What happens when anti-online-poker conspiracy theorists cite an industry piece to bolster highly suspect claims? What usually occurs is that author of the cited industry piece responds, offering a clarification. That’s what happened this week when online security professional Ezra “Eddie” Harari was essentially forced to revisit a piece he’d authored last December regarding the overall security of online poker as a game.
It wasn’t Harari’s fault. The 25-year systems- and cybersecurity expert, an Israeli national and self-described “recreational poker player” who dabbles a bit in poker tourneys at the Borgata and elsewhere, found himself embroiled in a debate over whether effective security measures existed on online poker sites.
The debate focused in particular on the new, highly regulated online poker sites offered in the US states of Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware – sites which have been attacked by anti-poker forces claiming that these sites were ripe for massive collusion by teams of cheaters who would then use these poker sites as major money-laundering channels, perhaps for use with drug trafficking and terrorism.
It’s all part of what happens when political operatives twist other people’s words for personal benefit. All Harari did was to pen a modest piece on the growth of security systems by online poker site operators. Harari’s piece, “A Cyber Security Expert’s Analysis of Online Poker,” appeared at Robbie Strazynski’s modest CardPlayerLifestyle.com site.
But then the anti-poker forces found Harari’s feature, and in the process of grasping for straws, reinterpreted the story’s meaning well beyond its original context.
The Tale of “DimeBagDonny75” and “CrystalCooker22”
All of the current debate stems from the bizarre poker-collusion theories of a computing engineer named James Thackston, who has decided for himself that online poker, by its very system of operation, must therefore be a wide-open avenue for money laundering.
The driving force behind Thackston’s abject hatred of online poker might be his loathing for illegal drugs and the sale thereof, though how Thackston got from Point A to Point B is never quite made clear. Somehow, Thackston got it into his head a decade ago that online poker sites were a front for drug cartels, and he’s clung to that truth ever since, in a remarkable display of dispensing with all the facts that conflict with a nonsensical core theory.
Thackston believes that teams of online-poker colluders can work together to cheat the sites and other players of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of dollars, and in the process manage to fleece the world’s best players without ever arousing suspicions as to this collusion that’s going on.
The domains have changes, but the silliness carries on. Thackston used to espouse his beliefs on a cob-Web site called PoliticsOfPoker.com, and these days, his weird theories enhanced and expanded, he appears on a site called UndetectableLaundering.com.
Thackston claims that colluding, money-laundering players can all sit down at high-stakes online tables, dump money to one another at will, win even more money from the world’s best poker players while doing so (and playing terrible poker), and somehow, no one will ever catch on.
And Thackston wants you to know that it’s drug-trafficking kingpins doing this laundering and waiting to bring America to its knees via these new regulated online poker sites. His primary example gives the cheaters the screen names of CocaineCowboy4, WeedMan43, DrOpium62 and MethMaker18. After a little while, in one of his examples, they change names to others such as DimeBagDonny75, ChinaWhite40, CrystalCooker22, MagicMushroom82, AngelDuster99, and – just to let you know there’s no sexism in Thackston’s imagined poker-playing, drug-trafficking world – HashGirl_101.
We get it, already, James. And his credentials for his pages upon pages of anti-poker screeds? He once looked over the shoulder of a player participating on an online site, and in a blinding moment of satori, realized that the game could be cheated.
From there, it’s been an uninterrupted decade of the likes of CandyBroker44. PoliticsOfPoker didn’t go so well, so Thackston launched a new campaign while enlisting some anti-gambling allies – notably the onerous Focus on the Family group, which has itself targeted online poker, and more recently, the very deep wallets of Las Vegas Sands Corporation CEO Sheldon Adelson. No one admits to receiving any pay, but several of these attack dogs report being in contact with “Adelson’s people”. Such is the nature of dark money.
Another online-poker hater who’s joined Thackston’s parade is a far-right, Tea Party conservative named Cheri Jacobus. Jacobus is a self-described GOP conservative and political pundit who appears on several news-talk networks, most notably the far-right FOXNews and its Sean Hannity-led scaremonger fest, “Hannity”. Jacobus herself is something of an Ann Coulter wannabe, both in terms of belief and attitude. That’s about three sigma wide of the American mainstream.
It’s Jacobus, working on behalf of Thackston, who claimed Eddie Harari’s piece as proof that online poker was collusion-riddled and dangerous in the extreme. Jacobus excerpted freely from Harari’s piece, in the process taking narrow technical truths and recasting them as blinding affirmation – from an expert! – that Thackston’s wild conspiracy theories were gospel.
“If iPoker hacker detects even one flaw it cld probably be exploited for a long period of time without being detected,” read one outtake by Jacobus. “Once hacker decides to tamper w/ iPoker software all he needs is time & a computer to find ways to exploit flaws,” read another. “Malicious software can hijack your actions while in iPoker, take remote control commands from a remote controller,” went a third.
