Night of the Bum-Hunter

Night of the Bum-Hunter

Monday, 16 December 2013

Strong poker players have always preyed on the weak. So why, then, is accusing someone of bum-hunting such a grievous insult, and how is it different from practicing good game selection? Eve Goodman investigates.

The poker economy is a lot like Hungry Fish, a clunky mobile game that was popular in the pre-smartphone age (remember that?). The premise was addictively simple: you would begin as a tiny, empty-bellied whelk, needing to feed on minuscule swimming objects or specks of plankton in order to survive and grow.

As you got larger, you could move on to devouring sea-life that was correspondingly bigger in size in order to feed your insatiable fishy appetite. However – and this was important – you could only munch on underwater animals that were smaller than you. If, in a moment of swaggering overconfidence, you went to devour a nice juicy morsel that was the same size or bigger than you, you’d be swallowed whole. That’s it. Finished. Game over, and you didn’t even make the leader board.

It’s no secret that the same thing goes on in poker. The strong prey on the weak, and that’s the way it’s always been. So why, then, are there such wildly different connotations attached to the phrases “game-selection” and “bum-hunting’, considering they denote practically the same thing?

Game-selection refers to the practice of specifically picking tables that have multiple weak spots/fish sat at them in order to maximise profit. It’s generally implied that it’s a positive skill for poker players to have in their arsenal. Bum-hunting, on the other hand, is viewed overwhelmingly negatively, referring to a player who not only seeks out weak players, but actively refuses to play anyone else.
If you accuse a player of being a bum-hunter, you are unmistakeably insulting him; it’s akin to going to his house, slapping his wife upside the head with a wet haddock, and taking a shit in his flowerbed for good measure on the way out. By referring to players as bum-hunters, you are insinuating they are not skilled enough to make money from anyone but the very worst players.

However, there is more to it than that, as any ardent critic of bum-hunting will tell you. A player is well within his rights to refuse to play any but the worst players, but this choice sends a ripple effect across the whole poker economy.

A common argument levelled against bum-hunters is that they chase away recreational players. As Galen ‘Gakn29’ Cranston succinctly explains: “By only playing bad players, you have created an atmosphere of predatory behaviour. This is not an inviting world for the average poker player to join in.” This is self-evident – if a fish goes to play some hands for fun, only to have everyone at the table immediately sit out once he stacks off, it won’t escape his notice. He might even come to the humiliating realisation that the game was only running because he was an easy spot, and this will dissuade him from coming back.

The ‘bum-hunting effect’ is most pronounced in heads-up poker, for obvious reasons. When you hunt a fish in six-max or full ring games, you’ll have to get involved in hands with other regs who may be jostling to stack the same player you are. However, these dangers are eliminated if you’re lucky enough to manage to corner a fish into playing with you one-on-one. Unfortunately, having over 20 players sitting alone at tables waiting for the arrival of a weak player rather than playing each other, doesn’t make the heads-up lobby seem like a friendly or welcoming place.

As well as this, another accusation is that bum-hunting players ‘steal’ action from ‘good’ players who are prepared to play anyone. Current self-proclaimed king of the heads-up world Doug ‘WCGRider’ Polk has not been afraid to give his two cents about the issue.

“It’s a horrible problem,” says Polk. “It’s really killing the lobby, it makes the lobby an eyesore for the recreational players, and it allows people who have no intention of playing high-stakes to steal players from me or any other high-stakes guys that are sitting there playing a good amount of people. Instead, some guy from, like, Belarus who’s playing a few hands at 25/50 might get that really bad fish at 50/100. It’s bad – it’s bad for poker, it’s bad for PokerStars because it decreases the amount of hands played. There’s no chivalry.”

VF Polk

Bum-hunting has been a problem for a while and seems to be getting worse, prompting PokerStars to appeal to the poker community for help in finding a solution. In a post on the TwoPlusTwo Forums, ‘PokerStars Nick’, revealed that the site had come up with two possible solutions. In addition to this, four player ‘profiles’ had been defined in order to assess the practicality of these suggested courses of action.

The first three player profiles – strong regulars, weak regulars, and recreational players – are fairly straightforward to understand, and each should have a right to expect their interests to be protected. It is the fourth category, known as ‘lottery’ players, who appear to be the root of the problem. ‘Lottery’ players are defined as those who “will sit across multiple heads-up tables and generally only play when a known, weak player sits at their table. When not playing heads-up, these players will usually play at much lower stakes. A number of players in this category will only play unknown opponents briefly unless they prove to play extremely badly within the first few hands.” In other words, lottery players are bum-hunters through and through, and are responsible for the vast majority of the problems in the lobby.

So what are the proposed solutions? The first is the rather drastic option of introducing ‘forced play’ tables. If these come into play, then a player must be prepared to play a minimum number of hands with any player who sits with him. This would eradicate the problem of lottery players who sit at a table with no intention of playing unless a fish turns up. On top of this, even strong regulars would be able to find at least some degree of action. However, it does open up the possibility of certain players being harassed or targeted by the strongest players at the level.

