Is there integrity in online poker?
By Aaron Angerman
Perhaps no game tests the honor system more than poker. The actual game glorifies the idea of bluffing your opponents, but the framework of the poker world is held up by the ideas of moral code, ethics and integrity.
Moral code focuses on one's obligation to do good, or fulfilling your duty to choose right, rather than wrong. This involves a great deal of self-policing as ethical decisions often take place when you are unaccompanied. One with sound morals will be more concerned with whether their actions are of good intentions, while those ethically lacking tend to worry more about whether they will get away with it, or how much trouble will they be in if they get caught. It is the latter group of players who are tarnishing the integrity of online poker.
It has now been ten years since the first online card room opened. With the Internet still in its early stages, it was Planet Poker who would venture into unknown territory, launching the original online poker room in January of 1998. Traffic on the virtual felt increased rapidly. Soon enough, new names were joining Planet Poker on the web. Paradise Poker through their hat in the ring the following year. The two were joined by PartyPoker, PokerStars and UltimateBet in 2001. It wasn't long before a guy named Moneymaker would turn a $39 online satellite entry into $2.5 million and the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event bracelet, triggering the 'poker boom' in the process.
Online poker is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Sadly, where there is money, there will be cheats, and there is a lot of money in online poker. It was just a matter of time before people would find ways to defraud the system.
In the early days there were algorithm leaks, allowing players to predict the random number generator after deciphering codes. Soon players began experimenting with types of collusion; either communicating privately with others at the table, or multi-accounting, players operating more than the one allowed account. The technical stuff was easy to catch, but collusion and multi-accounting proved much more difficult to pinpoint.
How are you to know if seat one and seat six are in cahoots, discussing their hole cards through an instant messenger? What if the big stack has a coach 'ghosting' him, providing tips and strategy from over his shoulder? Who's to say one player isn't the owner of several accounts, entering the tournament under multiple screen names?
Well, it's all happening. To most, this doesn't come as a surprise. What is surprising is that some of the biggest names in online poker were among the guilty parties. Justin "ZeeJustin" Bonomo, Josh "JJProdigy" Field and Sorel "Imper1um" Mizzi each found great success at the online tables, collecting hundreds of thousands before the age of 21. Each have been recently handed much publicized suspensions by major online card rooms. Mark Teltscher was previously famous for his European Poker Tour success. The London poker pro was a runner-up at the EPT Barcelona, just missing out on becoming the tour's first two-time champion. Teltscher would take down the World Championships of Online Poker Main Event last September, playing under the screen name "The V0id". After an investigation by PokerStars, Teltscher was stripped of his title and the $1.2 million prize for multi-accounting.
Has the integrity of online poker been soiled through the numerous recent scandals? Have the recent punishments handed down to those guilty of ghosting, multi-accounting and seat selling done anything to help online poker move towards an untarnished future?
The one player per hand rule is one that cannot be enforced on the virtual felt. It is simple to have an advisor or coach 'ghosting' you, watching your table and communicating advice via phone, instant messenger, or in person. No other aspect of online gaming relies more on the honor system than the idea that you will play the game for yourself, by yourself.
Online card rooms stress the fact that you are only allowed one player account. These same card rooms seem to do little to enforce this rule as numerous online players have notably taken advantage of having multiple accounts for use as multiple tournament entries.
Players have begun the practice of selling their tournament seats after making it deep into multi table tournaments. Players, often experienced online pros, will jump at the chance to purchase these seats in the tourney's latter stages, confident in their chances at a bigger payday. The seller will produce his password, offering the seat for a guaranteed payday for their work in surviving the tournament's early stages. This situation was not covered in online poker room's original terms of service, but the majority of sites have amended their rules to discourage the practice of selling your tournament seats.
Each of these actions are outlined in every online poker site's terms of service, rules and regulations, terms and conditions or mission statement. These card rooms list punishments for guilty parties as suspension, banning and possible collection of winnings. But are these poker sites doing enough?
