Over the past decade, poker software has slowly crept up from a ground level and wrapped itself around the very fibres of our game. It is now inseparably knitted into the fabric of online poker, and while that fact is irreversible and widely accepted – is the gradual shift from post-game analysis aids to potential in-game “solvers” threatening the existence of the online game?
Imperfection has always been the beating heart of poker, because if everyone plays perfectly with pinpoint balance, the only profit-makers are the poker rooms. Some would argue that the tendrils of technology should be sheared before they choke the life from poker’s online world through players using them during play. But, if that is our goal, is it even an attainable one?
What are solvers?
The newest software aids can now tell players what the Game Theory Optimal (GTO) response is to any situation and increasing numbers of players have been using such tools. This is a normal evolution when used as an analysis tool after a session, but there have been reports of players using them while playing, and this is what threatens the future of online poker, and potentially even live poker.
While solvers such as MonkerSolver, GTO Range Builder and SimplePostflop have a good following, the most popular solver is called PioSOLVER. While this software program does not completely solve the game of poker, as its name suggests, it does give clear indications about what the best course of action would be for a player in each situation if they aim to apply a GTO strategy.
Many players have been discussing poker solvers lately, and most feel they are an excellent tool for sharpening how they analyse situations while studying away from the table. This is a natural progression of technology of course, but it does bring us a step closer to all pros playing perfect GTO poker in every session, especially if use during play becomes more widespread.
Good or bad for the game?
The important point to be made here is that no player should feel bad about using learning aids away from the table. Learning and assimilating information regarding the deep nuances of the game is an incredibly important part of improving as a poker player. Applying that learned knowledge successfully once you sit down at the table should only come from you, however.
In the earlier days of online poker, there were plenty of small and simple technological aids. With the advent of HUD’s, technology began informing players decisions in real-time while playing, and for many players, this where the ethical problems arise.
When it comes to technological advancements, the key distinction has always been that using technology to help you while you play is questionable in terms of fairness and not healthy for the game. Using tools like solvers while studying away from the tables, however, is a very normal and acceptable part of improving your game. If solvers were banned entirely, it would essentially amount to a ban on players studying to improve their game away from the tables, which is not only nonsensical, but also impossible to apply.
So really, it depends what you define as "good for the game". If you mean taking poker to a high technical level like chess, then solvers are great. If you mean making the edge of winning players smaller, then they are awful. But again, knowledge wants to be spread.
— Jonathan Little (@JonathanLittle) August 30, 2019
The use of solvers in-play has already been seen sporadically and many people fear the impact this could have for online poker. partypoker’s Rob Yong has stated his view on Twitter that solvers are the biggest threat to poker’s future, but others have voiced very different opinions. Whatever your views, if online poker must draw a line in the sand when it comes to technology, then using it to assist players while they play seems the logical choice. The only problem is enforcement.
Online poker rooms have fought back against in-play aids like HUD’s, with some rooms banning them entirely. But this isn’t too difficult to enforce, since the poker table and tracker information is displayed on the same computer. Furthermore, despite attempts to keep decision making cognitive rather than technologically directed at online tables, the technology itself has continued to evolve.
To say this technology should be banned is like saying players should be banned from improving their game because it’s not fair on those who are not working to improve. It’s simply not realistic. Also, poker is complex and continually evolving and even solvers are not magic tools that bring poker perfection, they are simply an educational aid which can be misused. Jonathan Little continued to make interesting points in this discussion on Twitter:
Solvers are certainly bad for anyone who does not know about/want to use them (as is the case for all educational material/tools). That said, bots, ghosting, collusion, rake are all way worse for the recs, especially for small/med stakes recs who are not playing against the best.
— Jonathan Little (@JonathanLittle) August 30, 2019
Is in-play use of solvers impossible to prevent?
In terms of posing a threat to poker, use of technology while playing is clearly the issue in question. Using solvers while playing is banned by all sites and considered to be outright cheating, but there have already been a few instances of it happening. There might have been more widespread use in-play, but for the fact that the technology is not completely refined yet and it requires a lot of computer power to calculate situations.
The secondary problem with stopping in-play use of solvers is that they are harder to detect than bots. This is because they can run on a different computer, so all a player would need to cheat in this way would be two laptops. One for playing, and one for calculating GTO responses to each hand. Unless this issue can be overcome by a system which detects a secondary computer in proximity, it is hard to see how this problem can currently be combatted by anti-cheating measures.
partypoker to remove all games of $10/$25 and above?
I agree. @partypoker will close off 10-25 + games in 2019.
— Rob Yong (@rob_yong_) August 30, 2019
During the Twitter debate about solvers, Brian Hastings put forward the view that online poker for serious stakes has a finite lifespan, to which Rob Yong offered the response shown above. This could be taken to mean that he feels solvers are bringing partypoker to a point where they will have to simply close the higher stakes tables, but it seems more likely he was making a general point in agreement with Hastings. If he feels shutting $10/$25 tables and above will help fight solvers being used by players while playing, it would be a strange opinion, as those players would simply drop down and immediately infest $5/$10 and $10/$20.
The reality is, with new technology and the policing of it, things have always followed a back and forth pattern. New software will be developed, its application debated and if the community feels it is unfair then ways to restrict its use should then be developed. This is a reactive pendulum which is also found in the wider world and is essential if progress is to be considered and orderly.
When it comes to poker, removing certain tables will not rectify the root cause of the problem. We need discourse and potentially, proactive measures to ensure solver use and other software tools are only being used in study. If we fail to develop such measures, however, solver use during play could feasibly become widespread, and that would render our online future bleak, to say the least.
Article by Craig Bradshaw