Saturday, June 28, 2008


When I was a kid, my big brother either subscribed to or frequently purchased Mad Magazine. I read it whenever I could, even though much of the humor went over my head. The very first parody I can recall them doing was "Star Blecch," which, Google now informs me, was published in the December, 1967, issue, when I was six years old.

The word "blecch" got used a lot by the "Mad" writers, and it never failed to make me chuckle when they deployed it as a substitute for some vaguely similar-sounding title or product name (e.g., Blecch Shampoo).

I wanted to come up with an insulting parodic twist on the name "UltimateBet" for use in this post, and I guess all those years of reading "Mad" stuck somewhere deeply in my brain, because the title you see came to me within just a few seconds. It was undoubtedly influenced by the waves of nausea I was experiencing as a result of having just watched John Caldwell's interview with Annie Duke over on PokerNews, available here. "Blecch" is exactly what I was feeling.

For those who haven't heard about this elsewhere, here's the Reader's Digest condensed version: In January some players uncovered and posted damning evidence that one or more high-stakes UB players, using more than a dozen accounts, had been playing with access to opponents' hole cards. Eventually, UB confirmed these suspicions. As it turns out, millions of dollars had been scammed over a period of years. UB's public statements have blamed the cheating on one or more persons in or closely associated with the previous company ownership. They claimed to have closed the software "back door" that made such cheating possible and refunded all of the money stolen. But the big-name professional players long associated with UB (Annie Duke, Phil Hellmuth, Antonio Esfandiari, and others) remained strangely, suspiciously silent about the scandal.

I realize that I'm way behind the times with this being my first comment on the whole UltimateBet mess. The two main reasons for that were that (1) I was conflicted about what I wanted to see happen, and (2) it took me a while to do the fairly extensive reading required to really understand what the problem was and is. For the best readable summary of developments, along with thoughtful commentary, I recommended this series of posts at Hard-Boiled Poker. For a detailed explanation of the evidence that players uncovered by their own investigations, see this post by Cornell Fiji. (Hat tip: I encountered Fiji's work via this post by "Foucault"/Andrew Brokos, which in turn was pointed to by Shamus at HBP.)

Even after reading sharp condemnations from other players and bloggers whose opinions and judgments I respect, I wasn't sure where to stand. My first impulse was to forgive and move on. This was different from my reaction to the similar scandal that had unfolded at Absolute Poker last year--the difference coming primarily because UB had been sold in the interim, and it hardly seemed fair to join in an effort to shame, punish, and/or destroy the company when the fault lay with the previous ownership. If the new team was willing to step up and make things right, I was willing to give them the chance. The signing of Cliff "JohnnyBax" Josephy and Eric "Rizen" Lynch added to this desire on my part (precisely the effect I'm sure UB management hoped those new affiliations would produce), them both being players of genuine skill and integrity, to the best of my knowledge.

My hopeful, forward-looking position became less tenable, however, as I read the second series of posts by Fiji to which Foucault had pointed. This material is harder to access, because it got scattered over dozens of pages of 2+2 forum chatter, most of which is, as Shamus might say, applesauce. Perhaps somebody has pulled Fiji's stuff together somewhere, but if so, I don't know of it. Anyway, in this second series of posts, Fiji dissected in detail the public statements released by UB management. He also did yeoman's work in investigating what could be found in public records about the sale of the company.

The long and the short of it is this: It's not at all clear that UB was actually sold, in any meaningful sense. Rather, Fiji presents substantial evidence that what really happened was simply the original owners retaining profitable positions, but now hidden behind deeper layers of shell companies and surrogates.

Of equal concern is that at least some of the prime movers involved make Tony Soprano's "family" look like innocents by comparison. The network of interconnections and conflicted interests among UB, the disgraced Absolute Poker, and the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (the agency that licenses and allegedly "regulates" the sites, but which did nothing to prevent either crisis, gave only the lightest, most unconvincing slap on the wrist to Absolute, and so far has apparently not lifted a finger with respect to UB's sins) is impenetrable, a tangled web of shadiness. (It is, I think, noteworthy that due to the KGC's completely loss of credibility in the wake of the Absolute nastiness, PokerStars picked up its ball and went elsewhere, taking both its servers and licensing away from the Canadian tribe. Good for them. Full Tilt Poker needs to follow suit, to free itself of the taint.)

Furthermore, the press releases by the "new" UB team, if Fiji is anywhere near correct, appear to be little more than careful, clever, artful assemblages of half-truths. Not exactly the kind of display of integrity I was hoping I might see from a company determined to bring a new broom to the housecleaning.

