PokerStars' real and virtual bodyguards

PokerStars' headquarters is a warm, open place. Nearly every employee from nearly every department sits out in the middle of the room. They can see each other's faces. They can talk and share what's happening with their job. There is a lot of laughter and camaraderie, as well there should be in a place where the whole job is about playing a game.

Yet, there is another group of people here who you almost never see. They sit behind a frosted glass wall in a room where the door is almost always closed. The door reads, "Security Managers," and these are the people that make sure PokerStars players don't get cheated.

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The idea of cheating is older than poker itself, and while a taboo subject in the online poker world, it's one that Steve Winter, Director of Game Integrity, wants to talk freely about. I met him this week on the Isle of Man where he told me as much as he could about the inside world of policing PokerStars.

Winter is a soft-spoken man who measures his words carefully. A one-time odds-maker for a sports book, Winter has a long background and full career in online gaming security. A good day for him is one where he finds the bad guys before anybody knows they exist.

"It's always a great success story to me when we do manage to catch people cheating and return all of the monies back to the victims," he said.

Winter heads a team of 82 people who spend their entire working days looking for players who might be colluding, using robots to play for them, or sharing accounts with other players.

If you've ever played live poker, you know the constant guard you have to keep to make sure no one is cheating. You can hope the dealer is watching. You can hope the floor man is watching. But that's all it is. It's hope, and you can never be sure. At PokerStars, you don't have to hope, and you can feel sure about how closely the game is being watched.

At PokerStars, Winter's team is monitoring every single hand in every single game every single day. While they don't watch every hand with their own eyes, they still do the job, because they have something better than eyes. They have computers. Big ones. Smart ones. They're like virtual bodyguards who never sleep.

"The systems we've developed over the years are very good at knowing what normal poker is like," Winter said.

That's his clever way of saying, he's got the tools to know if you cheat. For obvious reasons, he won't reveal a lot about how those systems work, but by way of example he told me about one little tool that watches how you move your computer mouse. Winter's tools know how human hands move, and they know how robots move. Winter's team can spot a poker playing robot a mile way in the fog. If something looks wrong, Winter's team jumps on it.

"We're fighting people who maliciously cheat, but not only that. We're looking to educate people who might perhaps not know the gravity of their actions," he said. "We're monitoring the games very closely, picking up problems before they become really big problems."

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Steve Winter: Would you mess with this man?

While Winter's primary focus is on making sure PokerStars players have the best protection possible, he's also a key component in educating regulators and legislators in new markets. When PokerStars goes to new countries, Winter's team is often the very first part of the presentation to local officials. It's an essential education for anyone who labors under the misimpression that the online poker world is still the wild, wild West, and it's the reason PokerStars leads the industry in game integrity.

"When a player sits down at PokerStars, they can be sure every game is being monitored and recorded," Winter said. "Players know that PokerStars is the safest place to play."

Brad Willis in the PokerStars Head of Blogging

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in UKIPT