Exclusive interview with Alex Scott, MD of poker division at MPN
With over 20 years of experience on the market, Microgaming is one of the oldest poker networks. Thanks to this, it has been a leader in crucial topics as anonymous tables, launching mobile poker clients, implementing a proper rake structure (True Value Rake), among other things. In this exclusive interview, the Managing Director of the poker division at MPN, Alex Scott, shares with us details about his career in the gambling industry, the network's prospects for the future and his opinion about the current HUDs and the bots controversy.
- Hello Alex! We appreciate you taking the time for this interview. To start, please tell us something about you, how old are you? Where do you live?
I’m 36, and based in the Isle of Man where I live with my wife and two children.
- You've had a fantastic career in the gambling industry, starting as a freelance journalist and becoming Managing Director of Poker division at MPN. Tell us something about the followed path.
I am from a technology background and have always been a lover of games and gadgets. When I was a kid, I wrote simple video games – first on a Commodore 64 and later on PC. I went on to study IT at university in Edinburgh, covering software development and programming, as well as management skills and human-environment interactions.
While at university, I co-founded the poker society, and this became a major part of my life as I made lifelong friends through the poker scene. I was (and still am) very passionate about poker, and I wanted to make it my career, so I tried everything I could to break into the industry.
I started out writing and publishing content on my own website, which led to opportunities to write for poker magazines and work with the World Poker Tour, promoting their new online site to students. In 2006, my real break into the industry came when I joined PokerStars support team. Since then, I have worked my way up through various roles.
Towards the end of my tenure at PokerStars, I was working as a kind of business analyst, designing software features. I was approached about an opportunity to work at Full Tilt, leading their product design team.
At the time, Full Tilt Poker was generally considered to have the best software, and I was hugely excited to start working there. Unfortunately, we all know what happened with Full Tilt, and this was devastating to so many people.
Working there was hugely challenging, but it gave me the opportunity to develop skills that came in useful later in my career. For example, I was pitching to potential investors and working on business plans. I gained exposure to the financial side of the business and worked on strategy with some very clever people.
When it finally fell apart, I moved back to the Isle of Man with my wife and was lucky enough to land a temporary role with Microgaming, consulting on game integrity in poker. The first thing I did was put in place a new game integrity team and, in collaboration with them, design a brand new game integrity system, which we use to detect collusion, bots, and fraud on the network.
Six months later, I was offered a permanent role, and ever since, I have been working my way back up. Today I am Managing Director of the poker division. I have a lot of hard work ahead of me in this role, but I am very excited about it all.
- A couple of years ago MPN introduced restrictions to hand histories and HUDs when no one talked about it. Nowadays, it is a trending topic. What were the results of this strategy? Did the poker ecology improve?
It did improve, but at a cost.
For those who don’t know, in April 2017, we changed our hand history format. We would only store a full hand history if you contributed to the pot. If you didn’t – for example, if you simply folded preflop – then you would only get a reduced hand history, with basic details about the hand but no information on the opponents’ actions.
The idea was to make it more challenging to gather huge amounts of data on your opponents’ gameplay by just sitting passively at the table, but still allow you to track your own results and analyse your game.
We very quickly saw an improvement in lifetime values for casual players – put simply, casual players were harder to identify, and therefore, it was harder to beat them very quickly.
However, this came at a cost. The major tracking software dropped support for MPN – something we didn’t expect. As a result, some players who were very dependent on tracking software left the MPN and went elsewhere. Many of these players would have been net negative of course, but we believe that overall, this hindered us more than it helped.
- Recently MPN reinstated hand history files for players. Following the last question, what is your opinion about the recent HUDs controversy, hand histories, and support software restrictions?
I think that third-party software has, for the most part, been negative for online poker. There are some exceptions, of course – software that helps you to track and learn from your own results can be very valuable to a responsible player who is trying to improve their game.
Overall though, I wish that we in the industry had recognised the impact of third-party software sooner, and done something to stop its proliferation.
