‘Heartbreaking’ – Nik Airball & ‘Blank Check’ Ben detail alleged cheating in high-stakes private games

Craig Tapscott
Published by:
Posted on: December 8, 2023 6:40 am EST

Additional reporting by Haley Hintze.

Popular Hustler Casino Live players Nik ‘Airball’ Arcot and ‘Blank Check’ Ben Lee have shared their personal experiences regarding the recent allegations of cheating in private high-stakes cash games in southern California. 

These allegations erupted on Sunday across a series of social media posts from Wesley Fei, which alleged that Ye “Tony Mars” Shen – another HCL player – had cheated players out of millions of dollars. 

Since then, Wesley has continued to expose what he claims is evidence of cheating across multiple more social media posts, which include images from some of the allegedly cheated home games. Some of the images portray game attendees who Wesley asserts were part of the cheating ring.

Mars denied the allegations, but has since deleted his once-popular Twitter/X account, @Marsback2earth

On Wednesday, Wesley declared on X/Twitter that Mars and others, notably including one-time French poker star Arnaud Mattern, who operated under the pseudonym of ‘Mike’, had conspired to cheat their victims throughout a long stretch of private games in the L.A. area.

According to Lee, the cheating allegedly occurred in two phases. The first phase, from January to February 2023, took place in Irvine, and involved Mars and two other individuals from China – Qiliang Sun and ‘Mr Fo’, also known as ‘David’. The second phase, from March to October 2023, took place in Yorba Linda, and involved Mars, Mattern, Shane Hennen (known as “Peter”) and Pham Long (known as “Bruce”).

There were also two separate groups of victims. Among the players allegedly scammed in the Irvine game were Airball, Lee, Eshaan Bhalla and Charles Yu, while the victims of the Yorba Linda game were Airball, Wesley, Zeo Guo, and three other Chinese businessmen. Airball was the only individual who was scammed in both games, with his total losses estimated at $1.6 million.

Wesley Fei and Ben Lee – two of the players alleged to have been cheated in the private games

Wesley’s allegations

In his post on X, Wesley further alleged that he had received death threats. 

“Basically, @Marsback2earth called me and admitted everything including he’s a cheater and @ArnaudMattern and their cheating syndicate now is very mad. They are gonna leave US today now, and threaten me delete all the tweets about them. Otherwise, they gonna kill me.”

In addition to Mars and former PokerStars sponsored pro Mattern, Wesley also revealed the identity of another member of the alleged cheating ring, Shane Hennen, who went by ‘Peter’. Evidently, Hennen also has a criminal past. 

In 2010, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison after nearly killing a man by stabbing him with a box cutter in a 2009 Pittsburgh bar fight, and he was also prosecuted in a cocaine-distribution case. Hennen has a handful of small cashes in minor poker tournaments, but somehow ended up in L.A.’s private game scene. 

According to Wesley, the main methods of cheating were the use of a card “mechanic” (Mattern) as the dealer and the possible use of cards with barcode markings on the edges, which could then be read by a scanner on the table. 

Nik Airball: ‘Unlucky’ to meet Mars

Nik Airball playing on Hustler Casino Live

Airball told PokerOrg that he became close friends with Mars in 2022, a relationship that soon turned sour. “I was unlucky to meet and get to know Mars around the middle of 2022,” he said. “He was like an older brother to me. Almost. You know, we would go to dinners, we would go to Vegas, he would take me to really good private games, when I played Berkey heads up, he had a piece.

“When I played the Million Dollar Game, he took a piece. You know he wanted these pieces to support me and I would always give it to him. We were friends; I would buy pieces of him when he would play the Hustler high stakes and one week, he lost $700,000 in a session.

“I had a big piece of him, and you know we were close. We would do transactions between us that were the cost of a house, $500,000, $600,000, no problem. We developed a very intimate trust because of that. And that was kind of the beginning of me trusting Mars blindly.

“Then, you know, Mars late last year started telling me about these amazing Chinese games and he wanted to take me to them. And so he did, and it started with some games I believe a couple of times in Yorba Linda. But most of the games at the time were Irvine and these are the games that Ben was cheated in as well.

“I can’t remember super clearly but I remember that Mars was usually in Seat 9 and, in hindsight, I believe they were using the barcode cheating method. I believe they had the RFID thing set up and he (the dealer) knew what hands would win.

“But you know, I lost about $600,000 in Irvine and I paid every cent of it, obviously, and I actually played six sessions. I won $50,000 in my very last session and I was never paid.

“I personally believe Mars, the host of that game (Qiliang Sun), and another player (Mr. Fo) were the three cheaters. Then in Yorba Linda, a very similar story. I played there, you know, and Mars took over that game in March. I supported him a lot. I lost, I think, like close to half a million in Yorba Linda.

And you know, I ran aces into his kings when I was deep-stacked, and I ran kings into his aces. In Yorba Linda [you] can only run it once. And every time I would have the better hand, he would bink the set. I just never won.

I was so suspicious. I started taking pictures of the dealers, which is why we have those pictures because I was so suspicious. And I remember I used to text Eshaan and say, ‘There might be cheating,’ and he would say, ‘Come on dude, it’s your best friend Mars. Like, relax.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’

In hindsight, obviously, they cheated. And I think the mechanic dealer was the primary way of cheating. They also used the [UV], I think, once Peter and Bruce left (as part of the ring). So I think the Mechanic and Peter and Bruce were like a team. They joined Mars, and they cheated the Yorba game. Then, they were, they were like gone from L.A. Mars realized he could just keep winning a lot from the game, so he started using these special contact-lens decks and continued to cheat.

“And you know, it’s heartbreaking. It’s hurtful. It’s, you know, personally hurtful, financially hurtful. And I’m very upset by what happened, and I hope there’s some karma in this world.”

