An online poker article recently published by Vice News has the community up in arms over a blasé portrayal of the issue of botting.
The author, Hayden Vernon, purchased an off-the-shelf bot and used it on multiple sites over a period of weeks as part of a pitch to Vice. He defends his decision to do so in the name of journalism, arguing it was necessary research for the story.
Poker Twitter promptly took him to task.
Vernon is dismissive, though, describing critics as “myopic poker fans” that want to blame him for “pointing out endemic problems with the online game.”
If at first you don’t succeed, cheat
Vernon says that the article wasn’t originally supposed to be about botting at all.
His inspiration came from last week’s release of The Biggest Bluff, the new book from Maria Konnikova detailing her efforts to transform herself from a complete novice into a winning player with the help of Hall of Fame pro Erik Seidel.
Naturally, Vernon didn’t expect to duplicate Konnikova’s success without such coaching. He describes initially trying to follow some basic advice about tight play before ultimately finding that approach too boring.
The author decided to try using a bot partway through his experiment after, as he put it, “probably losing against other people’s bots.”
Vernon has previously written other articles for Vice in which he’s dabbled in different online money-making schemes of varying levels of virtue.
“Using poker bots is something of a grey area, both legally and ethically,” he told Online Poker Report.
“This is something I’m interested in and have examined in previous Vice articles about making money online through forex, matched betting and daigous [the selling of western luxury goods on the Chinese black market]. The internet has created loads of these grey zones for making money online – I enjoy trying them out and writing about them.”
Crossing the line in the name of journalism
There’s a difference between the approach in Vernon’s poker piece and the others, however.
In writing about daigous, he described the phenomenon while avoiding the temptation to become a smuggler himself. Covering forex sites, he cautioned his readers about the prevalence of scammers selling bogus tips but did not engage in fraud.
Vernon may have broken terms of service in chasing matched betting offers, but what small profit he made came from the pockets of the betting operators themselves.
The £220 he says he won with his poker bot, on the other hand, did not out of the operator’s pocket. It came from his unsuspecting opponents. That, for many in the poker world, is a bridge too far.
Although Vernon acknowledges the ethical difference between what he did for this article and previous ones, he does not see it as his responsibility.
“It’s really the duty of the poker companies to protect their players,” he said.
Neither an endorsement nor a condemnation
Vernon insists that his critics are effectively shooting the messenger. He didn’t create the problem, he says, but merely drew attention to it.
This argument is undermined, however, by the fact that the article doesn’t really address it as a problem. It describes botting as “cheating” exactly one time and otherwise avoids all discussion of the legality or ethics of the practice.
To some extent, that’s the nature of the publication.
Though Vice now covers a variety of topics, its original focus was on exploring the seedier side of life without judgment. That said, many Vice articles highlight the risks involved in such activities. Vernon’s neither does much to assess the threat of bots to honest players, nor to caution would-be cheaters of the consequences of being caught.
Even so, he insists that the article shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of cheating.
“I don’t think it could be read that way outside of the headline,” Vernon told us, adding that he did not write it himself. “There’s a quote from the bot’s maker explicitly saying it’s not a magic money machine.”
He also doesn’t see much chance that the article will spark change, either in the industry or on player behavior. He instead carries a sense of nihilism about the issue, both in the article itself and in correspondence with OPR.
“Like most people, I’m not a fan of poker,” he says, when asked if he feels he’s victimized anyone. “I literally would not care if I woke up tomorrow and it did not exist. I don’t feel sorry for anyone.”
A missed opportunity for education
Nick Jones, editor for Poker Industry Pro, responded to the article with a well-conceived Twitter thread. In it, he argues that the article is something of a missed opportunity.
The key takeaway, Jones says, should be in the perception of poker players and bots outside of the poker community.
Serious players, whether or not they do so professionally, tend to see poker as a legitimate endeavor for hard-working people with discipline. They view botting and other forms of cheating as outrageously unethical — equivalent to outright theft.
To many outsiders, though, poker still carries a reputation as a game of cheats and liars. Botting is just “grifting” to use Vernon’s word, and while it might be ethically borderline, it’s not much worse than any other aspect of the business.
That image problem may be as bad for poker as the bots themselves.
Not all poker sites are equal
After all, bots probably aren’t quite as endemic as Vernon makes them out to be.
Developers of prohibited software usually caution against using it on PokerStars, for instance, as the risk of detection is far too great. Partypoker began a crackdown last year aimed at establishing a similar reputation.
What’s shocking about the article isn’t that Vernon was able to do what he did. It’s that he was able to do it using off-the-shelf software on a regulated site — namely bet365, whose security should have caught such a bot immediately.
Sites are, of course, quite secretive about their security efforts. It’s therefore hard to know the extent of the problem without actively attempting to engage in it, as Vernon did. Had he tried his bot on another regulated site, he might have had a different experience.
From a player protection point of view, that sort of comparison would be valuable.
After withdrawing from bet365, Vernon unfortunately moved straight to unregulated private clubs where there is no security whatsoever.
More productive poker conversations
There’s little hope of reconciliation between Vernon and his critics. Asked if he wishes he’d done anything differently, his answer was an emphatic “Nope!”
Meanwhile, his methods would likely have produced similar condemnation even if the resulting article had focused more heavily on an anti-cheating message.
Fortunately, the damage done by Vernon and his bot is minimal. Yes, the program got lucky enough to win a tournament. In statistical terms, however, his crime is of the same magnitude as stealing a chocolate bar for an article on shoplifting. He also has no interest in playing, cheating at, or writing about poker any further.
The other issues raised by the article shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten, however. No amount of cheat-shaming will make the issue disappear, nor will sweeping it under the rug.
Instead, the poker community might serve its own interests better by focusing on the things it can control.
- How do we tell which sites are doing a better or worse job of security?
- At what point do regulators need to step in when it comes to lax enforcement?
- How do we educate recreational players about cheating?
- What misconceptions does the public have about online poker, and how do we dispel those?
These are the sorts on conversations we could (and should) be having, rather than focusing on one unrepentant cheater.