Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Sebok Surprise

Joe Sebok, as photographed by B.J. Nemeth at the 2009 WSOPYesterday I was at the bank making a deposit. Was the middle of the afternoon, and when I walked in there were no other customers and three tellers seemingly having a good time at their jobs, all smiling and joking around a bit. I handed the one my check and deposit slip, and after looking it over she took it to be approved by a supervisor.

While the supervisor was signing off on it, the teller, still with a smile on her face, startled me a little by asking me the following question: “What is one belief you have about human nature?”

I’m not making this up. I smiled and asked jokingly whether the question was part of the approval process for my check. She chuckled and said no, they were doing a poll. Indeed, her colleagues were looking over at us, awaiting my reply to the question.

I thought for a moment, then came up with an answer. “All are interested in survival,” I said. “That’s good,” one of the other tellers said, nodding. Then I made another joke about how when I sign into my account online, I always struggle to remember the answers to those ID questions such as “What was your first car?” I said I was glad that I wasn’t asked about human nature there, because I’d never remember what my answer was.

My check was approved, and the teller humorously said “Thanks for your belief” as I left.

It was a little later that I was reading online about Joe Sebok having signed on to represent UltimateBet. Again, like the teller’s question, not expected. I have to admit, at first I thought the story might have been a Melted Felt-style satire, but a little more surfing around confirmed that indeed, Sebok had made the move. In fact, not only is he now a UB-sponsored player, but he’s also taken a position as a “media and operations consultant.”

It appears the signing of Sebok isn’t intended as just another addition of a poker pro to the roster, but a non-ambiguous public-relations move coming on the heels of that, well, still somewhat ambiguous “final decision” from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission regarding the insider cheating that occurred at UB.

As the report noted, folks on the inside cheated players for four-and-a-half years (from June 2003 to December 2007), a period that was followed by another twenty months of less-than-forthright communications with players and others regarding the status of the investigation that for many further damaged the site’s credibility and integrity.

The UB press release is headlined “Respected Poker Pro Joe Sebok Joins UltimateBet’s Team UB” -- a pretty clear signal that the signing is attempt to improve the current respectability of the site. The release goes on to say that in his new role Sebok “will help bridge the gap between the UltimateBet brand and poker players.”

Interestingly, the press release also suggests that an announcement regarding those mysterious 31 unnamed players implicated in the cheating scandal is imminent. Says Sebok, “UB and I first started talking about a possible relationship almost 4 months ago and I made it very clear that I couldn’t commit until that point in time when the names associated with the scandal began to be released.”

UltimateBet patchIn other words, it sounds like Sebok’s signing was based in part on a agreement that UB would eventually release the names of everyone -- in addition to the already-named Russ Hamilton -- “associated with the scandal.” That would seem to indicate both those guilty of fraud and those merely “associated” will be identified. As some have speculated, the 31 names may well include some of both -- that is, some who were actively involved in the cheating and some who were “associated” in some less-culpable fashion. One wonders if it really is feasible for all 31 to be identified here, but that’s what is being suggested will happen.

Sebok goes on to say that UltimateBet COO Paul Leggett has assured him that those names will be released. “I consider this [i.e., the releasing of the names] to be one of my new responsibilities moving forward,” says Sebok, “and intend to continue working very closely with Paul to ensure it happens.”

I’ve noted here before that I’m a Sebok fan, having listened to his podcasts since he first joined CardPlayer’s The Circuit some three years ago, and continued to follow his shows and the impressive growth of the PokerRoad site he founded with his father, Barry Greenstein. (To give credit, that picture of Sebok above at the 2009 WSOP comes from the PokerRoad site, taken by B.J. Nemeth -- click the pic to enlarge.) Got to meet him and talk a few times this past summer when covering the WSOP, and found him as friendly and funny as you’d expect from the shows.

I am remembering shaking Sebok’s hand after he busted from the Main Event on Day 7, finishing in 56th place. As I reported here at the time, pretty much everyone on the rail, particularly the media folks, was pulling for the guy.

I am also remembering back during the 2008 WSOP when another pro whom I respect and like, Eric “Rizen” Lynch, signed with UB, and writing a post here lamenting his decision. (Lynch, of course, soon afterward changed his mind and parted ways with UB.)

It’s true that the situation at UB was somewhat different then than now, but I can’t help but feel a little bit of the same disappointment at the news of Sebok joining with UB. But I’m not going with the obvious “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” headline for this post. I want all of this to work out well for Sebok, for UltimateBet, and for the online poker industry as a whole.

I’m not terribly optimistic, though. Feel a little like I’m sweating Sebok in a tourney. He’s showing me his cards, and just now has decided to limp in from early position with a not-so-good hand. The button raises, it folds back to Sebok and he just calls. Maybe Sebok has a read on the situation and knows what he’s doing. And how to make this hand work. But watching from the rail, it isn’t obvious yet how that’s going to happen.

And so I fear that rather than increase UB’s respectability, Sebok’s well-earned respectability -- like a big stack of chips accumulated through a long stretch of good play -- might suffer a bit here. We’ll see, though.

One has to imagine that UltimateBet offered a pretty sweet deal to the Cub. Details of these things aren’t generally made public knowledge, but the gossip has been that UB’s deals have tended to be larger than those offered by other sites here lately (for obvious reasons). And I suppose that added “media and operations consultant” tag must have required a little extra cabbage as well.

I thought back to my answer to the teller’s question about human nature. If it is true that we are all interested in survival, then, well, I guess I probably shouldn’t be too judgmental about someone taking an opportunity like this, especially if it is (as I suspect) a somewhat lucrative one.

Still doesn’t prevent me from worrying about how it all plays out, though.

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Blogger Unknown said...

If Seebs can actually get the hand histories released and have names placed to screen names, what does that say about Annie Duke?

She and Hellmuth (he's done and said little publicly about the issue) are the face of UB. If one was a customer of UB, you'd hope they'd have done more to get this stuff out and not need to hire someone outside of UB to satisfy their critics.

9/23/2009 7:58 PM  
Blogger Lin Sherman said...

If I were UB and trying to clean up my image, I'd do exactly what they did, which is hire a big-name outsider with a squeaky-clean image who is trusted by the poker community.

Hellmuth and Duke are not outsiders, which taints anything they say or do in regard to the cheating scandal, no matter how principled or well-intended.

Also, I believe Duke at one time was (and might still be) affiliated in some way with the company that provided UB's original software. I could be wrong about that, but if I'm right, she may have liability issues of her own that would make it in her best interest to not get involved in any sort of investigation of the cheating or any attempt to rectify the matter.

9/24/2009 12:06 AM  
Blogger gadzooks64 said...

Mathers makes a great point: why couldn't (or didn't) Duke and Hellmuth get UB to do this long before now?

I would assume their reputations were on the line as much as anybody else's.

I sure hope this doesn't end up besmirching Sebok's reputation with the poker community. Only time will tell.

9/24/2009 9:57 AM  

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