ONLINE POKER may be fun, and for the most part it's fair. The big companies, which are raking in huge sums from the exploding population of Internet players, have a vested interest in maintaining secure, legitimate games and tournaments. Players already make a leap of faith, wiring their money into the ether and hoping the computer-generated deal represents a true and random shuffle. It might be fatally discouraging to all but the truly degenerate to acknowledge that there's the possibility of collusion as well.
Of course, since there's money at stake in what is arguably the wildest frontier yet, collusion is possible. In 1999 six software engineers from Reliable Software Technologies cracked planetpoker.com's shuffle, enabling a player to determine the exact order of every card in a shuffled deck while a game was in progress. The company has since secured its shuffling algorithm, but the question remains: Can players cheat in online poker? "The sites are very sophisticated at catching cheats," says Barry Shulman, publisher of Card Player magazine. "Much more so than in any other poker environment, because they have a record of every single hand. They know everything--they know who you're playing with, when you're playing and what actions you're taking."
But online poker companies aren't the only ones with access to user patterns. Software like Poker Edge, developed by two Carnegie Mellon students, tracks the betting and hand history of more 600,000 online players. The database provides daily updates of player statistics and profiles, and it even color-codes opponents at each table as fish or sharks by shading their user names green or red.
Rules prohibiting team play and multiple accounts are spelled out in the sites' terms and conditions, but in the end ensuring the integrity of the games falls to the sites themselves. At PartyPoker, the largest site in the $2 billion industry, a team of more than 50 investigators responds to software alerts of suspicious partnerships and play as well as complaints from angry customers. Dan Goldman, vice president of marketing for PokerStars, the second-largest site, says, "The real challenge is to collude for more than a few hands." He says that once suspicious activity gets flagged by the sites' software--those two user names show up at the same table a lot, don't they?--it becomes easy to prove patterns in play. If the company finds foul play, Goldman says, pots can get redistributed after the fact and accounts can be frozen. "All the cards are available for us to review. We've dealt 1.5 billion hands, and we've got them all."