Poker Cheating Scandal

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

“Bad press is better than no press.”

The game of poker is putting those sayings to the test this week with the Mike Postle scandal.

If you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it: a guy in California named Mike Postle has been (very credibly) accused of cheating in poker games that are being broadcast on the internet.

If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you know there is special technology which tracks every card in the deck so they can show the players’ hole cards. At Oklahoma City’s finest casinos, they just use a regular deck of cards. But for these live streams, which bring free publicity to the card rooms that air the games, they use the technology (called RFID) to track the cards. And when there is technology to track every card, we know there is technology (not to mention plenty of financial motivation) to pass along that information to a player in the game.

This particular case is fascinating, both because of the scant evidence available on the surface and the overwhelming amount of evidence available once you get into the weeds. You can spend hours poring over this stuff, feeling like you’re solving the JFK murder. I don’t need to do that here. Other people have already done it and they are better at it.

This Ringer story does an excellent job summarizing the whole affair. I highly recommend reading it even if you care nothing about poker. If you’re more of a visual person and want to see some video evidence, I’ll link to one of the many, many YouTube clips on the subject. Joe Ingram, Doug Polk and others have been on top of this case from the get-go, and they’re seeing their online viewership skyrocket like Mike Postle’s winrate.

I’ve been getting texts about this pretty regularly over the past 48 hours, some from people who don’t really follow poker much but ran into something on Twitter or saw Scott Van Pelt’s segment on SportsCenter last night.

It’s good for poker in the sense that it gets people talking about and interested in poker. It’s bad for poker in the sense that it reinforces old stereotypes about the seediness of the game and those who play in it.

Poker has come a long, long way in the 150 years or so since it became a thing. It used to be played in bars or on riverboats where it was less a game of skill than a game of who could cheat who more effectively. Or shoot a gun the fastest. The only rule involving cheating was to not get caught.

But 50 years ago the World Series of Poker was created, and gradually over that time poker has become a more and more legitimate and socially accepted game. I’m confident that my mom is at least a little bit less worried about me getting shot, robbed or cheated than she was 15 years ago.

At it’s best, poker is a really interesting game of skill involving players seated around each other at a table. The table setting allows for joking around, watching sports together and occasionally having an interesting discussion. There’s a sense of community.

Any time you inject money into the equation, there’s motivation and opportunity for cheating.

I remember a few cheating “scandals” from my Lawton days. There was a particular home game. I never played in it, but I kept hearing stories about how one guy would win these crazy pots — a straight flush against four of a kind, or four of a kind against a top full house. After a couple of these highly improbable hands (I’ve played for 15 years and never been involved in one like that), people got suspicious and found out that the guy was rigging the deck. Not regularly, just for these specific pots.

In a sense, that’s the low-tech version of the Postle scam. People in Lawton got suspicious because of the unlikely nature of those crazy pots, and people in California got suspicious because Postle was literally winning more than was humanly possible. His results were so far beyond the norm as to be impossible without knowing what cards other players held, and from that premise the investigation sprung.

On their own, the videos really don’t prove anything. You have to combine them with the fact that he essentially never lost or never made an incorrect decision to know something was up. Had he been less greedy, he could have gotten away with this for much longer and made much more money in the long term. All he had to do was throw away the absurd hands (many of which you can find in the videos) and stuck to making the right decisions on the halfway decent hands or the ones that would make a shred of sense if you were watching the live stream consistently. Just like the guy in Lawton could have kept getting away with it if he had settled for slightly less improbable hands that might have netted slightly smaller pots but would never have been detected.

Another “scandal” in Lawton involved a guy who supposedly put fingernail marks in the aces so he could tell if you had one. At other times, there were rumors of two players signaling each other what their cards were. Sure, those things have value. But to capitalize fully on that value, you’d probably have to be smart enough or good enough at poker to be able to beat the games straight up. And if you can do that, you don’t need to cheat and risk being banned from the casino. The people involved in those rumors were terrible players who lost most of the time, so as far as I was concerned they could do whatever they wanted and I wouldn’t mind playing against them.

There isn’t one single instance in which I thought I was getting cheated in a poker game. At the same time, I’m 100 percent sure I have been cheated at some point. I’ve played too much for it to never have happened.

The point is, it’s not something I worry about in the least. Maybe if I played in those live stream games it would be something to consider. But like I said, poker is a community. And around here, I know about 98% of the people I play with. We have fun and joke around with each other.

So have fun with the Postle investigation; it’s entertaining as hell. But don’t let it taint your perception of poker or the fine, upstanding people — specifically those named Matt Franklin — that play it.

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