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What is WPT Global doing about cheating?

Straight Talk No. 4 -

Last edition, I spoke about how we use A5 Labs’ AI technology to smartly manage the ecology of our cash games (FairGame). This time, I’m going to talk about how we use the same technology to ensure our games are safe from cheating.

In one of my earliest roles in the poker business back in 2006, I worked in the Game Integrity team. A LOT was going on. Poker was booming big time thanks to TV shows like the World Poker Tour and the widespread availability of online poker play. Naturally, some bad actors saw the opportunity to take advantage.

Back then, our main concern was collusion - players working together at the tables, using software like Skype or MSN Messenger to share cards with each other and gain an unfair advantage over other players at the table. Not all collusion was premeditated - in fact, most collusion was simply friends soft-playing each other, sometimes without any idea that what they were doing was wrong. But some collusion was planned, organised, and effective. It scared us and we invested huge resources into stopping it.

It worked. Today, on any reputable poker site, it is incredibly difficult to collude in any organised way, or at the scale required to beat variance and the rake and actually make money. Frankly, there are so many easier ways to make money illicitly, that it’s not worth the time.

This breakthrough happened thanks to big data. When you play online poker, every decision you take in every hand is recorded in a database. With billions of hands played online, a hand history database is a very valuable asset.

In the early days of big data, we’d run periodic queries on the dataset looking for unusual plays or outliers. Things like ‘who are the biggest winners in PLO’, ‘who folded a hand with over 80% equity yesterday’, and ‘which players have exactly x% VPIP, y% PFR and z% AF’ were basic queries that we regularly used in Game Integrity to spot players who were worthy of deeper investigation. 

It was a huge leap forward, allowing us to proactively search for suspicious or high-risk players and rely less on reports from customers. Full Tilt was implementing this kind of technology when I worked there in 2011 - today’s tools are obviously far more sophisticated.

On WPT Global right now, thanks to A5 Labs’ unique ‘AceGuardian’ AI tech, all of this is automated and done using artificial intelligence. As more and more hands are played on WPT Global, AceGuardian learns and becomes even better at spotting gameplay that is unusual or an outlier. The tools are constantly evolving, getting faster and more effective.

People still try to collude, of course. There is always the temptation to soft-play your friend in a big hand, and to some people, trying to dump a deposit bonus to a conspirator to earn $5 is worth a try. But we have become so good at stopping it that the harm caused is little to none, and ultimately, that's what we care about.

Speaking of ‘what we care about’...

Why do we do this and what are our goals?

Why we spend money on game integrity is an important question. Hiring expert game integrity analysts is expensive; so is building advanced game integrity systems. WPT Global has over 50 people working on game integrity, and this doesn’t even include the people at A5 Labs who develop the technology. Doing this is expensive.

A typical business would look to reduce this cost. Cut staff, spend less on tech, outsource it to a cheaper country, or simply don’t spend the money in the first place. (Sadly, you do see this at many of our competitors).

At WPT Global however, we have a different attitude. To us, Game Integrity is an important investment. I use the word investment purposefully, because an investment is expected to deliver a return, a dividend, and that’s exactly how we think of it. We believe that by investing heavily in Game Integrity, we will create the best possible place to play online poker - a venue that lives up to the WPT’s substantial reputation - and players will choose us over the competition.

We are also poker players ourselves. I’ve been playing for 25 years and working in the industry for 19. The founders of our tech supplier, A5 Labs, created their company precisely because they were cheated in high-stakes online games and wanted to build something better. We know we owe something to the poker community that has has given us so much. Investing in Game Integrity is, frankly, the least we can do.

Ultimately, what we are aiming to achieve with our game integrity tools, processes and people, is to reduce the harm caused by cheaters. That brings us nicely on to the next question:

How do we measure success?

Most online poker businesses measure their game integrity success in these ways:

  • How many cheaters’ accounts did we close and how much money did we seize from cheaters and return to players?
  • How many game integrity cases did we detect proactively (i.e. using our own tools, and not from player reports)

Although we do measure these things on WPT Global, they are not our primary measures of success. Almost all cases we deal with are detected proactively (over 99%), and so this metric isn’t very useful to us. And ideally, we want the number of closed cheating accounts to be as small as possible (indicating we’re doing a good job of discouraging cheating in the first place). 

Instead, we measure harm caused by cheaters.

Harm is easy to measure. We can look at two simple metrics:

  • The cheaters’ win rate
  • How much profit the cheaters were able to successfully withdraw

Our goal is to reduce cheaters’ win rates as far as possible, ideally so much so that anyone who attempts to cheat actually loses money. This metric is a good indicator of how well we are proactively preventing cheating.

We also aim to catch any cheating before the players can withdraw their money, so we can return it to the community. 

Ideally, we want cheaters to deposit more money than they withdraw (i.e. they are losing money overall). This metric is a good indicator of how well we are detecting cheating that has already happened, and how quickly we take action. If our proactive detection is really good and we act on the information swiftly, then we should be able to catch players before they are able to withdraw their illicit gains.

So, our game integrity teams are measured on - and incentivised to achieve - targets based on these two metrics. By doing this, we ensure no cheating group can achieve sufficient scale to make significant profit on WPT Global. We don’t have to be perfect at this, just better than the competition, as organised cheaters quickly move elsewhere.

That pretty much sums up our approach, and I hope you’ve found it enlightening. There’s a lot more to discuss on this topic, so coming in my next blog - more information about how we deal with two of today’s most topical game integrity challenges - bots and real time assistance.

Until then, I hope you feel a little safer at the tables.


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