So why am I speaking up about it now, rather than at some earlier point in the long-unfolding story? Annie Duke. Now, I'm not a Duke fan to begin with. My distaste for her began upon reading in James McManus's Positively Fifth Street that she took a look at an opponent's mucked hand during the 2000 WSOP. As I've learned more about her subsequently, my assessment of her character has not brightened. And I strongly disagree with her political stance about federal regulation of online poker, though that's the sort of thing on which reasonable, informed people can disagree without either of them being unethical or misguided.

But this interview with PokerNews struck me as being little more than a continuation of the half-truths and glaring omissions that have characterized UB's handling of the whole affair, and it has finally lit a fire under me to cry foul.

I have deliberately avoided reading any other reactions to the interview. There are probably dozens of pages of comments now available in the various online forums and from bloggers who got to it quicker than I did. I have read none of them. What follows is purely my own reaction, both unaided and untainted by whatever others may have said. I may have missed things that others have noticed, or maybe these thoughts are unique. I don't know, and don't much care, at the moment. I might go try to catch other opinions later, but I want to leave my own mark in the sand first.

So, to the interview.

I found it interesting that Duke says that she was on the verge of walking away from UB, but was so persuaded that the new management is determined to make everything good that she not only has stayed on, but has put her name on the site. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it clearly implies something well beyond her previous level of involvement, which she characterized as has having been merely an endorser. I think it's fair to read into this that she is going to get paid more for her affiliation with UB. A cynic might say that that looks an awful lot like UB wrote a big check to keep her from bolting, which would not be good for their public relations.

To me, the most striking contradiction in Duke's interview was her claiming not to know who the thief or thieves were, yet simultaneously trying to reassure players that whoever he, she, or they were, they no longer have any association with UB. Well, Ms. Duke, how can you know that, if you don't know who the culprits were? And why won't management tell you who they were? If they're not even being transparent with you, what do you think that looks like to the rest of us?

Duke repeatedly asserts that the current UB management handled the crisis magnificently, going well beyond the call of duty. But she does not address any of the ream of falsehoods and half-truths that, if Fiji's research is even remotely on-target, these alleged saints put out in their press releases. Unfortunately, PN's interviewer, John Caldwell, did not press her for details on how she could reach the conclusion that management has been above reproach, when there is so much reason to think otherwise.

Interesting that she said that UB has made "seven figures" of restitution, but, in another part of the interview, that revenues have not been hurt. Gives you some insight into how lucrative this business is, doesn't it? Kind of makes me wonder why anybody with access to what is basically a printing press for money would feel the need to line their pockets further by using their back-door access to cheat their own customers at poker. Seems to me rather like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Human greed knows no bounds, I suppose.

As a side note, if UB can make all of that restitution without it affecting revenues, it makes Duke's assertions of management's magnanimity less credible. If they're doing nothing that causes them any significant pain or loss, there's not much reason to be in awe of their integrity.

One tidbit of news from the interview is that UB is about to announce the signing of a few more well-known pro players to their team. Should be interesting to see who has sold out.

I think the height of Duke's slickness comes when addressing Caldwell's question about why UB hasn't publicly released the name(s) of the criminal(s). Duke's answer dodges the question, or, more accurately, answers a different question than the one asked, which is the favorite trick of politicians and PR people when being interrogated. She addresses not why UB can't or won't announce who the culprits are, but the difficulty of having them prosecuted.

She is certainly right on that point; the jurisdictional legal problems about where the crimes were actually committed are not trivial. (Can they be prosecuted where they were sitting at their computers? Where the victims were located? Where the servers were? Where the company was licensed? This is made even more complicated, I assume, if the thieves operated from Indian tribal lands, with the additional jurisdictional thorniness that comes with quasi-sovereignty.) But that should not be either her concern or that of UB. If UB has reliable information about who was involved (and surely they do; if not, their investigation has been unforgiveably shallow), they could make public both the name(s) and what evidence they have against those people. UB can't control whether law enforcement does anything about prosecution, but they can let the world know who cheated hundreds or thousands of its customers out of the money that UB has had to refund.

If I ran UB, and were genuinely interested in doing everything I could to set things right, that announcement would be high on my list of priorities. If the guilty party or parties truly have now been completely cut off from any meaningful ties to UB, then UB presumably would have no reason to want to protect them from exposure.

Offhand, I can think of only two reasons why UB management would decide not to make public the names of the thieves. First is a concern about liability for defamation of character. As far as I know, nobody, including Annie Duke, has explicitly claimed that this is the reason, or a reason, why they are not releasing the names, but it's easy to imagine that that excuse might be forthcoming at some point.

