Monday, February 27, 2006

At What Cost

Because I have readers who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s a brief recap.  Two high-profile Internet players were recently banned from both Party Poker and Pokerstars for cheating.  They both had multiple accounts and had managed to enter tournaments multiple times under different user id’s.  While having multiple accounts certainly violates the terms and conditions set forth by each poker site, I don’t believe it’s cheating as long as only one account is played at any one time.  However, playing multiple accounts in the same tournament or same ring game is most certainly cheating for a variety of reasons.

Not knowing either individual personally, I wonder what it was that made them decide on their course of action.  Certainly, we’ve been witness to other forms of cheating in other walks of life, professional sports most notably.  In the aftermath of such scandals, it always seems like the guilty party offered one of two reasons.  Either they felt that they had to even the playing field because everyone else was doing it, or it was their drive to be the absolute best at any cost.  Neither argument holds any water in the poker world.

I have to think that the amount of money involved played some factor.  The sum of money confiscated in each case was over six figures, and to many of us, that represents a year or more of salary.  It brings me back to one of the first thoughts I had upon embarking on the journey of becoming a better poker player.  Why did I play?  Was it for the money?  Of course the money is important; without it, we’d never be able to pressure our opponents into making sub-optimal decisions.  But for me, that’s not the reason I play.

Poker, in its infinite combination of possibilities, represents to me the ultimate mental challenge.  I am truly driven by the goal of being able to outthink my opponents in any situation more often than not.  Being better at putting opponents on their hole cards, making bets that offer incorrect odds to be called, and knowing a blind-steal situation when it manifests itself are all areas in which I hope to have an edge.

I’d never cheat to gain that edge.  For any amount of money.

For whatever reason, if I were to win a tournament or cash big in a ring game due to an unfair advantage gained through cheating, I’d feel empty.  It would be a hollow victory.  The rules of poker define the playing field.  The guilty parties mentioned above expanded their playing field to include the infrastructure of online poker.  The holes in that infrastructure allowed them to gain their edge.

One of the players indicated that having other accounts allowed him to remain anonymous.  His main online persona had developed a reputation and other players knowing his style began to play back at him.  So rather than develop the skills required to adjust to those who’ve adjusted to him, he simply created a new account that enabled him to reap the rewards of his main playing style.  That, to me, is the easy way out.  It indicates to me that poker became a moneymaking endeavor rather than an opportunity to become truly world-class.  That’s not to say this player was unskilled.  Quite the contrary.  But I feel he lost an opportunity to become even better by relying on the crutch of multiple account names.

Frankly, I’m a little bit saddened (but not surprised) by the events.  Online poker was gaining momentum, making inroads to the already established B&M tournament scene.  Million dollar prize pools have become almost commonplace, rivaling the live poker scene from a decade ago.  And it was growing fast.

In one sense, I’m satisfied with the resulting course of action.  After an investigation, the guilty parties were banned and funds were confiscated.  On the other hand, I’m disappointed that this was handled reactively than proactively.  I have to ask, hopefully not rhetorically, why this cheating wasn’t discovered internally.  I’m sure the technical details are complicated, but two players having the same IP address/unique machine ID playing in the same tournament or same ring game should simply not be possible.  The fact that it is/was is disturbing to me.

This episode indicates how far online poker still has to go; after all, it’s still in its infancy.  Unfortunately, the incident has the makings of being the tipping point from which the legality issue will be determined.  Russ Fox has written about the possibility of the mainstream media picking up on this issue and its implications.  With the impending bill to ban online gambling gaining exposure, we’re in for some interesting times.

I hope online poker improves and learns from these growing pains.  And I hope that the players who feel the need to cheat in order to win have the capability to look inside themselves and realize that what they’re doing is wrong.  If you’re playing only because you want to win money at all costs, you should look for another game.  Don’t pollute the beauty of the game with your greed.

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