Josh "JJProdigy" Field was the first highly publicized case of a high profile online player being banned for multi-accounting. Field, then just 16, outlasted a $500K guaranteed tournament field for a payday of $140K. The only problem was that "ABlackCar" was crowned the winner, while "JJProdigy" hit the rail in the earliest stages of the PartyPoker tournament. When word got out that Fields took home the top prize, investigations would follow after noticing his well known online screen name among the eliminations. PartyPoker discovered that Field had operated both accounts and confiscated nearly $200K from Field's accounts. Both the "ABlackCar" and "JJProdigy" accounts were closed and the 16 year-old was eventually banned from PartyPoker, an action that was mirrored by PokerStars and FullTilt.
Field was quiet about his actions, until he posted an apology in the 2+2 forums shortly before the 2007 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. In the thread he admitted to continuing his multi-accounting practices for two years after receiving lifetime bans from the major sites, using a set up of laptops and mobile wireless Internet cards to avoid using the same, detectable IP. In one of the all time backfires, Field's apology eventually led 2+2 players to petition PokerStars; eventually extending his ban into PokerStars sponsored live events as well as online play.
On the heels of the original "JJProdigy" bust came the slip up of Justin "ZeeJustin" Bonomo. Bonomo, then 20, was apparently outed by online players for having multiple PartyPoker accounts. More than $100K would be confiscated from six accounts and further investigation would reveal that Bonomo used the same multi-accounting practices on PokerStars as well. "ZeeJustin" was eventually blacklisted by the online poker community, unable to sit at any online sites. Field and Bonomo will continue to be synonymous with multi-accounting, each blaming their age and immaturity for their lack of online poker ethics.
The idea of 'seat selling' was an afterthought during the early days of online poker. These days, more big time online players have been buying seats off of those deep in multi-table tournaments, bypassing the dirty work and getting straight to the late MTT action. Late in 2007, Chris "BluffMagCV" Vaughn was the last player standing after FullTilt Poker's $1 million Guaranteed. Shortly after, runner-up Soren Kongsgard would be notified by FullTilt that he would be bumped to the winners spot. As it turns out, Vaughn had sold his seat to friend and online icon Sorel "Imper1um" Mizzi. Mizzi would log on to the "BluffMagCV" account from his home and Vaughn would receive a percentage of the prize in return. Players faced a completely different "BluffMagCV", one with a different playing style, incredible amounts of online MTT experience and over $500K in live tournament winnings. FullTilt was able to track the login swap to the IP of Mizzi. Vaughn and Mizzi would both find themselves banned from FullTilt, and were each relieved of their winnings.
About the same time as the Mizzi/Vaughn incident, "The V0id" scandal was unfolding on PokerStars. Mark Teltscher had been crowned the winner, capturing $1.2 million, the biggest prize in online poker history. PokerStars would then make a statement that "The V0id" was disqualified and Teltscher was banned from PokerStars for violating the terms of service. It has been stated that the former EPT champ had played the tournament in an account he created under his sister's name after his account, "play2kill", hit the rail early.
A group of online players were dominating the tables at Absolute Poker during 2007. Eventually, suspicious play during a tournament led to rumors in the 2+2 forums that the winner, "POTRIPPER", was able to make his impressive plays thanks to a super-user account, in which one would have access to all player hole cards. Interested parties requested the tournament hand history, only to receive a complete transcript of the tournament from Absolute Poker, all hole cards included. "POTRIPPER's" play read so suspicious to knowledgeable poker players that an investigation was demanded.
Signs point to Allan Grimard (aka AJ Green) as the owner of the "POTRIPPER" account. An observer's IP address, the alleged super-user, was traced to Scott Tom. Green was Absolute Poker's vice president of operations at one time, while Tom was a part owner of the company. The two are thought to have accumulated hundreds of thousands using the super-user and a handful of now-banned accounts. Records in question were also found to be destroyed by somebody at AP. The whereabouts of the two men are unknown.
Each of these players know that they could not pull off such a stunt in live play, so what propels them to do so online? Is it cockiness? We are talking about accomplished professionals caught, red-handed, trying to sidestep the rules of online poker. Players that understand the consequences, yet continued to ignore the obvious ethical choices in favor of money and greed. If the best players in the game aren't above cheating, how can one say that there is any integrity in online poker?
Online pro Dani "Ansky" Stern opened eyes on the 2+2 Forums and PocketFives through posting his, "Open letter to the poker community on integrity, and our responsibility as gamblers."
