By Robert Wachtel
The bugaboo of all gambling is cheating. The largest and most familiar arena in which this principle applies is the stock market, the funding engine of capitalism. As long the public feels that the market is fair, it can be persuaded to bet on (or “invest in”) promising businesses. But when there is too much corruption (i.e. cheating) and too many scandals come to light, people realize that the game is stacked against them. They pull their money out of the markets, and sometimes even out of the banks. Economies grind to a halt. Recessions or even depressions are the result of such losses of confidence, and it is for this reason that the governments which inherit these downturns invariably make a show of reforming the system and punishing a few scapegoats plucked from the old school of cheaters.
Over the Board Backgammon Cheats
Before online backgammon became popular, the only ways to cheat at backgammon were with crooked dice and/or sleight-of-hand moves. These tactics were not particularly easy to pull off, and once a cheater was caught, he was ostracized by the backgammon community. Over-the-board cheating is rather rare nowadays, though a few years ago, a pair of gentlemen from an eastern European country were caught switching dice in a major tournament, a tactic which they had presumably been employing for some time. The dice that they favored had been constructed with an extra five on the side where the two normally resides.
Cheating with the Bots
Not many people have the courage to do what are essentially magic tricks in front of an audience which will certainly be hostile (and perhaps violent) if the magician makes a mistake. But nobody can see you in cyberspace. The development of very strong backgammon-playing programs gave even the most timid gambling criminals a new lease on life. Anonymous and invisible, online cheaters began using the “bots” to achieve near perfect play in high stakes money games. The cyber geniuses among them did it by writing programs that automatically interfaced a bot with an online platform. The less mathematically inclined did it by hand, inputting moves to the bot in tandem with the online action. But it was only a matter of time and practice before the manual group caught up with the automatics, achieving a rapid and smooth enough rhythm of play to look quite natural.
Backgammon Sites Embattle
Led by Gamesgrid (GG), most online backgammon sites employed bots of their own to provide action to those players who did not want to wait for a game or who did not want to play at the pace of their human opponents (the bots could be programmed to move instantly). Like GG, the ethical sites clearly designated the “house bots” as such, honestly informing their clientele of the bots’ identities and playing strengths. But some sites used bots secretly, either as shills to create action or to make a bit of money on the side for the house.
GG founder Ken Arnold offered the first solution to the problem of detecting bots and bot-assisted players on his site. He proposed that all GG members set up webcams trained on themselves and their computer monitors during play! Needless to say, this novel but most impractical scheme never had any chance at being implemented, even on a site as intimate and social as GG. In my next article about online backgammon, I shall examine the anti-bot tactics developed by the descendants of GG who have made the fairness of their sites’ games a priority.