PokerStars Reconsidering Policy Toward Player Tools

PokerStars Seeking To Strike Difficult Policy Balance On Tools That Aid Online Poker Players

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The community backlash surrounding PokerStars decision to permit the usage of a highly controversial hyper turbo HUSNG player-assist program has compelled the operator to reconsider its stance on third-party software.

The proposed changes, as well as a partial list of programs that would be affected under the new rules, are detailed in a 2 + 2 forum thread posted last week.

Rule amendment would ban ‘skier_5’ software, among other programs

While the majority of PokerStars’ third-party software policies would remain unchanged, the addition of one particular amendment will have a serious impact on the types of tools players will be able to harness while the PokerStars client is open.

It reads:

Q. In general, what kind of tools and services are prohibited only whilst the client is open?

1. Any tool of reference material that offers commentary or advice that goes beyond a basic level, such as stack-size-based starting hand tables, decision trees or heads-up displays that dynamically change based on player action or card value.

PokerStars’ suggested reform appears to target a new program by London-based HUSNG player ‘skier_5.’

The controversial program, which  was first exposed by the 2+2 community last month, consists of a database of strategy charts which is then utilized to assist players in making optimal pre-flop decisions based on a number of variables, including stack size.

At least three players, ‘skier_5’ included, were able to rapidly move up the HUSNG ranks, profiting at stakes they presumably would be unable to beat if it weren’t for the software.

It’s also been suggested that the players harnessing the tool employ nearly identical pre-flop strategies, leading some in the community to conclude that the software blurs the line between non-assisting aids and automated bots.

The program seems to violate an existing third-party software restriction which forbids:

Any tool or service that offers dynamic, real-time commentary or advice on the current game state that goes beyond reporting data and statistics.

However, it appears that the tool was able to circumvent this limitation by explicitly relying on static strategy charts (which are allowed) to assist players in their decisions.

PokerStars clearly states that should the rules be amended, the ‘skier_5’ program would be disallowed:

If these changes are implemented, the recently reviewed  software in question would no longer be allowed to be used while the client is open

Other programs that would be banned while the client is open include:

  • SessionLord’s Preflop Chart
  • Holy Grail of Poker
  • Poker Academy
  • Hold’em Manager 2’s LeakBuster
  • FlopZilla
  • Odds Oracle
  • PokerStove
  • NoteCaddy (amendments pending)
  • PokerTracker 4’s Leak Tracker

Why the sudden change of heart?

PokerStars’ actions over the past year suggest a desire to do away with the HUSNG format altogether:

  • On November 4, PokerStars raised the rake for all heads-up hyper-turbo sit & go tournaments.
  • The Spin & Go format, introduced by PokerStars last September, parallels heads-up sit & gos in many ways, the main difference being that Spin & Gos possess a randomized gambling element that speaks to casual players while dissuading pros.
  • It’s conceivable that Stars accepted the ‘skier_5’ program in order to facilitate the destruction of the HUSNG format, although admittedly, this feels like a bit of a stretch.

On the flip side, if PokerStars wanted to do away with heads-up sit & gos so badly, why reverse its stance on both the rake hike and potentially the ‘skier_5’ program?

Two reasons come to mind:

  • The backlash against both the rake hikes and the software were so vehement that it made both practical and financial sense for PokerStars to review its decisions, if only to appease its player base.
  • In the case of the ‘skier_5’ controversy, it posed an excellent opportunity for Stars to address the broader issue of player-assist tools and their impact on the online poker ecology.

Reform arguably critical for health of game

As to the latter point, the online poker industry is clearly in need of serious reform.

According to Poker Industry Pro via, cash game averages are down nearly 37% over the past 18 months.

And while a portion of that can be attributed to the introduction of lottery SNGs and seasonal trends, the majority represents an inability for recreational players to survive amid a growing segment of the community (we’ll call them multi-tabling rakeback grinders) that gain an edge through the purchase of expensive assistance tools.

In my opinion, to eliminate the use of such programs would be a decisive first step toward restoring balance to an industry that used to reward the best poker players, not the players with the most innovative software.

It appears that PokerStars may agree.

Players react in favor of amendments, call for more

Reactions to the proposed policy changed have been overwhelmingly positive, although the general consensus is that PokerStars should take even more aggressive action, namely in the way of banning:

  • Seating scripts
  • Heads-up displays
  • Players from sitting at more than 4-6 tables at a time

Multiple posters have iterated concerns regarding how Stars will enforce the new policies, indicating that players will always find workarounds to maintain their edge. They also cited unease regarding the high prevalence of poker bots.

‘Skier_5’ himself chimed in with some thoughts regarding the changes. For more, click here.

PokerStars encourages anyone with strong feelings on the topic to chime in with their opinion by next Sunday, after which a final decision will be made.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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