Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Two of a Kind: W. Joseph Johnston and Russ Hamilton

Hello, my name is Cheater. (So What?)Poker in Florida is experiencing a significant boom these days. Since betting limits were uncapped and other restrictions (e.g., games offered, hours of operation) were loosened on July 1, 2010, poker rooms throughout the state have witnessed unprecedented growth over the last six-plus months, with players pouring into the state’s more than two dozen card rooms in droves.

One player who has turned up at the new Florida games is Russ Hamilton, the 1994 World Series of Poker champion who remains the only person implicated in the four-and-a-half-year-long UltimateBet insider cheating scandal. According to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission’s “final decision” on the matter (issued September 11, 2009), 31 individuals were involved in the cheating, with former UB “consultant” Hamilton the only one of them named in the report. The site refunded over $22 million to cheated players, and the KGC fined UB an additional $1.5 million.

According to the report (which I can’t seem to locate on the KGC site any longer), “The vast majority of the computer devices and IP addresses used by the cheating accounts were directly associated with Russell Hamilton.” The report also suggested that “the cheating incidences detailed herein could constitute criminal behavior,” indicating that the regulatory body might pursue such, even though doing so was outside of the scope of its responsibility.

As we all know, no criminal charges have been sought against Hamilton or any of the others involved in the cheating at UB. Thus is the disgraced WSOP champ free to go where he likes, including showing up at the Gulfstream Park Casino for the 5/10/20 uncapped NLHE game there a couple of weeks ago.

A player at the game who recognized Hamilton confronted him about his involvement in the cheating. The resulting brouhaha was subsequently documented in detail in a Two Plus Two thread with the excellently descriptive title “Russ Hamilton verbally eviscerated; breaks down into an obscenity laced tirade.”

As the title indicates, Hamilton showed some defiance during that incident. And reports since of further appearances in Florida card rooms seem to suggest that Hamilton remains undeterred.

'Cowboys Full' (2009) by James McManusI thought of Hamilton yesterday when rereading a chapter in James McManus’s history of poker, Cowboys Full (2009), one concerning an incident of cheating that occurred at the Americus Club in Pittsburgh in 1906. Much like Hamilton seeing his opponents’ hole cards while playing online at UB, in that case the cheater, a man named W. Joseph Johnston, used a mirror ring to catch a glimpse of the down cards he was dealing in a game of five-card stud.

After cleaning out his opponents, one of them, Frank Sauers, spotted the mirror ring and beat up Johnston. Then he had him arrested “on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses” (as a New York Times article reported). The case went to court and Johnston was ordered to give Sauers back the money (and diamond ring and a diamond stud) he’d swindled from him, plus play court costs.

Johnston “sneeringly” paid what was due, says the article, but when the magistrate ordered him to leave Pittsburgh he insolently declared he’d “take his own time” doing so, insisting on first letting everyone know what he thought of the Americus Club members and their “squealing.”

“You fellows who have yelled at your losses have always been looking for the best of it at cards,” Johnston is reported to have said. “Yet when someone better than yourself at the game beats you you yell.” Johnston was even brazen enough to ask that his mirror ring be returned to him! The magistrate didn’t, though, and instead indicated he’d have the cheater arrested again if he didn’t skedaddle.

McManus explains how Johnston’s audacity in fact reflected general attitudes about poker during the 19th and early 20th centuries, namely that cheating was widely accepted as part of the game. Johnston’s boldness in court stemmed from his belief -- shared by many -- that “poker was a cheating game” and thus “it was unmanly to ‘squeal’ when someone got the better of you.” In other words (McManus explains), it was “by virtue of their superior sharping skills” that Johnston believed he had “earned the right” to steal from his opponents at the tables there at the Americus Club.

Rereading that chapter in Cowboys Full caused me think of Hamilton and wonder if perhaps that idea -- that in poker, cheating is part of the “game” -- somehow lingers in his mind as a kind of vestige of an earlier age. Certainly the decision to cheat in the first place was inspired by such, perhaps even rationalized by the thought that in poker one tries to find whatever edge one can in order to get one’s opponents’ chips into one’s own stack, including stealing peeks at others’ cards.

But perhaps the idea somehow remains in his thoughts today? Somehow providing Hamilton the needed courage -- or nerve -- to allow him to continue to show up in poker rooms to play?

And evoke the ghost of a certain W. Joseph Johnston, shouting invective in a Pittsburgh courtroom over a hundred years ago, with his own “obscenity laced tirade” at the Gulfstream Park Casino.

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Blogger Foucault said...

Nice post, Shamus. As much as we are struggling to change the popular perception of poker as a luck-based game, we must also be conscious of its reputation as a cheating game.

Sadly, the incident in which Hamilton was involved was a high-visibility reminder of the past that poker is trying to escape. That it was perpetrated by a former world champion (though perhaps the legitimacy of that title needs to be called into question) blurs the line between skill and cheating in the public mind in an unfortunate way.

I feel like the UB incident is actually worse than Johnston's, in a moral sense, because it involves a more fundamental betrayal of trust. Though in an unethical way, Johnston did legitimately outwit his opponents. For a while, it didn't occur to anyone that his ring could be used for cheating.

I think that literally everyone who plays online is aware of the possibility that a game operator could abuse his position to see hole cards or just to steal money directly from player accounts. There was no outwitting at UB. They took advantage of people who chose to trust that they would not do something that it was clearly within their ability to do.

2/02/2011 10:30 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Great post, Shamus. I'd just like to add that an even better parallel for a modern-day Johnston is the multi-accounters and other online "cheaters." That could even include people who use HUD software. Most of the sites have rules against it, but amongst some players, there is an attitude that "everyone does it" so it's ok, and in fact, you are an idiot for not cheating with HUD software or a second account used to obtain rake-back or whatever.

2/02/2011 5:14 PM  

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