By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

It's official -- Jackpot Jay's readers are hooked on online poker.

I've had more than 1,000 e-mails on "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," my two-part look at online poker -- including 800 e-mails on Part II ("The Ugly").

The general conclusion: If I really believe the conspiracy theories about online poker, then I am, in fact, paranoid, because the explanation for my poor results so far is a lot simpler.

Most e-mail writers agree with Mike Gilson of Fort Worth, who writes: "Jay, it seems to me like you have contracted Phil Hellmuth Disease. This is a degenerative condition caused by playing against people like me with no rational thinking behind their betting. First comes paranoia over the bad beats when you did everything right, but still lost to someone who didn't know they shouldn't have been in the hand in the first place. Next comes stating (a la Hellmuth) on ESPN that, 'If it wasn't for luck, I'd never lose.' Seek help immediately."

Translation: The reason I've been losing at online poker is that I'm too good. Hey, I can live with that.

Actually, the vast majority of the e-mails were surprisingly kind -- supportive, good-humored, even instructive (more about that in next week's column). Given some of the craziness I expressed, I expected at least a few dozen "you suck" or "you are an idiot" missives. There were only two! Wow! Either I've outlasted the dismissive naysayers, or, as Sally Field so memorably capped off her Oscar acceptance speech with, "I can't deny the fact that you like me!  Right now, you like me!"

Thanks for that. And now, here are a few more representative opinions ...

Rational explanations
As I was reading your column on bad beats in online poker, I couldn't help but think of something my dad always tells me: Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.
-- Chris, Des Moines, Iowa

You are giving online poker players too much credit, even in a $20-$40 game. The guy who got a Q on the river to beat your A-5 two pair wasn't thinking about pot odds, how many outs he had, or even what you might have. He was thinking, "Hey, I got a pair of queens. Maybe another queen will come up here." And he got lucky. The poker craze has yielded a flood of players who leap at any good hand; you can't expect them to share your rationality.
-- Carl, Centreville, Virginia

Jackpot, he had Q-9!!! That's a pair of queens. My drunken cousin (who not 15 minutes ago nearly caused a fellow online player to commit suicide when he stuck around in a heavily raised pot with a pair of 2s, spiking a 2 on the river to crush top two ...) just informed me that that's the third highest pair you can have in hold 'em. And according to him, you should stick with all pairs until the river, "in case they don't have anything." Jay, if only you could see the pitiful faces of the people you are actually playing, your quest to find logic in their decisions would end faster than a J-Lo marriage.
-- Josh, Louisville, Kentucky

The reason so many people make "stupid" plays online is because they never see the money with which they are playing. Since everything is done electronically, they don't really consider it real and play much looser then they would at a casino. Also, the bluffing is so much easier; and it is easier to call with marginal hands, thinking the raiser is bluffing.
-- Dennis, York, Pennsylvania

Collusion is out there online, but I guess I'm more scared of the kamikaze all-in-with-anything mentality that I think comes from watching tournaments edited down for TV and consisting only of big showdowns. It's hard to moan about loose games and easy money, until you have A-A cracked a couple times in a row by some guy playing 8-4. I know in the long run, good play pays more; but that doesn't ease the pain much when you get stung. The only people that I don't understand are the ones who complain and truly believe that the online sites are rigged, but continue to play. I feel sorry for these poor souls, who are so adamant in their distrust, but so hungry to play that they are willing to stay on the site. That really can't be good for one's mental health.
-- Tom D., Iowa City, Iowa

You should consider the role that "confirmation bias" is playing in your judgment of whether or not online poker is rigged. Confirmation bias is a term used in psychology to describe people's tendency to focus on evidence that confirms their previous beliefs, and to discount or ignore evidence that contradicts those previous beliefs.

You apparently began your online poker career with the idea that online poker may be rigged. Another hypothesis is that there are just a lot of bad poker players online who, while sometimes getting lucky and putting a bad beat on you, do in fact lose the proper proportion of hands in which they are the underdog. As you are playing, try to make note of hands that you win due to the other players' horrendous play. This can be hard because you always see the other players' cards if you lose, but you only see their hand some of the time if you win (only if they have to showdown first).

Ask Jackpot Jay!
Got a poker problem, or want more details about Jay's Vegas adventure? Send in your questions and comments.
Of course, you are still screwed if half of the table is colluding against you.
-- Chris, Austin, Texas

It sounds like you're approaching Internet poker the way you would approach a table in real life. The problem is that you're virtually sitting with a bunch of people who think they're playing video poker, the object being to always play for the most ridiculous hand possible. It seems like they're hitting more often on the Internet than in real life because they are.

