The Poker Ethicist: Heads-Up Displays

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.

23 thoughts on “The Poker Ethicist: Heads-Up Displays

        • Because so many people are assisted by computer programs? This was my experience playing online Reversi (Othello) a few years ago.

          • Sorry I was messy with my posts I made them after Saturday party night.
            Before ~1994 I had no problem to win chess against computer programs or gadgets which were available for consumer market.
            They were some cool gadgets.The times were changing.
            Now in case of chess the software is so good you have to be be grandmaster to win with them on regular basis.
            What I mean in chess is much easier to make “terminal” mistake when you play against top competitions- computer programs.
            If you are human it is so easy to make just one mistake within ~ 1-2 hours match.
            They call this “chess blindness”.The mistake is self evident for both parties immediately and you are done.
            There is nothing similar in poker match. In poker match you can recover because of later “lucky” street or in next hand.
            In poker your “poker blindeness” can be your asset on next street,hand,or key situation.

            My prediction is that computer programs will are increasing threat for online poker too.
            In case of poker I monitor a few bots which are rakeback grinders now at super,turbo and regular HUSNG NL at 50$ and below.
            I regularly check them at sharkscope.Overall they are break-even .Some of them went bankrupt. Some of them gets better.
            OK. My bot story.
            I was frustrated with some bots competitions.I played with them at FullTilt regularly.
            I did not have problem to crash regulars-human competition at 50$ HUSNG.
            Bots usually rejected rematch regardless current session outcome.
            To avoid detection human operator played some session.In this case game is very aggressive,a lot of bluffs all streets,timing tells,short session before BB hits 100T,trash talk,etc.Rematch is possible.
            Bots had pretty predictable strategy.
            Above 12 BB the bots play very tide strategy preflop and flop,turn,river.I call this “nuts” strategy.
            Preflop strategy – default limping, do not call 3-bets much rather 4-bets allin with nuts (AK+,JJ) or very rarely with “pure air”-72o.By the way in HU(23o) is pure air.
            Flop strategy – fit(TPNK) or fold.Check-raise allin with big draws(11+ outs).Check-raise value default.vey rarely Check-raise bluff.
            Turn strategy -no bluffs, exclusive value bets,reasonable draw calls,check-folds.
            River strategy:value bets including thin value bets(in and out of position) and marginal calls with good bluff catchers.
            Generally I see very few rivers with action as result bots tide-aggressive pressure on earlier streets.
            Important:Bot takes almost maximum allotted time limit to make any decision at every street and situation and for every action(fold,raise,call,check).
            Earlier I believed that the bot needs time to process data to make decision.But I changed my mind later.
            You really play regular speed but you feel like in turbo – You play 3-4 times less hands to compare with regular human opponent before BB increases to 100T.
            Usually the default result such strategy is the situation when my stack size is ~ 1700T vs bot stack 1300T and BB hits 100T.
            My net positive gain is mainly because of stealing blinds from button or wide 3beting from BB.
            12 BB is the threshold for bot to switch to another strategy – (exclusive jam/fold).
            The bot uses approximately Nash Ranges for the call-or-Fold Play.
            And some Bayesian hybrid strategy for push.I mean wider range that Nash range for push.
            I know such splitted strategy supposed to lead -EV bot decision but I have feeling that this is some kind of refinment of Nash strategy.
            Anyway, usually my allin confrontation with bot was preflop coinflip and this fact made me frustrated.My skill advantage was nullified.My profit was “nullified” too.
            So I prefered good reg that bot as my opposition.

    • Interesting, thanks. I would think the French Federation would want to be pretty damn confident before they called out their own players.

  1. For me, the issue isn’t HUDs in particular. The issue is why the line is drawn where it is on computer aids. Why am I allowed to let the computer calculate VPSIP on the fly but not ICM equity?

    • SNG wizard and other ICM based programs end result is to suggest a course of action for the player (ie shove, fold, call), which is why they are prohibited.

      HUDs do not.

  2. I agree that it is not cheating if a site allows HUDS. I also might go as far as to agree it is unethical but it certainly gives you an advantage that you could not possibly get on your own. So in that sense I think while there is nothing wrong with it from the side of the site and legality it may “Ethically” violate the spirit of the game. I can read a book and you can read a book.

    If you are smart enough to apply the concepts and I am not then you will make more money than I will. It is based on your intellect and ability. The majority of people (perhaps all but there may be some super freaks out there) have no ability to know someones stats from a few games, 30-table and pick up peoples tendencies.. so instead of using your own intellect and power you are being given skills you do not have. I have no idea why sites frown on bots so much.. I mean it is almost the same thing. If you have a computer program that can collect stats and then from those stats play a certain way why not use it.

    Anyhow I am not totally anti-hud and do not consider people using them unethical or cheaters but I do think it does violate the spirit of a poker skill competition between two people.

    • Thanks for the response, Msr. Walgman.

      I think what you say about poker books applies equally as well to HUD stats: “If you are smart enough to apply the concepts and I am not then you will make more money than I will. It is based on your intellect and ability.”

      Also, I do not innately have the skill to make my gaze blank and unreadable. Sometimes when I play live poker I wear sunglasses to help me do this. There are people who believe sunglasses should not be allowed, but I don’t know of anyone who argues that using them is unethical given that they are allowed.

