Do you want to know the dark side of poker

Brad Willis
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Posted on: January 28, 2023 4:17 am EST

On any given day, there are bad things happening in poker rooms around the world from San Francisco to Sydney. There are poker operators–both live and online–who have to deal with those embarrassments and scandals. The vast majority of those operators say nothing publicly about what they’ve investigated and discovered, and their silence, many will say, is based on the belief that the lack of transparency is good for the game. 

And that is bullshit. 

If you work around poker long enough, you’ll hear the phrase “good for the game” in so many contexts you’ll start to wonder if the words have any meaning at all. If we love poker, you’d think we could at least agree on what those words mean, but we don’t. 

In the glossiest of poker contexts, the notion that something is good for the game implies there are people out there working and sweating and grinding for the forever-future of poker. Heaven knows we can all get behind that. 

But let’s not be intellectually dishonest. 

When we hear “good for the game,” it’s usually a one-eyebrow raised suggestion that somebody at the table is exploitable in some way, or that the new players at the table don’t know how to play double- board bomb pots, or that, ah hell, we should all do a round of shots and loosen up the dead money!

You know…good for the game.

I’ve catered to this concept many times over my last two decades around the game. I’ve indulged in it. I’ve profited from it. But that doesn’t make it cool. 

Just as I’m no saint, I’m no pollyanna. I know poker rose up from the dirt, and its DNA will never fully evolve beyond or outrun its deserved reputation. Even so, I think I’ve finally reached the point at which I can laugh at people who suggest that it is bad for the game if we talk about poker’s darkest corners and worst actors. 

The stories and scenarios are endless: 

Somebody gets banned from an online poker site, but the operator won’t tell us why. A poker room catches a well-known player pocketing tournament chips to slip into another event and tells no one about it. A poker stream starts deleting its coverage in real time in a way that could cover up a critical mistake by one of its employees. An online poker room is informed of a significant security vulnerability but doesn’t tell its players about it. 

Every person who stayed quiet in situations like that will tell you, “It’s not good for poker if things like that get out into the public.”

I’ve decided to stake my reputation on what is probably a pretty crazy notion: 

All of those people are full of shit. 

A thought experiment

Imagine you could travel back to 1919 with the power to cover up baseball’s Black Sox cheating scandal. 

Or 1989 and you could give Pete Rose a heads up that people were about to find out he was betting thousands of dollars a day on baseball.

Or almost any day in the 1990s and you can let MLB players know they are about to get popped for using steroids.

Imagine it’s 2007 and you are the lead of the FBI team investigating NBA official Tim Donaghy for using his role as a referee to affect the point spreads of games on which he was betting. In your role as the lead FBI agent, imagine you had the power to end the investigation before the public ever learned about it.

Imagine you could have covered up the Astros sign-stealing. 

Or the Patriots’ signal-stealing. 

Pick your scandalous sports revelation: World Cup bribes, sexual predator coaches, champions who hide their evil under their trophies. 

They’re all things people knew and didn’t say for the good of the game.

Would you have covered up any or all of those things because you were afraid it would hurt the game? 

Because you thought people would stop watching because one scandal made them believe a game they love was always rigged in one way or another? 

Regardless of how you answer, ask yourself this question: 

Do you think any of those professional sports are worse today because someone shined a bright light into a dark corner? 

Did people stop watching the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA finals, or World Cup because they knew more about their favorite sport’s dark side? 

Forget sports. Let’s talk poker.

If you’re not a sports person or just can’t be bothered to track an analogy to its end, let’s put a finer point on it.

If you had known 20 years ago that poker celebrities had God Mode access to Ultimate Bet, would you have said something? 

If you had known a few years later that Full Tilt Poker wasn’t segregating poker funds and was likely to soon be insolvent, would you have found the guts to post it on 2+2?

If you had known years later that someone playing on a live poker stream had live access to hole cards and could rip off opponents for a lot of money, would you have found the nearest journalist and exposed the crime?

Or would you have believed it was bad for the future of poker if people knew those things could happen? 

Would you have cottoned to the idea that poker is such a fragile industry that it’s better for it to be vulnerable, insecure, and dirty than the public learning the game is proactively policing itself?

Here’s a fact: there were people who knew about all of those things, and they said nothing. If everyone had agreed to say nothing, those poker calamities might still be happening today. You might still be losing your roll on UB and not knowing why. 

Moreover, those poker apocalypses became international news stories, in part because people didn’t speak up earlier. 

And guess what? 

We’re still playing poker, and we’re not playing on Ultimate Bet. We’re not waiting on our Full Tilt money. And we are making some cheaters’ lives miserable. 

That sounds pretty good for the game to me. 

No one needs to know

Many poker room operators manage their business like they were playing poker, and that’s the problem. 

The mindset is basically this: the more we know and the less we say, the more money we make. No one can know what we know, because if they did, it might cut into our bottom line. If we get out of line (and get caught), we will appeal to a poker player’s heart and suggest, “If the public knew, it would be bad for the game. So, please fold your winning hand, because if you don’t, the game you love won’t exist, and its demise will be your fault.”

Here’s the thing: no one should expect a poker operator to tell the public how it detects bots in its system or how it catches people using real-time assistance whirligigs. We don’t have any need to know how the sausage gets made.

But there is no good reason to not inform players when and how they have been or might have been cheated. There is no good reason to hide a security patch. There is no good reason to hide behind the good of the game when all you’re trying to do is hide that you aren’t 100% perfect.

There is something visceral about knowing something other people do not.

It feels like power.

It feels like control.

No one wants to give up that feeling. In the face of losing that power, the default live and online poker operator response has become, “Think of the good of the game.”

And that sounds so right until you realize it’s the rough equivalent of, “I need you to help me hide a body. Don’t worry. He was a bad guy, and we took care of him. Just don’t say anything or you might have to worry about losing the one thing you love more than anything else. Now, let’s get a taco!”

It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that poker operators shouldn’t announce their successes in plugging the holes that make online poker vulnerable. It’s unfair to the players to deny them the ability to know as much as they can about where they choose to play. It’s craven and manipulative to appeal to a person’s love for poker by telling them they shouldn’t talk about the bad things that happen in a game they love. 

I want to look forward to a time when poker operators worry less about the short-term marketing of their business and think more about the long-term health of the game. I want to find a room that publishes the findings of every important security breach, software bug, and suspected cheater. I want to wake up one day and find a place to play where I can feel confident the operator cares more about its players than its bottom line and the short-term effects of some bad publicity. 

I also want a 1950s-era butterscotch Fender Telecaster and a front row seat to Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday party concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And even though I fight the cynicism monster every day, I’d say I’ve got a greater chance of playing Georgia with Willie than I do convincing poker operators to stop acting like poker players. 

Fortunately, in the middle of all this hand-wringing, I think I’ve learned this:

The only thing I can actually offer the game I love is to tell the truth about it. 

I may be crazy for trying, but if there is one thing I know about the truth–no matter how counterintuitive it may be for a poker player–it’s this:

The truth is good for the game.