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Online Poker Players Could Be Bots

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It's late one Wednesday afternoon, and CptPokr is logged on to PartyPoker.com and ready to play. Onscreen, the captain exudes a certain brash charisma - broad shoulders, immaculate brown hair, restless animatronic eyes. He looks like he should be playing synth in Kraftwerk. Instead, he is seated at a virtual table with nine other avatars, wagering on limit Texas hold 'em.

There's plenty at stake. An estimated 1.8 million gamblers around the world ante up for online poker every month. Last year, poker sites raked in an estimated $1.4 billion, an amount expected to double in 2005.

Ever since the aptly named accountant Chris Moneymaker parlayed a $40 Internet tournament buy-in into a $2.5 million championship at the World Series of Poker in 2003, card shark wannabes have been chasing their fantasies onto the Net. Some even quit their day jobs and try to make a living at online poker. And why not? This shadowy world is driven by no less a force than the great American dream. As the tournament's motto goes, "Anyone can win." There's one problem, though, as CptPokr is about to demonstrate: The rules of the game are different online.

CptPokr is a robot. Unlike the other icons at the table, there is no human placing his bets and playing his cards. He is controlled by WinHoldEm, the first commercially available autoplaying poker software. Seat him at the table and he will apply strategy gleaned from decades of research. While carbon-based players munch Ding Dongs, yawn, guzzle beer, reply to email, take phone calls, and chat on IM, CptPokr (a pseudonym) is running the numbers so it will know, statistically, when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Smart, skilled players are rewarded in the long run, especially online, where there are plenty of beginners who would never have the nerve to sit down at a real table. But WinHoldEm isn't just smart, it's a machine. Set it to run on autopilot and it wins real money while you sleep. Flick on Team mode and you can collude with other humans running WinHoldEm at the table.

For years, there has been chatter among online players about the coming poker bot infestation. WinHoldEm is turning those rumors into reality, and that is a serious problem for the online gambling business. Players come online seeking a "fair" shot - a contest against other humans, not robots. But an invasion of bots implies a fixed game (even though, like their mortal counterparts, they can and do lose if their hands are bad enough or opponents good enough). So the poker sites loudly proclaim that automated play is no big deal. At the same time, they are fighting back by quietly scanning for and eliminating suspicious accounts. "We're making sure we never have bots on our site," says PartyPoker marketing director Vikrant Bhargava.

That's an impossible promise to keep, says Ray E. Bornert II, WinHoldEm's elusive creator. He's trying to flood the online world with his bot - and make a killing in the process. Bornert offers an elaborate justification for what many view as outright cheating: Online poker is already rife with computer-assisted card sharks and - thanks to him - a growing number of outright bots. Players should get wise and arm themselves with the best bot available, which is, of course, WinHoldEm.

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