The "Grandma Dilemma"
Online poker tournament player 'ABlackCar' had a great day on Sunday, February 12th. By winning Party Poker's Sunday $215 tournament, he received a $140,000 for first place. However, shortly before the tournament concluded, word leaked out on a poker forum that 'ABlackCar' is the second account of online tournament pro 'JJProdigy', who finished 2,162nd in this tournament. From here, rumors spread quickly that JJProdigy had used two accounts in the same tournament while winning the tournament with one of the accounts.
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Playing with two accounts in the same online poker tournament is a clear violation of the rules of every major online poker room, including Party Poker. By entering the tournament "twice," players have a few advantages over their opponents. First, there is the psychological advantage of playing without fear, since a player has to be eliminated twice from the tournament to truly be eliminated from the tournament. Second, there is the potential for chip dumping or colluding with oneself if both accounts happen to be placed at the same table (this is unlikely to happen though). Even if one doesn't intend to collude, it is almost impossible not to if both accounts happen to be at the same table. At the very least, the player has an unfair informational advantage as to the holdings of two players at the table.
Finally and most importantly, players who enter a tournament twice tend to be really good players. These large, multi-table tournaments have a high +EV for them. By entering the tournament twice, they essentially double their EV from entering the tournament.
After winning $140k and having word leak out that he used two accounts, JJProdigy released a statement saying that 'ABlackCar' is his Grandma's account. He further explained that he is teaching his Grandma to play poker and staking her in poker tournaments. After realizing she had amassed a nice chip stack in this tournament, he took over for her and went on to win the tournament. Because of JJ's explanation, many in the poker world have started referring to this matter as the "Grandma Dilemma."
Five days after JJ's win, amidst a world of speculation in the online poker world as to how this situation should and would be handled, Party Poker announced they were confiscating the $140k, banning the IP address from which JJ played this tournament, freezing both the 'ABlackCar' and 'JJProdigy' accounts, while redistributing the $140k back to the other finishers. By doing this, Party Poker became the first online poker room to make a major public monetary confiscation due to multiple accounts being used in tournaments.
On top of confiscating $140k from the 'ABlackCar' account, Party Poker also confiscated the balance of the 'JJProdigy' account, which was $40,000. Party Poker justified this move by claiming it made an extensive investigation which led them to the determination that JJ's "Grandma" story was a lie and that he played the entire tournament on both accounts using the same computer.
Since the JJProdigy incident, another famous online player has had his funds confiscated by Party Poker for holding multiple accounts. ZeeJustin was caught having six accounts at Party Poker, and he was also caught entering the same multi-table tournaments with these accounts. ZeeJustin had his account banned and around $100k confiscated by Party Poker.
Unlike with JJProdigy, no single case provoked the ZeeJustin investigation. Party Poker suspected foul play and investigated his accounts (it is likely that a few people tipped off Party Poker that ZeeJustin had multiple real-money accounts). Party Poker decided to ban all of his accounts and confiscate all of the funds in those accounts.
When news of the ZeeJustin story broke, PokerStars investigated ZeeJustin's activity on their site. They found that he had been multi-accounting multi-table tournaments at PokerStars as well. Like Party Poker, they banned him from their site. However, instead of confiscating all of his funds, they only confiscated the amount he had won "illicitly" (which was only $5k) and allowed him to cash out the remainder of his funds. PokerStars found that ZeeJustin had only one extra account, and he rarely used that account. Because of that, they allowed him to cash out all of his legitimate winnings.
How did they do it?
It is not entirely clear how ZeeJustin and JJProdigy were able to play multiple accounts on the same computer at the same time. It has been reported that the old Party Poker software contained a bug that allowed multiple instances of the program to run at the same time if a person repeatedly clicked on the icon that launches the Party Poker program. Some players may also be able to change the program code to allow for multiple instances of the program. Either way, it seems that Party Poker allowed (and may still allow) players from the same IP address to enter multi-table tournaments. There are legitimate reasons for such a policy. For example, two users who are not colluding may be sharing the same IP address because they access the internet through the same LAN or proxy. However, there doesn't seem to be any situation in which two players should be allowed to play from the same computer. It is also theoretically not very difficult to enter a multi-table tournament twice if a player has multiple computers and multiple IP addresses (for example, a cable connection and a dialup connection).
Most poker rooms' security focus is preventing collusion. Players who collude gain a much, much higher edge than players who just enter a large multi-table twice. Furthermore, poker rooms can probably detect collusion more easily than multiple accounts, since they can detect colluding through suspicious play. Just entering a large multi-table tournament twice can only be detected if the poker room is able to prove that both accounts were somehow linked to the same person. Poker rooms have a history of every hand played on their site that they can access to search for foul play, but they fundamentally know very little about the people that play on their sites.
What should have been done?
Since the confiscation, the question has been raised as to whether or not these were fair actions by Party Poker. This is the first time a poker room's confiscation of funds has led to such a publicly debated affair in the poker world. However, this was certainly not the first time a player has used two accounts in a multi-table tournament. It is not clear how often people play with multiple accounts in the same tournament or how often poker rooms warn players caught playing multiple accounts at the same time. Nevertheless, the perception has been that online poker rooms have sat back quietly collecting entry fees while turning a careless eye towards this form of cheating going on in their tournaments.
