Friday, September 30, 2011

It’s Alive

It's Alive!Ended yesterday’s post with that pic of the Full Tilt Poker zombie, coming for our brains. Was intending to refer more to the story of FTP than FTP itself, a story that just... keeps... heaving forward... step by staggering step.

Then today comes yet another FTP-related headline, this one the announcement of an agreement between the Board of Directors at Full Tilt Poker and Groupe Bernard Tapie -- a French group of companies headed by its namesake -- for the latter to acquire the company and its assets.

Not dead, insists the embattled site. Don’t be closing the book just yet.

The news again came as an “exclusive” delivered by FTP to the affiliate site PokerStrategy.com. Can only surmise that Full Tilt Poker might owe the site something for which it is now paying in press releases. Who knows? In any event, the agreement apparently has “several conditions” attached to it, the only one mentioned being the “favorable resolution” of FTP’s considerable legal troubles with the U.S. government.

Reactions to the news quickly barreled through several phases.

First came the expressions of hope. Then, guarded optimism fueled by the statements of Laurent Tapie (son of Bernard) about paying back players and actually relaunching the sucker by January 2012 (outside the U.S., natch).

Next were the cautious reminders of those not insignificant “conditions.” Soon after came skepticism, mostly directed at the tycoon Tapie for having a past marked by various controversies, among them serving jail time for fixing a soccer match involving a team he ran and tax fraud.

Before long I think most of us had pretty much returned to our previous postures of extreme cynicism from which any news regarding Full Tilt Poker is taken with a 26 oz. cylinder full of salt. After all, this announcement of a possible sale comes just one day removed from FTP saying their licenses being revoked “makes it more difficult to execute the sale of the company and hence repay its players.”

Introducing a character like Tapie into the story at this late juncture seems about right. In truth, anyone stepping in here to buy the site a day after its licenses to operate were revoked and a week after the DOJ’s amendment to the civil complaint was necessarily going to appear something of a wild card, thereby fitting neatly with the already assembled cast.

As Bill Rini tweeted just a little while ago, “I wonder if Tapie has spotted the sucker at the table yet.” Or for more grins, check out Otis' inspired tweet from earlier listing some other projects being considered by Groupe Tapie.

For me, I’m going to put the book of Full Tilt down for now and do something else for a while. Maybe watch some baseball. Or start studying chess. Or perhaps I’ll just pop in Young Frankenstein...

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Full Tilt Poker: Chapter the Last?

Full Tilt Poker, Chapter the LastSo three more items of note today to add to the lengthy, bitter saga of The Decline and Fall of Full Tilt Poker.

First, the Alderney Gambling Control Commission did what some thought they might have done sooner, but all were pretty sure they’d do once the U.S. Department of Justice fired that missile last week that landed squarely on top of the FTP compound. After suspending Full Tilt Poker’s license to operate back in late June, today they revoked it altogether, meaning if FTP ever does somehow rise from the ashes, it’ll have to be under the auspices of a different online gambling regulatory body. Here’s the presser (short, easily digested) and here’s the full report (long, wonky).

Next, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a brief follow-up of sorts to last week’s amendment of the civil complaint in which the subject of the possible return of players’ funds was addressed. The short statement reiterates a few of Full Tilt’s failings -- collectively described as “fraud” here -- then notes how “the return of forfeited funds to victims of the alleged fraud may be possible” (emphasis added) depending on a number of other factors, including how the whole indictment/civil complaint goes, how much money FTP really has left, and whether or not the DOJ meets with “compliance” when it comes to pursuing all of this.

Finally, Full Tilt Poker sent out its own statement, a response to the AGCC’s decision to revoke its license. (Technically, the AGCC revoked three licenses, all belonging to the companies “trading as Full Tilt Poker.”) Again, FTP’s statement came as an “exclusive” to PokerStrategy.com, whom I must imagine is getting paid for being so lucky. The gist there is FTP decrying the decision and casting blame on the AGCC’s ruling as a big ugly fly in the ointment with regard to their negotiations with an apparent investor. Once more, rather than shoulder any blame themselves, FTP sees others as the villains here, describing the AGCC’s decision as evidence of “disregard for our players.”

A lot to consider here, most particularly in the AGCC’s statement and full report in which we learn more about FTP’s misreporting of its finances, further seizures of the company’s funds by the DOJ, and that the AGCC isn’t assuming any responsibility going forward with regard to the matter of players getting their money back. “Unresolved claims by players against FTP become a matter for the police and civil authorities,” says the Commission, since “now that FTP’s licenses have been revoked, AGCC no longer has jurisdiction over these companies.”

Not a lot to suggest the Commission ever really had that much jurisdiction over FTP as it ran amok, but so it goes. Meanwhile, as the AGCC tells players it can’t help ’em, some will no doubt cling to the DOJ’s sliver-of-a-hint-of-a-chance-of-a-promise-of-a-possible-kinda-sorta-maybe hope that they might actually help deliver some of the lost cabbage.

But even there I can’t really get too excited, my cynicism caused by our being caught between the twin doubts of there actually being much money left to recover and the DOJ’s intention ever to give online poker players their due.

Full Tilt ZombieI know, I know... it isn’t really the final chapter. There will be more speculation, promises, “exclusive” statements, and other palpitations further animating Zombie Full Tilt Poker as it continues to lurch forward.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t eventually eat all of our brains.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What May Said

Poker FarmThis week Jesse May shared another thoughtful commentary over on the Poker Farm site, this time addressing last week’s news regarding Full Tilt Poker in a piece he titled “Feel the Shame.”

In the piece, May kind of steps back and gives us a “big picture”-type observation regarding the significance of the DOJ’s amendment to the civil complaint -- to the poker world, generally speaking, but really mostly to himself.

He starts out noting very shrewdly how we all -- more or less -- enter this game with a kind of “romantic view of the poker world and a desire to be accepted by the rambling gambling men who ruled” it.

Then some time passes. We become less romantic and more realistic. “You get wiser because you have to,” says May. You realize it’s not all good -- and in fact some of it kind of stinks -- but unless you’re completely disillusioned you figure out a way to deal with all that and thus find yourself a comfortable spot from which to operate.

May had gone through that whole process, he explains, arriving at a place where it sounds like he thought he was fully prepared to withstand yet another story of cheating or scandal or something else to disprove that earlier romantic view. Another story to knock poker down a notch. Again.

Then came Full Tilt. “Something happened to me when Full Tilt Poker collapsed,” says May, noting how the company’s failures on all fronts have filled him with a sense of shame. Overwhelmingly so, it seems.

What it has all been aboutThe shame is directed at Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and the others at the top at FTP. It is directed at the “red pros” and “every one of you that owns Full Tilt Poker stock and has sat in silence.” It is directed at anyone who’s ever been patched up -- not just by FTP, but by any site -- and who thus also sat idly by, taking whatever they could get, while the poker world crumbled into a utterly corrupt mess of self-interest and moral bankruptcy.

May also directs some criticism at himself, suggesting that he, too, “sat by in silence while you all cheated, stole, and lied.... I’m ashamed that I’ve sat here for twenty years and let you rule the poker world as long as I was still getting paid.”

I’ve reread May’s piece a few times. I’m still trying to digest what exactly he’s saying.

I tweeted it without comment when I first saw it a couple of days ago, because I thought it worth others’ reading and thinking about. Then saw others do the same, some with “go get ’em, Jesse”-type endorsements attached.

I wonder how carefully people are reading his piece, though. I mean, it isn’t really the sort of thing that should inspire a lot of cheerleading. I might be reading it incorrectly, but I don’t really see May making a Howard Beale-like call to arms here. Sure, we’re all mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore. And if that’s what he was saying, well then I guess I could understand everyone getting excited and everything turning all pep-rallyish. Or lynch-mobby.