There is no doubt in my mind that HUDs, for example, have made the game a lot more intimidating to new players, and a lot less fun for everybody. And in a world where the vast majority of new players are playing via their mobile device, it is simply not right that players using their laptop or desktop computer can gain an unfair advantage using third-party tools.
It’s also hard to imagine a future where tools that interact directly with the poker software are allowed – like HUDs, table selection tools, and real-time advisory software, for example. Disregarding the obvious implications with regards to the advantage that they may or may not create for some players, they are just too much of a security risk.
Many of these tools don’t work by screen scraping; they work by reading the memory space of your device. In theory, a piece of third-party software that is running in conjunction with the poker software has access to not only your hole cards but all kinds of other sensitive and deeply private information – and do you really want to trust an unknown software developer with that?
- What are the MPN's expansion plans for the future? Is there any interest in joining the Europool (Spain/France/Portugal) or maybe Latin-America?
We always keep an eye on all new and emerging markets, and certainly intend to add new markets in the future that makes sense from a commercial perspective, among other factors. For us, that usually means finding the right local partner – somebody with a genuine interest in building a successful poker business.
- Will new formats like Short Deck be added soon to MPN?
We definitely have new formats planned, yes, although Short Deck Hold’em is not top of the list.
- How is MPN fighting artificial intelligence (bots, collusion) problem right now?
We have a dedicated team of poker integrity specialists and software developers, who work closely together to build detection mechanisms and catch colluders, bot users, and other fraudsters. Any money that MPN operators seize from cheats is refunded back to the players who were negatively impacted.
I can’t speak too much about our detection techniques and mechanisms, because to do so publicly would help the villains to evade detection. However, the most exciting recent development is that we are applying machine learning to poker integrity, which enables us to spot suspicious accounts more quickly and with greater confidence than ever before.
As nefarious software is always evolving, we strive to get ahead of this by continuously trying to improve our bot and collusion detection abilities. I am encouraged by the fact that many bot users are giving up, and moving elsewhere – and that bot users themselves tell each other to avoid MPN because the risk of being caught is too high.
- Online poker is a very changing industry; how do you imagine the whole gambling industry in 5 years?
It is impossible to know for sure, but there are some trends which stand out to me.
First, it is getting easier every day to enter the .COM market. With modern tools and techniques, it has never been simpler to create gambling software and take it to market at scale. Companies that do this could potentially be very successful and take market share away from established industry giants.
Second, it is getting harder every day to enter regulated markets. Regulated markets are expensive, require lots of legal and compliance time and expertise, and often require bespoke development. The penalties for getting it wrong can be extremely severe. So, it is likely that the large established players will have an advantage in regulated markets.
For me, the outcome of the battle will very much depend on whether the industry incumbents can defend their .COM position by modernising their software and out-competing the new entrants, and whether the new entrants can find their way into regulated markets efficiently or not.
What we will likely see is further consolidation, and renewed investment in technology from the larger players in the industry. At MPN, we have worked hard to modernise our software, anticipating this threat, and we hope it gives us a head start on some of our competition.
- When is expected to entirely phase-out the MPN Classic poker client?
We intend to phase it out by the end of this year. It will be sooner for players in Denmark, due to a change in regulations which is only supported in the new client.
We are working hard to bring new features and more polish to the modern client so that everybody will be happy to use it when we switch off the classic client.
- MPN has focused on hosting live tournament series like the "MPN Poker Tour London" or "Battle of Malta." In the future, can we expect similar tournament series online?
Yes. In fact, we are just about to announce the latest instalment of the Universal Championship of Poker, which will return this September with a €1 million guarantee. Look for details on our website, mpn.poker, soon.
On the live events front, we have just wrapped up our most successful event ever in London and will be returning to Battle of Malta this October, where the Main Event alone will guarantee €1 million. You can qualify now with the partner poker rooms.
- Again, thanks for your time for this interview, and we wish you the best of luck.
Thanks, and best of luck to you too.
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