The issue of gaming integrity remains of primary importance in the world of online poker. There will always be individuals with malicious intent determined to carry out nefarious acts against online poker players. Thankfully, premier online poker operators have teams in place to counteract such deeds and keep the games safe and secure for players to compete and enjoy.
The PokerStars Game Integrity Department has the following mission statement:
To provide the best online gaming experience by protecting players’ interests and the integrity of our games, through objective and fair investigations.
I’ve just had the opportunity to speak with Baard Dahl, who heads up the company’s Game Integrity Department. He leads the teams that are comprised of a few dozen specialists, all of whom are either ex-professional poker players, qualified data scientists, or statistical analysts. Their responsibilities include investigating and resolving potential occurrences of collusion, multi-accounting, or prohibited software use.
Only on rare occasion does the poker-loving public get to learn in detail about the team’s activities, so I’m appreciative for having had the opportunity to do so and to share our conversation with you. In it, you’ll firstly learn little bit more about Baard and his professional background and qualifications for such an important role. Baard also breaks down the complex nature of the process behind his team’s various investigations as well as his department’s role in launching cards-up coverage of online poker events, plus he shares his thoughts on the evolution of artificial intelligence,
While I must openly admit being a little disappointed that Baard was unable to provide answers for a couple of the more specific questions I posed, due to the impossibility of sharing proprietary and/or sensitive information, I also fully understand that just like in poker, you cannot fully tip your hand, lest your opponent be able to take advantage.
Even so, I believe you’ll find our conversation to be quite interesting and enlightening. My sincere thanks to Baard for his time and for agreeing to grant me this interview.
Prior to getting into poker and the gaming industry, you had a previous career working in logistics and freight management in Oslo, Norway. What lessons and experiences from that work have you found helpful and perhaps been able to incorporate into your work over the years at PokerStars?
I don’t know if there is much from my past experience that is directly applicable to what I am doing now, but in logistics you have to be able to react quickly when unexpected things happen and that is certainly also the case in the online poker industry.
Having said that, it was during my time in logistics that I got my first experience with data analytics and the benefits that can have for business, which is something I have been heavily involved in during all of my 9+ years with PokerStars.
In between careers, from 2003-2007, you used to be a professional poker player. In fact, you’re #1 on the Isle of Man all-time money list for career live poker tournament earnings (over $150,000) and also boast about $250,000 in career online poker tournament earnings. Those are some nice results that anyone would be proud of. What made you decide to walk away from that life to pursue a proper job once again, and is there anything you miss about those years?
First of all, there are a number of PokerStars colleagues in the Isle of Man who could have pushed me off that perch if they had bothered to change their flag in Hendon Mob!
The main reason that I ended my professional poker playing career was simply that I wasn’t winning much anymore. As players started to study the game more in-depth, I was left behind more and more. I’d say the main reason was I didn’t have a group of poker playing friends who I discussed the finer points of the game with on a regular basis. So I was kind of living inside my own bubble, which isn’t great when it is necessary to see that the train is leaving the platform.
Many of your readers probably consider 2007 to be pre-golden age of poker. I might have some regrets that I gave it up at the time I did, but it did open up other opportunities that I feel very fortunate to have had. I still play some poker and would say that my game is a lot better now than it ever was during my professional career.
It takes a particular skill set to be a member of your team. That skill set is in high demand and is of course useful in numerous other disciplines beyond online poker. What is it that drew you and other members of your team to use your talents specifically within the poker industry?
The main skill that is required to work in Game Integrity is that you have a very good understanding of poker. This probably explains why everyone on our team has chosen to work in this field. When you are passionate about the game in the way that we are, it is very appealing to be able to take a job that allows you not just to be involved in poker, but to look after the best interests of its players and take the game forward.
And you are absolutely right that our team is comprised of people with a wide range of other skills that they could have easily used in other industries. We have statistical analysts, programmers, system analysts and many others, and we need all those qualifications within our team. As you will understand, we offer the opportunity for everyone to use a variety of skills and also to learn new ones. That is almost certainly also a reason why people choose to work with us.
What does a typical day’s work consist of for you and the members of your team?
I honestly think there are no typical days for any of us, and this is one of the things that make working here so interesting. Apart from the pure administrative aspects of my job, my role is very much forward-looking, trying to make sure we are prepared for any possible challenges that might come up in the future.
For our agents, investigations are either initiated by player reports, system reports or other ad-hoc analysis that agents might be involved in. Our department is split into a (anti-)Bot team and a (anti-)Collusion team, and their respective investigations look quite different from each other. We always prioritize the player reports first, and once they are cleared, we look into the alerts that our system generates. To give you an idea of how that weighs up, last year 96% of the collusion cases we investigated and 86% of the bot cases we investigated were first proactively detected by our systems.
If an agent suspects that something untoward has happened in a game, there are several options for how the investigation can proceed. Typically, the suspected player will be contacted by email and asked to explain the thinking in certain hands they have played, and after that the player might even be asked to video record a playing session in order to provide us with more information.
If, after all of this and some in-depth investigation using some pretty powerful technology, the agent concludes that the player is guilty as charged, they will present their evidence to one of the other agents for confirmation. If that agent agrees with the first, we will take the appropriate action against the player, and if agreement is not reached, a third agent will chime in and cast the deciding vote.
Approximately how long does a typical case investigation take?
