It sure seems at times that the hands are dealt specifically to enhance betting. I am wondering if any of these sites might try to set up hands. For tournament play it wouldn't seem to be an advantage but some of the hands I see are just to hard to believe they are just chance.
Well, I have two answers:
1) If you play as many hands of live poker as online poker, you will see the same thing. While it is amazingly hard to believe hands sometimes, sooner or later every hand combination imaginable (and some that aren't) will happen on their own. This is just part of a random system like poker. Keep in mind that the most extraordinary hands are the ones that we remember too. When AK beats KJ on a KQ942 board, we really don't think too much about it, but when 99 beats KK and AA on a AK992 board, we remember it and tell everybody!
2) The poker sites don't need to set hands up. There is plenty of action as it is, and the consequences of getting caught are enormous. There are people who do nothing but collect hand histories, and after getting a hundred million hands or so, you can see patterns and determine whether or not the hands are being tampered with. If they are and people see it, your entire business goes poof and nobody is making money anymore. Why would they risk that when they can just keep on making money (hand over fist) the legit way?
Hands where pretty much every player has a decent set of hole cards do happen and of course, the rake the site stands to earn will be much higher than a typical hand. That being said, these hands are rare (as you'd expect for a random deal).
There are two sides to every story though. If you're in such a hand and there has been lots of betting action, you stand to make a pretty tidy sum should you win.
The most important thing to remember about poker is that it is a game of luck as well as skill. Whilst good skill will win you money in the long term, the short term effects of luck will see many seemingly impossible combinations of cards fall on to the table.
The perspective taken by some players that you've pointed out is a weak facet of the poker player's mindset where they might not understand the fundamentals of luck & skill, which apply to poker more than most people want to accept.
Take coin flipping for instance: flipping a coin has a 50/50 chance of landing heads or tails. However, if you went ahead and flipped a coin 10 times, you will most likely find that this does not appear to be the case. There's a good chance that you would have flipped 7 heads and 3 tails, vice-versa or somewhere in-between. Although this contradicts our previous statement, there is a good reason for this. It is because short term results will, for the most part, be fairly erratic and contradict luck.
But what if we flipped the coin 100 times instead of 10? This is where it gets interesting...
After flipping a coin 100 times, the chance of flipping 70 heads and 30 tails has hugely decreased. This is because, in the long term, results will even out. However, some poker players do not understand this concept, and will continue to blame the dealer/random card generator for the shortcomings of their luck in the short term, when in reality, this is simply the result of misunderstanding how luck really works.
This ties in to how crazy and ridiculous flops & action cards can be dealt, because luck is a huge factor in this game and will see many ridiculous hands, as this is the nature of the game. Also, as Inafziger pointed out, the consequences of "cheating in online poker by the dealer" are not worth the risk, especially when all online gambling agencies are subject to required monthly checks on their software codebase and randomization system to make sure there is nothing fishy going on under the hood.
Some online poker rooms even upload the reports to their website for everyone to see!
Online poker is easy to cheat. Why ? Because it's software based. Someone wrote the program; actually, a number of people have. What they did was not rocket science and can be analyzed by other expert programmers.
The large majority of players have little in the way of understanding this level of programming, although many swear by the software as being fair and legit. Loop holes are found, other ways are direct involvement by original writers of the program or their acquaintances. The players have no access to what is actually happening, none at all.
In a casino, a player can see and evaluate the dealer or players. Online this is impossible. Cheaters have been exposed and some in the amount of millions. One major point here is no one has gone to jail. So, with little in the way of real punishment, what are the chances that people will not continue to cheat when millions are up for grabs ?
The location of these sites are in places that have little in the way of legal recourse. It takes the power of the US and Britain to make things happen. Also, your personal information is also at risk. The industry has a history of grifters, cheats, shot takers. Online poker is no different and with little in the way of oversight by outside sources, corruption will continue to be rampant.
There is lots of cheating online and in brick and mortar. How much is enough to fill books. Most of these books are old and somewhat rare, will not be found on Amazon. If you are in Las Vegas visit the gamblers Book store they have lots of stuff.