Many believe that Party's actions against JJProdigy and ZeeJustin were too extreme. First, they would point out that Party has been, or at the very least perceived to be, lenient towards this form of breech of their T&C's. After all, they probably would not have banned JJ's account and confiscated JJ's money if he had not won the tournament. Taking such an extreme measure to "make an example" out of a few people is viewed as unfair by some people.
Furthermore, entering a tournament twice is not as bad of form as cheating as chip dumping or colluding, since the main advantage really is just getting a second shot at winning the tournament at the price of a second entry fee. Finally, critics of Party's actions would point out that while they may have justification for confiscating the 140k from JJProdigy, it is not clear that they should have confiscated the other 40k from JJProdigy. Some think Stars's action against ZeeJustin, confiscating only the illictly gained funds, is the more appropriate punishment.
Some of the reasons behind Party Poker's actions are clear. Since the situation received a fair amount of publicity, it was important for Party Poker to keep their reputation intact by acting aggressively. This enforcement by Party Poker is a bold stand against players who violate the terms and conditions of online poker rooms. And while JJProdigy did not engage in collusion or chip dumping, if he had been put at the same table as his alternate account, he would have had gained an unfair advantage whether he liked it or not. Furthermore, since Party Poker determined that JJProdigy initially lied about what happened, there was little reason to be lenient on him in his case or give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if JJProdigy wanted us to believe, for example, that he had no intention of colluding or chip dumping, we would now have no reason to believe him. It is very likely that he did not collude simply because he was not given the opportunity.
Party Poker is leading by example and sending a message to the rest of the poker world that maintaining site integrity truly is their number one priority. Unfortunately for JJProdigy and ZeeJustin, by losing over $100k each as well as the right to play at the internet's largest cardroom, they stand as the most glaring examples of the main reason to not violate a poker room's terms and conditions.
Zero tolerance is the best policy
Party Poker's zero tolerance policy is the only method that will deter cheating in the future. If the only punishment for cheating is that the funds won via cheating are confiscated, then cheating is likely +EV. Let's look at the decision-making calculus for cheating mathematically and ignore the ethics of the debate.
EV of cheating = Illicit gains - Chance of being caught * (direct punishment + EV of playing at site)
If the punishment for being caught is only equal to the illicit gains from cheating, then it will almost always be profitable to cheat. This is because the chance of being caught will never be 100%. One real threat to cheaters is the EV they lose from not being able to play at the site anymore. Having one's account banned from a poker room like Party Poker or PokerStars is a brutal blow to an online pro that specializes in high-stakes games.
Nevertheless, there are over a dozen online poker rooms, so the loss of EV from not being able to play at just one or two shouldn't be considered very high. The only way to really make cheating -EV is to increase the amount of the direct punishment beyond the amount of the illicit gains from cheating. In short, there needs to be some sort of punitive damages for cheating. Having all the money confiscated in a person's account can be viewed as a form of punitive damages.
Money that is seized from a player's accounts should first go to players that were directly affected by the cheating, as was the case with JJProdigy's 140k tournament win. Extra, punitive damages funds should probably be donated to charity. It looks bad if a poker room pockets the seized winnings, since the seizure might be viewed as a means for the poker room to just increase its own coffers (even though the money seized is relatively small compared to the poker rooms' revenues).
Cheating, no matter how minor, should not be condoned by the online poker rooms. If players knowingly violate the terms and conditions of a poker room by entering a tournament twice with two accounts, they should have their accounts banned. Condoning any form of cheating creates a slippery slope where players are unsure of what is truly against the rules, and many will be emboldened to bend the rules to maximize their edge. It is unfortunate that poker rooms have not been as aggressive in punishing this form of cheating in the past as they should have been. Hopefully, JJ's and ZeeJustin's misfortune will not be in vain, and this incident is a signal that the poker rooms really are making a concerted effort to limit all forms of foul play on their sites.
What does the future hold?
Several conclusions can be drawn from the ZeeJustin and JJProdigy situations. First, if anything, there will likely be less cheating in the future. Most people who would multi-account multi-table tournaments or engage in some other form of cheating were probably doing so before these events came to light. The fact that two people had significant amounts of money confiscated will probably deter many people who currently multi-account from doing so in the future, since they will not want to risk all of their funds for a very small increase in EV.
Furthermore, the incident puts Party Poker in a favorable light, since it seems they are making a clear effort to limit cheating on their site. Party Poker also took a very aggressive stance with its punishment, which will likely deter many from attempting to cheat at Party Poker in the future. If you were going to cheat at online poker, would you do so at Party Poker or some other poker room?
In the past week, two well-known players have been banned from the two largest online poker rooms, about $280,000 has been confiscated, and a public debate has been started about the potential for cheating at online poker rooms. Entering a multi-table tournament with multiple accounts used to be a form of cheating that was overlooked in the online poker world. Given the recent public outcry, the poker rooms are going to be forced to take this issue more seriously in the future.
1. Full details of Party Poker's investigations
2. Full details of PokerStars's actions