As “The Poker Philosopher”, and in honor of one of my favorite non-poker blogs, I occasionally consider the ethical dimensions of a high-profile controversy in the poker community. In this edition, I address a long-standing controversy in the online poker world, in response to a question about Heads-Up Displays (HUD’s) posed in a recent comment. Older editions of The Poker Ethicist are available in the archives.
In response to a recent post I made about using a HUD, commenter “Elmer Fudd” asked,
“I would like you to comment on the ethics of using a HUD in the first place. It most certainly gives you an edge over players that don’t use such software and provides you with stats that you couldn’t readily obtain during a live game. I guess I’m an old-fashioned poker purist, but anything that gives you a slight edge over other players is cheating. “
I would say anything that gives you an unfair edge is cheating. Sleeping and eating better than my opponents gives me an edge. Reading more books than they do gives me an edge. Using a second monitor gives me an edge over opponents attempting to multi-table on a single monitor. Yet none of these is unfair, because my opponents have equal opportunity to take advantage of them.
An edge becomes unfair when it violates the rules of the game as defined by the casino or site hosting the game. Even if you disagree with a particular rule or believe that other players are violating it, violating it yourself is unethical because it is essentially dishonest. By playing on a particular online poker site or at a particular casino, you are promising your fellow players that you will abide by a particular set of rules. This defines the parameters of the game, the ways in which players may and may not seek an edge.
When I sit down at a live game, I accept and agree that physical tells will be part of the game, and that signaling to a partner at the table will not. My opponents, in turn, agree to the same. They know that to keep up with me in this contest, they will need to practice their face-reading skills but not their sign language. If I were colluding with another player, this would gain me an unfair advantage, because it is one my opponents are not expecting me to have and one that they have themselves agreed not to pursue.
On sites that allow them, HUD’s are a legitimate part of the game. Insofar as they do not violate a site’s terms and conditions, then everyone playing on the site implicitly agrees that they are allowed. Some may use them more than others, and some may choose not to use them at all. Similarly, I might choose not to attempt to pick up physical tells during a live game, but this does not make it unethical for my opponents to do so. As long as I have the same opportunity, the playing field is level.
Using a HUD on a site that prohibits it, even if you were to find a way to make the HUD work and to evade detection, would not be ethical. Doing so would violate your agreement with the site and with your fellow players on that site. It would give you an edge that your honest opponents would not enjoy, and this would be unethical.
Online poker is not merely a derivative form of live poker. It bears many similarities, but also many differences. Just because something would not be allowed or possible in a live setting does not mean that it is unethical when done online, any more than a rule prohibiting cell phones at the table at the Rio would it make unethical to use a cell phone at the table at MGM. Different venues have the right to establish their own rules. Some players may prefer the rules generally found in a live setting to those found online, but they may not impose their preferred rules as an ethical obligation on their online competitors.