PokerStars, along with the majority of sites, explicitly bans the use of poker bots to play for you but that doesn’t stop people trying to get around the rules. The world is becoming more automated; jobs, driving, and unfortunately, even our poker opponents are in the process of being replaced by smart gambling robots.
But why exactly are there bots on PokerStars and other poker operators and platforms? Are bots magically better at Texas Hold’em, do we even stand a chance of winning as humans?
Poker Bots Explained
A ‘poker bot’ is software that will play online poker without human supervision or action. A poker bot runs in the background while the poker site is active, tracks all the actions from your opponents, and makes decisions based on its rules, instructions, and programming, as well as using the additional information it has gathered over time.
Poker bots have gone through quite an evolution since they were first created.
Bots With Programmed Preflop Ranges
Initially, they were just programmed with preflop ranges from each position and some very basic postflop play (if they make a pair or better then bet, if they don’t then check, that kind of thing). While these poker bots weren’t very sophisticated, neither was the humans’ play so even simplistic bots like these were able to make money.
As people got better at poker, more and more people were able to beat these simplistic poker bots, so they were forced to adapt if they were to remain viable.
Bots With Advanced Strategies
PokerStars bots started to introduce more complex strategies that people were using in their own games (such as 3bet/4bet bluffing, checking back strong hands to slow play monsters, and generally being more balanced).
Even today, such advanced bots are probably a sweet spot at low-stakes cash games with inexperienced players. Why? Any more sophistication (machine learning, AI) would require a lot more computational power and an entirely new setup for incremental improvements in win rates.
Instead, these relatively simple yet powerful bots are more rule-based and still very light weight so they can be spun immediately.
Solver-Era Of Poker Bots
Finally, as we’ve moved into the “solver-era” of poker, programmers have found a way to link solver outputs to poker bots. This can either take the form of the bot running through pre-solved solutions to find the correct play or running a solver in real-time if the computer is powerful enough.
The big advantage poker bots have over humans is that they can “remember” millions of pre-programmed scenarios without error, meaning that once you’ve set up a poker bot you can let it run and it will play exactly the same for hours on end. Humans, on the other hand, will start to fade after a few hours and will need to take frequent breaks if they want to play their A-game.
How PokerStars Handle Bots
Pokerstars has a zero-tolerance policy on poker bots, though they do accept some helping tools like poker heads-up displays. If any player is found to be using one on their account, their account is shut down and their bankroll confiscated. These harsh penalties are there to discourage people from wanting to attempt to use bots and make it harder to set up again once they’ve been found out.
There is a dedicated security team that Pokerstars employ to root out these poker bots and eliminate them from the player pool. On their site, they say they have a team of 60 specialists, ex poker players, and data scientists who use purpose-built software to identify and remove players breaking terms of service.
Another string to their bow is an automated system that runs 24/7, flagging accounts for further investigation from their team. They say that 95% of all terms of service violations were initially flagged by this automated process.
As well as their own team investigating, players are encouraged to flag accounts that they believe are breaking the rules. Pokerstars investigates every single report using a peer-review system, where multiple agents will individually review the evidence and make a recommendation based on the conclusion they come to.
Are There Poker Bots on PokerStars?
Some games are more likely to have bots than others. The more complicated a game is to solve, the less likely there are to be bots playing. Games like PLO cash games are very complicated to solve so there are very few bots in the player pool. However, games like Sit & Go’s are a lot simpler in terms of strategy so you’re more likely to find a bot in that game.
While Pokerstars is dedicated to the eradication of bots from their site, there are still likely some that have yet to be detected. However, due to the strong stance they’ve taken against bots, I believe they make up only a tiny fraction of the overall player pool and shouldn’t be of general concern.
Signs of a Poker Bot
Here are some things to look out for if you suspect that another account is a bot rather than a human player:
Does Not Chat with Any Player
This is going to be, player-dependent and will be dependent on the game you’re playing. If you’re playing on zoom tables then chatting with another player is very difficult as they don’t stay on the table very long.
They could also be playing a large number of tables, meaning they don’t have time to focus on or reply to table chat; or they may not understand the language you are using to chat with them. So a player not chatting when at the table isn’t a definite indicator that someone is a bot, but if they do respond you can almost certainly rule them out of being a bot.
