If you play poker online you’ll often hear people accusing the game of being fixed. A couple of bad beats is often all it takes for a player to start impugning the site’s integrity. Personally, I’ve never subscribed to this theory for one simple reason: running a popular online poker site is such a cash cow what do you have to gain by cheating?
Here are some back-of-an-envelope figures. When I was playing at Paradise this evening (won $75) there were 11,100 people playing poker. Saturday evening (UK time) is busy but not peak time, so let’s assume that number to be average. Let’s also assume that half the people were at play-money tables and therefore generating no income for the site. That leaves 5,500 people, or 550 tables.
Next, let’s assume that each table gets through 60 hands an hour (that’s about average online) and that the average rake per hand is $1. (This is tricky, because a lot of players will be in tourneys where you pay a flat entrance fee rather than a regular rake, but I don’t think an average of $1 is too wild.)
So 550x$1x60 gives an hourly income of $33,000. That’s per hour
, folks. Tables run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the yearly income using my assumptions comes to (deep breath) $289,080,000. Even if my estimates are 60% too high, Paradise is still pulling in nearly a hundred million dollars a year. Party Poker, by the way, attracts far more players than Paradise. There ain’t enough “zeros” in existence to write down what they
must be earning.
Why on earth would you jeopardise that by running a crooked game? (A crooked game, btw, would produce lots of “action flops” and reward players who stuck around in hands, thereby increasing the average pot and bumping up the site’s profits.) If word got out that you were rigging things your annual billion-dollar income would be up in smoke.
I suppose the obvious answer is: greed. Sure, you’re earning a hundred million a year but if you can cut a few corners to make it two or three hundred million, why not? And, after all, it’d hardly be the first time that unimaginably rich people cheated in order to earn still more.
Nonetheless, I’ve always been sceptical. The big sites all have their shuffle mechanisms audited by independent consultants, and many of them are listed on the London Stock Exchange. Plus, the US Congress is extremely uneasy about these sites and is just itching for a reason to ban Americans from playing on them – that would be an absolute disaster for online poker. As a result, sites are doing their utmost to reassure everybody that they’re on the level.
But this last month at Party Poker has made me wonder. Here are some more figures: since the start of April I’ve played 43 hours at Paradise and won $395 (an hourly rate of $9). At Party I’ve played 140 hours and lost $421 (an hourly rate of $-3).
That’s quite a shocking discrepancy, but it’s not enough to call the cops. For one thing, I’ve played over three times longer at Party, so perhaps my Paradise figures are unrepresentative (against this, I’ve played at Paradise for years and usually had good results there – these last six weeks have been my first, and probably last, experience of playing at Party). And, in any case, 183 hours of poker probably doesn’t represent a statistically significant sample.
Also, I’ll admit that the standard of play at Party seemed slightly higher than at Paradise; opponents were generally more aggressive and tricky. But they were still making plenty
of mistakes – “any-ace” players, “flush monkeys”, all-purpose buffoons: the tables were crowded with ‘em. There’s no way they were good enough to stuff me consistently for $3 an hour.
So I was unlucky. Or the game was rigged. I’m still siding with the former – standard deviation in poker is much bigger than most players realise. The fact that all my bad runs happened at one site could just be coincidence. I suppose. But I’ll tell you this: I won’t be going back in a hurry.