Think of it this way: In real life, I'm not paying all that much to try drawing an inside straight, so you'll never see me actually draw the inside straight because I'll have folded. On the Internet, meanwhile, some fool's always willing to pay to see that card; and if you're playing straight, then sometimes you'll lose a hand that would never even get played out at a real table. This kind of thing happens a lot online. People who play Madden call those players 'cheesers' -- people who aren't necessarily cheating, but exploiting quirks in the online game.

Think of it this way: You could throw every pass 50 yards downfield to Randy Moss if you want, and sometimes you'll even win that way. But eventually, people will either compensate or just refuse to play you, since it's a waste of time (well, more so) playing that way. The best you can do, I think, is try to get a feel for the players' relative competence by chatting with them -- if the player across from you writes like a dumb 13-year-old with his daddy's credit card, well, then he probably is. Players like that can be dangerous if you don't take their stupidity into consideration.
-- Gabriel, Berkeley, California

I write software to make my living. While collusion certainly happens, and it's nearly impossible to stop people who know what they're doing from writing or running bots, I find it extremely unlikely that anyone is capable of determining what each player holds by compromising the random number generator. If such a technique were possible, it would have far more serious implications, ranging from espionage to massive electronic theft.
-- Mike, Boston, Massachusetts

I play online pretty regularly and here is what I have found. People fold NOTHING! It's not that they know what is coming; it's just that they assume everyone is bluffing. The board can be showing AAAQK and you can check-raise them and they will STILL call an all-in with their pocket 2s.
-- Billy R., Seymour, Connecticut

Jay, we Jays have to stick together, bro. I know that this newfangled online poker thing is getting you down, but do not fret. Variance, my unsuspecting furry little gnome, is a bitch! A cold-hearted, make-you-lose-sleep-making-you-mad-at-everyone-around-you kind of lady. Hang in there! You have to have SOME kind of poker knowledge/skill to last this long in the black (or is it the red? I always get that confused). If you are feeling charitable this yuletide season, let me know where I can find you so I can bad beat you, too!
-- Jason, Cleveland, Ohio

From the Dark Side
As might be expected, there was also a fair amount of support for my paranoid musings.

I have a buddy list that lets me watch when certain players sign on. I add the players to my list that seem to never lose. There is this one guy who I have never seen take a bad beat. I've watched him play hundreds of times (all at $2-4 NL) and he seems to "know" when he will win. It's not just that he's a good player; he's superhuman. He'll call all-in bets pre-flop with JJ against someone else's AA and hit his jack ... every time. He always brings $400 to the table, but I've never seen him leave with less than $1,000. Ever. But yet I still play. What is my problem?
-- Brady, Fort Wayne, Indiana

I've noticed that when I cash out in online poker, I get a tremendous amount of bad beats. Other players have noted the same thing -- a guy got busted on a terrible bad beat and some of the people started chatting that "he must have just cashed out" or "looks like it's his turn for (Poker Site X) to punish the cash out."
-- Peter, Abbotsford, British Columbia

I'm not going to flame you, Jay. In fact, I think you're quite correct about online poker. People claim that online sites would be crazy to jeopardize a gold mine, but how are they really going to get caught? So their random number generator isn't so "random" and it juices the games a bit ... who's going to know? Are some lazy poker players going to go down to Antigua and file suit to inspect their computers? Come on. I am an online pro who has been playing for three years now, and I have a somewhat disturbing tale to tell.

Jackpot Jay's Poker Glossary
Confused by some of the terms Jay uses in his poker columns? Get their definitions right here.
For the first year, I played pretty much by the book. My results were good. Feeling that the game might not be on the level, I decided to try an experiment in my second year. I began to look for spots to play "incorrectly," but where a flaky draw would certainly beat my opponent. I began to cap with just a flush draw on the flop. I saw a lot of turns on very thin odds. I began, essentially, to play pre-flop like a pro and post-flop like a bit of a fish.

My results ... much better than Year 1. And in Year 3, I've refined this technique. I can almost smell the "bad" beats I am about to lay on people now, and my results have been stupendous this year. There is absolutely no question in my mind that online poker juices up the games. It really is the only way they could possibly ensure a steady customer base. If the games didn't cater to the fish, pretty soon the sites would just be oceans of sharks (who don't generate big rake pots) with all the "donators" scared off by the ruthless efficiency with which their money was taken from them.

