Cyberclinic: Poker cheats are more barefaced than ever

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The Independent Tech

I've always been interested in the concept of "tilt" in poker. It's the state of emotional upheaval and distress that occurs when things aren't going someone's way, prompting them to behave in an erratic fashion and ruining their chances of getting out of the mess they're in. As someone who experiences something similar to "tilt" in benign situations such as using an automated supermarket checkout, it's probably a good thing that I avoid playing poker. But there are online poker players who display no symptoms of hotheadedness, tilt, or fatigue – because they're automated.

Bots with such deceptively human aliases such as "Steve" can play calmly in a rational, logical fashion while human opponents wilt under the pressure. In theory. In reality, most bots are obvious enough for even novice players to spot them – but, unsurprisingly, they're getting better. An Annual Computer Poker Competition takes place every July, presenting an enticing challenge to both programmers and AI experts. That know-how can obviously be deployed for financial gain. Indeed, you can buy a poker bot online for $129 – money that you'll recoup over the course of a few games if you're not rumbled.

The online poker business, worth $5bn a year, has good form with regard to banning bots and refunding players who've been diddled. Some say that there's now a bigger threat from "team play" (where players collude to boost their winnings) or inside jobs (such as the one back in 2007 when Absolute Poker discovered that an employee had spent 40 days cheating the system). But the growing sophistication of bots gives an extra psychological dimension to the game – as if it needed one. While poker sites are obliged to investigate all claims of foul play, 95 per cent of them are, according to one ex-employee, merely bitter customers embroiled in a run of bad luck. Games thus turn from tests of nerve into paranoid episodes. Players, fearing that they're up against a computer, will equip themselves with programs to calculate odds and advise their best next move. At which point you may as well remove humans from the equation entirely and just let the machines fight it out.

It's time for the annual SXSW festival of music and technology, which in recent years has had the knack of predicting the next big thing in social media – notably Twitter and Foursquare. But groundbreaking services adorned with bells and whistles have been usurped in 2011 by the thrilling prospect of, er, exchanging messages with your mates. A whole bunch of start-ups have produced smartphone apps that facilitate SMS or Twitter-style chats among small groups of people. Not particularly eye-popping or headline-grabbing – so why all the pre-festival fuss?

As mobile users, we're still bafflingly enslaved to the text message or SMS, despite free alternatives being available. I guess we're creatures of habit. But the success of BlackBerry's own messaging system shows that we're willing to switch if it's pitched right – and that's what these services are aiming for, using a Twitter-style conversation timeline and, in some cases, a location-sensing facility that lets you see conversations going on around you. Three or four have launched in the UK, including Beluga, Kik and PingChat!; one theory for their potential appeal is the way Twitter has become so overloaded.

As Twitter has become the cool social media hangout it has become more difficult to have uninterrupted, cosy chats. There's probably an optimum number of people to follow on Twitter that balances your need for information with frustration at being overwhelmed with data – but many regular Twitter users moved past that number a long time ago. So this new batch of services could seem like an attractive option for downsizing; GroupMe, for example (not yet available in the UK) has a 25-person limit on each conversational thread. In the insistent, jabbering world of social media, filters are everything.

One of the services, Beluga, has recently been bought by Facebook – an indication that free group messaging is more than just SXSW hype. And I dare say we'll relish its arrival – until we end up embroiled in too many conversations, it becomes horribly unwieldy, and we head off to yet another service in search of a bit of peace and quiet.