Are Online Casino Games as Trustworthy as Their Real-World Counterpart?
As gambling continues to flourish on the internet, players might be forgiven for wondering if online casinos and card rooms are as honest and trustworthy as their real-world counterparts. Doubts persist about the randomness in online games, but having spent a great deal of time playing in both live casino online and land-based casinos, both of the options have problems that are worth considering before buying in.
First, a caveat: My experience playing Twenty-One or roulette, or baccarat online is limited to a few sessions; in this article, I will therefore concentrate on poker, which I play regularly and enjoy a great deal, but the lesson to be learned remains the same, whatever and wherever you choose to play.
During the pandemic, online poker became something of a Godsend, and with a reasonable bankroll, I was able to pass many hours improving my game, and whether I left the table to lick my wounds or count my chips, it was great to find a game any time I wanted one. I suspect many casino and poker players turned to online games while locked down, and I’d be interested to know how many stayed online, either in preference to live play or as an addition to playing in brick and mortar casinos.
Over the pandemic, many private games sprung up online where friends could chat over Zoom while trading chips on whatever poker site they were on, and it made me wonder how many online poker tables had similar groups of friends chatting, sharing hands, and perhaps fleecing other players who were not part of that chat.
This is certainly an old problem where dishonest players share hands while playing online, as well as working together, targeting specific players, or dumping chips on each other. From a cheating perspective, there may not be any art to this strategy, but it is certainly effective.
Poker Tricks Used by Dishonest Players
Collusion also exists in live games and is easy to sense but hard to prove despite being extremely effective over time, and I’ve fallen victim to it myself: In the mid-1990s, I made a large percentage of final tables at small-stakes tournaments and came to realize that a particular group of players was working together.
If two or three of them were playing at a single table, they would keep each other afloat by passing chips (raising, calling, and folding to each other regardless of what cards they had) and joining forces to knock out other players. It was like playing against a single opponent who received three hands of cards in every round of play. Everyone knew they did it, but no one could think of how to put a stop to it.
Eventually, I tried to beat them by being just as dishonest as they were and paid a hefty price when karma decided to intervene - but that’s a story for another time.
In towns like Las Vegas, cash games can be loaded with locals waiting for fresh fish (tourists), playing just enough to stay afloat until new money enters the game and is quickly picked clean by resident piranhas.
These players are not necessarily working together because they don’t need to; instead, they are competing for the outsider’s bankroll, shifting the dynamics of the game in such a way that they might as well be signaling and passing chips since they tend to avoid getting into big pots with each other, whereas the stranger (sucker) is constantly under fire. Occasionally, better players sit down who know how to take advantage of this situation, but when I play in Vegas (rarely), I try to find games loaded with tourists and identify locals as quickly as I can.
Playing poker online, I am particularly sensitive to players who regularly seem to play at the same tables, and in addition to the tracking data I collect in cash games, I have started noting names that always play together. When looking for a table, I take the time to seek softer games where I can grind out a profit, but I also look to see who is playing.
I play for very small stakes, but even so, when a tiny handful of players work together, even if the stakes are tiny, it ruins the game. Poker is hard as it is, and a team of players can make it nearly impossible to win. Personally, I don’t see the attraction of cheating for a few bucks, but with a little knowledge and a few precautions, it’s relatively easy to avoid these baby sharks and find a fairer game.
RNG and Fairness of Online Casino Games
One aspect of online casino games that many players wonder about - or openly suspect to be compromised - is the quality of randomness in the software being used to manage games. This is understandable since randomness is actually difficult to achieve, and until recently, computers have not always been great at producing functionally random (“pseudo-random”) results.
Players of online poker often discuss how biased the cards seem based on past experience, and I have friends who believe they can predict the negative outcome of a hand because they are sure the software is against them. Other players talk about “action stacks” that appear to get things moving at the start of tournaments or when a new player joins a table, and even professionals who play multiple tables claim to see patterns while they play.
One reason I tend to stick to the bigger online poker sites is that they are motivated to protect the randomness of their shuffles, just as online casinos must protect the randomness of games like roulette.
Think about it this way: If a random number generator was to decide the outcome of a roulette spin and that generator was flawed or predictable, players would soon notice and line up to place their bets with such an advantage. On the flip side, an understandable concern is that software might secretly (perhaps accidentally) skew towards certain outcomes based on bets already made, which would be tantamount to blatant cheating, intentional or not.
In the end, it makes a lot more sense to invest in genuinely random outcomes to offer the fairest games possible because online casinos - like their real-world counterparts - do not need to cheat! The numbers will take care of them in the long run, and enormous profits are guaranteed so long as the math remains in their favor, which it always is.
Any kind of cheating or negligence puts those (enormous) profits at risk.
Similarly, online poker rooms make money no matter who wins at their tables, and it’s in their best interests to make sure their digital decks of cards are properly shuffled and dealt without creating predictable patterns or skewed outcomes. Properly shuffled cards here in the real world will occasionally create the impression that they are predictable whether you want them to be or not, but it’s just an illusion, and it’s essential that software never intervenes in natural results.
Logic tells us that, should it ever be provable that any online casino or card room had its thumb on the scale, the results would be disastrous, and their substantial gravy train would quickly run over a cliff. Professional players have analyzed hundreds of thousands of hands in software like poker tracker, with no such patterns becoming evident, and if they did, I’m sure we’d hear all about it in a flurry of class-action lawsuits.
Final Thoughts on the Matter
Human beings are natural pattern detectors and often see connections where none actually exist. We have a tendency to remember negative outcomes, which we fail to properly weigh against positive or mundane results that we also experienced.
This skew is part of our collective psyche and quite typical in all walks of life. Ask any live performer, and they’ll tell you that in a room full of laughter, it’s the one frowning face that catches their eye and preys on their mind after the show.
The lesson when playing online is to avoid falling into the trap of unwarranted suspicion, but at the same time, be careful about where you play and with whom.
All that being said, the jury is still out on how random these digital decks of cards are; just yesterday, I had aces cracked by a ten-four off-suit that had called me all the way down to the river and then beat me on the last card! Surely that’s because the software was against me and not because I was out of position and overplayed my cards, right?