But to me May is making a much more personal statement. And along with it implicitly inviting us to perform our own self-examinations. That is to say, he’s inviting us all to do something very difficult.

I see May inviting us to ask ourselves some questions.

What does the game of poker mean to you? Is it a means to an end, and thus only of value insofar as it gets you somewhere else? Or is the game more important than that?

For May, it is clearly the latter. And I think this latest damage-causing implosion in the poker world has made him realize that maybe he’d been persuaded to think in ways that suggested otherwise. Or at least forget for a while what poker really meant to him. That is to say, his involvement in poker perhaps caused him occasionally to believe as though it were just a means to an end and not something more. Which it clearly was for him before, and probably for most of us, too. Remember?

And so he watched and did nothing as others tore the game down. Like so many did. Like we did.

That’s what I’m hearing, anyway. More a confession than a call. And an invitation, articulated in the title as a directive though not repeated once in the entire piece. No, the only thing May tells us to do is not to throw stones in glass houses. And to “know thyself.”

Which May himself knows is easier said than done.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stop Counting Me! Bodog vs. PokerScout

Bodog vs. PokerScoutHere’s something sorta curious.

You might’ve heard how just a week or so ago Bodog changed its software so as to make it more difficult for tracking sites and those interested in “datamining” to do their thing. The site removed full tables from being listed in the lobby, thus making it harder to see at a glance what’s happening on the site.

Other sites have it set up as an optional feature to remove full tables from the lobby view, but now on Bodog you can’t see ’em even if you wanted to. As I understand it, they’ve also gotten rid of waitlists, too.

I report this somewhat second-handedly, as I haven’t really been on the Bodog site for quite some time. I used to play on it somewhat regularly, but long ago pulled my money from the site. I sometimes wish now that I’d left a pittance on there with which to mess around. But to be honest, when I thought of the possible futures for the sites on which I was then playing -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Bodog -- for a long time it seemed like the latter was the most likely to be the most risky on which to leave money thanks to its inclusion of sports betting.

In any case, I’ve heard the dataminers are starting to find ways to work around this new obstacle, but I’m not up on the specifics. Meanwhile PokerScout, the site that provides traffic info on all the online sites, found itself momentarily thwarted by Bodog’s new system and thus unable to track numbers. A story on PokerFuse from last week described the changes at Bodog as well as how they were affecting PokerScout’s ability to track Bodog’s traffic.

Apparently PokerScout was also able to overcome the new challenge and start reporting numbers again for Bodog, but meanwhile a brouhaha has developed between the two sites. I first noticed this conflict via some tweets between the two, then early this morning Bodog fired a fairly inflammatory-sounding shot via an article on Bodog owner Calvin Ayre’s site titled “PokerScout.com’s Extortion Attempt.”

CalvinAyre.comIt should be noted that articles appearing on Ayre’s site are occasionally of dubious origin and/or intention, many of them existing as fairly obvious SEO-grabs presented under the superficial auspices of news reports or editorials. Thus do I always find myself reading articles there with a measure of skepticism, knowing that they are often necessarily self-interested and/or biased in one way or another.

This article stands out, however, as it not only comments (negatively) on PokerScout’s efforts to track Bodog’s traffic, but flat out accuses PokerScout of trying to extort money from Bodog.

Say wha?

When making the change last week, Bodog explicitly referred (in another article) to its desire to stop PokerScout from keeping count of its players (which, it ought to be noted, is markedly different from the full-fledged datamining performed by other sites). In “The Death of the Poker Volume Tracking Model,” Bodog argued that since PokerScout “serve[d] no beneficial purpose to the poker industry other than to feed the sharks” with its data, Bodog wanted to help the non-sharks by keeping PokerScout from filing its reports.

As mentioned, PokerScout was nonetheless able to keep on tracking Bodog’s traffic, or at least that is what they claimed. As PokerScout explained (in an article posted yesterday), they are still able to estimate traffic at Bodog and thus are keeping the site listed. Also noted there was the fact that Bodog was the only online poker site that had ever asked PokerScout not to track their traffic, a request with which PokerScout decided not to comply.

In today’s missive, Bodog notes that in fact there were two reasons why they had earlier asked to be removed from PokerScout’s listings.

First was that desire to protect the non-sharks or “recreational poker players” whom Bodog claims are somehow being hurt by the information PokerScout provided. “The second reason,” explains Bill Beatty in today’s calvinayre.com article, is “the US Department of Justice had just indicted the top 3 poker sites listed in the PokerScout.com rankings.”

To be honest, I understand the second reason a lot more than I do the first. Sounds like Bodog would like to grow, but would also like for no one to notice they are growing, thus perhaps helping them continue evade being targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bodog still charting“It wasn’t a time where poker companies wanted to raise their profile,” continues Beatty. “It might have been putting a huge target on their chests. Potentially if Stars, Tilt and AP/UB had not been sitting at the top of these ranking sites, who knows if the DOJ would have had such a hard on to take them down.”

Beatty is being more than a little disingenuous here, I’d say. Stars, Full Tilt, and UB/AP had a pretty high profile even without PokerScout’s reports. Indeed, I think it would have been a pretty simple matter for anyone to conclude those sites were the four biggest worldwide back in April -- and by far the biggest U.S.-facing sites -- even if PokerScout didn’t exist.

In any case, then comes the bombshell from Beatty when he claims PokerScout said they would remove Bodog from the listings in return for “a seven figure extortion payment” which Bodog ultimately refused to pay.

PokerScout has tweeted a response that appears to deny the accusation. “More lies about PokerScout coming from the Bodog-mouthpiece website,” was the message. “What a surprise. So disappointing.”

Here comes Bodog, making a pretty serious accusation against PokerScout, characterizing the traffic-tracking site as having engaged in “unethical and potentially criminal behaviour” (i.e., the alleged extortion attempt). Meanwhile, Bodog continues to serve U.S. customers, thus subjecting itself to similar accusations from certain parties, including those who are in a position to do something about what they interpret to be “criminal behaviour.”

Like I say, sorta curious.

Getting harder to count how many are playing on Bodog, I guess. Meanwhile, in the poker world, it is becoming easier to count on such conflicts cropping up, not to mention increasingly weird ideas of what is and what is not “unethical.”

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Possible Futures (Online Poker in the U.S.)

This Way / That WayI left the latest issue of Card Player magazine, the one with Phil Hellmuth on the cover (September 21, 2011, Vol. 24, No. 19), sitting on the counter. Vera Valmore, as she will sometimes do when I leave such stuff around, picked it up.

Later she remarked to me how she’d read two articles, one a feature about Todd Terry and the other on Hellmuth. As I’ve mentioned here before, Vera isn’t a poker player herself. But she has a pretty good idea of the various issues swirling around the game, including the endless legal battles over online poker, and so knew what each was referring to in their respective articles.

Vera was struck by what seemed a pretty glaring contrast between the perspectives of Terry and Hellmuth on the future of online poker in the U.S., as presented in the articles. I hadn’t read either article, but did so after her comment and realized that indeed, there is a fairly stark difference of opinion between the two pros.

The piece on Terry talks a bit about the class action lawsuit he and three others filed against Full Tilt Poker back in late June, the one filed on behalf of U.S. players. This was the first of the class action lawsuits, if you recall. Another came in August (filed on behalf of all players). Then in September there was a third one filed in Canada (for Canadian players).