      I agree with you about bots. I would guess that poker sites are mostly following popular sentiment here. It seems that popular sentiment favors allowing HUDs but disallowing bots, so that’s what the major sites do. There are sites out there trying to carve out a niche for themselves in part by disallowing HUDs, and now at the Bellagio you can actually play heads up against a bot. In my mind there isn’t a bright-line, principled distinction between the two, and there doesn’t need to be. Businesses do plenty of arbitrary things to appease their customers. If a site allowed bots, I don’t think that using one would be unethical or intrinsically violating the spirit of the game.

      • There’s a very big difference between collecting a bunch of data, and then writing a program to internalize that data and make decisions for you.

        This is where FTP/Stars have always drawn the line:

        -Players may use software to collect/manage data, but at the end of the day, all decisions must be made by the USER in real time.

        -Programs like Bots, SNG wiz, etc all focus around the USER not having to make a decision on their own in real time. Even if the bot is acting how the USER would in that given situation, the bot itself is not the USER. Thus, the ‘person’ playing on the account is not in fact, the USER.

        Honestly, if you allow botting, I see no reason to deny users the right to MA. After all, if Andrew isn’t the live person making decisions when i’m playing vs Foucault, why should I be ‘me’, when you’re playing vs me?

        A big part of the reason to use a bot is to deceive your opponents: To play an incredible # of hands without any of the detrimental impacts of tilt, being tired, losing focus, etc that putting in 24 hours a day would cause a normal person.

        • That is the line that they draw, but I’m not sure it’s a principled line. I think it’s more based on what they understand their player base to want. If community opinion on bots changes, which I think is unlikely but not inconceivable, I’d be surprised if sites continued to disallow them.

  3. The first time I fired up my HUD that feeling came over me–that dirty feeling you only get when you’re dong something wrong. I know this feeling well, as I have made many mistakes in my thirty-one years on this earth and spend a lot of time making sure I don’t repeat them. Anyway, that feeling alone explains why I have forever deactivated my HUD.

    • I certainly wouldn’t take issue with anyone following his own internal moral compass, at least not when he’s erring on the side of doing less harm.

  4. It is remarkable to me that people have issues with HUDs. Does the importing of hands for review and analysis in programs like HEM or PT3 also qualify as unethical behavior? When you use a site’s re-player to look over previous hands (something you couldn’t do live), is that unethical? When I review a player’s results on catalogs like pokerdb or sharkscope am I cheating? I’d call it preparation and taking advantage of the legal tools at my disposal.

    The most important point in my opinion is that one’s access to a HUD does not guarantee an advance in their skill. A player needs to understand how to use the HUD’s information and apply it appropriately to in game decisions. As Foucault’s current Savvy series will likely prove, not everyone understands how to do this correctly.

    A HUD isn’t an instant box of answers. It still takes skill and research to process the information correctly. I’d certainly equate it to having access to books, videos, and coaching.

    • The use of tracking software was the key for sharks to achieving “perfection” and in Limit Hold’em,
      The use of tracking software in limit holdem was “nuclear bomb” aganst fish.
      In result we have empty tables and tournaments in this category.
      Hopefully the other forms of poker can not rely so heavily on statistics and mathematics like Limit Hold’em does.
      I do not claim that the game practically was “solved”.I claim that use of “HUDS” destroyed the game.

      • The learning curve for new adapet-“fish” in LH is so big that the sour experience will discourage him to play the game.
        The expierience is about competing with “HUDS” and powerfull bots.
        NL HU will be the best example.

        • Interesting. You probably know that Mason Malmuth once argued, about twenty years ago, that NLHE was a dying game because fish lost their money too quickly, and that LHE was a much better game because the skill differential was not so vast. Do you think HUDs have changed that?

          • LOL.When I was writing above post I recalled many “prophets” who claimed NL is game with short-time span vs LH.
            I did know Malamuth was one of them.
            Yes I do believe that HUDS were big factor to shrink player base in this category.But not only one.
            How? in many infinite number of ways…
            HUDS fascilitated the use of poker bots.To build poker bot is huge challenge to start from scratch.
            The deployment and opponent modeling is the biggest challenge.
            But you do not have to start from scratch.
            The key aspects of are data collection and management.You have for free from HUDS.
            You can even reuse some fractional aggregetes as input for bot analysis.
            In fact commercial bots incorporate HUDS in their infrastructure.
            Bots and HUDS excel in one thing:reporting suspicious behavior -detecting fish.
            The conclusion: Without bots and huds poker fish” could get out of the blue water and start winning – be fish OK?

            I go to now.
            Last Update (PT): Today at 4:05 AM.
            I check Full Tilt network you have 605 active players at Fixed limit Holdem Tables.
            Wow huge number .But remember active player status has any player who just sit at the table too.

    • Agreed on most counts. I might take issue with regard to looking at player’s results on certain sites. If there were a site that collected data on players in violation of a poker site’s terms and conditions, then I would argue that looking at stats gathered by that site would be akin to using prohibited technology and therefore unethical. This is how I feel about people who buy HH databases.

  5. Technology always pushes the boundaries, especially ethical boundaries. The primary way to think about these boundaries, I think, is the way Andrew presented them: Does everyone have the same understanding of what is allowed, and the same opportunity to use technologies which are allowed? If so, no ethical problem.

    It is also important to remember that nothing is static. Was it unethical for some cab drivers of old to switch from horse and buggy to motorized vehicles? Life evolves, and the game of poker evolves. What is considered acceptable in poker will continue to evolve, often due to technological changes. Don’t blame the technology. Keep the focus on Andrew’s perspective: the acceptance of the rules and equal opportunity to the technology.

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