When people ask me why an online site would ever "rig" the game, my answer is because it really makes no sense for them not to.
-- Paul, Toronto, Canada

My theory is that in tournaments, the big stacks bad-beat the short stacks, because this way the tournaments end faster and you can play more in a shorter amount of time. Also, Saddam works for the CIA.
-- Rob, Missouri

I find your paranoia reasonable. Here's why: Ever since playing cards were invented, people have been finding ways to cheat -- marking them, special glasses, dealing off the bottom, and so forth. And this is with PHYSICAL cards, being dealt right in front of your eyes! Why wouldn't people find a way to cheat in an online game? It seems way too trusting to me to assume that somehow an offshore company wouldn't cheat.

Sure, the online gaming industry makes a lot of money and it would be foolish to do so, if they thought there was a chance they would be caught. How can they be caught, though? Random number generators aren't. Random, that is. Every random number generator ever made in software uses an algorithm to generate the numbers. Someone clever enough might be able to figure out the algorithm by simply playing at free games to determine tendencies. Or, you could have an insider tell someone the algorithm. Why not? How can you be caught?
-- Fast Eddy, Edmonton, Canada

There's a fine line between paranoid and just not being naive. In terms of online poker, you have to realize what's possible and what's not. Sites "allowing" cheating or hacking on their system is most likely not happening, as they would get into all kinds of legal troubles. However, what is not only possible, but extremely likely, is the idea that online sites do create "bad beat" situations. As you say, more action and excitement equals more addiction.

There are no requirements that hands on online sites must be completely random, just that everyone must have an equal chance to win. So perhaps the program randomly selects which player to give the second-best hand to. As you know, the second-best hand means you lose the most money. Bottom line, when I play online poker, and there's a flush/straight/full house possibility, I just assume someone either has it, or already folded it pre-flop. I suggest everyone else should do the same.
-- Age, Los Angeles, California

Not too long ago, my roommate didn't receive the promised bonus for his deposit at a poker site. Upon calling their customer help line, the lady said that for the next hour he would receive some "luck." She then ended the call with "happy fishing." Needless to say, we saw a lot of runner-runners and miracle saves and steak dinners. I hope that this answers your curiosity.
-- OnlineNoMo

In your last column, you said some "paranoid" people seem to think that it might be possible to hack the random-hand generators used in online poker sites. Not only is it possible, but it has been done, and caused a pretty significant change in online poker security. There was a whole article about it on a tech Web site about six months ago.

Basically, people were able to use the fact that the random hand generator is not entirely random -- the hands are based on the clock of the computer running the poker server. The guys who managed to crack the generator had a program that could show you everybody else's hand, plus what all the community cards would be. I've pretty much stopped playing online after reading that, and after losing this hand: I'm the big blind, and I have 9h, 10h. There was a small raise which I called, and it ended up being a three-way hand. The flop comes 9c, 10c, 9d. I check, the second guy bets big, third guy folds, and I raise all-in. He calls with pocket 8s, a heart and a club.

Wouldn't you know, the next two cards are 7c, Jc, giving him a straight flush. He was getting awful odds on his money -- my all-in was a very substantial raise, and there wasn't much in the pot -- and yet he didn't even hesitate to call. The more I think about it, the more suspicious it seems.
-- Chris, Boston, Massachusetts

Think about this: People can hack your bank account, e-mail account, even your DVD rental account. Why can't they hack the dealing program in an online poker game? No matter what the security, is the person you are playing working another computer next to them and actually affecting the deal? And wouldn't the online sites hide this fact, since they can't really trace it and don't want to scare away suckers ... I mean, customers. I'm not paranoid -- they really are out to get me.
-- Mark Hansell, Traverse City, Michigan

Besides 'The Ugly' you mentioned, you also have people disconnecting themselves if they don't want to call a raise. Disconnecting themselves makes the hand stand as is, so they don't have to fold and still get to call your hand. I complained about this to Site X, and they told me, "tough luck." At live tables, at least you know who is playing as a team and you can defend against it. But cheating online is way too easy, and the customer service people in India don't really care.
-- Gene, Los Angeles, California

As far as hackers cracking the random card generator, it's been done before. Any statistician will tell you that there is no such thing as complete randomness. There are only algorithms that give the appearance of randomness. A few years back, some smart guys visiting Vegas wrote down the make and model of the poker slot machines the casinos have (the kind that pay out depending on the hand you make). Then they went to the patent office and got the hardware and software specs for the machine and reverse-engineered it in New York.