It should not be taken seriously. Perhaps their evidence is not enough to yield a conviction in which "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the legal standard. Duke mentions, for example, that they can identify from which computers the cheating occurred, but that it is harder to prove exactly who was sitting at the keyboard at any particular time. Granted. (But you can narrow the list of possibilities pretty far. And following the money as it is taken out of the corrupt accounts would tell you who is behind it.) But to defend against a possible civil suit for defamation, they need, in the end, only persuade a jury with a preponderance of the evidence. Surely they have enough evidence to convince objective onlookers to be at least 50% confident that they have the right people, don't they? Moreover, do they seriously believe that the criminals involved are going to sue for defamation? A truly innocent person might, but surely not the guilty. The last thing they'd want is the increased exposure of a court battle, with all of the evidence against them being laid out for all to see. Cockroaches run from the light, not towards it.

If UB is not worried about civil liability from naming names, then the only remaining plausible reason I can think of for nondisclosure is that they are protecting guilty parties who are still associated with the company in some manner, whether as owners, ongoing payees, shadow owners, investors, regulators, employees, whatever--and that smells about as rotten as it can get. If UB will not name names, then they cannot provide plausible assurance that the guilty are gone for good from any and all association with the company.

The last thing that Duke said that really chafed me was her complaint about online muckrakers who continue to poke at this particular sore spot, not letting it heal. She says, in essence, fine, I understand if you remain sufficiently suspicious that you don't want to play on UB any more, but at least stop talking trash about the site and the scandal, because it's bad for the industry.

This is a little like Richard Nixon complaining that the press coverage of Watergate was bad for America. No, sir--what was bad for the country was break-ins and cover-ups and illegal wiretappings and using the IRS to hound political enemies and all of the other misdeeds you committed and authorized. The publicity given it is not the problem, but part of the cleansing process.

I would say the same to Annie Duke. The problem here is not people talking about the crimes that were committed by, apparently, the former (and possibly still current) owners of the site you're endorsing, or those closely tied to them. The problem was the theft of your customers' money. Complaints about publicity resulting from the scandal sound a whole lot more like sweeping under the rug than sweeping clean.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. The actions by and statements from UB do not, in my view, reduce the smell by very much. In terms of reducing the stench, hiring on new high-visibility players and increasing the paychecks of the ones already on the team are like spraying Glade in a sewer.

Ideally, I would like to see UB continue as a big player in the online poker world. I think it is better for the players if there are lots of large, healthy sites competing for their loyalty. Because of the loss of credibility of Absolute Poker, I really wanted to believe that UB's scandal would be handled differently, in the kind of up-front, above-board, transparent, responsible way that, say, Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol cyanide poisoning scare back in the 1980s, which probably saved the company from ruin. So far, they have fallen woefully short of any such lofty standard, Annie Duke's overblown claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

I am willing to believe that the software hole at UB has been plugged, and no more cheating is going to occur there. (Well, at least not the special kind of cheating that only insiders can do. As for bots, player collusion, account selling, multiaccounting, etc., I don't know how UB compares in its security measures to other sites, but I'm not very worried about such things.) I also doubt that the people who had access to seeing hole cards ever bothered with cheating at tournaments with buy-ins of $10-30, which is most of what I played on the site. So it's not that I feel that I was personally cheated, or am afraid that I would be cheated if I played there now. It's that I hate knowingly giving money to criminals and sleazebags, if I can avoid it. And UB has not taken the definitive--and, actually, very simple and straightforward--steps it would need to take in order to convince me that that's not where the money is going.

It's too bad, really. I have enjoyed playing on UB. Before I recently started spending most of my online poker time trying to learn low-stakes razz and HORSE (which UB technically has, but the tables are empty every time I check), UB was usually my first choice to hit for a NLHE sit-and-go (well, after the loss of the ultra-fishy Party Poker, anyway) or a low-buy-in multi-table tournament for fun.

I have a small amount of money there on account still (about $40). For now, I'm letting it sit, keeping the "Rakewell" screen name on the books there. Does it make me a hypocrite, to write a screed like this but then not go all the way and cut off UB completely? Maybe. And if readers want to roast me for that, go ahead. But I do it in the hope, however naive and Pollyannaish, that continued pressure from its customers, from the press (like the "60 Minutes" piece we keep hearing is forthcoming), and maybe from regulators, will, sooner or later, prompt UB management to really come clean, and prove that they have severed all ties with the evildoers (as President Bush might call them). If they do, I will be happy to return as an active player on the site.

