Poker v.1.2" promised "special tracking software that helps you to track the hand of every opponent at your e-poker table!" In the interest of journalism—and since none of my friends would collude with me—this was the method I chose to test.
Guess who got cheated. For $29.95, I got an unwieldy odds calculator bundled with useless shareware. My attempts to use it in fake-money games got me closer to arthritis than a seat on the World Poker Tour. It took so long to log my hand, community cards, and opponents' possible cards that I nearly missed two betting turns. If tricking your opponents into believing you're fading in and out of a coma constitutes an advantage, it was lost on the half-dozen anonyms siphoning off my fake money.
Some players allege there are software hacks that allow you to see your opponent's cards. But that's almost certainly a myth. "If it were really possible, online poker wouldn't last very much longer," said Matthew Hilger, a poker writer who runs the magazine site InternetTexasHoldEm.com.
Bots. For those too stupid or busy to cheat in person, there are programs that play for you. Sometimes bots win. But today's computers are better at games like chess, where there's perfect information, than at sorting through the lies, feints, and uncertainties of poker. Besides, security monitors often pick up their scent, especially when they spot one player going 36 hours straight without a bathroom break.
Cutting the cord. This is the digital equivalent of pretending to pass out on the table: Some players disconnect their Internet connections upon realizing their cards won't hold up, hoping the house will let them keep their wager. Others make a large raise, wait for a call, and then disconnect, hoping to claim a portion of the pot on protest later on.
The problem with potential scams is that the house is always watching. While there are no video cameras or bouncers standing by, sites have monitoring tactics casinos only dream about. ParadisePoker.com tracks IP addresses, surveys for suspicious betting, and automatically reports questionable moves to its staff, said spokesman Ismail Vali-Tepper. Security can call up histories of every card someone has played to look for behavior patterns or study players who often sit together at the same tables. Offenders' accounts are closed and their addresses banned.
Raymer, who before turning pro in 2004 was a patent attorney, suggested sites anticipate future schemes by monitoring players' variance—a statistical measure of how far a player is from his or her expected win within a given hour. A high variance means taking on a lot of risk in exchange for winning more pots, which is what the pros do. But players who incur little risk while winning lots of hands are probably cheating, he said.
Frustrated by their own losses, some players throw the charge of cheating back at the house, alleging that the sites themselves use bots and rig games to heighten excitement. Some accuse them of hiring ringers who fleece novice players. Poker forums are filled with tales of frequent "bad beats"—hands lost despite holding a full house or better—and dramatic defeats on the last community card.
Site operators are livid at the suggestion. "The security and integrity of the game and the cards we deal is our entire business," says PokerStars' Jones. ParadisePoker advertises that its shuffling mechanism is audited by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Experts point out that the rate of play in online poker allows players to see more combinations of cards than they would in a real game, raising the likelihood of "bad beats." Besides, the sites are printing money these days. Why would they throw away a good thing for a little extra cash?