In the Card Player feature, Terry notes how he gave an interview soon after Black Friday in which he was asked about the future of online poker in America. “[I] stated that I didn’t think online poker would ever be legalized in the United States,” Terry explains. “I still stand by that, but I’m less confident about it. There are many in the industry who think we are nearing something big, and I can’t say that they are wrong to think that, but personally, I don’t think the political climate will ever be right for change.”

Terry goes on to note how it isn’t just the “climate” that’s the problem here, but all of the other more pressing issues that seem to make it less likely we’ll be seeing legislators fretting over online poker anytime soon.

A few pages later comes the Hellmuth piece, which is mostly taken up with a recap of his terrific summer at the WSOP. Toward the end he’s invited by the interviewer to talk about his status as “poker’s no. 1 free agent” -- i.e., without sponsorship, currently, by an online company -- and what he thinks is to come both for himself and for online poker, generally speaking.

Hellmuth admits “I stand to gain substantially when online poker becomes regulated in the United States.” He then adds that in his view “Online poker is going to be licensed and regulated very soon. There are things happening right now that the rest of the poker world doesn’t realize. I think it’s going to happen at the federal level, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened by December.”

Certainly a lot more optimism coming from Hellmuth than Terry here. Hellmuth implies he has some sort of insider knowledge -- the kind of thing Terry is referencing, I think, when he refers to “many in the industry who think we are nearing something big.” Is it possible that Hellmuth might know something “the rest of the poker world” doesn’t?

I told Vera this kind of difference of opinion pretty much characterizes the poker world at any given moment. That is to say, there seem to exist opposing views on just about every aspect of the industry, with online poker (and its future) a prime example.

But I found myself continuing to wonder about the differing views being expressed by Terry and Hellmuth, both of whom are responding to Black Friday and its aftermath and coming up with utterly opposing forecasts for online poker in the U.S.

Who do you think is more likely on the money here, Terry or Hellmuth? And why?

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Culture of Poker

Department of Justice & Full Tilt PokerAm a little bit spent with all this reading/writing/hearing/thinking about the Full Tilt Poker mess. Aren’t you? Still lots to digest. And, really, the more you take in, the more likely you are to suffer from a case of indigestion.

I mean the last 24 hours alone have been stuffed, so to speak.

There was NoahSD’s enlightening interview with Tom “durrrr” Dwan over on Subject:Poker. Followed by Noah’s overnight appearance on a special episode of the Two Plus Two Pokercast (also enlightening).

Yesterday QuadJacks interviewed the reluctant attorney, Jeff Ifrah, whose firm wants to withdraw from representing Full Tilt (I believe) though he continues to represent them as they make their case to the Alderney Gambling Control Commission not to pull the plug once and for all. (I would link, but I am not seeing it on the site -- perhaps it is part of that content for which QJ is now charging?)

Relatedly, last night came that story regarding a possible investor perhaps willing to buy the company, and all the tremendous liabilities that would go along with it.

And today came news that the DOJ has issued a warrant to seize assets belonging to Ray Bitar, Howard Lederer, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Rafe Furst (i.e., the four named in the amendment to the civil complaint). The guv’ment be going after accounts listed under the names of the first three, plus another Swiss account that is apparently connected with Furst. Read more about that at Subject:Poker, too.

Regarding the latter, I’d been wondering about the more $443 million that had wound its way into those “FTP Insider accounts” and the suggestion (made by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara) that the owners and board members had simply “lined their own pockets” with that loot. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed perhaps that what was really happening was an attempt to squirrel the company’s money away in places where it might be safe from seizure. Who knows, really... but it looks as though if that were the idea, it hasn’t worked out so well.

Like so many other ideas Full Tilt Poker has had, I guess.

Anyhow, I’m going to leave it all alone for now. Coincidentally, in my Poker in American Film and Culture class we’re about to move into the unit I call “the culture of poker” where we are starting with some 19th century texts that help demonstrate how prevalent cheating was. Indeed, how cheating was to be expected whenever one sat down at a game.

'Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi' by George Devol (1887)For example, we’re reading an excerpt from George Devol’s 1887 memoir Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi in which he describes getting involved in a game full of cheaters on a riverboat. He knows they are “stocking the cards,” and early on loses a few bucks with three queens to another’s three aces. Then he loses some more. Then he suggests they play a little higher.

Finally there comes a hand in which he’s dealt three jacks. It’s another set-up, he knows. But he keeps on raising, because -- as he tells us without a hint of embarrassment -- he’s kept four fives out of the deck and sneakily switches them into his hand before the showdown.

When Devol wins the hand, the cheaters know he’s cheated. One pulls a knife and says “You are a gambler, and I want my money back.”

“I will give it back, as I don’t want you to think I did not win it fairly” says Devol. But just as he looks like he’s about to give them the money, he pulls out “old Betsy Jane” -- his gun. He then demands they apologize, keeps the money, and it sounds like they all somehow coexisted thereafter without further incident until the ship reached its destination.

Like I say, Devol offers no apologies. Cheating -- and a readiness to draw old Betsy Jane, if needed -- was part of what it meant to be “a gambler.” Indeed, in Devol’s apparent system of acceptable behavior, cheating essentially fits within the parameters of what it meant to play “fairly.”

From there we’re moving to the 20th century and eventually into contemporary stories and anecdotes that reveal the changing culture of poker. Where the idea was we’d be drawing a contrast between poker’s early history and the “square game” it eventually would become.

So goes the argument, anyway. But it’s getting harder and harder to appreciate that contrast, dontcha know?

Speaking of, check out this trailer for the forthcoming documentary All In: The Poker Movie, which I challenge you to watch without rolling your eyes:

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Talk About Red Pros (More on the DOJ vs. Full Tilt Poker)

The DOJ's Amended Complaint (click to read)Have been perusing that amended civil complaint a bit this morning.

Like PokerStars and UB/Absolute Poker, Full Tilt Poker was accused in April of violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, bank fraud, and money laundering. Now the DOJ’s amendment to the civil complaint, besides adding Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and Rafe Furst to those being accused, adds a few other major allegations as well, including...

(1) that the company’s manner of crediting accounts without first securing those deposits plunged the company into serious financial trouble;

(2) that the owners were skimming from players’ funds in a major way, thus further accelerating the company’s progress down that road to ruin; and

(3) that all along the way the company was inaccurately telling players everything was hunky dory.

Looking at these separately...

(1) “Phantom Money”

Start Playing for Real MoneyThat first item is mentioned early on in the amended complaint when the DOJ explains how “Full Tilt Poker’s payment processing channels were so disrupted that the company faced increasing difficulty to collect funds from players in the United States,” and thus made the grievous decision to begin crediting accounts without finalizing transactions.

The complaint estimates the site did this to the tune of about $130 million worth of so-called “phantom money,” funds that appeared on the site between the summer of 2010 and April 2011.

I read a piece yesterday over at the Reason site arguing that “The Government Blames Full Tilt Poker for the Disruption the Government Deliberately Created.”

The author, Jacob Sullum, makes a couple of good points in the piece. Alluding to what has surely been the most-quoted line this week regarding the DOJ’s action, the one from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (in the press release) stating that “Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme,” Sullum correctly points out that in Bharara’s eyes, there is probably no such thing as a “legitimate poker company” operating online and serving U.S. players.

I thought the exact same thing when I first read Bharara’s statement. That never mind the “Ponzi scheme” stuff... what the heck does he mean by a “legitimate poker company”?

Sullum also points out how by passing the UIGEA, “it was the U.S. government, of course, that deliberately disrupted Full Tilt Poker's payment processing network in the United States in the name of preventing Americans from playing online poker.” Again, that is eminently the case. If not for the UIGEA, the site’s payment processing channels would likely not have been “so disrupted.”