Until then, whenever I think about UB, or hear crap from their shills and spokesmen, my reaction will remain a deeply felt "Blecch."

Addendum, June 30, 2008

A few additional thoughts.

1. Last night I did a Google blog search for comments on the Duke interview and found nothing of substance, just a few pointers to it. Even a full web search finds no substantive comment yet. I guess it didn't bother anybody else as much as it did me.

2. Shamus reminds me in an email that "Cornell Fiji" on the 2+2 forums is professional player Steven Ware. I vaguely knew this, because I have seen those two names associated in news reports of Ware's tournament success, but for whatever reason I didn't consciously connect with the forum moderation/posting work done under the pseudonym. So this extra note is just to give credit where it's due.

3. Rather than linking to just the one post from Foucault, I perhaps should have used this link, which will take you to all of the posts he has written on the subject.

4. I had also intended to include in the main post above a note about a specific, well-known television producer associated with UB about whom Wicked Chops Poker had posted a note tentatively identifying him with one of the apparently corrupt UB poker accounts. But when I scanned back through the WCP archives for that post in order to find the name (which I couldn't remember offhand), I couldn't find it. I thought maybe I was hallucinating, or had read such a post elsewhere, but then thought to do a Google search using the terms "Ultimatebet" and "producer," and, sure enough, it pointed me to a WCP post. See screen shot below.

But links to that post are now dead. The date on the post, according to Google, was June 18, but if you search the WCP archives for that week, you won't find it. The fifth post here appears to be the WCP post that I remember, reposted without explicit credit, although it is introduced with a (now dead) link to the WCP post. Another reference to and summary of the WCP post can be found here. All of which means, apparently, that WCP took down the post in question, for reasons unknown. The source for the WCP post was this post on the forums by "trambopoline," who has been one of the main drivers behind the whole player investigation into the fraud.

I don't know why the WCP post was taken down. Speculating, maybe they got some additional information that the TV producer wasn't behind the apparently cheating account that bore a name strikingly similar to his. Maybe they got threatened with legal action, or just decided that it wasn't good to make the accusation without more evidence than similarity of names. It doesn't matter much. The point is that UB's failure to name names means that there will forever be speculation--right or wrong--about who among the UB insiders might have been on the take.

5. Yet another thing I had intended to mention in the original post, but forgot, was that to this date, as far as I know, UB has never communicated directly with its customers about the scandal. Sure, they've released public statements. But if you're a small-time recreational player who doesn't troll the various internet poker forums and blogs, you would never have heard from UB about the problem. I know that I have never received an email from UB or a notice upon logging in that would have alerted me to the issue. That is shameful behavior, an unforgiveable neglect, and again puts the lie to any claims that the company is working with the utmost integrity to come clean.


Grange95 said...

In addition to the various insiders whose identities you posit might be being protected by UB, why couldn't it be one or more of their big "name" players? They certainly have as much reason to cheat as anyone, and their big "wins" wouldn't be as easily questioned (after all, they are the best players, right?). Or, perhaps it could be someone closely associated with a name player, which might embarrass that player ...

Of course, we have no way to know if any player/endorsers or their associates were involved in either the fraud or the coverup ... but that's exactly the problem with UB's lack of public candor--failure to indentify the culprit(s) only leads to a broader suspicion of a every person with a significant role with UB . One would think if Annie Duke wanted to silence UB's critics, publicly clearing the air would be the best way to do so.

Poker_Guy said...

Wow, that was one great article. It really makes one wonder why the heck any of us still even consider playing online poker.

As for Grange95's comment, I totally agree. If Duke were to actually believe in what she said, maybe taking a step back and waiting for UB to fully expose those involved may have been a better road travelled.

gtycoon said...

Excellent post!

What I don't understand is why isn't law enforcement involved in this UB scandal...scratch this UB CRIME?

Was a crime committed?

I would say so, right?

I agree, as long as the name/s of those that were stealing from the UB players are not revealed, it'll look bad for UB.

Have any UB members that have been cheated contacted FBI? RCMP? or any other law enforcement agency to report the crime?

Waldo's Wild Kingdom said...

I'd say I agree with most of what you have here EXCEPT for staying on the site. Even with $40, its propping them up. They sell themselves based on number of players, games and tables (which, as you mentioned are waning in some spots). I suggest that you...and anyone in your situation like I was...jumps ship. I was working on a "Ferguson" strategy after his first run to 10k and had the original $7.33 I won in a freeroll up to over $150...then I pulled it. Getting the check was a nightmare, but I pulled it. YES it was that soft...but if you want soft, and at least free of scandal...try Bodog or Cake.