A Case Against Poker HUDs
Most successful online poker players use a heads-up display (HUD) during their grind sessions. There are a few different commonly used HUDs: PokerTracker and Hold'em Manager are two popular ones. These software programs are a bit different from one another, but their basic purpose is the same: mine stats from online poker games and display useful info through a HUD to help players make better decisions at the table. These software programs are almost imperative to achieving success in online poker, especially when playing more than one table simultaneously. But the edge gained from these software programs and their HUDs is killing online poker games. It's time to see online poker rooms take steps to fight back.
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Online poker cash games have gradually reached a point of being very difficult to beat. Hardcore grinders overrun the games by playing up to two dozen tables at a time. They use software programs like PokerTracker to keep tabs on their opponents while making more than a thousand decisions per hour. The days of manually observing your opponents in an online poker game are long gone. Software programs now do that work for the player and any player attempting to thrive without the help of these programs are operating from a major disadvantage.
Poker rooms used to care about not letting their players get cannibalized. In the early days of online poker, operators had policies in place to help protect weaker players from being steamrolled in their games. They limited the number of tables players could play and also capped the stakes they offered so a fish wouldn't blow his whole bankroll taking one shot in a nosebleed game. This also had the effect of keeping the games nice and juicy. Since there were plenty of well-bankrolled fish, sharks could have a nice hourly rate.
Around 2005, online poker rooms began to go public. This shifted their priorities to being able to show quick profits so their stock price could increase. To achieve this, they turned their games into a multi-tabling frenzy where there is virtually no limit to the number of games a player can sit in. No longer did they care about preserving soft games. The business models became all about generating as much rake as quickly as possible without regard for the softness of their games.
Fast forward several years later and we see an online poker landscape where even the lower stakes cash games are overran by multi-tabling grinders who use HUD programs to squeeze out a small edge while cashing in on VIP programs that award playing a high volume. Online poker cash games are no longer a place for recreational players wanting to kill a little time. What made poker so appealing which led to its extreme growth was that even poor players had a shot at winning in the short-term. Today, that appeal is all but gone as recreational players are likely to find themselves seated at a table full of savvy grinders at virtually all stakes.
Most ecosystems understand that predators cannot be allowed full access to prey; it's not good for anyone. For example, states have hunting and fishing licenses to prevent overhunting or overfishing. This way, over the long run, there is plenty of fish/game to be out there as they are allowed to regenerate. Allowing free reign by the hunters/fisherman could result in one huge harvest, then starvation in later years.
Poker is the same way. If there are 1000 fish playing at a set poker room and 1000 sharks, that is a stable ecosystem and very profitable for the 1000 sharks (assuming one table per person). However, allowing the sharks to 10 table essentially makes it 10,000 sharks and 1000 fish, making the games nearly unbeatable. It's neither good for the sharks or the fish, though the poker room makes more rake in the short term. The fish are quickly scared out of the games though and the grinders will eventually realize they aren't making any money since they are mainly playing against other sharks.
There is a market out there right now for online poker rooms to help swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Here are some things online poker rooms can do to cater to players looking for games that more closely resemble the ones they find in brick and mortar casinos:
Offer Anonymous Tables
Online poker rooms can completely circumvent the damaging effects HUDs have on their games by creating cash game tables where the participants are completely anonymous to one another. Bodog recently tried this but faults with their software made the games less than anonymous. It's a simple concept that restores some fun back into online poker games as players are forced to do some good, old-fashioned observation of their opponents in order to find an edge. The tables could be totally anonymous where players are identified only by their seat number, or players could be permitted to submit whatever screenname they want prior to sitting in the game.
Random Seat Selection
For the most part, brick-and-mortar poker rooms do not let players choose their seat. You're told that an open seat popped up at a table of the game and stakes you wish to play, and if you want in that game, you have to take that seat. Online poker currently works much differently than this where players are free to browse around and take whatever seat they wish. This opens the door for collusion and creating an immediate edge by sitting to the left of savvy players. Why not make online poker seat selection totally random? Players indicate to the client the game, stakes, and buy-in amount they wish to play and are given a random seat to meet those wishes. Players who abuse this feature by leaving games and re-entering them in hopes of a better table draw can be issued a warning or temporary ban.
Limited Number of Anonymous Tables
Create a rule where players can only join two or three anonymous tables simultaneously. Non-anonymous games can continue to allow a virtually unlimited number of simultaneous games; let the rakeback grinders continue to murder each other if they want to.
Outright Ban Poker Software Programs
Although virtually no online poker room presently exercises their right to do so, they are free to ban the use of poker software programs in their games. 888 Poker has historically taken a sharper stance against these programs than most online poker rooms but has conceded to the industry norm by allowing the use of PokerTracker in their games. They are a few different ways to prevent the use of these software programs. One mostly-effective way is to disallow hand histories to be saved to the player's hard drive which is how the software programs access the information they need to generate stats in a HUD.
Eventually, poker rooms are going to have to push back against the trend of poker software programs and HUDs being used in their games. Online cash games are all but unbeatable these days when you don't take into account rakeback-like programs. That may not be a major issue for anyone willing to play 200,000 hands per year in order to feast on VIP rewards, but it sucks pretty hard for the casual fellow who likes logging in to play a couple hundred hands before he goes to bed. The first poker room to realize this and do something about it in a major way stands to be downwind of a nice chunk of market share.
All it takes is a major poker room with a long-term view to enact these methods and they will likely surge. Unfortunately, most poker rooms are very short-term focused and needing to show quick profits to investors so their stock price won't drop too hard. The non-public Bodog at least has shown the necessity of protecting the fish towards long-term growth. Perhaps some others will too.