But from there Sullum draws the odd conclusion that “the government created the very situation it is now blaming on Full Tilt Poker.” Which makes no sense.

Full Tilt Poker is being accused of a host of blameworthy offenses, none of which are “the situation” created by the passage of the UIGEA. Some of those offenses may well have never been committed had not the UIGEA been passed. But it’s silly to say the DOJ is blaming Full Tilt Poker for the “disruption” because it’s not. And it’s also silly to suggest that when it comes these other allegations -- of owners’ skimming funds or the site’s deliberately misleading communications to players -- that culpability can somehow be transferred away from Full Tilt Poker and rested at the feet of the U.S. government.

(2) “FTP Insider Accounts”

Team Full TiltThe amended complaint includes some remarkably precise details, obviously obtained by the DOJ from someone inside of Full Tilt Poker. These details include information that helps to measure just how deep the doo-doo was in which FTP found itself as well as the extent to which the owners were apparently funneling money at a rapid clip into their own “FTP Insider Accounts.”

We learn that “according to a balance sheet prepared by Full Tilt Poker, as of March 31, 2011, Full Tilt Poker owed players from around the world over approximately $390,695,788 but had only approximately $59,579,413 in its bank accounts.”

We also find details about how much “Defendant Bitar,” “Defendant Lederer,” “Defendant Ferguson,” and “Defendant Furst” each allegedly received into their personal accounts between April 2007 and April 2011, an amount totaling about $120 million, with about $60 million more “allocated” to Ferguson though not paid.

“The other approximately 19 owners of Tiltware LLC” are said to have received the rest of the $443,860,529.89, including one unnamed owner (“Player Owner 1”) who received about $40 million plus another $4.4 million in “loans,” a person many have surmised must be Phil Ivey.

These are all just allegations, of course. Rafe Furst, one of those named in the amended complaint, has already denied any wrongdoing. Other Team Full Tilters who might be among the “approximately 19” who could be considered “owners” have made statements as well, including Tom Dwan and Gus Hansen.

And Ferguson’s lawyer, while not denying the specific charges against his client, issued a statement yesterday decrying Bharara’s use of the term “Ponzi scheme” to describe Full Tilt Poker, claiming the characterization is both inaccurate and “inflammatory... in the post-Madoff era,” and thus “may violate pre-trial publicity rules of professional responsibility.”

Whatever you want to call it, should these allegations prove true they certainly suggest some pretty serious culpability. And while I suppose one could argue that if it weren’t for the UIGEA there wouldn’t be a need to be moving funds around like this -- including into personal accounts -- it looks pretty bad, regardless.

(3) “Please Know That Your Funds Are Safe and Secure”

'Please Know That Your Funds Are Safe and Secure'Here’s where I think the average Full Tilt Poker player gathers most of his or her outrage -- from those statements by the company, repeated ad infinitum, that funds were “safe and secure.”

The amendment compiles a bunch of examples of such statements made between 2008 and 2011, although most of us are already familiar with them via our email inboxes, Two Plus Two, or simply visiting the fulltiltpoker.com website.

We read how in May 2008, Full Tilt Poker was emailing customers saying “we would like to assure you that your money is not at all at risk and there is no poker site on the Internet where your money would be any safer than at Full Tilt Poker.”

Think back to the summer of 2008. When one site told you then that your money was safer with them than with all other sites, which of those other sites would have sprung to mind? The ones where “super-users” and cheating occurred, right? Over which the poker community was split regarding whether or not one should feel safe when playing. The fact was, in such an environment, reassurances that Full Tilt Poker was no UB or Absolute Poker had some effect.

Along the same lines, the complaint quotes another boilerplate sent out around the same time in which the company pointed out that “unlike some companies in our industry, we completely understand and accept that your account money belongs to you, not Full Tilt Poker.”

Then come more specific assurances regarding the segregation of funds, such as “FTPDoug”’s July 2008 contribution to a thread on Two Plus Two (referred to generically in the amended complaint as the “Poker Forum”) in which he responds to posters’ apprehensions about the site's using players' funds for operational expenses. “I can say with authority,” writes FTPDoug, “that we do not mix deposits with operational expenses.”

Again in another thread, this one begun in June 2009, concerning the seizure of funds from a payment processor, FTPDoug chimes in “to reassure everyone that your funds remain safe and secure at FTP.... We always make sure we can cash out any of our players at any time. You should never have to worry that you won't get your money, and we’re doing everything we can to ensure you always have plenty of methods available for both deposits and withdrawals.”

Full Tilt made similar claims to the Alderney Gambling Control Commission apparently, too. The amended complaint quotes from a document (no date is given) in which the site ensured its licenser that “[a]ll players have an account that holds money that is available to them on the Full Tilt Poker system,” that “[t]he player may withdraw funds up to the current balance of their account at any time, subject to any applicable bonus terms and conditions,” and that “[n]o play may commence unless the player has credited his account with cleared funds and has adequate funds to participate in the selected game.”

Such was certainly not the case starting some time in 2010, if not before.

Then, in response to Black Friday, came a “Statement from Full Tilt Poker Regarding Recent Check Withdrawal Issues.” “In light of recent events involving the freezing of certain accounts,” the statement goes, “Full Tilt Poker would like to assure all players that their funds remain safe and secure. Processing of both deposit and withdrawal requests is proceeding as normal and is still available to all of our players.”

As noted above, this came a couple a weeks after that internal balance sheet was showing Full Tilt Poker owing its players about $390 million while only having a little under $60 million in its accounts.

And apparently it got even worse rather quickly, as another communication, this one an email sent by Ray Bitar on June 12, 2011, noted how “at this point we can’t even take a five million run” should players suddenly begin withdrawing.

The complaint also notes -- sort of like a weak, almost obvious punch-line -- how “As of September 19, 2011, Full Tilt Poker’s website stated that players’ funds were ‘safe and secure.’” Indeed, that line continues to appear on the site today.

There was clearly a moment, one that came well before Black Friday, when Full Tilt Poker knew it was operating in a way that could not be sustained indefinitely. In other words, even if it didn’t exactly match the criteria some would require to call it a “Ponzi scheme,” it was like a Ponzi scheme insofar as it was destined to fail.

What’s next for Full Tilt Poker? The amended complaint outlines its argument for forfeiture -- i.e., when it comes to whatever is left of the company’s assets, the government wants whatever it can get. F-Train and Chops (in that podcast I was referring to yesterday) speculated about a possible “widening of the net” by the DOJ to include other yet-to-be-named individuals. And there’s that still ongoing hearing with the Alderney Gambling Control Commission, where rumors about possible investors continue to swirl.

Who knows, really? There will surely be more drama, but from the perspective of most who played on the site, it appears the damage has been done.

The players sponsored by Full Tilt were called “red pros.” The innocent among them are now red with embarrassment and/or anger. Those less so are being colored red as well as a symbolic reference to their guilt. And, of course, the whole dang outfit is deep in the red, now, too.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Does “Poker” Mean Today?

Double rainbowJust listened to F-Train and Chops’ discussion from yesterday regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s amendment to the civil complaint, a.k.a. “Terrible Tuesday.” Both bring up several good points, making the conversation worth a listen for those curious about what happened and what may come next.

At the very beginning of the 45-minute conversation, F-Train noted how yesterday’s action by the DOJ was “not good for anybody” -- including (he explained) Full Tilt Poker, its shareholders, its former players hoping for the return of their funds, and those hoping for the return of online poker to the U.S.

It is that latter point that seems most clear today. Poker -- especially online poker -- has taken another severe hit in America. That screenshot from CNN that I added to yesterday’s post might as well serve as a kind of emblem for what “poker or “online poker” means to the average American today.

