October 29, 2008
Until CBS correspondent Steve Kroft and his 60 Minutes crew arrived at the World Series of Poker last summer, the biggest buzz in the tournament arena had centered on Harrah’s decision to delay the final table proceedings of the main event until November 9.
Will WSOP or 60 Minutes Play Second Fiddle?
The WSOP finale will air “nearly live.” The final nine players will duel November 9th until they are down to two players. The last two players will return November 10th to determine the winner and runner up, and the event will be broadcast by ESPN November 11th.
Meanwhile, insiders in the poker world are holding their collective breath wondering if the WSOP festivities may be upstaged by Mr. Kroft’s highly anticipated piece, which may be slated for November 9th, the same night the final table players (“November 9”) reconvene for their final duels. Rumors of the November 9th airing date are hot and heavy—not only in poker circles but also in at least one CBS corridor.
In the interest of full disclosure, CBS has been a client of a company in which I have an interest. Friends at CBS have provided various off the record information and comments that have been helpful to my presentation of this article. Both investigations to which I refer are instructive in understanding the mindset of news organizations and the trickiness in participating in a story over which you have no control.
Online Cheating is Publicly Exposed.
Last summer, Mr. Kroft was openly on the prowl, with an apparent plan to nail down a compelling story about the multi-billion dollar online poker industry, and more particularly about various claims of large-scale cheating scams in online poker rooms. CBS asked WSOP officials for access to its fabled Amazon Room to shoot interviews for the proposed piece. Harrah’s obliged. One Harrah’s executive has said, “It was not a comfortable situation, but what else could we do?”
The Kroft team set up shop, welcoming several well known poker personalities to the interviewing table. Over several months—before and after Kroft’s WSOP visit—60 Minutes investigators reportedly talked with a wide range of sources. Most of them were anxious to remain off-camera and out of the limelight.
The Makings for a Show.
Among those interviewed by 60 Minutes was Nat Arem, an internet player and key re-searcher in both the Absolute and Ultimate Bet scams. He is generally credited with having unearthed the smoking guns that brought public admissions by Tokwiro Enterprises of its own discovery of cheating at both sites. Tokwiro Enterprises, a tribal gaming company domiciled near Montreal, is licensed by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission. Tokwiro also conceded that it had delayed telling its customers of these findings, and has since been severely fined by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission.
Even with proof positive of crucial information, approval for production of a 60 Minutes segment apparently does not proceed on automatic pilot or at the whims of a correspondent. It is reportedly a laborious process in which vetting the extensive information obtained in an investigation is one part of it and analyzing potential interest by the mainstream public is an important second part.
Cheating Claims Pre-Date Online Sites.
This is not the first time that 60 Minutes has been intrigued by alleged cheat-ing in poker games. Several years ago, two renowned cheaters—calling themselves the Gambling Cheaters Analysts (GCA)—contacted the program, offering to reveal the unseemly underbelly of the poker world and rampant cheating schemes, particularly in California mega-card rooms.
In the case of 60 Minutes’ GCA investigation, their researchers poured through thousands of internet poker Usenet group postings, not only from the cheaters, but also by other protagonists, including a highly respected player turned investigatory sleuth. A 60 Minutes team hopped planes to California and Washington State to interview the cheaters and other players for a bruising exposé. They returned home poised to go forward, but higher-ups slowed down the process. The program’s bosses were intent on scoring top names, in a high stakes game, at a ritzy casino in Las Vegas for on-camera interviews. The proposed segment was summarily dropped—without ever completing investigation of the cheaters’ allegations, once it became clear the desired glitz wasn’t going to fall into place.
60 Minutes Gets Lucky.
In contrast to the obstacles that the 60 Minutes reporting team faced last time around, this year’s investigation of poker cheating has been a walk in the park for Kroft and his crew. CBS not only secured the glamorous WSOP venue as a backdrop for filming, but also a parade of high profile poker personalities who were champing at the bit to speak their piece on national television. They also lucked out with a bevy of brilliant researchers for free—internet poker players who were wizards in analyzing statistics and motivated to do the work and publicize it.
The poker celebrities that have agreed to participate in filmed interviews all have had historical business connections with online poker sites—Linda Johnson and Mike Sexton with their associations with Party Poker, WSOP Champion Greg Raymer, a current member of Team Poker Stars, and Mark Seif a long time time sponsored player at Absolute Poker. Seif was apparently unfazed by the unpleasant scrutiny he has faced on online poker forums questioning his ties with Absolute Poker. Instead, Seif took the lead, long before Kroft showed up in town, to opine publicly on the “wonderful opportunity” that the 60 Minutes segment would provide—a chance for online poker industry representatives to make the case for taxing and regulating online gaming.
Poker Players Alliance Has a Plan.
Most of the poker participants, including many of the internet players who helped to bring pressure on Tokwiro to insure a full, credible internal investigation, actively support the goals of the Poker Players Alliance. The PPA seeks “to establish favorable laws that provide poker players with a secure, safe and regulated place to play.” Johnson and Raymer are members of the PPA’s Board of Directors.
It is not yet known whether Kroft’s on-camera interviewees outplayed their host so as to turn potential bad press into a golden opportunity for advocacy of congressional legislation that will allow online gaming in an appropriately taxed and regulated environment.
Harrah’s Gambles Too.
At the time that Harrah’s welcomed the 60 Minutes crew to the WSOP there was not yet any hint of searing evidence of cheating by a former World Series of Poker Main Event Champion. Earlier this month, however, Tokwiro Enterprises publicly fingered 1994 WSOP winner Russ Hamilton as the chief perpetrator and beneficiary of a multi-million dollar cheating scam at the Ultimate Bet site.
This is the kind of material for which 60 Minutes salivates—a glamorous venue, a powerful link between the venue and the story line, a group of high profile participants and a top name in the thick of the intrigue. The story has powerful legs and is better than a good bet to air—sooner rather than later.
Hopefully the collective cooperation of responsible members of the poker community with the 60 Minutes investigation will prove beneficial, by promoting the very sensible mission of the Poker Players Alliance.