Needing only to know one sequence of 10 hands, they could precisely predict when the big payout was going to come on that machine. They would go to Vegas, memorize 10 hands, run to the phone and call New York to input the hands into the system they had made and find out when that machine was going to hit it big. They made nearly a million dollars before getting careless and getting caught. So yes, it is possible to crack the algorithm of the random card generator. It's not that much different from code breaking.
-- Adam, Cincinnati, Ohio

I wouldn't touch online poker because of my 10 years of experience with online chess. Simply put: On any chess site that doesn't actively work to prevent cheating, chess cheaters rule. Yes, chess, the geek game. People have been using chess programs to make their moves from the beginning of online chess. And there's not any money involved. Robert Hyatt, one of the great chess programming pioneers, works with the Internet Chess Club to catch cheaters. He has written some great stuff on chess newsgroups about how you detect cheating. So, no, you're not paranoid.
-- Aoife Ellis

Jay, I hate to feed your paranoia, but the things you fear (packet sniffing, bots, etc.) are all possible, however unlikely. My friends and I are addicted to a different type of game than poker (Online MMORPGs). In these games, there is only virtual money and items to steal, and still there continually are people who devise ways to cheat the program, often by making bot programs that carry out far more advanced actions than just analyzing six poker hands. The problem is well documented, and usually comes with the territory of any new online game. So, I'm not saying that it's 100 percent that people cheat at online poker, but I'd be willing to bet that some do. I mean, if people invest hundreds of hours to find a way to garner some extra virtual money or items, imagine the effort that they would put forth if the reward was real American cash.
-- Jeremy Steen, Montgomery, Alabama

Beyond paranoia
You failed to mention in your column what makes the bad beats online the worst: the comments after the bad beat. Inevitably, someone will tell the moron who called your big bet with garbage that he played a "nh." Or the moron himself will brag. Or you will catch the moron commenting on other's peoples' play later on.
-- Jim, Morristown, New Jersey

Definitely. To quote an earlier column on a related subject, "LOL."

Grabbing a piece of the Lovinger pie
The brethren at RGP is so "impressed" with your online play that entire threads are devoted to finding your favorite online sites -- these "sharks" want a piece of the Lovinger pie. Here is a representative post:

"Newsgroups: From: Oliver Tse Date: Tue, 14 Dec 2004 21:22:17 GMT Local: Tues, Dec 14 2004 1:22 pm Subject: Re: Jay Lovinger -- Dumping his bankroll (on which site). It should be obvious to most RGPers that Lovinger should not be playing the limits he is playing. He seems to want to play marginal hands out of position, which almost always gets him into trouble. I too want to know where he is playing so that I can get a piece of the action."

I can't help but wonder ... if these "sharks" were half as good as they think, wouldn't they spend their free time playing poker instead of bragging on Internet newsgroups?
-- mkpoker, Los Angeles

Let's be realistic about this. I've been on a bad online run for a couple of months (whether through bad luck, bad play or, most likely, a combination thereof). During this run, I've lost about $500 a week. How good a player could Oliver Tse possibly be if he is willing to watch the site I play on all hours of the day and night just so that he can jump into a game and win his share of my $500 for that week -- even assuming, that is, that I continue to lose at my current rate?

Why, at that rate, if he gets lucky enough to be checking the right site at the right time ... and there's a seat open in the game I'm playing ... and I lose ... to him in particular ... let's say, oh, 20 percent of my losses for the week ... then for all that effort, he might realize a profit of $100 or so -- or a cool $2.50 an hour. (And that's not taking into account the time that would be required to compose his triumphant gloats for RGP.)

Pretty impressive stuff, huh?

By the way, to save Oliver and other like-minded big-game hunters valuable time, I usually play on Captain Cooks, a Prima site, under the name Jackpot Jay. Come and get me.

NEXT COLUMN: Is it possible that Jackpot Jay -- paranoid over-estimator of his competition that he is -- can learn to win money online? Next week, I'll try to assimilate advice from readers, young mentor Matt Matros and even Mrs. Jackpot Jay in an attempt to put together a profitable game plan.

Online results from last week: minus $500

Overall online results: minus $4,000

Career-to-date: plus $15,189

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.