“Poker site accused of skimming $440M?” Why on earth would anyone put money on a poker site? You get what you deserve. As a commenter to the CNN story says (echoing others), “HAHA!! anybody that throws their hard earned cash to On-Line gamble site, deserves their fate.”

A poker site. Go ahead, pronounce the word like Joan Rivers did. Like she’s about to say “poison.” Remember? When she talked about poker players’ money having “blood on it.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the fact that Full Tilt Poker managed to pull off looking as though it were a “legitimate poker site” -- when it appears clear it was anything but -- will be cited by proponents of licensed and regulated poker in the U.S. But such proponents now find themselves arguing for something with which even fewer sympathize. Especially legislators.

“Terrible Tuesday” might’ve helped highlight the need. But it didn’t do much for the cause.

No, it’s not good.

Full Tilt Poker, Yesterday & Today“Full Tilt Poker was an online poker card room” begins the newly-updated Wikipedia entry. Past tense. That change was actually made a few days ago, I believe. Although the first paragraph -- noting the allegations that owners skimmed hundreds of millions from players -- that was added yesterday afternoon. The site’s new legacy.

Near the end of their conversation, F-Train and Chops marveled a little at how Full Tilt’s handling of things since Black Friday -- and these latest allegations -- have eclipsed the once-ultimate-seeming failures of UltimateBet. Whereas UB had long occupied that place in our thinking as the site where things couldn’t have gotten worse, Full Tilt Poker has now claimed the honor.

“Whatever the actual facts are,” F-Train carefully added, “the perception of the facts, is that Full Tilt Poker is the scummiest scum of poker companies.”

And that’s really the point right now -- that whatever really is the case, the perception is so thoroughly damaging that poker in general and online poker in particular have an enormous obstacle to overcome, image-wise, in order to recover anything close to the level of acceptance in American culture the game enjoyed just a few short years ago.

I think about a line in John Lukacs’ “Poker and American Character,” an essay I have written about before (here and here) and which I now have my Poker in American Film and Culture class read.

Lukacs speaks of poker as “the game closest to the Western conception of life” insofar as it is a game in which “free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men are considered free moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens.”

The line comes early in the essay and helps set up a larger observation about “American” values (such as freedom, independence, entrepreneurial urges, our readiness to take risks, the importance of money, etc.) and how they are reinforced or at least given a context in which to be furthered by poker.

I like the existentialist notion present in the observation, that poker is a game in which we are constantly afforded the freedom to make what we will of it. Lukacs (who is from Hungary) later points out how even the way Americans play poker -- with thousands of variants and other agreed-upon rules -- could be said to reflect a similar idea.

We make our own meaning of the game. So do our opponents. And so do those who have never been dealt a hand.

So what does “poker” mean to you today? Hard to say? I know the feeling. Let’s have a look at some rainbows and think about it.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Full Tilt Poker “a Ponzi Scheme” Says DOJ

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara calls Full Tilt Poker a 'Ponzi Scheme'“Up til now, it was ‘the government says online poker is bad, but we know better.’ Now it’s ‘online poker is bad.’”

So said my friend @tropicalsteve over Twitter a little while ago, his observation coming after breaking news that the U.S. Department of Justice was filing a motion to amend its earlier “Black Friday” civil complaint to add new charges, all directed at Full Tilt Poker and its owners.

The amendment adds three more names -- Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and Rafe Furst -- while also alleging Full Tilt Poker “defrauded its poker players by paying out hundreds of millions of dollars of player funds to Full Tilt Poker owners while misrepresenting to players that funds credited to their online player accounts were secure and segregated from operating funds.”

In a press release accompanying the action, the DOJ notes how the company had been using player funds to pay board members and owners as far back as April 2007.

That release quotes U.S. Attorney for the State District of New York Preet Bharara claiming “Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme” that not only was guilty of the previous charges (violating the UIGEA, bank fraud, money laundering) but “abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars… while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company.”

Not sure if “Ponzi scheme” quite describes what was going on Full Tilt Poker, but you get the idea. As we have already known for some time, the company’s books were hardly in order. If there were books, that is.

The press release goes on to note how emails were sent to players by Full Tilt in 2008 and 2009 stating that funds were segregated and safe. It also describes how “approximately $443,860,529.89” was distributed to Ray Bitar, Lederer, Furst, Ferguson, and others. Gotta love that approximation... right down to the last red cent.

Also noted there is a report by Lederer this summer “to others at Full Tilt Poker that there was only approximately $6 million left, and therefore no realistic ability to repay its new depositors.” And Bitar apparently believed FTP couldn’t even pay $5 milly if they had to.

“Yep,” I responded back to @tropicalsteve. “Other eye blackened,” I added, referring to online poker’s further weakened status in the U.S. “Will be stumbling around blind for awhile.”

I’m not entirely sure, actually, how today’s news will affect ongoing efforts to license and regulate online poker in the U.S.

I would think the DOJ’s amendment should end whatever hope FTP had for getting the Alderney Gambling Control Commission to lift the suspension of its license to operate. As it happens, representatives of Full Tilt met with the AGCC yesterday, and apparently were planning to continue discussions today over that matter.

The news probably won’t help the situation for those few still-U.S.-facing sites either, where the great majority of Americans who played online poker for real money prior to April 15 were reluctant to deposit and play already.

In any case, Full Tilt Poker’s example as “not a legitimate poker company” but some utterly illegitimate, corrupt enterprise that successfully masqueraded as one for seven years will likely stand as ample, difficult-to-refute evidence to be employed by those arguing for the need for regulation.

Although, of course, as @tropicalsteve points out, those hoping to make that argument are going to have to deal with the fact that for many -- the idea perhaps further reinforced by today's developments -- “online poker is bad.”

(EDIT [added 7:30 p.m.]: As I am sure anyone reading this blog is aware, the news of the DOJ’s action against Full Tilt Poker has been extensively reported by many mainstream outlets today, including CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and elsewhere. In fact, at this moment the story appears front and center on the CNN website -- a sight startling enough I thought it worth adding a screenshot of it here.)

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Managing the Mob

The Hendon MobNoticed yesterday that the excellent Hendon Mob website had finally taken down all of those Full Tilt Poker banners and ads, effectively ending its long-standing association with the embattled website. The four players who made up the actual Hendon Mob -- Joe Beevers, Barny Boatman, Ross Boatman, and Ram Vaswani -- have announced they are no longer FTP “Red pros” as well.

Some may have viewed the Hendon Mob site as having been a bit slow with their decision to make the break with Full Tilt. After all, it has been over five months since Black Friday, and nearly three months since the online poker site went offline altogether following the Alderney Gambling Control Commission’s suspension of Full Tilt Poker’s license to operate in late June.

One reason why some might have found the Hendon Mob’s response to have been a little sluggish here was the fact that in most respects the Mob has been way ahead of curve for a long time.

In For Richer, For Poorer, Vicky Coren tells the story of the early days of the Hendon Mob -- how the group formed, its connection with the early days of Late Night Poker, the launching of the website (back in 2001), and how the four Mobsters managed to be among the earliest poker players around to secure any sort of sponsorship.

Coren notes how the group from very early on had “small bankrolls and big dreams” -- that unlike others they had “ambitions beyond the card-playing itself.” Then she tells how it wasn’t long after Chris Moneymaker’s victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event that they were able to realize those ambitions, soon inking “the first million-dollar contract in poker” to wear logos for Prima Poker. That relationship lasted a couple of years, I believe, after which point the Mob became absorbed by the ever-expanding throng over at Full Tilt.

