Gunning for Cheats
Two online poker regulars uncover a scam fleecing unsuspecting players of millions of dollars.
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008
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It's a complex, arduous process, but players have found funds added to their online accounts. David Paredes and trambopoline received six figures between them. Daniel Alahi, who's best known as a live-game cash player, logged many an hour on UltimateBet. He says that during 2005 and 2006 he played virtually every day. He knows that he has been cheated. More specifically, he remembers a particular hand, against one of the cheaters playing under the name Blueberry101. On the turn, Alahi over-bet the pot, pushing all in for $25,000 while on a straight draw with a raggedy board. The idea was to induce Blueberry101 to fold. But when the cheater called with deuces (because he was able to see Alahi's cards and knew he had the best hand), Alahi remembers telling himself, "Wow, this game is really good." He now knows that it was really crooked.
Despite coming up against the cheaters, Alahi says, there were enough inferior players in the games that he managed to clear a profit. While he's waiting on money, Alahi points out that what transpired with cheating on UB has repercussions that extend beyond cash lost. "When you lose, you question why you're losing and you make adjustments in your game," says Alahi, explaining that players do that because they think their approach to poker has ceased working. So, under those circumstances, you not only lose money in the short run, but your style of play can deteriorate in the long run. Citing the psychological impact, which, for a poker player, can easily lead to a financial impact, Alahi adds, "It affects you as a person and really messes with your head. Your poker-playing abilities can be damaged, and it can change your life completely. I know of people who lost everything [to the cheaters] and had to quit playing poker. That's just wrong."
Alahi, like most pros, has not stopped playing online poker. But he's moved to FullTilt, a site he considers to be more secure than UltimateBet. He recognizes that in online poker, as in every financial arena, nothing is 100 percent fail-safe, but he'll live with what he views to be minimal risks. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the computer scientist turned poker player who helped develop the software used on FullTilt, agrees that a perfectly safe poker site is too much to hope for. But he says FullTilt has gone to great lengths to avoid a situation like the one plaguing UltimateBet. "We do not have super-user accounts, and that was very intentional; anything you can do in real time, you can do two minutes later," says Ferguson. "At FullTilt there is a very thick wall between player knowledge and people who play on the site. We use the same encryption that banks have." As for UltimateBet's super-user account, Ferguson adds, "To me, whether it was well intentioned or not, it's a design flaw."
That said, as can be seen from UltimateBet's efforts to pay back every- one who's been scammed, online poker, by its nature, has transparency and a way to backtrack through history. "If you had been cheated in the stock market or in a brick-and-mortar casino," says Annie Duke, "it would be very difficult for you to be made whole. UltimateBet is behaving as if it were regulated, and its management is doing the right thing—not only for UB but for online poker in general."
Not wanting to see his company completely disintegrate, which could happen if this situation repeats itself, Leggett says he is doing everything he can to prevent nefarious deeds from transpiring again. He acknowledges that the site had been lax in the past, and maintains that he has since "built layers of security" into his system. "We've had gaming mathematicians help us design a solution that will catch people and flag abnormal winning statistics. If you go on a big run, you now get flagged and we look at the hands. We built a sophisticated program that is probably leading the industry, and we are sharing specifications of what we built." Leggett hesitates for a beat, then dryly adds, "Not that any site will want to claim that they are working with us on security."
Alahi says the vulnerability of UltimateBet was further exacerbated by the site's unusual policy of allowing customers to play under multiple names and to change those names frequently. At most sites, limit- ing participants to a single name helps ensure that players know whom they are going up against. Had the cheaters been unable to alter their names, and appear to be untested players without patterns, the scam would have been much harder to maintain. That weakness, according to UltimateBet, has been resolved.
Regardless of what UltimateBet does to make its site more secure and to compensate those who've been cheated, it's hard for some players to get beyond what's happened. Alahi points out that people who've lost money over the years are using the cheating scandal as a way to explain inferior play. "I know really bad players who now think they got cheated, and that's ridiculous," he says. "For everyone who was break-even or slightly losing, and figured that online was a waste of time anyway, this is the perfect excuse for them to quit. It makes the games tougher for me."
Even winning players are thinking twice about what they're getting involved with. Alahi acknowledges that he is "now more aware of what is going on." Paredes, a big winner online who is not a pro, finds himself cutting back. He says he hasn't played on UB since the scandal broke. He says, "I keep less money in the sites than I used to. I worry that these companies may one day run off with the deposits. You never know what can happen. One day Neteller [the money transfer service that players commonly use] shuts down. You need to be careful." When it comes to online poker, he says, "You need to anticipate scenarios that you can't anticipate."
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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