One situation where a lack of chat is a clearer indicator that an account is botting is in tournaments. When you get down to the final few players in a tournament you can request a moderator to come to the table to help facilitate a deal.
In these situations, all parties must state whether they agree or disagree with the proposed deal before the game can continue. If a player doesn’t respond to any questions from the moderator, or other players when this deal-making is in progress then that is cause for suspicion.
Bets a Specific Amount for Every Game
This one requires a bit of nuance to spot as it’s common practice for players to have consistent sizings, especially preflop and on the flop. Most players agree that raising to a certain number of big blinds preflop and using that size for every raise is necessary to hide the exact strength of your hand.
Similarly, on the flop, most players will use a certain sizing depending on the board with a lot of players preferring to use a small ⅓ c-bet size. The big changes in the way humans bet usually come on the turn and river. On these streets, people have a tendency to bet according to their hand strength, sizing up slightly more when they have a strong hand and are trying to get value.
Bots don’t have such weaknesses and will bet exactly the same size on each turn and river, regardless of what their hand is. There also won’t be any change in their game over the course of a session. Humans will begin to tire and make suboptimal decisions as time progresses but poker bots will be able to make decisions at the same quality whether it’s hour 1 or hour 15.
Have Been Active for More Than a Day
Some players like to grind. Some players will spend most of their waking hours playing poker as long as other life events allow. Then there are the players who are always online. No matter what time you log on to start a session you see them sat at the table, grinding away – it seems like they never sleep!
This is a good indication that the account is being used for botting. Poker bots don’t need to sleep and can be run 24/7 without seeing any impact on their game. People, on the other hand, need to sleep and physically cannot play every hour of every day. Even if someone did force themselves to play non-stop for a week you will see a huge difference in the quality of their play as their brain slowly turns to mush.
However, not all of these accounts are bots as some players don’t care at all for the quality of their game and are only interested in the money they can get from rakeback. These players are perfectly happy to mindlessly play for hours and hours each day, not making much money from the games but pocketing hundreds of dollars in rakeback rewards.
Consistent Time in Taking Actions
When a player is facing a decision, the complexity of that decision will impact the amount of time they take to make it. Players are more familiar with some spots than others so when a player comes across one of those unfamiliar spots they will often take 30+ seconds to come to what they think is the right decision. On the other hand, for simple decisions, humans will act almost instantly as there’s nothing to think about.
To poker bots, all situations are the same as they just need to check what their programmed solution is. There is no deviation in the time they take to make a decision as the processing power of most computers means they can instantly come to the right decision.
There are some bots that will act instantly on every street – this is a big indicator that something is afoot. However, some programmers realized this and have inserted a time delay of a few seconds between every decision. This in itself is a giveaway, as we mentioned above humans will take differing amounts of time depending on the complexity of the decision. If you’re playing someone who takes exactly 3 seconds for every decision, no matter what, they’re likely to be a bot.
Strategy Against PokerStars Bots
The first thing you should do if you suspect a player of being a poker bot is to report them to the site you’re playing on. By and large, bots are terrible for the poker ecosystem as they take thousands of dollars from unsuspecting players. However, once in a blue moon you’ll find a bot that’s been poorly programmed, a bot you can exploit and win money off of.
If you want to take advantage of a suspected poker bot you need to pay careful attention to its tendencies. How often does it fold to a 3bet? How often does it fold to a cbet? How often does it cbet and how does it react to being raised after cbetting? If a bot has been poorly programmed it will have very basic, predictable reactions to these stimuli.
There have been times where I’ve suspected I’ve been up against a poorly programmed bot and found that they just fold the flop if they’ve missed. Even if I bet one big blind they would instantly fold if they didn’t have a pair or a good draw. Once I figured that out I would try and get into as many heads-up pots with that account as possible and just bet the flop, expecting them to fold the majority of the time.
The key to winning money against a bot is to find the area of the game that has been poorly programmed and getting into that situation as often as possible. However, this requires a lot of trial and error, and given that there’s a chance the bot has been well programmed – or is just a regular player – it’s best to just report them and let the site deal with them.
While stories about poker bots make good headlines for clicks, they’re really not as widespread as people think – but if you do suspect an account be sure to report it to the site security team.