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High stakes in online poker regulation 10/12/2007
Alex Wade

The vast sums generated by rakes and entry fees for online poker games have often been cited as a disincentive to corruption. Insiders at the behemoths of the poker world are making so much money legitimately, says this line of analysis, that they've no reason to cheat. The recent controversy involving one of the world's biggest operators,, turned that analysis on its head - and cast into sharp relief the available means of legal redress in this most nascent of digital arenas.

The scandal engulfing Absolute, which was set up in 2003, emerged in September. A well-known online player, CrazyMarco, became suspicious of the play of another player in a $1,000 buy-in tournament. Amid rumours of cheating, CrazyMarco asked Absolute to send the hand history for the final table, so that he could review his opponent's play. CrazyMarco received an Excel file containing more than mere hand histories. The file contained every player's starting cards, observations of the tables, and the IP addresses of every person playing.

Players turn detectives
A review of the file convinced CrazyMarco that something was wrong. Soon the blogosphere was awash with the story and analysis of what had happened. Poker players turned detective and established that, after the third hand of the tournament, an observer logged on and watched every hand played by a player called Potripper. Observers are commonplace at online poker tables but, intriguingly, Potripper folded his first two hands before the observer's arrival and thereafter played every hand for the next 20 minutes when, again, he declined to enter the fray. His fold, then, took place when another player had been dealt a pair of kings - almost the strongest starting hand in poker.

This kind of inspired - or rigged - play occurred throughout the tournament. The poker detectives went to work, not least "the fastest kid alive" at the well-respected poker blog He and others established that the observer's Costa Rican IP address and account name were linked to the same set of servers that host Absolute. Moreover, the observer appeared, thanks to their IP analysis, to be one Scott Tom - an individual described by Absolute as a "former employee" but who, according to numerous allegations on poker sites and blogs, lives in Costa Rica and at one stage part - if not wholly - owned Absolute.

If this was correct, the conclusion that cheating had occurred grew yet more irresistible. Tom appeared to be logging on as an observer, using Absolute's proprietary software to peek at other players' starting cards, and then relaying the information to Potripper.

Absolute's initial public stance was to deny the allegations in full, reserve its legal rights and submit itself to an audit by an independent third party, Gaming Associates ( Gaming Associates provides audit services to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (run by a Canadian Mohawk tribe), under whose auspices Absolute is registered.

However, just days after the denial came an admission by Absolute that there had, after all, been a "security breach". In early November, Absolute admitted the extent of the breach, promising to reimburse $1.6m to players affected by cheating which had been perpetrated by "a high-ranking trusted consultant".

The buck stops where?
So, all's well that ends well? Hardly. Absolute may be doing the right thing, but what if it hadn't - does the average poker player, who could be playing a low-stakes game against fellow enthusiasts anywhere in the world, have any means of redress if he believes cheating has occurred?

For Dominic Bray, an expert in internet law with K & L Gates, there are two issues: first, the player's remedies against the poker site and, second, those against his opponents.

"The poker site's terms and conditions will form the contract between the player and the site and may provide for dispute resolution mechanisms, but in many cases the operator will seek to exclude all liability. Players could sue other players for fraud in the form of the tort of deceit or misrepresentation."

Bray says that thanks to tough new compliance measures in the Gambling Act 2007 - which also creates a specific offence of cheating or enabling cheating - players using sites subject to UK law can feel more confident when they play poker online. Having acted for Sheffield Wednesday FC in a landmark case that saw a UK court order the disclosure of abusive bloggers' identities, Bray is also mindful that a means of tracking down miscreant online individuals does exist.

But Paul Renney, an expert in betting and gaming law with Campbell Hooper, offers cautionary words. "With a site based and licensed in Canada, site terms and conditions that deny any liability, and other players based possibly anywhere, any aggrieved player who feels he or she has lost out would have to be prepared to explore (and pay to do so) all the various conflict of laws, cross-jurisdictional action, enforcement and consumer protection issues that this case contains. The cost, for most players, would be prohibitive. It's certainly not something for the faint-hearted or the thrifty."

You pays your money, and you takes your choice, but one thing's for sure: the Absolute controversy won't be the last in the fast-moving world of online betting and gaming.