Back in the spring I had a lot of fun interviewing Jesse May for Betfair Poker. Among our many topics we talked about the debut of Late Night Poker (in 1999) and those early, pre-Moneymaker days. The interview appears in two parts (Part 1 & Part 2) -- it is in the second that we focused more on the show and May’s involvement.

If you click over there you’ll see May allude to the Hendon Mob guys as also an important part of the scene there in the late 1990s/early 2000s. I’m remembering May making further observations -- ones which ended up on the cutting room floor as far as the published interview went -- regarding how clever and forward-thinking the Hendon Mob guys were when it came to formulating their identity and landing those early sponsorships.

That said, I can understand how difficult it was for them finally to take down the ads -- to accept at last that whatever the future holds for the Hendon Mob, a continued association with Full Tilt Poker probably isn’t going to be part of it.

In their statement from yesterday, they lament what has become of FTP. “We are saddened by the problems that continue to beset Full Tilt Poker” they say, adding almost wistfully that they “would be delighted to see positive developments in the weeks and months ahead” for the site. Perhaps news from today’s hearing with the AGCC will further such hope, but one gets the sense from the Mob’s tone that it’s hard to be overly optimistic at this point.

Over the last decade-plus, the Hendon Mob site has grown considerably, with that database of tourney results now its unquestioned highlight -- the part of the site most of us visit on a regular basis.

Kind of funny how early on the “Hendon Mob” consisted of just the four players, only a couple of whom were from Hendon, apparently. (By the way, Coren explains how the name is kind of an in-joke, Hendon being a decidedly non-frightening north London suburb where she used to watch Disney films at the cinema.) But soon the “Mob” grew to refer additionally to the many forum participants and others who wrote for the site. And today the phrase “the Hendon Mob” is synonymous with the database, that massive collection of names and statistics that, well, includes just about everybody.

As you might imagine, they do have a lot of folks working for them over there. In the statement they point out how the site “employs a sizable staff of full and part time people” who maintain the database, and that they are “currently running at a substantial loss and this is not sustainable in the long term.”

By ending what had been an exclusive relationship with FTP, they explain, the site is now free to explore “new opportunities” -- e.g., another sponsorship that would enable them to continue with their considerable contribution to the poker world.

As someone who writes about poker regularly, I’d hate to see the tremendous resource that the Hendon Mob provides go away. Thus do I hope some entity might find it worthwhile enough to step and sponsor the Mob. ’Cos, in a way, we’re the Mob, too!

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Friday, September 16, 2011

2011 PokerStars WCOOP Rolling Along

World Championship of Online PokerThe World Championship of Online Poker continues to roll along over on PokerStars. They’ve already crossed the halfway point for the 62-tournament series, with turnouts continuing to be big, routinely crushing the scaled back guarantees for the tourneys.

Shortly after this year’s WCOOP started, I wrote a post noting how the first few events seemed to be attracting healthy numbers despite the fact that Americans couldn’t participate.

A few days after that I noticed how one event -- the $215 Deuce-to-Seven No-Limit Draw (Event No. 17) -- actually had a larger field this time around when compared to 2010. A total of 390 played this time, up from last year’s 367. The guarantee had been halved, actually, from last year’s $50K to $25K this time around, meaning the $78,000 prize pool was more than triple the guarantee.

Thought it might be interesting to see how the numbers are comparing across the board, so here’s a quick look at how the first 31 events in this year’s WCOOP are comparing to the same events/buy-ins in 2010:



Almost all of the first half of the WCOOP schedule featured events with identical games/buy-ins to 2010. Just two did not, with one other (Event No. 14) having a only slightly different buy-in ($260 last year, $265 this). (Any mistakes here are mine, obviously.)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when the WCOOP first started how last year a little over a third of all entrants (34.7%) were from the United States. In only a few cases among the first 31 events this time around did the overall total number of entrants drop by as much as that, and in most cases the declines have been considerably less.

I also was talking a little in that earlier post about the American players relocating to play, including Shane “shaniac” Schleger who moved to Vancouver. In fact, Schleger won a WCOOP bracelet last night, taking down Event No. 34, the $320 2-7 Triple Draw. That’ll probably help with those moving expenses.

Still believe we’re talking about a very small number of players -- relatively speaking -- who’ve made that same move. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how PokerStars has filled the void among its player base following Black Friday and the site’s leaving the U.S.

Radio WCOOPSpeaking of following the WCOOP, Joe Stapleton and Nick Wealthall are back again, bringing the funny with daily “Radio WCOOP” shows. Kind of tough hearing about giveaways and other stuff not available to those of us here in the states, but the hosts are consistently hilarious and the interviews genuinely interesting. They are also posting shows daily in Russian, German, and Spanish, further proving that poker reaches well beyond the English-speaking world.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

So, Tell Me... Do You Count Cards?

'Degrassi: The Next Generation'This week for my “Community Cards: Poker in Popular Culture” column over on the Epic Poker League site I wrote about a recent two-part episode of the teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in which poker was prominently featured. Click on over, if yr curious.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it features an ensemble cast of teens involved in numerous relationships with one another while dealing with all sorts of contemporary issues. Shot and set in Canada where the show is very popular, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” has a decent following in the U.S. as well thanks to its being aired on the TeenNick network.

Actually this “Next Generation” show (on since 2001) is the fourth different iteration of the “Degrassi” franchise, with some version of the show being on the air since way back in 1979. Kind of resembles “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Saved By the Bell,” although it comes on four times a week and so has even more of a soap opera-like feel to it, albeit with teens.

In the two-parter I wrote about, we follow one student’s travails as she finds herself becoming more engrossed in the game, which ultimately causes several problems for her, the most significant being the way her poker-playing comes to threaten her relationship with her boyfriend. You’ll see me conclude that poker ends up kind of functioning very much like the many other challenges the teens frequently face on the show (e.g., drugs, drinking, violence, sex, etc.).

In other words, poker isn’t really depicted all that favorably, although the writers do seem to want to acknowledge how there is skill involved in poker. That is, in the world of “Degrassi” poker is not strictly a gambling game based entirely on luck.

The girl -- Alli -- is a gifted student, especially in math and science, and thus is the idea put forth that she does well at poker thanks to those skills. However, that idea gets kind of muddled when other characters on the show suggest Alli does well at hold’em (the game they are playing) because she is “counting cards.”

You heard that right. The idea comes up more than once, and in fact figures importantly into the climactic scene at the end of the two-part episode when Alli is accused of “counting cards” -- as if that were even something hold’em players can do, let alone a method of cheating.

I say all this a bit derisively, but really, it’s amazing how prevalent that idea of “counting cards” is when it comes to the way people think of poker and how it is played. Haven’t you had a conversation with a non-poker playing friend or family member who has asked you about counting cards? I know I have.

'Beat the Dealer' by Edward Thorp (1962)Systems for card counting in blackjack first arose in the 1950s -- not long after the birth of Vegas -- though it was math professor Edward O. Thorp’s 1962 best-selling book Beat the Dealer that really helped introduce the idea of card counting to the cultural mainstream. And over subsequent decades the battle between casinos and card counters became an ongoing subtext for blackjack -- the game within the game -- with various changes in the rules, game play, technology, and other countermeasures being introduced to minimize or eradicate its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, poker got popular. And somewhere along the way people started thinking that as another game played with cards, being able to count those cards might somehow help you over at the poker tables, too. And while there are variants in which remembering already-dealt cards is of obvious benefit (e.g., stud games), it’s still kind of silly to hear talk of “card-counting” in poker.

