Monday, December 01, 2008

On 60 Minutes’ “The Cheaters”

60 Minutes, 'The Cheaters' (11/30/08 episode)Was in a mighty funk just about all day yesterday. First off, it wasn’t until mid-morning that I realized I’d missed the friggin’ Run Good Challenge tournament on Saturday. As I mentioned yesterday, I had somehow had decided the tourney was on Sunday, and thus missed the sucker altogether. I think the holiday messed up my mind grapes. (Yes, Vera and I have just finished working through the first season of 30 Rock.)

Did manage to remember to watch 60 Minutes last night, though, and so saw the just-under-13-minute long segment we’d been hearing about since March. The report on the insider cheating scandals at Absolute Poker and UltimateBet is available online at the 60 minutes website here. One can also read a transcript of the entire segment here.

Front page of The Washington Post, 11/30/08Also over on The Washington Post website one can read a pair of articles (published yesterday and today) that provide much greater detail regarding the scandals, as well as some added speculation about legal questions and/or the need to regulate online poker. The first article, “Players Gamble on Honesty, Security of Internet Betting,” appeared on the site yesterday, and was featured above the fold on the front page of the print version of the paper. The second article, with the headline “Prohibition vs. Regulation Debated As U.S. Bettors Use Foreign Sites,” went online last night and appears in today’s paper.

For those who have yet to watch the 60 Minutes piece or read the Washington Post articles, let me especially recommend the articles as worth your while. In fact, I would venture to suggest these articles will ultimately have more influence on the future of online poker than will the 60 Minutes segment, although the symbolic value of the piece airing on CBS’ most highly regarded news show certainly has considerable valence, too.

The first Post article does a decent job of summarizing both the Absolute Poker and UltimateBet scandals (with just a couple of small errors along the way). The second is a reasonable analysis of the legislative history and the issue as it stands at present. The second article also has a couple of small, misleading elements, such as the implication that Neteller was done in by the UIGEA (it wasn’t). Still, an interesting article that was clearly written with the hopes of informing members of Congress a little better on the various issues in play here.

One also finds on the Post’s website other useful items, including a timeline chroncling “Internet Poker and the Law,” another timeline on the AP/UB sleuthing called “Catching Poker Cheats,” as well as an article trying to pin down “The Mohawk Connection.”

I may come back here later in the week to opine a bit about the articles -- in particular the second one that deals with legislative issues. Today, though, I am just going to share a few brief impressions of the 60 Minutes segment.

My initial, general impression of the report was that it didn’t really contain any overwhelming howlers or represent a hopelessly biased position vis-à-vis the “morality” of poker and/or gambling. Much like ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker Main Event final table, it was too brief, too cursory, and thus only somewhat representative of the reality. But like the ESPN show, the report at least covered the gist of it.

I did cringe at the teaser for the story that opened the program -- the little lead-in they show to try to keep those who had been watching NFL football from changing the channel. “The World Series of Poker is the richest sporting competition in the world,” says Steve Kroft, “and yet it pales in comparison to the half a million people who are gambling on the internet right now, even though it is illegal and unregulated in the U.S.”

Later it is clarified that, in fact, it is the industry that is illegal -- i.e., one cannot set up and operate an online gambling site in the U.S. -- but no matter. I do think that for the general viewer, someone previously unacquainted with online poker or any of the specifics regarding its legality, it is likely that person will come away from this report thinking it is against the law to play online poker, period.

Not good. But not that big of a deal. Such was pretty much the case before last night, wasn’t it?

In the piece, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet come off horribly, as they should. I cannot imagine anyone in his or her right mind could watch the segment and then think it reasonable to trust either site. I was also struck by the fact that no other online poker sites are identified by name in the piece. One catches a fleeting glimpse of Full Tilt Poker on one of Serge Ravitch’s monitors, I believe, but none are mentioned at all.

A couple of thoughts regarding the lack of reference to other sites: It is likely the other sites are happy not to have been mentioned, as the association would not have been positive here. However, by not mentioning how other sites (like Stars and Full Tilt) have operated in a trustworthy manner, one does tend to come away believing that all sites are equally suspect.

Todd “Dan Druff” Witteles’ last comment helps confirm such paranoia when he says “there may be other accounts out there like this, maybe even on other sites that are not being done with the same sort of recklessness. And maybe this has been going on, on more than just Absolute Poker and UltimateBet. Maybe it’s going on in several other places. And maybe it’s even still going on in these sites.”

By the way, Witteles went on Two Plus Two last night to apologize to the online poker community about that last comment (despite being banned from 2+2 -- he created a new account). I actually don’t think he needs to apologize, and in fact what he is saying, while a bit inflammatory, seems a reasonable observation, all things considered. Still, the statement does serve here to reaffirm the general impression that anyone who plays online poker and believes it to be a reasonable activity (or occupation) must be hopelessly naïve and/or reckless themselves.

Finally, I was surprised at how the segment fails to talk at all about possible future legislation -- or even discuss with any specifity what the current legal status is for online poker. In fact, the piece fails to mention the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 a single time! That seems to me a pretty serious omission, especially given the editorial angle taken that the lack of legislative clarity directly paved the way for “The Cheaters” to do their thing and get away with it.

There will be a lot of hand-wringing and hair-pulling on the forums over the next few days, I am sure, but as I say I don’t necessarily think the 60 Minutes segment will have that much of an impact on the subsequent legislative debate, and perhaps only a slight (negative) influence on public opinion about online poker. Meanwhile, I do think legislators will read those articles in The Washington Post, though, and that may open some eyes regarding the UIGEA and/or other online gambling bills.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Kelly said...

Thanks for the link, Shamus. Just watched the feature. I don't think Druff's comment was alarmist or accusatory... he was just saying what should be clear to anybody who's hearing about these problems. What got me was the multiple times that online poker was called illegal in the U.S. and even Canada. Making that comment isn't overlooking a subtle nuance or anything like that, it's blatantly wrong. Operating an online gambling site in the US would be illegal. Playing is not, under any definition, even allowing for the UIGEA.

Was it damaging? Probably not, because as you mentioned, most people already assume it is illegal. But it's not going to bring a lot of new players if the passive observer thinks that playing makes them a criminal.

12/01/2008 12:08 PM  
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12/01/2008 12:19 PM  
Blogger Amatay said...

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12/01/2008 12:19 PM  

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