WPT Global launched its online poker site in May last year and is now available in over 50 countries, with over 15,000 average DAUs (daily active users). Its technology partner A5 Labs had a vision of how to stop cheating and create a site that poker players could trust
JA: The problems in online poker are unique. Online poker is the only game where customers wager tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars online.
This makes it unique among games of skill. Games like Counter-Strike or chess – or anything played for money with championships or big events – have to happen in person because they can’t police it online.
If you think about chess, there are so many publicly available chess engines, and it’s pretty easy for someone to cheat. Let’s say they’re playing a grandmaster in a match online. It’s not difficult to pull up a chess engine and get some assistance to play him.
If that person has an 800 rating, the cheating would likely be detected pretty quickly because it’s unlikely that they would be able to compete with the grandmaster without illegitimate assistance.
For a really sophisticated user, maybe they may get a little nudge here or there from the chess engine. If you have two grandmasters and one is using a chess engine, they always beat the person who doesn’t have the chess engine.
And how does that apply to online poker?
JA: The landscape of cheating has evolved over time and become much more sophisticated.
We have a big interest in protecting the integrity of the game. It’s beneficial for us from a revenue perspective and the players want to feel safe.
Around 2015, a lot of more publicly available study tools were released. PioSOLVER is the most common one.
It’s a reinforcement learning AI that creates a model of the game. Players use it to study, but players can also use it to create tools to tell them what to do in the game, which is the problem.
“We didn’t know what software they were using. We were always one step behind them. They might have been connecting from a particular country or region where we know these issues are prevalent, or they’re from sanctioned regions and we want to block that entire country.”
I used to play poker professionally and there has been a change in the online game. Player skill was more evenly distributed. Even among professionals, there were okay players, mid-to-high stakes guys, and the cream of the crop high-stakes players. Now the skill gap is more polarized, making it more difficult to make it as a professional.
So, the concern is that more and more people have access to the tools and will use them for the wrong reasons. We want to prevent that and build tools or at least offer, on our platforms, tools that can detect cheating or at least disincentivize the users from using them and make it expensive for them.
There was a cheating scandal with GG Poker, where some well-known high-stakes players were using tools like this not just for themselves but for some of the players they staked in the games.
Professional players have always been aware of the tools because they use them to study. But now, even the recreational community or the casual poker players, who really are the lifeblood of the business, are more aware of them.
These players want to know what operators are doing to protect them and ensure the game is safe.
So what are you doing to protect them?
JA: Back in the day, PokerStars was the gold standard. They had this sophisticated software to detect bots with mouse movements, but they were somewhat invasive on your computer.
For the most part, high-stakes poker players are okay with the software essentially knowing what they’re doing if it means that the games will be safe. But now that’s not good enough, and we’ve made a big bet on taking it a step further.
We want to make sure that players are not running some prohibited software, but we also want to understand where they’re playing from, maybe have some back information about them, and then the most sophisticated element of this is really understanding and being able to measure skill through how they play the game.
So that’s where we’ve made a big bet and hired a lot of industry experts in machine learning and data science, along with professional poker players. So we can not just look at the signal you would have if you were running a high-risk piece of software, like a virtual machine that is conducive to having this type of AI but also look at how you make decisions in the game.
And then, we compare your play to the population of pro players or the whole population of players to understand if we can see some signals through our prediction algorithms that show that what you’re doing is not exactly human.
Maybe you’re doing things a little too consistently or you’re just such an outlier from how people normally act, that we should investigate.
So I would hope that some of the other operators have invested in this area, but I can’t say for sure because it’s been a big project.
So tell me about GeoComply closing the loop?
JA: For a while, we were really losing the cat-and-mouse battle with the so-called contextual detection.
When players changed their location, we didn’t know where they were playing from. We didn’t know what software they were using. We were always one step behind them. They might have been connecting from a particular country or region where we know these issues are prevalent, or they’re from sanctioned regions and we want to block that entire country.
This was outside of our expertise. They were very sophisticated in making it look like they were an organic user in a region that we service.
GeoComply makes sure we can verify players’ location and have that contextual identity, to have a complete understanding of their network behavior.
The SDK sits on the client side. It collects this information and ensures the customer isn’t manipulating our software. So we don’t think they’re doing one thing, and they’re actually doing another. If our analysts can trust the data, they can make fast decisions, and it acts as a preventative measure that makes the bad actor take a step back and forces them to invest more money and time to try to get around the technology.
The ability to really understand where players are limits them. They can’t be in a centralized location and drop fake players wherever they want. They have to be where they say they are, and if they trigger anything, then they don’t even get in the door.
Can you explain what it is about knowing the location that stops the fraud?
JA: In general, if one person wants to commit fraud on the platform, it will not impact us that much financially, right?
We want to do as much as we can to stop it but when it really becomes a problem, especially in online poker, is when this scales.
So, let’s say you want to run a bot group. You’re going to have to get a lot of accounts. You’ll have to make them look like they’re playing from many different locations. And you’re going to have to make it look like it’s organic user traffic.
So the ability to really understand where players are limits them. They can’t be in a centralized location and drop fake players wherever they want. They have to be where they say they are, and if they trigger anything, then they don’t even get in the door.
It limits their ability to scale quickly. Because they have to find real people with real identities to get through KYC, they have to figure out how they will get around GeoComply’s fraud detection, which ensures they’re not manipulating their network or location.
If we can put a big dent in their bottom line by making them spend a lot more money to grow this, maybe they’ll look at other things to do and stay away from our platform or stay away from online poker in general.
When do you do the checks?
JA: Our plan is to do the checks as soon they get in the door. So any time they log in, we need to run a check because if we just do it at KYC, someone else might be using the account the next time they log in.
And then we also plan to have randomized checks anytime they’re playing the game. So this way, we have a complete picture: Did they change anything? Did they open a new piece of software? Are they trying to use a VPN to log in from a barred jurisdiction?
There’s a combination of the things that GeoComply provides and that we look into that would ultimately trigger us to lock the account or investigate the player further.