Silly, but not that surprising. I mean, the mistake comes up so often, you can almost count on it.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

“Big Dawgs Playing Poker”

'A Friend in Need' by C.M. Coolidge (1903)Spent a little time today in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class discussing that “Dogs Playing Poker” series of paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. I can see this becoming a favorite part of the syllabus for me, with the students’ responses to my invitation to analyze the paintings often including some interesting observations.

Back in 1903, Coolidge executed a group of 16 different paintings of dogs, nine of which showed them playing poker. The paintings are significant in poker’s history not just because of their eventual rise to a kind a iconic emblem -- for poker and/or for American schlock -- but for showing that poker had spread beyond steamboats, saloons, and gaming dens and into respectable-looking living rooms and other domestic settings.

That is to say, the paintings help demonstrate that poker was no longer just a game played by outlaws and gunslingers, but by just about everyone, including the lawyers and judges and other upper-middle class types on whom Coolidge based his dogs. (For more on Coolidge's paintings, see this “poker & pop culture” column I wrote for PokerNews a while back.)

'Grand Ol Gang' by Andy Thomas (2007)Coolidge's series has spawned numerous pop culture references, not to mention endless imitations and spoofs. One interesting example of an imitation-slash-homage is Andy Thomas’ 2007 series “Big Dawgs Playing Poker” in which he depicts past American presidents sitting around poker tables.

Thomas segregates his subjects into two groups, the Republicans (in “Grand Ol Gang”) and the Democrats (in “True Blues”). (Click on each to enlarge.)

'True Blues' by Andy Thomas (2007)If you’re curious, you can learn more about Thomas and his paintings at his website. Or check out this piece Jen Newell wrote for PokerWorks in which she gives further background on both Thomas and the series.

Thomas’ paintings are interesting for a few reasons, including the way they implicitly support that argument I find myself making over and over in my class regarding poker’s relevance to American culture.

Also, just like it’s humorous to see the dogs acting like humans, it’s sorta funny as well to see the presidents here imitating Coolidge’s dogs.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On “Roboreporting”

On RoboreportingThis morning my friend and fellow poker scribe Brad, a.k.a. “Otis,” drew the attention of his Twitter followers to a post by Derrick Goold titled “The Robot that wants to be a Sportswriter.”

Goold’s piece is itself drawing his readers to another article, one by business writer Steve Lohr that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend. Lohr’s article, titled “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Article,” is about a tech company called Narrative Science that focuses on creating computer-generated content, with their latest advances including writing programs that can actually produce full-length articles.

In his tweet, Brad specifically addressed “poker writers and publishers” to take note. And if you follow the links above, I think you’ll readily see why he did.

Goold points out how in Lohr’s piece the article given as an example of computer-generated copy happens to be a sports story. Not coincidental, thinks Goold.

“Sportswriting is the natural place for the roboreporters to start their revolution,” says Goold. “Games are easy to distill into numbers, right down to the integers that are the very definition of sport -- the final score.”

Goold goes on to share how even though the articles produced by “roboreporters” are “formulaic,” “stilted,” and “rely on cliché,” there is already evidence to support that such articles are drawing more Web traffic thanks to their successful negotiation of all-powerful SEO (Search Engine Optimization).

You can see how all of this might be of relevance to those who write about poker. Or to those who pay those who write about poker.

The book-writing machine at the Academy of LagadoThese new article-writing programs remind me of that bit from Part 3 of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels when Gulliver visits the Academy of Lagado and is shown what is in essence a book-writing machine.

It’s a huge contraption, “twenty feet square” and made of wires, blocks of wood with paper pasted on their sides, and iron handles. The professor responsible for the machine shows Gulliver how his students turn the forty handles protruding from the machine’s sides, thereby altering the arrangement of words written on the pieces of paper.

Gulliver is told how whenever phrases of more than a few words were created, scribes took them down, and eventually the results were published in book form. As the professor explains, those volumes “he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences.”

Swift is of course spoofing the idea of such short cuts to knowledge and/or the production of literature, kind of exaggerating the position and/or approach taken by some of the “moderns” of his day -- a group that included both writers and publishers. It’s a position opposed by Swift and other “ancients” in the “battle of the books,” the conflict’s name supplied in the title of another of Swift’s satires.

To get back to poker reporting, it obviously wouldn’t be hard to construct a program with which one could enter names, numbers, and other data and thus -- by pressing a button (rather than cranking forty handles) -- produce reports of results and even key hands such as knockouts, hands resulting in significant exchanges of chips, hands resulting in new chip leaders, and so forth.

In fact, I think there’s probably a not insignificant percentage of people -- among readers and even some writers -- who’d prefer such “roboreporting” from poker tourneys.

For me, though, it has always been the stories and characters that not only make poker fun to play and/or watch, but which give it value that goes beyond simple calculations of ROI. In other words, the human stuff that the hands and pots and bustouts and triumphs help demonstrate.

But getting to that stuff that takes time. And effort. And, well, money. And there’s not a lot of any of that, not here in the modern world.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Another Online Poker e-MERGE-ncy

Another Online Poker e-MERGE-ncyI played a freeroll over on Carbon Poker over the weekend, a tourney (announced over Twitter) in which there was a $600 prize pool. To be precise, it was $600 worth of tourney entries, not cash. And well, to be even more precise, any of us Americans who happen to win anything in a freeroll on Carbon have to keep in mind that actually cashing out winnings we earn on the site is itself a bit of a game at this point, too.

Like some of you, I saw that report late last week over on Subject:Poker regarding the possibility of impending action by the U.S. Department of Justice “against the Merge Gaming Network or some part of it.”

The report doesn’t provide details regarding what exactly the action will be -- i.e., whether there will be some sort of indictment against site operators and/or payment processors as happened with Black Friday or domain seizures or what. S:P’s (unnamed) sources told them the action had been planned for “mid- to late-September,” although the report also says “such timelines are extremely fluid” and acknowledged that it could be possible that the very fact of S:P making the planned action public might affect the timing.

The Australian-based Merge network of sites -- which includes Carbon, Lock, Hero, RPM, FeltStars, and more than 60 others -- continued to allow U.S. players to deposit and play up through late May. At that point they stopped allowing new U.S. sign-ups, but still let existing U.S. players play. There was a lot of talk over recent weeks that at least some of the Merge sites were going to reopen its doors to U.S. players, but it doesn’t appear that has happened.

The S:P article appeared on September 8, and while it isn’t too specific it does kind of confirm some recent rumbling on the matter of Merge. About two weeks before (on August 27), there appeared a sorta provocative post over on Two Plus Two by someone claiming his brother-in-law who works in the Office of Enforcement Operations in the DOJ had indicated to him that “they were still very aggressively going after online gambling sites,” naming Sportsbook.com (of the Merge network) as one particular target.

The poster -- a longtime contributor at 2+2 who set up a new “lurker” account to make this anonymous post -- added that his brother-in-law advised him that if he “still had money on any online sites” to “either get it off asap, or only have [on the site(s)] what I wouldn’t mind losing.”

Merge NetworkThat was late August. Now we find ourselves already nearly upon mid-September. Meaning those with funds on any Merge network sites now face a tricky decision. Do they try to withdraw their balances -- which latest reports indicate has become at least a month-long process -- or do they leave money on the sites? Either choice poses a risk. Funds in transit could perhaps be seized by the DOJ from payment processors. Meanwhile, as the examples of Full Tilt and Absolute Poker/UB have demonstrated, funds left on sites might be in danger, too, should the sites find themselves subject to indictments or other action.