Blank Check Ben: ‘I called it out at the beginning, but everyone thought I was paranoid

Ben Lee playing on the Hustler Casino Live stream

“Blank Check Ben” Lee offered PokerOrg his own related tale. 

“In the last 72 hours,” he stated, “I have received 100% concrete evidence that I was cheated. I didn’t want to be involved initially because I thought that what had happened to me was long ago enough that there was unlikely to be any evidence. But we literally received evidence in the last few days. So I am willing to come up and say my piece, too.

“The key date is the 12th of January. We were playing in the game in Irvine. The players were me. Nik [Airball], Eshaan, Charles, and [three other friends of ours]. And obviously, we had Mars, we had this guy named Fo, who was his accomplice, and we had the host of the game. Fo was a well-known whale. He was probably the worst player any of us had ever seen. And I don’t see myself as a great player, so that says a lot. We knew Fo for about a year prior. He never had any money and he would always play with borrowed money, either Mr. Sun’s and Mars’ money; he never played with his own money.

“They usually just spotted him like $10,000, you know, and told him to sit there and nurse that short stack just because he was the draw for the players. Everybody wanted to play with him.

“On January 12, they let him buy in for $50,000. I had never seen that before. They let him reload for $50,000 and literally the very next hand, I get dealt ace-queen in the hijack. There’s a straddle. I don’t know what the straddle amount is, but I open for about $3,200 or something like that. 

“My friend, to my left, the cutoff, flats the open. Eshaan, who is the button, has K-K and puts in a very big three-bet. I think it’s $13,000, and the whale, he just cold-calls from the blinds. Now I fold my ace-queen because I think Eshaan had only like $30,000 effective behind. So I folded.

“And it’s just the two of them and the flop is Q-8-2. Eshaan and [Fo] get it all in. Fo has eight-deuce and I folded ace-queen pre. So I thought that hand was very suspicious. Very suspicious because obviously, you know, it just felt wrong and there were also some circumstances behind the whole thing. 

“Before that game, before my arrival, they already owed me a balance of $240,000 from a different game. We usually settle up, but they hadn’t settled yet. I was a little bit worried. But I won during that session and so I was up to $480 (thousand) or so. 

“I thought, fuck, it’s getting worse because I don’t know if they can pay me, but anyway, I thought it was really suspicious because obviously they set up that hand to get both Eshaan and me, but I folded it so they only got Eshaan. 

“Now less than an orbit later in my small blind I get dealt 6-4 suited. Now the whale opens, and there’s three calls. I call the small blind and the flop is 3-5-7 rainbow and I have 6-4. I check, the whale bets 3,000 into a 5,000 pot. I raised to $30,000. The whale just snap-jams without thinking, not even for a second. He just snap-jams $150,000, that’s a lot. After I raised huge. I can’t fold the nuts. I call. I show him my hand and he shows me that he has pocket eights. 

“I asked if we could run it twice and he says no. The turn is a 6, the river is a 4. So it’s 3-4-5-6-7 and he has two eights so he wins that pot. I’m spooked and I feel something isn’t right. So I get up and quit the game. 

“I told two of my friends to quit the game as well. Airball was there. He saw that I was visibly upset. I was steaming. He probably thought I was just tilted. I told him to quit, quit the game right now. It’s not right. This is not a legit game. Just quit the game right now, you know? My intuition tells me that something is wrong.

“Airball said. ‘Ben, you’re crazy. This is the softest game ever. You’re crazy to quit.’ Okay, but I just quit. I quit and my two friends quit and they kept playing. Eshaan and Airball kept playing until about 5:00 in the morning, maybe 6:00 in the morning. Airball texted me, we speak on the phone, and he says, ‘Ben, you know, like, relax, you know your suspicions were not founded because Fo, the whale, he had $300,000 in his stack after you were coolered. But he got felted. He lost all the money. He lost every single chip, all of it. He didn’t make a dime. He lost everything.’ I said, ‘Who got it?’ He said, ‘Mars got it. Mars got all of it, so it was legit, okay?’

“That day was the first time that I felt something really weird was happening. And because I made a fuss, because I did officially say that I suspected cheating, the next day, Mars called me and Mr. Sun called me. I apologized because I thought I was in the wrong. I said, ‘Guys, I’m sorry I overreacted. You know, I was tilted. The hand just felt wrong. I apologize.’ And that was it. And then because I called them out, there was some doubt about the game in Irvine, and less than two months later, they moved it to Yorba Linda.

“I think that they were just alerted to the fact that there were suspicions and so they just stopped doing it at Irvine, and I think that my guess is that Mars probably thought that Mr. Fo was too much of a liability because he was doing it too obviously. And that’s why [Mars] dropped him and started to work with a new crew. 

“So in the last 24 to 48 hours, a screenshot has emerged. It is a screenshot of a group chat between Mars and Fo, his accomplice. And it’s dated January 12th, exactly the day we played that session in Irvine. Eshaan verified it. He takes very detailed session notes. Extremely detailed. He confirmed 100% it was exactly that date, and in that conversation, it was in Chinese. But Mars says in the group chat, ‘You can’t play like this, the optics are really bad. It’s too obvious, you can only do this once a night.’ Fo replies, ‘Okay, fine, fine.’ And then Mars replies again and he told Fo to just stop showing trash hands.”

PokerOrg is currently assessing audio recordings released by Wesley Fei in conversation with Tony Mars. PokerOrg also received a brief statement from Hustler Casino Live’s Ryan Feldman declaring Mars to be no longer welcome there. “Due to the allegations and evidence provided, Mars/Tony will not be invited back to play on HCL. Nor [will] anyone else who may be tied to these cheating allegations.”