While he acknowledges the obvious limitations of such a strategy, Polk is firm in his belief that players that are ‘good’ (in the sense that they provide action) should be rewarded. “I think what that it would do is it would really eliminate the weak-to-middle-tier player at higher stakes, because at any moment I could sit with them, or Jungle or Sauce could sit with them… then that’s not going to be a very attractive option … However, from a standpoint of personal gain, I’m very much in favour of this.

Frankly, I think the people who are sitting and ready to play anyone should be rewarded for their efforts. Why should the guy who won’t play anyone be rewarded with getting to play the worst recreational players?”

The second proposed option is a modified version of the ‘King of the Hill’ (KotH) system. In its classic form, a King of the Hill system would put a hard limit on the number of tables allowed to be running at a time. This necessarily induces action, since you can no longer create a new table and sit down at it to wait. Instead, you have to play whoever is sitting down at the existing tables in order to try and ‘take’ it from them by force.

However, PokerStars’ version would be slightly more nuanced than that – they wouldn’t categorically restrict the number of tables, but what they would do is limit the number that would be visible in the lobby. Of course there’d be an option in the settings that would allow the ‘hidden’ tables to be shown, but it is not likely that this feature would be utilised by the weaker recreational players. Therefore, if players want a spot on the ‘visible’ tables – which will be the ones that will tend to attract the weakest players – then they will have to fight for it.

This is a neat solution in that it would present a cleaner, less intimidating lobby to recreational players. Having said this, there is the undesirable potential for players to work together in monopolising all the visible tables. There is also a concern that having to be too preoccupied with seating ‘meta-game’ would detract from the user experience of those who simply want to play poker – and who wants that?

So, what has been decided? The proposals certainly sparked a spirited debate, with high stakes HU specialists such as Alex ‘Kanu7’ Millar, Ben ‘sauce123’ Sulsky, and Kyle ‘cottonseed1’ Hendon among those jumping into the fray. Despite convincing arguments for the benefits of having a capped number of tables from Millar, it is likely that PokerStars will go with introducing a ‘forced play’ strategy, although it is not likely to be implemented until the beginning of 2014 at the very earliest.

It will be interesting to see if this course of action will significantly increase the number of hands being played. Whether it will lead to problems with ‘bullying’ is another matter that can only be determined through trial and error. In the meantime, though, PokerStars have just announced another imminent experiment – the introduction of a heads-up version of PokerStars’ fast-fold software, Zoom. The premise of Zoom is that every time you fold, you are instantly transported to a different table with a different opponent, which makes bum-hunting impossible. Playing Zoom heads-up might be more ‘dangerous’ than playing it at six-max or full-ring, since you’ll be playing Russian Roulette as to whether you’ll end up with a weak or strong opponent, and it is possible that this will put some people off. Aside from these possible dissuading factors, it could be incredibly successful.

It boils down to an all too familiar tension in the poker world, which is the fact that professional poker players operate emphatically as individuals. Poker is not a team game, and there are no unions to regulate behaviour. As a result, all players depend to a certain extent on the ‘honourable’ conduct of their peers. Whether or not PokerStars’ attempts to bolster and police the system will be effective remains to be seen, but as it stands the most profitable course of action is not always the most scrupulous one. It is with cautious optimism that we will regard the new changes – but as Alex ‘Kanu7’ Millar wisely said: “If there is 1 thing that is clear from the last few years of online poker, it is that if you leave room for people to exploit the system, they will absolutely do it.”


Jake Cody

“I’m in favour of HU Zoom. So there’s just a big player pool, and it zooms you to a different opponent every hand. Bum-hunting is reduced, and you’ve got constant action. Having said that, a lot of people would be too scared to play. It’s ridiculous: even when I played on my old screen-name that wasn’t very well-known, I’d sit with people and for some reason they’d just refuse to play. I wasn’t known, but they would refuse to play anyone but the absolute fish. I’d play anyone as long as it was stakes I was comfortable with.”

Not BH Cody

Ville Wahlbeck

“It happens a lot, it’s very common these days. It’s because once you start knowing other players, in the sense that you start knowing when you respect their game, you don’t really want to play against them and most likely they don’t want to play against you. You both respect each other’s game, and for you to play on the same table it would take someone else who you would consider a weaker player. That’s one thing – another thing is you don’t want to play against somebody who is a better player than you.”

Not BH Wahlbeck

Isaac Haxton

“The changes Stars make will be good for me. I think that limiting tables to induce competition is good. When a recreational player signs in and goes looking for a HU game and he sees 40 people waiting but not playing each other, it creates a predatory environment. I think the changes will be progress. However, I am reluctant to criticise bum-hunting too much because if you know you’re not one of the best, then refusing to play good players is a sensible choice – otherwise you’ll lose all your money!”

Not BH Haxton

Tags: Eve Goodman, bum hunting, Ville Wahlbeck, Jake Cody, Isaac Haxton