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Copyright © MSNBC
poker cheating blamed on employee
says ‘geek’ hacked system to prove it could be done
In a case that illustrates the perils of online betting, a leading
Internet poker site said Friday that a hacker exploited a security
flaw to gain an insurmountable edge in high-stakes, no-limit Texas
holdem tournaments — the ability to see his opponents’
The cheater, whose illegitimate winnings were estimated at between
$400,000 and $700,000 by one victim, was an employee of AbsolutePoker.com
who hacked the system to show that it could be done, said a spokesman
for the company, who spoke with msnbc.com on condition of anonymity.
“This is literally a geek trying to prove to senior management
that they were wrong and he took it too far,” he said.
The Costa Rica-based company, which is controlled by a parent
company owned by members of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe in Canada,
issued a statement later in the day acknowledging the breach and
promising to refund all money, including interest, to players
who were victims of the scheme. It also promised a "comprehensive
statement ... providing more details of the findings" would
be issued soon.
The spokesman said the employee did not withdraw any of the money
from the accounts that were used in the scheme.
“We acknowledge a significant internal security breach
whereby a resource who was infinitely knowledgeable about the
system was able to get into the accounts in question. He played
on those accounts and he saw hole cards,” the spokesman
“We have closed that security breach and we have identified
a very serious issue internally as far as communications flow
and we’re resolving that, ” he said.
Lawsuit and criminal charges possible
The spokesman said the company also was contemplating filing a
lawsuit and criminal charges against the employee.
While peeking at an opponent’s hole cards was likely to
bring a hail of lead in the Old West, the group of wronged players
in this case was initially rebuffed by Absolute Poker when they
aired allegations of apparent cheating on the 2+2 poker forum
in late September.
In a series of postings that soon spread to other poker forums,
the players said that some players using the aliases “Graycat,”
“Potripper,” “Steamroller” among others
appeared to have superhuman powers at the poker table. Several
players who had encountered the suspect players in games from
mid-August through mid-September said they played with wild abandon,
always seemed to know when to raise and fold and were winning
at an inconceivably high rate.
Serge Ravitch, a 27-year-old New York lawyer turned poker player
who was among the first to level cheating charges, said the company’s
response to the initial posts was “essentially to stonewall
and deny any cheating had ever occurred or that the described
events were even possible.”
Many players also were initially skeptical, though that sentiment
largely melted away when players posted a re-creation of a tournament
(requires registration to view) involving “Potripper”
on the Internet.
The re-creation, also posted to Youtube, was based on a “hand
history” that Absolute
Poker sent to one of the complaining players, but which contained
far more information than the hand histories usually available
to online players. This one showed all players' hole cards, rather
than just those of the requesting player, and included a great
deal of private information, including IP addresses and e-mail
Two independent experts who examined the re-created tournament
record at the request of msnbc.com came away convinced.
“(He) can see the cards, and you can put my name on that,”
said Roy Cooke, who was head of security at the pioneering poker
site Planetpoker.com for six years.
“When people are doing things out of character and consistently
doing it right, there’s a reason for it,” he said.
“When they’re always playing the hand that has value
in a situation and then folding a great hand when it has value,
they can see the cards.”
Michael Shackleford, a former actuary with the Social Security
Administration who now focuses on gambling at his Web site, wizardofodds.com,
said it was highly unlikely that Potripper’s streak was
simply attributable to good luck.
“It would be easier to buy a 6/49 lottery ticket in six
different states, and hit the jackpot all six times," he
If the experts found the evidence overwhelming, Absolute Poker
In its first statement on the allegations, the company said,
“The result of our investigation is that we found no evidence
that any of Absolute
Poker’s redundant and varying levels of game client
security were compromised. In other words, we have determined
with reasonable certainty that it is impossible for any player
or employee to see whole cards as was alleged. There is no part
of the technology that allows for a “superuser” account,
and there is no way for any person to influence the game software
to their advantage.”
Who was the mysterious observer?
Ravitch, a blogger known as “Adanthar” in the online
poker community, and Nat Arem, another player involved in posting
the tournament re-creation, began fielding a flood of tips from
insiders in the offshore Internet gambling industry and continued
to press their case. With help from other players, they traced
the IP address of a mysterious observer at Potripper’s table
to Costa Rica and determined that the account was an internal
Absolute Poker account developed during beta testing. They also
cross-referenced an e-mail address used by the observer and found
that it apparently belonged to Scott Tom, who they identified
as either a past or current official at Absolute
It was only in this last detail that the amateur sleuths erred,
according to the account emerging Friday.
Adam Small, an official with Pocketfives.com, a community of
online tournament poker players, said that he spoke with officials
Poker on Thursday night and was told that the rogue employee
had deliberately used information pointing to Tom.
“What they said on the phone was that it was not Scott
Tom ... and that he has sort of framed Scott Tom,” he said.
Poker spokesman did not confirm that the employee had attempted
to frame Tom, but he said, “No management was involved,
and Scott Tom … had no part in playing on any of these accounts.”
In a statement earlier this week, Absolute Poker said Tom “has
not been involved with Absolute
Poker for over a year and to the best of our knowledge, information
and belief has not had access to any of Absolute
Poker’s systems, databases or information.”
Site owned by Canadian Mohawks
Poker states on its Web site that it is owned by Tokwiro Enterprises
Enrg., located in Kahnawake Mohawk territory nine miles south
of Montreal, Quebec. Tokwiro is described as a Mohawk owned and
controlled sole proprietorship. The site also is licensed and
ostensibly regulated by the tribe’s Kahnawake Gaming Commission,
though it is not clear what level of scrutiny the commission applies
to its licensees.
Many poker players interviewed for this article expressed concern
that the incident would be another “black eye” for
online poker, which has surged in popularity in recent years despite
attempts by the U.S. government and many states to prevent Americans
from playing over the Internet. Most indicated they would prefer
that the sites were licensed and regulated by the United States,
but said they consider most of the leading offshore sites to be
fair and secure.
“I think that the reasons this got handled the way that
it has, with a happy ending, is because the overwhelming majority
of people in the industry … want things to be run in a fair
and honest way,” said Small of Pocketfives.com. “…
There is a perception that a lot of people in the industry are
thieves, but that’s not the case for the most part. When
something like this happens, the rest of the people, as soon as
they catch wind of it band together and look for ways to pool
information and bring people down who have done harm to them.”
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