01/11/2006 12:00AM

It's not cheaters you have to worry about


Just as most depictions of horse racing in movies and television involve a race-fixing scheme or scam, poker and cheating are frequently linked in popular culture. Cowboys hide aces up their sleeves, riverboat gamblers deal from stacked decks, and the Edward Norton character in "Rounders" takes a beating after trying to cheat a table full of poker-playing cops.

Back in the real poker world, and especially in the virtual world of online poker, how serious an issue is cheating?

Paranoid thoughts have crossed the mind of anyone who has played poker over the Internet. Could the house or a hacker be seeing everyone's cards and betting accordingly? Could the random-number generators that produce the "hands" dealt to each player be less than entirely random? Could three of one's opponents at the table be the same person playing three hands under different accounts?

The good news is that these sorts of cheats are very unlikely due to the self-interested vigilance of reputable poker-site operators. These sites are staggeringly profitable for their owners through the house rake on honest play, profits that would disappear overnight amid any whiff of cheating. Every major site runs extensive computer analysis of all hands dealt, employs security and cheating experts, and promptly investigates all customer complaints. The games themselves are almost certainly on the level.

That doesn't necessarily mean you're safe. The biggest integrity threat to players is not crooked games or software, but subtle collusion among opponents, an issue that both goes beyond the online version of the game and sometimes gets into ethical gray areas that some would argue fall short of blatant cheating.

In a live game, players are forbidden to discuss or reveal their hands, but over the Internet it's possible that two or more of your opponents at the table could be talking over the telephone or instant-messaging one another during a hand. Site operators say that they constantly analyze hands looking for evidence of collusive play, which is not that difficult to spot. Still, the possibility of collusion drives many players, myself included, to restrict their online play to either low-level games that would not be worth a cheater's time and trouble, or to multi-table tournaments, where large fields and constant random seat reassignments make it practically impossible for confederates to end up at the same table.

But what about live games in poker rooms, where many of the regulars know one another and make their living off not only the less-skilled regulars but also the tourists and novices in the room? Does an unspoken agreement among the regulars to gang up on the weak and the ignorant constitute cheating, or is that just the nature of the game?

That's an interesting ethical debate, but as a practical matter there are signs that novices should look for and ways to counteract them.

If you find yourself frequently playing heads-up against a different player with everyone else dropping out, it's quite possible that the table has targeted you as someone likely to call all the way to the end and the players are effectively playing the best hand at the table against yours. If you find yourself in three-way action against two players repeatedly raising and reraising you, you may be getting whipsawed: Your two opponents are trying to drive you out after you make an initial bad call or two by making you call three bets instead of one. They're trying to convince you they both have monster hands, when in fact only one or perhaps neither of them does.

In either case, you have been identified as someone who is playing too many hands and calling too much. If you find this happening to you, either tighten up your play immediately, or leave. There's an old poker saying always worth remembering: If you can't figure out who the sucker is at the table, it's probably you.

Even if it's not, you should never feel obliged to keep playing in a game if you're uncomfortable. There is no shame in getting up with your remaining chips and finding a different table. You're probably not being cheated, and maybe not even being targeted, but once those seeds have been planted in your mind, you're in trouble. It is impossible to play your best poker if you're feeling angry and suspicious.

The one sure thing in poker is that there's always another game at a different table. If you're unhappy where you're playing, move.