God Save the Stream
Livestreams have often been criticised for opening the door to cheating. The recent J4 hand in the HCL stream brings the issue back into focus.
I've been doing some reading, wondering and writing about it for a recent PokerFirma.com article. Not for the sake of feeding the very mediocre 💩🤡 show that is going on but to illustrate how complex it is to implement this kind of technology securely without risking to harm the integrity of the game. Streamings have a high potential to take live Poker marketing to the next level but it also comes with a series of potential serious threats that could ruin the party by ultimately leading to players' and viewers' trust issues. Read the original article HERE in Djörmön. I've posted an English version below.
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I used to be the head of some of Winamax's major international Poker shows. I've managed live streaming of huge tournament stops like some of the WPO stops in Dublin, WiPT legs at ‘La Villette’ or of delayed broadcasting productions like some Winamax VIP and celebrity cash game sessions in Paris' Clichy Montmartre Club that resemble today’s modern U.S. casino streams a lot. Tournaments were mostly about the show and security was mainly managed directly by us, the production team, and by the mtt floors. Back then, around 2018, as soon as cash value chips were on the table, I had to be in a separate room behind closed doors with no direct visual of the table and most co-workers not even knowing for sure where I was at physically. Radio or audio feed via the sound system we had specifically put in place with my sound crew, was the only available means of communication with my team (technicians, dealers and floors) out of my lonely and remote production hole. I was not allowed to have a phone with me during the 12-15h sessions per day and no player was allowed to have his phone while sitting at the table.
Over the last days, the poker community has been in detective mode again with one of the hottest discussions ever about cheating in live gaming. This shows why we were taking security issues so seriously back then. Building a technology to stream live gaming is not possible without putting security and privacy at the forefront of its design, especially in a game of incomplete information like Poker. Read details about the case as it develops on PokerFirma.com.
RF Poker has recently published an interesting blog post about the technological aspects and possible weaknesses that could make cheating possible.
Let’s start with what makes streaming so much more pleasant than when hole cams were still a thing. What is RFID? RFID stands for ‘radio-frequency identification’. It’s a technology that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags in a given close area. The technology is not new and was not developed for Poker. It’s been present for a few decades already in ID documents, medical implant and healthcare solutions or to ease the pain of industrial and commercial inventories. In Poker, it was introduced in the early 2000s with the aim to increase the speed and accuracy while reducing costs for the encoding of hole cards and boards in graphic overlays for live streamings. Basically, antennas are placed in the table that communicate with each individually tagged card and the whole data flow can be processed and exported by a normal computer running an action tracker software and a broadcasting assistant like OBS that became world famous with the emergence of private streams on platforms like Twitch. In some cases, the chips are also tagged and the computer can track the bets and stack sizes on top of the cards being displayed. This all happens in real-time but the computer can be set up to store all the info in order to release it with a delay for the public audience.
One very obvious way for a player to cheat the system, as explained in the RF Poker post, would be through an aid from an outside party. In current serious RFID systems, the only person who should have access to the data stream in real-time, is the operator of the action tracker software. In some Poker rooms though, obviously, depending on the level on the security precautions the house is willing to implement, and local laws other people of the staff can have access to this info and the info can be forwarded easily if a phone ban is not enforced. This was one of the core problems in the recent Mike Postle case.
It’s also not unthinkable for an individual to scan the cards on its own by hijacking the RFID tags in the cards. RFID tags work in a similar way as barcodes or QR codes. They store very specific data. The main difference is that the data is retrieved by scanning the item optically but electromagnetically. Whether the information is stored on the cards themselves or elsewhere in the system, hacking is a very unlikely but real possibility with the help of a hidden and elaborate intermediate personal scanner at the table.
Even without digging too deep into the difference between proximity and vicinity sensors used in the Poker streaming tables, it’s easy to understand that a lot of information is being transferred between the table and the production office of the broadcast. This information mostly leaves the table via high data stream cables but some of the information can be transmitted to secondary devices via WiFi for convenience reasons. It’s obviously significantly tricky but not impossible to discretely plug in a device that could be connected between the streaming table and the operator’s computer to bypasses the production network and read all information going from the table to the production office. On the other hand, hacking a WiFi network is a lot easier from a technical point of view and very efficient in terms of discretion compared to physically connect a third-party device to the system.
Another thinkable way to steal the show, would be to gain access to streaming signal while it is still stored on the operator’s computer in order to be delayed for the audience.
Last but not least, some automatic shufflers have the capability to scan and identify RFID tags. That way, they can not only count and shuffle the cards but they also have the ability to rearrange the deck to save large card rooms with numerous tables significant setup time and operation costs. Hacking the shuffler could be a way to determine runouts to come or opponents’ holdings.
RF Poker points out at the end of its post that all these potential vulnerabilities would be very difficult to take advantage of.
That said, given the big amounts in play in some of these streamed games, some people might be tempted to put in very serious means to try to make that easy money.
RFID for sure has the potential to take live Poker to another level in terms of marketing and presence in the public arena with the live streaming possibilities to entertain and cement audiences but it also offers solutions for the sake of data gathering for session reviews and hand analysis. It’s a great tool of development for Poker pros and recreational participants but we have to be very careful as a community for this technical advancement not to become a source of mistrust and synonymous of cheating or unreliable games within the Poker player pool. The reputation of Poker streamings is clearly at risk with the repeated scandals that have shaken the Poker world lately.
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