Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Epic Poker got some splainin' to do

You've probably heard a thing or two about the Epic Poker League and its out-of-the-gate problems with ethics and qualifications. Between Chino Rheem winning the first event and the controversy surrounding Michael DiVita's exit, a whole lot of questions were raised about the league's much-ballyhooed code of conduct.

In an apparent attempt to address such questions, Stephen Martin, ethics consultant to the league, granted an interview to Jess Welman of Bluff magazine, which was published a few days ago here. I read it last night, and at the end had more questions than answers. (I expect that this has been hashed out ad nauseum in places like Two Plus Two, but I have not read any of that. What follows is just my own reactions.)

The first uncertainty with which I was left was whether DiVita's withdrawal was actually voluntary on his part, as Martin takes pains to insist, or involuntary. DiVita submitted a comment to the Martin interview which, taken at face value, contradicts Martin's account. DiVita speaks of the Standards and Conduct Committee's "decision," while Martin is claiming that no decision was made: "[W]e didn’t take any official action since Mr. DiVita chose to withdraw."

But if Martin is telling the truth about that, then it's hard to understand his answer to the final question:
If Mr. DiVita wants to take part, he would have to request eligibility from the league based on his criminal history. We’ve set up a process where people can request a hearing and appear in front of the Standards and Conduct Committee and ultimately appeal to the Commissioner if they feel like regarding eligibility issues or for disciplinary action. If he wanted to play in our league going forward, he would have to go through that process…There is no guarantee that someone will be eligible to play.
DiVita was presumably eligible to play when he played. If the committee made no decision and took no action, then logically it must be the case that DiVita's eligibility remains intact and he would be able to show up and play at any Epic event anytime he wanted to do so. How can it simultaneously be true that the committee/league made no decision and took no action on his eligibility to play, and that if he chose to play in the future he would have to first request eligibility via a hearing?

Secondly, I'm puzzled by a set of apparent contradictions. First, Martin claims that past conduct, criminal or otherwise, will not be considered disqualifying unless it affects the league in some sort of ongoing manner:
Initially when the league and the Standards and Conduct Committee were formed, we made a general decision not to take action against players for pre-league conduct and things that happened before the league was founded, with some exceptions. One [exception] being that if an action by a player was so severe or significant that we needed to take a look at those issues or something that had an ongoing impact on the league after it started.
Yet there is no explanation of why DiVita's convictions from 20 years ago, nor his arrest (with charges subsequently dropped) in 2008, have "an ongoing impact on the league after it started." Why does Mike Matusow get a pass for his conviction on drug-trafficking charges, but DiVita has to answer for his far older convictions? Is it because the latter are categorized as sex crimes, and Epic Poker has made an institutional decision that sex crimes are worse than drug crimes? If so, where is that determination to be found in the EPL's documents?

Speaking of the league's documents, you can view online the "Players' Code of Conduct." It includes this laudable sentiment:
While criminal conduct is clearly outside the scope of permissible professional conduct (and persons who engage in serious criminal conduct are subject to League discipline), our standard of conduct as professional poker players is considerably higher. It is not simply enough to avoid being convicted of a serious criminal offense.
OK, great. But it's hard to imagine a squishier, more flexible standard than that.

Let's consider the EPL's commissioner, Annie Duke. The first time I heard of her, I believe, was when I read James McManus's great book, Positively Fifth Street. He documents having witnessed Duke picking up another player's cards from the muck and looking at them (page 181) during a satellite to the WSOP Main Event. Even though I was a novice at the game when I read that, I knew that such an action constituted a major breach of both rules and etiquette. Why does the EPL have a known cheater as its commissioner, if the standard of conduct is as high as this Code of Conduct implies?

And what about her criminal connection? She was a paid representative of Ultimate Bet both before and after the UIGEA passed in 2006. What's more, she renewed her position with them after the company was discovered to have engaged in the most extensive cheating scheme the online poker world has yet had brought to light.

In a recent TV appearance, Duke conceded that online poker was "illegal." Let's grant the assumption that this is limited to the United States and to real-money play. Let's further grant the assumption that she is not talking about players violating any federal statute (they are not, though some may be violating state anti-gambling statutes), but rather about the sites spreading the games and/or receiving deposits in connection with the same. Nothing about the legal status of the online poker offerings has changed since 2006. (April 15 of this year saw some enforcement action, but nothing about the legality--or lack thereof--changed that day.) Duke is essentially admitting on national television that the company for which she was a paid shill was engaging in criminal conduct for years, with her knowledge and blessing. How in the hell does that conform to the league's goal, as stated in that Code of Conduct, to "further...the positive public reputation" of poker?

Of course, as Commissioner, Duke is not a player. But that particular Clintonesque dodge won't work, given the Code's broad wording:
Everyone associated with the Epic Poker League is expected to avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of poker and the League. This expectation applies to all players, tournament officials, employees and anyone else associated with the operations of the League.
So the League's commissioner got paid by a dirty site to continue to bring them business after it was publicly known that the site was dirty, while she knew that the company's core function (even when conducted honestly) was illegal. Can somebody please explain to me how this constitutes "avoid[ing] conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of poker"?

Or does Duke get the same "let bygones be bygones" pass that Matusow and other former criminals in the League get, but that is somehow not granted to DiVita?

My final question is this: How does a professional ethicist such as Martin, brought on board specifically to keep the organization's reputation white as the driven snow, fail to see these issues?

Addendum, September 14, 2011

See update on the story here.


lightning36 said...

You have greatly exceeded the number of times the words "ethics" and "poker" should ever appear in the same post.

Anonymous said...

More importantly, would Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson be allowed to play in Epic if they would come out of hiding? They are in charge of the largest theft in the history of poker, live or online.
I see Dutch Boyd also played..another confirmed thief.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that DiVita signed the Epic waiver and did not declare there was anything in his past that they would have to review. Because he omitted that info, they thought he was eligible, when they found out there was something in his past, it came up for review.

Really, it is along the same vein as applying for a job, saying you don't have a criminal record, and then them finding that you do.

Anonymous said...

Tim West cashed, he has unpaid debt on 2p2 and is a disgrace.

Rakewell said...

I just looked over the documents available on Epic's web site, including the release players must sign, and I didn't see anything in any of it requiring players to disclose past criminal convictions, etc. Can you point me to any document that would have such an effect?

Sean T. said...

A player looking to appeal a banning has to appear before the committee?

Yeah, sounds like some people are getting drunk on the power they awarded themselves.

Anonymous said...

DiVita studied the documents, but never signed them. He was kicked out before he had the opportunity to object. I know him personally, and I know for a fact that he still has the $20,000.00 receipt that they gave him, the "commissioners coin" that they gave him, and all of the unsigned league documents that they gave him.

Andy Ward said...

Don't forget that, post-UIGEA, and when the laws were exactly the same as they are now, Annie Duke went in front of Congress (I'm not sure in exactly what capacity) and argued vehemently that online poker was (wait for it) legal!

Of course one thing that was different is that she was employed by UB, rather than being commissioner of a live poker league.