A friend of mine recently told me he’d been caught up in an email war with PokerStars over what he perceived to be some irregularities. Indeed, he had lost around $20,000 in a month and though I know he isn’t the best player around, he’s not much removed from a rock and plays as tight as you can play without being a rock. Anyway, it’s not the first time I’ve heard about “irregularities” in online play where preposterous bad beat stories seem to be the rule and not the exception.
My friend’s biggest complaint was that he feared he had been the victim of collusion during a series of sit-and-goes where some of the players at his table lacked proper place identifiers. In other words, if you’re from Toronto, "Toronto" will appear when you click my avatar. These fellows either had blanks there or improbable place names. And it struck me during a recent roller coaster ride at the online tables that collusion would be a relatively simple matter. It seems to me that you can open two accounts and play at the same table on two different computers with little difficulty. The edge you’d have on the competition would be enormous. You could sandwich players at will; and knowing two more cards than them would give you an incredible advantage in a game of incomplete information. But as simple as this seems, imagine if a ruthless crew of individuals banned together and colluded in a bigger way. It would be difficult to know you were being swindled.
Thus far my friend’s complaints have met with evasions and more bad beats. He won’t stop playing – either an ultimate tilt or, as he tries to explain, a way to “gather more evidence.” The difficulty here is that he’s dealing with an offshore agency under no jurisdiction and with no one and nothing monitoring its operations. PokerStars, for instance, operating out of the Isle of Man (for fuck sake) is accountable to no one except perhaps something called the Isle of Man Gambling Supervision Commission. Daniel Negreanu’s word alone shouldn’t be enough to guarantee that the site is legit. He gets paid a lot of money to shill for them and get his face plastered all over their advertisements. The argument runs that they make so much money already it would be silly to risk killing their business by permitting collusion and using pre-programmed deals (i.e., to induce larger and more extreme betting and faster tournaments by dishing out statistically improbable super hands) and bots and so forth. But even after the recent scandals with Absolute Poker and the many multiple-account abuses, people are still flocking to these sites, eager to unload their money.
And for every online poker millionaire whiz kid you see on television, you have to wonder how many other dopes have had their accounts drained playing at tables where they really never had a chance to win. Having played poker for years, and having seen just about everything you can see during a hand, a ring game, a tournament, it may be that everything is accelerated online. You’re usually playing so many hands you’re not keeping track of the stats. I’d like to see a statistical analysis of online hands in recent years and see how much they vary from the norm, both in hands dealt and hands played. Hands dealt and hands played really tells you everything you need to know about how online poker stacks up to live play.
My gut feeling is that online cheating is rampant – how could it not be? When there is no accountability and millions and millions of dollars are involved ... let’s get serious for a minute. When it comes right down to it, trusting these sites is like trusting one of those Nigerian emails announcing you’ve won a $20,000,000 lottery. They are both by-products of a free-flowing, unregulated electronic medium. They have no physical reality – i.e., no material place. They appeal to our greed, to our sense of fantasy. They are unaccountable. And only an idiot would deal with them.
I don’t want to come right out and say that PokerStars or any of the other sites are rigged – but all those times I’ve been knocked out of a tournament on the bubble holding pocket aces or kings have made me physically recoil at the thought of ever playing online poker again.
Emile Frendo of the Honeymoon City is a semi-professional poker player and winner of the 2006 Pirate Poker Open Championship.