Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hamilton, UltimateBet, & the WSOP

Russ Hamilton at the 1994 WSOP Main Event final table“Former World Series of Poker Main Event Champ Implicated in Online Poker Cheating Scandal.”

Doesn’t sound too good, does it? I mean, we might complain about other champs having come up short in various ways when it comes to fulfilling our (probably unreasonable) expectations for them to serve as the game’s “ambassadors.”

But this.... Sheesh. Talk about a failure to respect the game.

Can’t say I’d really thought all that much about Russ Hamilton before this summer when his name came up in connection with the simmering UltimateBet insider cheating scandal. I remember at the time thinking back to having seen ESPN’s coverage of the 1994 World Series of Poker Main Event which Hamilton had won. That was one of those for which Dick Van Patten provided the commentary.

The other reason for remembering that particular program (on YouTube here) was the fact that Jack Binion had that year promised the winner the additional prize of his weight in silver to commemorate the WSOP’s 25th anniversary. Hamilton was (by far) the heaviest player at the final table at over 300 pounds.

I’ve read various stories about Hamilton having purposely gained 100-plus lbs. and/or loaded his pockets with $2K worth of silver dollars for the weigh-in. Not really sure how valid either tale is, actually. About a month before the ugliness popped up this summer, Tom Sexton wrote an account over on PokerNews of the story of Hamilton’s claiming the 43-silver bar bonus (worth about $28,000).

The bit about the weigh-in -- mythical or not -- had the effect of tagging Hamilton as an angle shooter. So when the rumors surfaced in July that Hamilton, as a consultant-slash-possible part-owner of UltimateBet, had some involvement in the scandal, that reputation (deserved or not) probably didn’t help him. Some sleuths had connected Hamilton to some of the implicated accounts used for the cheating, and for about a week there right at the end of the WSOP it was all the buzz.

Barry Greenstein appeared on the July 16th episode of PokerRoad Radio to summarize a two-hour conversation he’d had with Hamilton. Sort of a pseudo-interview, as Hamilton was being advised by his lawyers not to talk. Was a little tedious to listen to, as I recall, but there were a couple of nuggets in there. One was Hamilton professing to Greenstein that when everything came out a couple of months, names would be named, and he wouldn’t be one of them. So much for that.

Greenstein sounded like he wanted to believe his friend. (EDIT [added 10/2/08]: Or rather, “acquaintance” -- see comment below.) Nonetheless, the Bear said he did think Hamilton most certainly at least knew the guilty party or parties, even if he didn’t seem to know a lot about the day-to-day operations of UltimateBet.

The other interesting item that came up in that interview was Greenstein’s account of a conversation he had had with Phil Hellmuth. Hellmuth is, of course, UB’s most prominent spokesperson, a role he purportedly was recruited for by Hamilton back in the day.

Greenstein spoke about having talked previously with Hellmuth about the scandals at UB, and used the word “oblivious” to describe the Poker Brat’s reactions to suggestions that the problems might negatively affect his image. Greenstein was/is not alone in having that opinion about Hellmuth.

However, when Greenstein asked Hellmuth about Hamilton shortly after the stories about the 1994 champ’s possible involvement in the cheating had surfaced, the Bear says Hellmuth appeared “sheepish” -- the first time in the nearly 20 years he’d known Hellmuth that he’d ever seen him that way. Despite the fact that we’re several removes from what was actually going down, one got the sense that Greenstein was suggesting that when Hamilton’s name became associated with the thing, the Eleven-Star General of the UB Army suddenly seemed marginally less oblivious to the situation.

Then yesterday came that presser from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission unambiguously singling out Hamilton as “the main person responsible for and benefiting from the multiple cheating incidents” that occurred on the site from mid-2004 to early 2008. The release says UB has already refunded $6.1 million to affected players, and that the site will recommence handing out more refunds in early November. Then, as we saw earlier with Absolute Poker, the KGC lists a number of sanctions UltimateBet must abide by in order to retain its gaming permit from the Commission.

My initial response on hearing the news was surprise -- and a bit of disbelief -- at the singling out of Hamilton here, although the release does also say other “individuals” were involved. That is, he was the ringleader of the operation, according to the Commission’s audit.

Then I thought about Hellmuth’s reaction (as conveyed by Greenstein), as well as Annie Duke’s PokerNews interview back in July in which she earnestly defended the company and its new ownership. (Wrote a bit on that here.)

Yesterday’s news cannot be good for either Hellmuth or Duke, one would imagine. While neither spokesperson is apparently guilty of any wrongdoing, their friendship with Hamilton -- and apparent knowledge of his involvement well before yesterday’s report -- certainly doesn’t help ’em, image-wise, I wouldn’t think.

Meanwhile, that 60 Minutes piece looms. And here we are, six weeks from the final table of the WSOP Main Event. Which Hamilton won, fourteen years ago....

Are we starting to get an idea how that might spin?

(EDIT [added 10/1/08]: Just heard on this week’s Two Plus Two Pokercast that the 60 Minutes piece on the scandals at Absolute Poker & UltimateBet is scheduled to air on Sunday, October 26th -- exactly two weeks before the WSOP Main Event restart.)

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Blogger Random Table Draw said...

One thing I think should be cleaned up is that Greenstein isn't Hamilton's friend, or that tight with him, but knew him well enough or had the connections to get the one on one. He's defended this point on the 2+2 and PR forums.

OTHERWISE, great reporting as always.

10/02/2008 2:02 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thanks, WWK -- good pt. I added a clarification there in the post.

10/02/2008 8:42 AM  

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