(Author’s note: Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or beliefs of the owners and publishers of Poker.org.)
The head of game integrity at partypoker, Juha Pasanen, cracked the lid on Tuesday on one of online poker’s more controversial topics, whether players who are caught cheating should be placed on a global blacklist. In “Is A Global Poker Blacklist Possible? What Are The Restrictions?” Pasanen broaches the possibility and acknowledges that operators and executives have talked about creating such a blacklist for some time.
After introducing the topic, however, Pasanen quickly turned it into a brief exploration of why such a global blacklist probably won’t happen, despite all the good for online poker that such a blacklist would offer. Pasanen is correct in that assessment: The hurdles are too high and numerous and extend far beyond the reach of the operators themselves, into areas of national and international law that the poker world hasn’t yet braved. Add it all together, and the concept of a global blacklist for cheaters and thieves remains just that, a warm concept, but an unworkable one.
Challenges would exist on multiple fronts
A vast majority of the poker world would likely favor some sort of global tracking system to help rid the game of bad actors. However, Pasanen admits from the start that these issues are significant. “(T)here will be a significant number of practical challenges on the way to making this a reality,” he writes.
Pasanen also correctly notes that the most significant hurdle might come from outside the poker world itself, in the form of the European Union’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) rules. The GDPR, which was passed in 2016 and went into full effect two years later, is a data-privacy rule set with the highest of goals, though in reality it’s been a significant overreach.
The GDPR generally bars EU-based operators from publicizing the names of players who have cheated in various ways in online poker, even when some of those players have been brought to court. The GDPR also may create a huge hurdle when it comes to a given site sharing info about a bad actor with other sites. Such a player might assert a GDPR-based claim that he’s been targeted, via illicitly-shared data, by a site that he’s done nothing illegal against.
There’s also the matter of such a blacklist being workable when applied within every country whose players might participate on a given site. By the second paragraph, Pasanen has already carved himself a huge out:
“For example, partypoker’s international.COM network has licences from 14 different regulators,” he writes “Trying to get a universal set of rules in place will be a legislative mountain in practice but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though. An even bigger challenge will be to attempt to navigate around the EU’s GDPR regulation. It may be that due to regulations such as this, that the whole idea is dead in the water before it even starts.”
The expense, effort, and inevitable legal challenges combine to make a global blacklist too daunting for even the most reputable sites to consider. Consider this exchange in response to partypoker’s Tweet about Pasanen’s essay:
We’ve discussed this many times in the industry. It absolutely IS possible but unfortunately, as soon as you mention GDPR, execs get very scared and decide it’s not worth the risk. Me, @rob_yong_ , @JohnnyDuthie and others have all tried hard to progress this
— Alex Scott (@AlexScott72o) April 14, 2022
Scott speaks the truth, and as the former Head of Poker for the Microgaming Poker Network, he was at the forefront of efforts to identify cheaters and cheating activity on his platform. Partypoker has also been one of the most visible sites in terms of publicly cracking down on cheaters, but with these and several other leading sites and platforms, they’ve all done plenty of freezing, confiscating, and banning, but never any public naming of guilty parties. Between certain countries’ data-privacy rules and the GDPR itself, that’s where the line has long been drawn.
GDPR has been used as a results-obscuring weapon by players
Rather than being used as a tool for personal protection and data transparency, which was part of the GDPR’s designed intent, certain online poker players quickly learned that the specific language of its rules could be construed rather differently. It created a battle over what third-party entities could or couldn’t publish. It came into focus within the poker world in 2018, when numerous European poker pros, under pressure from various nations’ tax authorities, then applied their own legal pressure against The Hendon Mob (THM), at the time the largest Europe-based database of poker tournament results, faced a large number of legal threats and demands by players to remover their results from the website.
The initial push against The Hendon Mob was championed by a coterie of German pros, who were quickly joined by many other players from other EU countries. In the face of the potential fiscal liability — and despite strong legal arguments in their favor — the Hendon Mob finally complied with the demands, and today allows players to block their results from being displayed on the site.
THM’s Roland Boothby wrote this at the time: “The Hendon Mob is run by a small team of poker fans whose aim it is to serve the poker community by operating the best poker database and poker information resource available on the internet. By publishing the results and pay-outs of major tournaments, Hendon Mob is no more guilty of ‘abusive data-collection’ than the APT or the PGA. The information published on THM has already been released by a casino or tour in line with their own T&Cs, which a player agrees to by registering the tournament.
“It’s deeply sad to see certain players who have enjoyed a successful career in poker celebrate a situation where a small business operating in the poker world has its operations affected by sweeping legislative changes, purely because it confers some benefit to themselves,” Boothby added. And that’s how it’s been ever since, with the GDPR in effect.
The GDPR’s impact can be seen everywhere throughout the Hendon Mob’s results database. Any major tournament series shows gaps. Here are a couple of screen grabs from the 2018 WPT World Championship held in Berlin. The top image shows how five of the 14 event winners have had their names’ removed from the list of events. Click inside any of those events, as shown in the second picture, and you’ll find the winner is now shown as “Unknown Player”:
Data privacy or income obscuring?