Collusion is common, it varies from the husband and wife who just always check it down to highly organized teams that hit all public card rooms.
Great cheating schemes are very sophisticated and are rarely found out.
We have all been cheated, multiple times. You likely were cheated if you played today.
It is a myth that cheaters are bad players. Many of the brand name players that are on TV and the covers of the poker rags are also skilled cheaters.
A very important thing for every poker player to be aware of is that Poker Rooms, online and land based, have almost zero interest in protecting you against cheating. Cheaters pay rake and are customers too. I can assure that all those comforting cameras in a public poker room are to protect the casino from loss and they are not there to protect you from cheats. You are on your own.
The first online card room PlanetPoker.com was cheated in a manner of speaking. It had such a simple vulnerability that some guys at a computer firm published the hack online to show Planet Poker how insecure they were. (For the curious geek PP seeded the RNG from the cpu clock, the story should still be online.).
A 16 year old Las Vegas kid wrote a hack to allow players to see opponents hole cards and made lots of money selling it for 30K a copy. The exploit was limited to a few sites that used a particular software and was not wide spread before the leak was fixed, but the software was around for sometime before they discovered it.
An acquaintance told me of the setup they had, eight monitors, IP switching software, 16 games with several seats in each game, skilled players, skilled collusion they made lots of money playing no higher then fifty cents and a dollar.
I once dealt in a four eight thousand dollar limit game with strippers in the deck. I mentioned it to the supervisor and was told to forget about it. I did kind of.
My favorite story from an old book: In pre Castro Cuba when their were lots of casinos with poker, a gambler from New York went down and sold the casino playing cards, a boat load of them, steeply discounted. All the cards were painted, meaning the were marked decks. A few months later he went down and won lots and lots of money. The Casinos never caught this as the story goes, but another player did pick up on it. He used the information to black mail the original cheater.
My other answer really did not address the question.
The quality answer that starts with "Well, I have two answers" is excellent.
His points in #2 are really good, especially the part about all the people out there that would easily spot this. The risk assessment that was outlined is correct, they have no good reason to do this. However, this does not mean that the people who operate the poker sites would draw the particular conclusion that lnafziger did. Nor is it really a given that an online poker room doing this would implode.
In my experience in the casino industry, people tend to focus on the small picture when it comes to getting the money. They tend to treat an ideal as a good ideal if at first glance it looks like something that will make them more money. It is difficult for them to see the bigger picture, even sometimes difficult to convince them that there is a bigger picture to consider. Like all people who feel they have a good ideal they will rationalize that it is a good ideal. They tend to convince themselves that the ideal is good. It is something akin to getting your buddy out of a game were he is clearly out classed, when he is stuck.
There is also another attitude of management at online poker sites to factor in. All online poker sites have a risk of going out of business tomorrow. It is a peculiar business were all kinds of things can happen that are catastrophic. Regulations can change and all of a sudden all your players are gone. Party poker died the day the Port Authority Act passed. Poker Stars, I think one of, if not the largest poker site right now, would find itself in obscurity if the US for some reason welcomed online poker back in and Poker Stars was barred from license as they currently are in New Jersey. The point being that online poker is a business at some risk and operators often play like tomorrow may never come.
The possibility of built in bias is real. I do not know if it has been done with online poker, it has been done on slot machines. On slots they were programming a just miss subroutine into the slots. People were always just missing big payouts. This did not affect the actual payouts at all. Gaming Control Board looked at it, had meetings and hearings. The slot operators argued that it did not change the payouts and I believe gaming agreed and let it go. It might also be worthy to note that the discovery that this was being done did not cause any kind of mass exodus of slot players from the casino.
It is not a far stretch for an online poker site to consider this kind of bias in the same way. Not only would they have the extra action bringing better rakes, they would also have games that had better action and would attract more players. If the whistle was blown many of these players would still play there, because the games are just better. The online operator would very well argue that they were not giving any particular player an advantage over the other. A lot of players might even think it was a good thing because the result for them was more action in the game.
Having speculated on all that, I do not believe biasing hands is being done for the simple reason that nobody has bought forth proof that it is being done.