Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Digging for Gold (Mining Isidur1)

Digging for Gold (Mining the Isidur1 Story)Was talking to Vera Valmore yesterday about the latest “big thing” in poker everyone seems to be talking about -- namely, all the speculation over whether or not Brian Hastings perhaps received a little extra assistance from his CardRunners buds that might’ve helped him in that huge session versus Isildur1 last week. You remember that session -- the one in which the senior at Cornell University took himself a little study break and ended up going back to the books $4.2 million richer. (Read more here.)

I tried to summarize the situation, including what I could remember of Full Tilt Poker’s “Site Terms” that might have been relevant here. I said I knew there was a rule against collusion, and those who do collude risk forfeiting their balance. I knew there was also something in there about using certain programs -- called “external player assistance programs” (I see now, looking at the site) -- “which are designed to provide users with an unfair advantage over their opponents.” That rule goes on to say that “Full Tilt Poker defines an unfair advantage as a user accessing or compiling information on other players beyond that which the user has personally observed through his or her own game play.”

As I explained it to Vera, some of the buzz made it sound as though it were possible that Hastings may have had some knowledge of hands played by some of his friends against Isildur1. That is, perhaps some of what they call “datamining” had happened whereby Hastings learned some things about his opponent he might not have been able to learn without assistance from another.

Hastings didn’t really say much along those lines in his 12/9/09 blog post about the session. He does mention there fellow CardRunners pro Brian Townsend’s losing session earlier in the day versus Isildur1, but doesn’t say anything about having had any inside dope regarding Townsend’s hands.

Shortly after his big day, Hastings was interviewed on a couple of podcasts, including ESPN’s The Poker Edge with Andrew Feldman and Phil Gordon (the 12/10/09 episode). At about the 10-minute mark, Gordon asks Hastings specifically about how he and his buddies had gone about analyzing Isildur1’s play, and Hastings responds by saying they had done quite a bit of study of the unknown Swede’s habits. Hastings notes in particular that Townsend had “analyzed a database of, like, 50,000 heads-up hands that Isildur1 played and constructed ranges of what Isildur1 was doing in all kinds of spots,” adding that “the three of us discussed a ton of hands and the reports that Brian made.” Hastings also appeared on Mediocre Poker Radio (the 12/11/09 episode) where he again makes reference to having watching Townsend playing that session and getting in the mood to play Isildur1 after Townsend finished.

Then, on 12/14/09, Gary Wise posted an article over on the ESPN Poker Club which made a few points about Hastings’ big win, including placing an emphasis on “the strength of the collective” -- i.e., pointing out how beneficial it can be to have fellow poker players to talk to about one’s game. Wise noted how “he, Townsend and Cole South conglomerated their hand histories, allowing them to study the mystery man's playing style,” and included that quote from the Poker Edge interview as well as support.

A couple of days after Wise’s article appeared, a thread started up over on Two Plus Two that raised the question of whether or not Hastings et al. may have violated Full Tilt Poker’s “Site Terms.” On Saturday, 12/19/09, a representative of Full Tilt Poker (“FTPSean”) came onto the thread to say that “After doing an investigation and speaking with Brian Hastings, Brian Townsend, and Cole South, the Fraud and Security team have come to the conclusion that the statement taken from the ESPN article describing the three combining their hands into a shared database was inaccurate.”

However (FTPSean goes on to say), the investigation did reveal that Townsend -- a Full Tilt red pro, by the way -- was guilty of a breach of FTP rules regarding datamining, and that the punishment for Townsend would be the loss of his Red Pro status for one month. (Townsend writes about the matter on his CardRunners blog here.) (Incidentally, Cole South came onto the Two Plus Two thread later as well to deny any wrongdoing on his part.)

I told Vera the whole thing seemed to highlight the fact that the online poker sites have certain rules that seemingly cannot be enforced. Indeed, in FTPSean’s note on Two Plus Two he begins by saying “There is absolutely nothing wrong with discussing hands, discussing opponents, or discussing strategy with other players while away from the table,” but then notes how the sort of datamining of which Townsend was found guilty is out of bounds.

Clearly there is some distinction there regarding the degree to which one takes one’s discussions of strategy while away from the tables. Less clear is how exactly one makes that distinction -- and, importantly, how an online site can effectively regulate against it.

I tried to draw an analogy with downloading music files from the web -- clearly not legal, but “everyone does it.” Vera quickly stopped me. “Not everyone does it,” she said. True. “And downloading music files can always be tracked,” she added, noting a clear difference between the sort of rule-breaking that we were talking about with regard to sharing hand histories/compiling databases and my proposed parallel.

Definitely seems on the surface to be a bit unfair to the individual who finds himself up against “the strength of the collective.” But, really, anyone who plays online poker potentially subjects him/herself to such a disadvantage, dontcha think?

Wonder what Isildur1 thinks about all of this? Sounds like we might find out, as apparently Matthew Parvis of PokerNews has scored an interview with the Swede. I imagine we’ll be seeing that appear sometime today.

Will definitely be interesting to see what else those continuing to dig deeper into this story manage to uncover.

(EDIT [10:55 a.m.]: Parvis’s blog post about the still-to-come interview.)

(EDIT [11:25 a.m.]: The PokerNews interview is now online, in which Isildur1 says he plans to make a formal complaint to Full Tilt Poker regarding the session with Hastings.)

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Blogger Champ said...

Good write and link compilation!

However, I think everyone is missing the underlying truth:

1. Hastings ran like God during that session. WAY above EV. He caught backdoor runners, he banked on some lucky coolers, he had very fortunate timing meta-game wise.

2. Isidur1 is made out to be some sort of victim here. Whatever happen to game selection? Or taking a break? He tilted and spewed, and allowed his ego to clutter up his session. If someone was suspecting a cheat, quit. It's that simple.

3. Isidur1 is suspected as to doing the same thing with Tom Dwan. That is; Ghosting, tag-teaming, consolidating, et al...

12/22/2009 11:11 AM  
Blogger Greylocks said...

The easy and obvious solution to all this is to make it a lot harder to get hand histories. Make it so you have to be logged in, you can view only one hand history at a time, you can only view a hand history if you were dealt into the hand (on both PS and FT you can bring up the hand history if you're an observer at the table, which simply should not be allowed), and you can't save it to disk without doing a cut-and-paste to another program.

You don't get hand histories at all in live play. It's not clear to me why online players think they are entitled to get them just because they play online.

As for Hasting running hot, that's irrelevant. Cheating is still cheating, regardless of the outcome. If he was cheating - and I'll let others make that determination - his win for that session should be forfeited in its entirety. If cheats only have to return the money they are proven to have won by dishonest means, they're essentially getting a freeroll to cheat.

12/22/2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger Sean G said...

This has been an interesting story to follow, thanks for the great recap. I'm on the "not cheating" side of things, but it's pretty obviously a gray area that could benefit from some straightforward rules. Reading FTPs TOS in this area makes me wonder whether the hand histories I've shared on Pocket Fives or my blog are violating TOS... it sounds like they technically are.

In my opinion, the higher the stakes, the more you should expect your opponents to seriously analyze your play. In the end, is there any difference between three people watching one another play for a few weeks and discussing, or three people reading hand histories together?

If Hastings and the others were violating TOS, how are hand replays in training videos NOT violating those same TOS? In a sense, watching an hour-long training session of some guy playing is an even worse violation, as thousands (or whatever) of people can then view the actions of the rest of the table.

All of this is a good reason we need legalization and regulation in the US.

12/22/2009 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

1/10/2010 5:43 AM  

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