Regarding the latter, it seems at least some of the Merge sites are segregating players funds (as PokerStars did), meaning if they were subject to a “Black Friday”-like action they may be able to respond more like PokerStars did than FTP or AP/UB did (or, rather, did not). Representatives of some of the Merge sites have confirmed that they do, in fact, segregate players’ funds. Also see this article on Holdem Poker Chat that talks about Merge’s relationship with both the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (which does not require fund segregation) and the Lotteries and Gaming Authority in Malta (which does).

For what it’s worth, many (not all) of the sites on the Merge network have already moved their top-level domains, switching away from the U.S.-based .com addresses to .eu (European Union) or .ag (Antigua) ones. When it comes to the busiest U.S.-facing sites, Merge currently is in a virtual tie with Bodog on the latest PokerScout traffic report, with both just ahead of Cake Poker.

Of course, unlike with Black Friday, a shutdown of the Merge Network would only affect hundreds, not tens of thousands. The fact is, relatively few U.S. players who were shut out of the top sites by BF managed to get any funds over onto Merge prior to late May.

Hard to say, really, how to respond to these rumblings. It does seem that whatever the specific future of the sites on Merge might be -- or any of the other sites still allowing U.S. players to play, for that matter -- there’s little chance that any U.S.-facing site is going to be allowed to grow into anything substantial going forward. In other words, the most likely scenario will be for all either to be shut out (via some DOJ “action”) or pull out voluntarily. At which point we’ll then await -- or hope for -- some sort of legislation to license and regulate online poker in the U.S., whether via the “Super Committee” or other means.

How did I do in the freeroll? Bubbled the sucker, finishing about 45th out of 340 or so when only the top 40 got tourney entries. Made kind of a dumb, possibly avoidable move near the end to seal my fate, I’m afraid. Was one of those hands where it felt a little like a “set-up” -- I open-shoved my short stack with ace-rag from the button only to run into a monster in the blinds -- though looking back I probably could’ve found a way to stay out of trouble.

Which I guess is how most U.S. players are looking at online poker right now -- perhaps a set-up, but one we can (and probably should) avoid.

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Friday, September 09, 2011

On Reviewing Poker Books

A buncha poker booksOver the last few years I’ve reviewed a number of poker books, both here on Hard-Boiled Poker and elsewhere. I’ve also had many opportunities over the years to write reviews of non-poker books and films.

It’s more challenging that it looks, I think, to write a decent review. One has to be able both to summarize well and to provide some sort of useful evaluation.

Neither is simple.

Summaries of novels or films can be particularly challenging, in my opinion, as one generally wants to give a complete overview of the premise, plot, and primary characters without going so far as to include any “spoilers.” After all, a review is really a kind of advertisement for the experience of reading the book or watching the film, albeit an advertisement that needn’t necessarily be positive or an unambiguous endorsement. The review should stand to the side and helpfully point, not get in front and block the view.

Of course, when it comes to reviews of poker books, especially those focused on strategy or theory, there isn’t such a need to worry much about “spoilers.” In fact, when I review a poker book, I take it as an obligation to be somewhat thorough with the summary. Anyone reading the review is going to want to know what exactly the book covers, and hopefully my review adds something more to what might be discovered by simply glancing at the table of contents.

When it comes to evaluating the book, there’s a real challenge there, too. I try to be balanced and point out what seems most useful or effective as well as whatever deficits a book might have. More often than not, I tend to be more positive than negative in reviews, but that isn’t always the case. There are bad books out there, but oftentimes if a book seems especially poor -- that is, if I don’t think I can avoid writing an overly critical review of it -- I’ll choose not to review it.

That’s not to say there isn’t value in negative reviews. Can be very helpful, actually, to read a persuasive, informative review that is negative and thereby save oneself the time, money, and mental energy that might have been wasted on a bad book. I’m just saying that when given a choice, I’d rather write about good books than not so good ones.

On Reviewing Poker BooksFinally, when it comes to reviewing books of poker strategy, I am always mindful of one crucial principle, something that perhaps makes reviewing poker books different from writing other kinds of reviews. Namely, that every reader/player is different, coming to a given book with a wholly unique set of experiences, knowledge, and understanding of the game.

That necessarily means that the usefulness or applicability of the instruction present in a given book is very likely going to be different depending on the reader. It would be silly, therefore, for me to read a poker strategy book and then tell you without qualification how it will make you a better poker player. Wouldn’t it? Or even worse, that by reading the book you will absolutely make more money at the tables. How can I possibly know that to be true?

If I think a given book contains something of value -- say, what appear to be genuinely innovative ideas about how to approach certain situations, or even a better way of explaining less original ideas -- I can certainly suggest as much. If you were to ask me which books I thought might prove most useful to you as a beginner, or as a player with some experience, or as a long-time successful pro, I can offer suggestions along those lines, too.

But really, I can’t even begin to predict how effectively a given reader/player is going to apply what he or she reads in a book of poker strategy. Not without undermining my own credibility as a critic, anyway.

No, I should be telling you in some detail what to expect, offering opinions about how well the material is presented and the quality and depth of the ideas, then letting you judge for yourself what the book might be worth to you.

With poker books there sometimes exists a mistaken idea of 'value' that encourages some to want to identify an objective-seeming 'bottom line' about what a book might be worth.I think with poker books there sometimes exists a mistaken idea of “value” that encourages some to want to identify an objective-seeming “bottom line” about what a book might be worth. That notion then leads to weirdly definitive claims about what the book will do for you.

To me, though, such bold claims usually say more about the value of the review than about the book.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Talking Black Friday & Blame

Blame Blame BlameToday I wanted to draw your attention to two thought-provoking posts, both on the subject of Black Friday. Readers of this blog might’ve already encountered one or both by now, but I thought I’d recommend them nonetheless.

One was by Bill Rini, titled “Who to Blame for Black Friday?” As someone with extensive experience within the online poker industry, Rini routinely provides insightful commentary on it whenever he chooses to address the subject. I sometimes think the fact that Rini now resides in Thailand also perhaps lends him a better perspective on certain aspects of the industry, enabling him to see things that we here in the U.S. aren’t able to grasp quite so easily.

Those who listened to QuadJacks during their marathon broadcasts in the wake of BF might recall Rini occasionally appearing to share his thoughts. He came on the Two Plus Two Pokercast once or twice in there, too.

To me, Rini’s post offered a clear and persuasive account of how the industry as a whole tended to operate over the preceding decade, his primary argument being that pretty much everyone -- those who ran the sites, those who played on them, and those who reported on them as well -- could be said to share in the “blame” for allowing online poker to evolve into such a thoroughly corrupt and poorly-managed industry.

The other post I wanted to recommend was a response to Rini’s, penned yesterday by PokerLawyer. Speaking from the perspective of a player -- or “consumer” -- she offers a countering view to the one suggesting that she was to “blame” for the sites’ owners and others being indicted, for the civil complaint, or for any of the other unfortunate fallout from Black Friday.

If you check out PokerLawyer’s post -- titled “Responsible for Black Friday... who me?!” -- you’ll see in the comments how I responded by explaining how I identified with PokerLawyer’s “who me?” response but I also found Rini’s suggestion that we players became overly complacent with an obviously sketchy industry to ring true. (I might well have saved that comment for a post of my own here, but didn’t.)

Rini also added a thoughtful response, and PokerLawyer followed up as well. There is some interesting back-and-forthing going on in the comments to Rini’s post, too. If you’re interested in exploring this issue of how Black Friday came to be -- and where we as players may or may not have fit in -- both posts and the subsequent discussions are probably worth checking out.

Definitely intriguing to look back and see the past differently like this. And while assigning “blame” for Black Friday might be considered a mostly academic exercise at this point, it’s still worthwhile, I think, as we try to envision the future -- most particularly one that might include a new-from-the-ground-up online poker industry in the U.S.

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