Do Online Poker Site Shuffle Certifications Mean Anything?

Somewhere on most poker sites, you can find a letter from an independent company which certifies the site's game as "fair." Of course, we all know that in big business where there is big money, anyone can get some sort of certification stating anything.

So do these poker site audits actually mean anything?

My series on online poker site shuffling continues. If you haven't read my prior articles on this topic, consider paging down to the bottom of this article and reading them.

In this article, I'll look at site certifications for two main sites, Party Poker and Paradise Poker.

On a link off the home page, Party Poker claims their game software is audited by iTech Labs, an independent company.

iTech Labs is good enough to place a summary of their Standards for Internet Gaming on the web.

From this document, we can see that iTech as four different levels of certification. Since Party Poker does not make it immediately clear which certification level they have met, we will focus on what is covered in the most basic, "Level One Certification." This is actually the most relevant part to our ongoing investigation of the randomness of shuffling at online poker sites.

Excerpt of certification criteria from iTech's Standards Document:
Evaluation of Random Number Generator

The RNG is evaluated for statistical independence, uniform distribution and unpredictability by undertaking the following tests and reviews:
  • Algorithm is identified from source code and researched for any known problems;
  • Sample output from RNG undergoes Marsarglia’s “Diehard” test;
  • RNG seeding and background cycling are checked by source code review;

The use of RNG by games is evaluated to confirm:
  • Correct scaling and mapping of the RNG output to produce game symbols, cards, or other game outcomes;
  • Game outcomes (symbols, cards, etc.) are statistically independent, uniformly distributed and unpredictable.

This means that even if Party Poker has only recieved the most basic, Level One certification from iTech labs, they have still had a full review of their RNG and shuffling algorithm. The focus of iTech is on uniform distribution and unpredictability -- which are the key elements to a virtual deck of cards being fair.

Paradise Poker's certification is by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), a noted business advisory and auditing firm. Paradise Poker gets fresh certifications quarterly, and they can be viewed at a page dedicated to their independent shuffling reviews.

After their review, PWC generates a letter. The latest letter has this key conclusion:
Based on the results of our testing of these log files covering the period 1 January 2005 to 23 February 2005 in our opinion:
  • Cards dealt in each poker game during that perioed were selected from a standard deck of fifty two playing cards.
  • The cards were dealt from the deck such that each card had an equal chance of being selected unless it had already been dealt in the same poker game.

One common objection to such audits is that the poker site "could have only given the auditor fair hands to review, only to 'flick the switch' when the audit was complete." In response, it should be noted that in Paradise Poker's case, PWC compared games submitted to them with hand histories available from the Paradise Poker Website. So there are some controls for this.

In summary, both sites have certifications stating their shuffles are fair. The question remains: Do those certifications actually mean anything?

My conclusion: Site shuffling certifications are relevant but not conclusive on their own.

Independent audits are absolutely relevant. I would not play at a site that has not at least made an effort to have a third-party auditor review their RNG and shuffling algorithm. It can be argued that the absence of any third-party review of a site's shuffle is more detrimental than a third-party certification is beneficial.

The auditors themselves for Paradise Poker and Party Poker also deserve the assumption of credibility without evidence to the contrary. For example, the iTech Labs website and biography of their principals suggests they are credible investigators. And of course, PWC is a noteworthy global firm.

While these independent certifications are relevant and interesting, they alone are not conclusive as to a site's trustworthiness in gaming.

Certainly corruption or influencing is entirely possible in the world of third-party certifications, even when big companies are involved.

For example, PWC is touted as an "independent third-party," but it is worth knowing that they also do business with Paradise Poker in other areas as well. For example, PWC was the advisory firm serving Paradise Poker on their sale to Sportingbet Plc. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to see a small potential for conflict of interest here.

Furthermore, it is possible that a third-party firm would not be technically competent enough to spot a flaw in a shuffling algortihm or random number generator. Or auditors could be reviewing small enough data sets that long-scale conclusions drawn from them are not credible.

I am confident that the preponderance of evidence shows that sites like Paradise Poker and Party Poker are dealing a "fair game." The independent audits are very helpful and should be assumed to be "almost assuredly correct." But it is not unreasonable that they be viewed with a critical eye.

My series continues with a review of dealt cards done by a poker player.

You can find prior entries on this topic here:

How Poker Site Shuffles are Different than Planet Poker ‘99

Online Poker Room Cracked (not a hoax)

Basics of Online Shuffling

Live Cardroom Deck Shuffles

Online Shuffling - Setting Expectations