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The Random Shuffle of Internet Poker

If you've always wanted to see a random shuffle, Internet poker is about as close as you're likely to come to finding it.
Visualize a casino shuffle done by a live dealer: He first "scrambles" the deck by spreading the cards face down in a thin heap covering several square feet of table space, whereupon he vigorously mixes them with a physical movement remarkably similar to kneading bread.

After pulling the cards back together in a neat stack, he divides the deck into two approximately equal portions. Then, competently and quickly, he interlaces the two sections by lifting their corners at an angle with his thumbs, simultaneously forcing the two stacks into such close proximity that the cards interlock as they fall. This process is repeated a number of times before he cuts the deck and places his opaque "cut card" on the bottom of the final stack to prevent players from seeing the bottom card as he deals. This, then, is the shuffle as done in a brick and mortar card club.
Rarely does anyone question the randomness of this procedure when executed at the card table by an experienced dealer. It all looks so smooth and professional - and it is. But does this activity produce a one hundred percent random outcome? Is it a perfect shuffle?
Answer: No. There's no way it can be. Both dealer and cards are subject to a variety of physical limitations precluding a perfectly random card mix.
First, the deck itself may be flawed. Cards often stick or clump together due to humidity, drinks spilled at the table, or static electricity. When this happens, two or more cards move through the shuffling process joined like Siamese twins, destroying any chance of a truly random outcome.
Alternatively, the deck may be slippery and difficult to grip, resulting in a sloppier shuffle. New decks are especially prone to this flaw, but used decks may contain cards that are bent, warped or bowed just enough to hamper a random shuffle (though not enough to be readily spotted).

And on rare occasions - though staff members try hard to prevent such occurrences - a deck may even be short, or a card duplicated. Though "set-ups" of two decks are carefully prepared before they arrive on the felt, and dealers generally count down the deck with each dealer rotation, mistakes do occasionally happen. A card may fall to the floor unnoticed, or a player may deliberately or inadvertently retain one or more cards from the previous deal. A player upset by losing a gigantic pot might even quit the games and stalk away clutching his hand - it's been known to happen!

So we know problems with cards can cause a less than perfect deal-even if dealers were perfect. But dealers aren't perfect. They may be tired or distracted, and some are more dexterous with the deck than others. Fingers can slip or falter, allowing part of the deck to pass without interlocking as it falls.

Then there's the pressure of time constraints. Dealers often feel the need to "hurry up and deal" to please impatient players as well as clock a requisite number of raked hands per hour to satisfy management. Time pressure works against a random shuffle: The more times a dealer executes the shuffle movement, the better the mix, but too many passes of the deck slow down the games.

Good dealers find a sweet spot between the extremes of over-diligence and indifference, keeping everyone happy, but when it comes to achieving a one hundred percent random shuffle - as opposed to a competent, acceptably random shuffle - even the best human dealer falls short.

But 21st century computers don't fall short. They have, in fact, achieved the near-perfect distribution of totally random cards - something elusive to humans since cards were invented. The marriage of poker with computer technology allows a one hundred percent random shuffle through use of (Pseudo) Random Number Generators (RNGs).

A properly implemented RNG is actually software that produces a sequence of numbers which are as near to random as possible. These random numbers, in turn, are used to shuffle the deck of cards much more thoroughly than even the most conscientious dealer is able to manage.

We know, there's something psychologically reassuring in anticipating the traditional shuffle while sitting across the felt from a live dealer. It's familiar, readily understandable and easily seen. And, though it's not perfect, it's human. We feel - in a word - comfortable.

But while most of us know and accept computers in banking, taxes. medicine, and many other things of vital importance to our lives, it's somehow harder to take on faith that a computer can do a better job with a complex manual task, especially one designed to ensure fair play when our money's at risk.

Online, that whirring, breezy, unmistakable sound of shuffling cards means nothing: It's totally irrelevant to the deal. Like Peanuts' blanket, it's just a warm fuzzy - a concession to our human need for familiar visual and aural cues. Computer technology has simply converted the manual task of shuffling into a cybernetic one, making online card distribution far more dependable and random than a manual shuffle.

Even so, while playing Internet poker or reading RGP, you'll come across disgruntled players making accusations of fixed games. They say the shuffle of online games is anything but random, and some go so far as to surmise that it's somehow designed to work against them while rewarding mysterious "others." In our opinion, the vast majority of these detractors are perennial losers, while a few are merely enduring a protracted losing streak. Our advice: Take their testimony with a grain of salt, and -after taking reasonable precautions - define your own Internet poker experience.

Remember: Just as it's easier - though irrational and irresponsible - to blame bad cards or bad beats on a live dealer than to acknowledge bad luck or flaws in one's own play, it's easier to question the randomness of card distribution and general fairness of online games than to simply accept the vicissitudes of poker. Bad luck happens online and offline. It's just that simple.

Concerns about online cheating fall into four categories: collusion; hacking; all-in abuse; and conspiracies involving a roster of ruses by site owners and operators up to and including outright theft of client funds. Let's look at these one at a time:

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