Of course, the argument about whether “data privacy,” as envisioned by the GDPR’s designers, is more of an effort to shield large six- and seven-figure paydays from tax authorities is a question best answered with a nod and a wink. Not all players are invoking the GDPR to hide poker income, but for sure, some are.
One personal anecdote I can share: A few years back, I happened to be live-covering an event on or somewhere near the U.S. West Coast. A well-known German pro, who I will not identify, behaved quite strangely as the final table neared. Every time one of the bloggers attempted to take his photo, he got up from the table and walked away. He ended up making the final table, and that seemingly created a larger issue for him, as the venue was taking group photos of all final tables. When the other players began assembling for the final-nine picture, he got up and literally ran out the door. He didn’t return until some time after the cards had started to be dealt and the photo session had ended.
This player wasn’t cheating, at least at the poker itself, so this episode has become quite the digression for this essay’s purpose. What ties it all back to the GDPR and the global-blacklist issue, however, is that when it occurred, I was curious enough to do a little research. I quickly discovered that the name under which he was playing might well have been a munged form of his actual name, quite possibly to obscure his true identity and presence in various online reports. How that worked regarding official documents and identification, well, I haven’t a clue, other than to cement my suspicion that something hinky was going on, and he was incentivized to take unusual measures to conceal… something.
Let’s return our focus to an imagined blacklist. Imagine hundreds of cheating online players, just to pick a number, who would utilize any means necessary to destroy an online-poker global blacklist system that might truly cripple their illicit practices and curtail their livelihoods. The GDPR would be one of many statutory weapons flung at various online sites as these legal wars erupted. In the end, it would be a prolonged, uncertain, and very expensive legal battle, yet cheating players would be incentivized to take it on.
Who would determine the boundaries of ‘cheating’?
The GDPR isn’t the only near-insurmountable hurdle facing the creation of a global online-poker blacklist. In order to be effective, it would have to define uniform standards about what activities merit a global ban and what should result in lesser punishments.
Pasanen is aware of this, and he treads very lightly in this area. He writes, “Another challenge that I see could be around setting thresholds regarding ‘what constitutes as serious enough of an offence to lead to a global ban from poker?’ For example, if you are found to be using RTA [real-time assistance] or colluding, it’s probably an easy decision, but what about offences such as buttoning or bum-hunting? Bum-hunting isn’t cheating in the same way using RTA is, but it’s still against the terms and conditions on some poker sites. While buttoning and bum-hunting can’t be ignored, I don’t think they are serious enough offences to warrant a global ban. To start with, we’d need to define exactly what constitutes RTA use or bum-hunting before we could even think about moving forward. Not only would this have to be aligned with regulators, but we’d need to get the different poker sites involved and aligned as well.”
Imagine getting dozen of poker sites to agree to a set of uniform standards defining not only what constitutes cheating, but what the appropriate penalty for each form and quantity of cheating should be. Then multiply that by the number of gambling jurisdictions that would have to sign off on such a framework in the face of potential threats from aggrieved players. Difficult enough? Don’t forget: Virtually every country or jurisdiction could have a different mix of participating operators and a different set of “cheating” guidelines to follow.
It would be a daunting challenge. Too daunting, in all likelihood.
Not all operators are equal
Pasanen also soft-pedals a bit on the possibility of sites being abusive toward each other or corrupt in their own anti-cheating practices. He touches some on the first part when he writes, “There is also the possibility of any new system being ‘abused’ by the poker sites themselves. Hypothetically, a site could state that a player will be globally banned for reasons specific to that site, such as an individual dispute with that player. As such, you would most likely need an independent third-party governing body overseeing and managing all the submitted bans for the system to be realistic.”
He adds, “Whilst a governing body could take care of ensuring each ban is legitimate, and that there is sufficient evidence documented before any bans go live, it would still require a lot of resources to be spent just to oversee any bans, especially from poker sites that lack proper tools and personnel to manage Game Integrity issues.”
He really can’t bring down the hammer fully, but the sad truth is that for a tiny percentage of sites, lacking proper tools and personnel is only part of the issue. It’s a function of revenue and profitability: A site that is doing well and has ample resources is more likely to be able to address these integrity issues. Struggling sites and networks, by comparison, not only have fewer resources and less money to direct at the problem.
Even worse, and claims of this abound, is that a few sites may even be incentivized to overlook cheating forms that are perceived to help pad a site’s own bottom line. Botting is one such activity where this argument appears, in that cheaters running numerous bot accounts for long stretches are also generating rake for the site, and are thus likely to be overlooked by a less-than-scrupulous operator. The flip side is that the bots’ profits have to come from other players, who collectively lose at a higher rate. Over the long run, that’s a losing equation involving dwindling depositors, but many corporate decisions don’t necessarily align with the long-term analysis.
Once one fully understands the scope of the issues involved, it becomes clear that Pasanen’s blog is well-intentioned talk, but really, not much more than that. In poker-industry terms, the creation of an online-poker blacklist is a “Wouldn’t it be nice?” topic to discuss. And yes, yes, it sure would be nice. But it’s never going to happen, sad as that might be to accept.