In the post, "Ansky" provides the following solution to the situation:
"The only chance we have as poker players of keeping our game clean is a complete and utter revulsion and rejection of cheaters. Casinos and poker sites need to start working together to develop black lists and suspected cheaters. Sites say they do everything they can, but they do not. If someone is banned from one site for cheating, they should then be banned from every card room in the world, and every other site. This is possible, entirely possible, and it would put a MAJOR damper on the willingness of cheaters to cheat."
"Card counters are not cheaters, and yet they are so vigilantly and unequivocally barred from casinos. Yet known cheaters are banned from one site and not the next, or are banned from one tournament and not the next. Why is there no unity amongst the casinos or the sites in this case, but such fervor for unity in the case of card counters? Oh right, money, it's always about money, and never integrity. Card counters win money from the casinos, multi-accounters and cheaters pay rake just like everyone else, they are only stealing from us. This is why the burden is on the PLAYERS to pressure the casinos, the sites, and even TV networks to be harsher about this, and why people like JJProdigy should not feel comfortable enough to sit down face to face with two important figures in the poker community."
"JJProdigy" appeared on the January 14th episode of PokerRoad Radio. Not surprisingly, hosts Bart Hanson, Gavin Smith and Joe Sebok grilled Field on his multi-accounting scandal.
"So you're telling the world, right now, the people that are listening to this, that you, right now, are not playing on the sites you are banned from and you have no plans to play on the sites you are banned from?" asked Hanson.
"At this moment in time, yeah. I can't tell you in a month I'll be thinking the same, because it'll be really hard not playing those sites. But right now, yeah," said Field.
When faced with questions as to why he admits he may return to playing sites from which he has received a lifetime ban, Field added, "I feel if I say that I'm not going to play there ever again, then I'm just lying to you guys and I think that's even worse."
When asked if he would perhaps make a large donation with his winnings accumulated through multi-accounting, Field said that "donating is not something I have really thought about."
If lifetime bans are not going to work, and players may never feel enough remorse to return falsely earned winnings, maybe we have to accept that the integrity of online poker will always be questioned. For the most part, people would rather do right than wrong. The vast majority of poker games could be run simply by the ideas of the honor system. The thing is that not only does integrity speak for moral code, but it also stands for being sound, complete and undivided. With practices like ghosting, multi-accounting and seat selling fracturing the foundation of online poker, can we afford letting these players off easy? Are we being to forgiving towards youth?
Many will argue that integrity comes with maturity. With the incredible amount of teenagers occupying virtual seats these days, it's easy to see why people are wary to trust online poker. Until these banned players begin to accept their responsibility to protect the game they play and love, the bright future of online gaming may always sport a black eye.
Sorel Mizzi can usually be found near the top of all online player of the year leader boards. Now that he finds himself banned from the second biggest site in the world, "Imper1um" will have his work cut out for him in 2008. Chris Vaughn was relieved of his post as Managing Editor of Bluff Magazine. Vaughn would follow up his infamous FullTilt finish with a huge win in the PokerStars Sunday Million the following week.
Absolute Poker was fined $500,000 by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission after an audit concluded that players with connections to the site did have access to a super-user account. A security deposit was collected by Kahnawake, allowing AP to continue business. The site is now subject to random audits.
After being banned from the PCA, Field and Teltscher each made their way to Melbourne and the Aussie Millions. Field was able to cash twice during his first taste of live play. Teltscher pocketed nearly $500,000 for his runner-up finish in the $100K buy-in event.
Bonomo has become the poster child for repairing a poker image. Not only has "ZeeJustin" surpassed the $1 million in career earnings mark, but it appears he has regained the trust of his peers and the respect of his competitors. Bonomo was not banned from the PCA.
Aaron Angerman is Content Manager for PokerPages.com. Raised in small
town Alaska, the self proclaimed 'sports fanatic' had dreams of being a sports
writer. After moving to Las Vegas in 2000, he rekindled a childhood love for
poker. Grinding it out in card rooms and on the virtual felt helped Aaron to
fund his schooling, eventually earning him a journalism degree from UNLV. After
a couple short stints in tournament reporting, Aaron realized the poker world
was the place for him.