That varies widely. Sometimes we can clear a suspicion in 15 minutes, but there have also been instances where a single investigation has run over several months. Taking as an example a mid-stakes collusion case where we decide that the suspects have indeed been colluding, I’d estimate that the average investigation takes about seven hours when you add up all the time the different agents have spent.
Do you ever feel any sort of added nervousness or anxiety if the amount of money in question during an investigation is exceptionally high (e.g., six figures or greater)?
I really am not more nervous when dealing with such cases, but that is mainly because I am very confident in the work of every agent on the team. Our cases are really given every consideration possible and if they result in a confiscation of funds it is because we have no reasonable doubt that the player(s) in question has materially breached our terms of service.
It is also worth adding that only a very small minority of our cases find their way across my desk, and these are the ones that involve sums of $20K and higher. So, if I am called to sign off, the default is that the amounts are reasonably high.
To the best of my knowledge, our publication of your infographic in June was the first time your department publicly revealed statistical information related to your investigations. Now, a few months later, we’re having this open conversation. What does it feel like, on a personal and professional level, to be lifting the proverbial curtain to this extent after such a lengthy time “operating behind closed doors”?
It’s very satisfying. I’ve been in this role for just over two years, and one of the things I emphasized in the interview process back then, was that I thought the company was missing an opportunity by not showing off our abilities in this area. Today, it’s great to get out there and say plainly ‘we have a dedicated team with super-powerful detection capabilities and whose KPIs are simply to keep the game safe. Here we are and here’s what we’ve been up to.’
As I mentioned earlier, we all play ourselves. We know what a difference it can make just knowing that someone’s looking out for you. That way, you don’t want to have to think about anything else.
@PokerStarsLIVE Just to let everyone know that the player’s lounge is open for all players. The online poker staff is there to answer questions about Product, MTTs and Game Integrity. #EPTBarcelona #EPT pic.twitter.com/GI73Czplls
— Baard Dahl (@bvdahl) August 25, 2019
Obviously, there’s a lot we haven’t been able to and still can’t discuss when it comes to our capabilities, technologies, and processes, but we’ve put a lot into gathering the most important data and getting it out there in different ways. We have our infographics, our web pages and FAQs, and the accompanying videos that are embedded there.
We are in the process of localizing all this content, so I am hopeful that before the end of the year we’ll be able to reach the vast majority of our players in their native languages. We also have plans for more videos, so keep an eye out.
PokerStars recently launched cards-up coverage for its Stadium Series and now offers it once again for WCOOP 2020. You’ve provided a first-of-its-kind viewing experience for fans that has been quite well-received. What aspects of Game Integrity had to be tested/vetted during the development process and are continually monitored during live coverage so as to ensure fully secure gameplay for all participants featured during the broadcasts?
The main concern would obviously be if someone were able to intercept the stream while the hands are being played, but the way the system is designed makes this an impossibility. No information about any hands are sent by the server until each hand has ended, so I am very confident that no one can exploit this in any way.
Historical, first guest expert commentator @SquidPoker.
Looking good guys!
— Baard Dahl (@bvdahl) July 13, 2020
Another issue might be that some players feel that the focus is too much on them, and that their hole cards and play are shown too much in comparison with others. However, our professional commentators are very aware of this. They have a choice of several tables and it is easy to jump between them during an online stream, so we’ll only focus on players if something really interesting is going on.
— James Hartigan (@J_Hartigan) August 28, 2020
Your random number generator (RNG) is independently audited. Is there some sort of external third-party organization that your team needs to legally report or “open the books” to in order to provide another layer of added security/integrity for players?
There are jurisdictions where we have to submit reports when we make confiscations and close player accounts.
Beyond that, our team isn’t audited, per se. It does play an important role in upholding PokerStars’ standards and meeting those of the regulators we work with, but the same applies to a lot of teams here.
Were there any notable protocols/procedures that you can recall changing for the Game Integrity team either in the wake of Black Friday or just after the company transitioned to be publicly traded?
I have only been in Game Integrity for a couple of years, so both of those events took place while I had another role in the company.
Spent the last three days in Ray Bitar’s actual office. If the walls could only talk… pic.twitter.com/DzbnHD47b9
— Baard Dahl (@bvdahl) September 12, 2018
Are you perhaps able to share some processes/procedures that represent some of the more fascinating developments you’ve incorporated into your work and processes?
We are constantly learning and improving our processes, but this mostly happens iteratively. There have been some tools that members of the team have made which have really made a world of difference, but I can’t go too deeply into those.
Finally, people around the world are continuously witness to advances in artificial intelligence. Indeed, it’s quite fascinating to observe new milestones regularly being achieved. It would seem that some of these developments present new, unique challenges to your team as regards the sophistication of bots, etc. How do you typically react when reading of a new technological breakthrough for AI software?
On a personal note, I am fascinated by the progress that is being made in the area of AI these days. Poker is definitely a game that lends itself well to this technology, so it is not surprising that scientists use it in case studies.
As for how this progress affects us, I hope I do not sound too arrogant when saying that it doesn’t affect us too much. AI isn’t really breaking news at PokerStars and there is no correlation between the playing strength of a bot and how difficult it is to catch them. I usually make the comparison with the police using a speed gun. It catches the Lamborghinis as effectively as the Renault Clio that I am driving.
Bots pose constant challenges to us, but it’s not mainly due to how good they are at playing and we’ve invested millions and millions of dollars developing systems to detect even the most sophisticated pieces of software. If anything, AI actually makes us stronger as we continuously evolve our tools.