vast sums generated by rakes and entry fees for online poker games have often
been cited as a disincentive to corruption. Insiders at the behemoths of the
poker world are making so much money legitimately, says this line of analysis,
that they've no reason to cheat. The recent controversy involving one of the
world's biggest operators, absolutepoker.com, turned that analysis on its head
- and cast into sharp relief the available means of legal redress in this most
nascent of digital arenas.
The scandal engulfing
Absolute, which was set up in 2003, emerged in September. A well-known online
player, CrazyMarco, became suspicious of the play of another player in a $1,000
buy-in tournament. Amid rumours of cheating, CrazyMarco asked Absolute to send
the hand history for the final table, so that he could review his opponent's
play. CrazyMarco received an Excel file containing more than mere hand
histories. The file contained every player's starting cards, observations of
the tables, and the IP addresses of every person playing.
turn detectives A review of the file convinced CrazyMarco that something
was wrong. Soon the blogosphere was awash with the story and analysis of what
had happened. Poker players turned detective and established that, after the
third hand of the tournament, an observer logged on and watched every hand
played by a player called Potripper. Observers are commonplace at online poker
tables but, intriguingly, Potripper folded his first two hands before the
observer's arrival and thereafter played every hand for the next 20 minutes
when, again, he declined to enter the fray. His fold, then, took place when
another player had been dealt a pair of kings - almost the strongest starting
hand in poker.
This kind of
inspired - or rigged - play occurred throughout the tournament. The poker
detectives went to work, not least "the fastest kid alive" at the
well-respected poker blog naterem.com. He and others established that the
observer's Costa Rican IP address and account name were linked to the same set
of servers that host Absolute. Moreover, the observer appeared, thanks to their
IP analysis, to be one Scott Tom - an individual described by Absolute as a
"former employee" but who, according to numerous allegations on poker sites and
blogs, lives in Costa Rica and at one stage part - if not wholly - owned
If this was correct, the conclusion that cheating had
occurred grew yet more irresistible. Tom appeared to be logging on as an
observer, using Absolute's proprietary software to peek at other players'
starting cards, and then relaying the information to Potripper.
Absolute's initial public stance was to deny the allegations in full,
reserve its legal rights and submit itself to an audit by an independent third
party, Gaming Associates (gamingassociates.com). Gaming Associates provides
audit services to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (run by a Canadian Mohawk
tribe), under whose auspices Absolute is registered.
However, just days
after the denial came an admission by Absolute that there had, after all, been
a "security breach". In early November, Absolute admitted the extent of the
breach, promising to reimburse $1.6m to players affected by cheating which had
been perpetrated by "a high-ranking trusted consultant".
stops where? So, all's well that ends well? Hardly. Absolute may be
doing the right thing, but what if it hadn't - does the average poker player,
who could be playing a low-stakes game against fellow enthusiasts anywhere in
the world, have any means of redress if he believes cheating has occurred?
For Dominic Bray, an expert in internet law with K & L Gates, there
are two issues: first, the player's remedies against the poker site and,
second, those against his opponents.
"The poker site's terms and
conditions will form the contract between the player and the site and may
provide for dispute resolution mechanisms, but in many cases the operator will
seek to exclude all liability. Players could sue other players for fraud in the
form of the tort of deceit or misrepresentation."
Bray says that thanks
to tough new compliance measures in the Gambling Act 2007 - which also creates
a specific offence of cheating or enabling cheating - players using sites
subject to UK law can feel more confident when they play poker online. Having
acted for Sheffield Wednesday FC in a landmark case that saw a UK court order
the disclosure of abusive bloggers' identities, Bray is also mindful that a
means of tracking down miscreant online individuals does exist.
Paul Renney, an expert in betting and gaming law with Campbell Hooper, offers
cautionary words. "With a site based and licensed in Canada, site terms and
conditions that deny any liability, and other players based possibly anywhere,
any aggrieved player who feels he or she has lost out would have to be prepared
to explore (and pay to do so) all the various conflict of laws,
cross-jurisdictional action, enforcement and consumer protection issues that
this case contains. The cost, for most players, would be prohibitive. It's
certainly not something for the faint-hearted or the thrifty."
your money, and you takes your choice, but one thing's for sure: the Absolute
controversy won't be the last in the fast-moving world of online betting and