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PokerStars Continues Investigation into Russia-based PLO Bot Ring

[Update: PokerStars’ Michael Josem, who in addition to his own role in PR for Stars has considerable knowledge of and history in identifying cheating players through statistical analysis, offered the following statement to FlushDraw:

“We work very hard to stay ahead of people who attempt to violate our rules and invest significant resources (human and software) in detection and mitigation of violations, including the use of prohibited software, such as bots. In such cases, over 95% of offenders are detected proactively by PokerStars, with less than 5% identified by players. We always welcome the assistance of players in enforcing the rules of our games, because it can add focused insight that complements the methods used by our own systems. At the same time, we continually upgrade our detection capabilities in attempt to stay ahead of the bad guys.”]

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PokerStars continues its investigation into a ring of largely Russia-based PLO (Pot Limit Omaha) players suspected of “botting” and collusive play.  In a tale being revealed in bits and pieces on poker discussion forums around the globe, the botters used nearly 30 accounts and won at least $2.8 million over roughly 18 million PLO hands.  Victims allegedly suffered over $4.1 million in losses, with PokerStars’ table rake accounting for the difference in totals.  The evidence was assembled by several victims who conducted their own convincing and parallel statistical analysis.

pokerstars-spade-logoIn recent e-mails and posts directed to many of the affected players, largely participants in Stars’ micro- and low-limit PLO games, Stars has confirmed that the investigation into the suspected network is ongoing.  Similar investigations are also believed to be continuing at Stars sister site Full Tilt, and at market rival 888 Poker.  On all three sites, many of the suspected accounts had already been banned before the probable bot-ring activity was revealed.

However, one round of small refunds received by some of the victimized PokerStars players in recent weeks may not be connected to this latest cheating episode, and a formal public statement is seldom issued by online sites for their own legal and publicity reasons.  (As of this story’s publication, PokerStars had not responded to a request for comment on this particular topic.)

The latest bot episode to become public first surfaced in a handful of accusations launched in late May on the 2+2 forums.  The probable cheating, likely orchestrated by a handful of Russia-based online players, was revealed via extensive statistical analysis of suspect players’ stats, done by pooling millions of hands played against other micro PLO players.

The statistical analyses showed two separate but equally damning findings.  First, the alleged bot accounts showed a highly unlikely statistical clustering in certain secondary poker strategies, a hallmark of bot play.  Second, the analyses showed that most of the alleged cheating accounts ran far, far above expected value (“EV” in online poker lingo) over the course of their hundreds of thousands or millions of hands of play, a strong indicator that the bot ring’s operators were also colluding via the sharing of hole cards between multiple players at the same table.

In Omaha, knowing the values of four or eight extra “down” cards that are hidden from one’s other opponents is an immense, insurmountable advantage against honest players.

Tales of poker “bots” (automated decision-making programs following a pre-programmed strategy) and collusive, team-based play have been a part of the online-poker scene for virtually as long as online poker itself has been on the scene.  Every so often a new bot tale emerges, with the ring’s operators most often from jurisdictions with lower-than-average incomes and little or no rules regarding online fraud and theft.  The unfortunate combination means aspiring cheaters from such countries have little disincentive to refrain from attempting to cheat; Russia in particular has been a global hotbed of computer-based crime for at least 15 years, even if the vast majority of individual Russian online players are legitimate (non-cheating) poker players.

Of the roughly 30 alleged bot accounts on PokerStars statistically identified by 2+2 posters “schwein,” “Oink” and “goethe,” roughly two-thirds of the accounts had already been ID’d and banned by PokerStars internal security staffers before being notified by victimized players.  Similar bannings have also occurred at Full Tilt and 888, the other two sites where suspect accounts have been linked to the same illicit ring.  However, another ten or so accounts with similar statistical profiles remained in active use in recent days, including one believed to be a Stars SuperNova Elite (SNE) who poster Schwein alleged was likely one of the primary culprits behind the illicit operation.  The ring’s collective operation has been ongoing since at least October of 2014, according to multiple player complaints.

PokerStars has issued no comment on the player accounts in question, citing privacy concerns.  However, Stars has sent out several different form letters to victimized players confirming that at least some of the accounts were banned for violating unspecified terms of service of the site.  Here’s a sample of one of the Stars responses to an affected player:

Thank you for your report. Your email was escalated to me as an expert in bot detection and as a member of the PokerStars Game Integrity Team.

We are indeed aware of the online discussions alleging a group of accounts to be operating poker bots. Please rest assured that we do not tolerate such activity on PokerStars. We have an extensive arsenal of detection tools in order to ensure that each player is a human being and playing without the use of prohibited programs.

Firstly, we note that the discussions include a list of accounts that are assumed to have been closed due to lack of recent activity. We can confirm that a number of these accounts have indeed been closed for violations of our Terms of Service, but this does not hold true for every account mentioned. Due to our strict privacy policy, we are unable to disclose User IDs in the context of fraud, nor offer comment as to why accounts we might have previously investigated may not have any recent activity.

As for the numerous active accounts mentioned, we do understand the concerns surrounding their playing statistics. Our access to all hand histories on PokerStars allows us to analyse any similarities in playing statistics between these accounts, as well as every other account. However, similar playing statistics alone is not sufficient proof wrongdoing, and we must do our due diligence to ensure that the correct resolution is reached. Our investigation includes, but is not limited to, reviewing their software and playing environments, how they interact with the PokerStars client, as well as analysing their activity in real-time and conducting Turing tests.

We kindly ask for your patience while we thoroughly investigate this matter. We also recommend that the identities of suspects be reported to us directly, not only to avoid slandering potentially innocent players, but also to avoid tipping off potential offenders. If you have any further information to provide regarding this matter, we will take it into consideration.

PokerStars will advise you of the outcome of the investigation as soon as possible.

Regards,

Dmitry
PokerStars Game Integrity

Affected players have expressed varying degrees of anger not only toward the alleged botters, but at Stars as well for failing to issue refunds.  Most refund acknowledgements posted in the thread are in the $10-100 range, a mere pittance compared to the $1.5 million or more the ring’s various accounts are alleged to have won.  A second point of contention is the millions more in rake generated (and collected) by PokerStars in the process of offering what now appears to be millions of hands of unfair play.  PokerStars itself has little means of recovering ill-gotten proceeds from cheating players once those players have withdrawn funds from the site, in particular by players not from the UK or specifically the Isle of Man, where PokerStars is located.

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