All of those were indeed said, more or less, by Harari, but he was quick to respond when he saw his words being twisted far beyond their original intent. Within a day, Harari and CardPlayerLifestyle editor Strazynski announced a follow-up was in the works, to address some of these wilder anti-poker claims. That’s what appeared this week.
Understanding the Nature of Online Cheating
One of the puzzling things in this debate for casual onlookers to understand is that the collusion claims of James Thackston and his supporters can be described as being technically true, but applicable only on the smallest of scales. The higher the stakes involved, the faster such cheating schemes are discovered. Imagine the guy who shoplifts a single candy bar, then figures, “What the heck! I’ll jam six boxes of Snickers up my sleeves!”
It’s not going to work. Thackston can’t get beyond his own irrational fears to understand that his scenarios are not scalable, for a multitude of different reasons.
Indeed, some of the things Thackston claims are technically true, but most often on small scales. Many of the scenarios he’s imagined turn out to have been tried over and over again by would-be cheats; his blinding flash of satori wasn’t so special after all.
Yes, dishonest players can chat with each other and gang up on unsuspecting players. Yes, sophisticated players can and do use aids such as VPNs (Virtual Physical Networks) to disguise their real location – often in the pursuit of playing on sites such as PokerStars, which already blocks many jurisdictions, including the US. To get away from Thackston’s cheating/colluding/money-laundering mantra briefly, there are even plenty of examples of underage players using their parents’ names and credit cards to play on online sites, but that is most often summed up in two words: Bad Parenting.
There is no difference between giving Junior free use of the credit card to ring up $100 on a poker site, or giving him the same card to ring up $100 of downloads in the Apple iStore. Parents: There’s a real reason credit cards have names on them, after all: It’s your line of credit, and children (under age 18) are not bound by the terms of any contract they should enter … which includes using a credit card.
From the flip side, remember this – online poker sites do not want underage players. It’s bad business and bad politics both.
Back to Thackston and CocaineCowboy4’s laundered stream of drug money. Cheating and collusion in online poker does exist, but it is best thought of as an ongoing series of small, repeated crimes. However, all those little cheats leave forensic trails and an ongoing skewing of probabilistic odds, and sooner or later, on a properly monitored online poker site, the cheaters will be caught.
Even on unregulated sites, the cheaters have been outed. The two largest cheating insider cheating scandals (at UltimateBet and Absolute Poker) fell apart precisely because the cheaters pressed their luck far too long. In both of those shameful scandals, the cheating was done by the site owners themselves, who used special software add-ons to view the hole cards of other players.
Former WSOP Main Event winner Russ Hamilton was the master of it, using dozens of different accounts in his insider cheating on UltimateBet. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Good players know when they’ve been running bad for far too long, and in online poker, various statistical software packages provided analyses that the cheating accusations were accurate.
As a result, those cheating sites and operations eventually collapsed. They collapsed even though they were unregulated sites whose software was being directly manipulated by the cheating owners themselves. That’s part of poker and its adherence to numbers and skill. Given enough played hands, cheating always exposes itself.
Now consider the new legally regulated online poker sites being offered in New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware, and being considered for future legislation in other states. The software itself is independently vetted, as are all the supporting payments, identity and location-verification systems. It’s technically possible to cheat one of these interdependent systems, but given the fear of criminal sanctions and the coexistence of unregulated offshore sites, why even bother?
That’s the neat thing about fringe conspiracy theories. Strip them apart, and they’re all noise and no logic.
Another brief example of Thackston lunacy, from his UndetectableLaundering site, wherein he joyfully creates an example of four drug-trafficking money launderers setting up a money-laundering operation using 128 “mule” accounts.
In New Jersey, the largest such US state to authorize online poker to date, each and every one of those accounts would have to be independently verified, including ID and residency. Then each account would have to individually funded, and all those people would have to willingly subject themselves to criminal penalties for violating New Jersey gambling law.
Then there’s the rake. Then there’s the not getting caught, assuming they were even able to win money while colluding from tables otherwise occupied by New Jersey’s online players. That’s if the cheaters want to launder the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars envisioned by Thackston. If they want to move dimes and quarters, there are always the $.10/$.20 tables. However, you’d still have to independently create, and get approved, each and every one of those 128 imagined mule accounts.
Like a self-respecting drug dealer is going to go through that.
There are literally dozens of reasons why Thackston’s wild fantasies can’t occur in real life. I’ve previously explored several of them in another piece I’ve written on the topic, for another dedicated poker site. That piece is called “Sheldon Adelson’s Minions: The Bad Poker of James Thackston”. It explores some of the awful, laughable poker being played by Thackston’s supposedly expert cheaters.
Harari Reiterated: Not What Jacobus Claims
Which all circles back to Eddie Harari, the cyber-security specialist whose work was usurped by Jacobus, the anti-online-gambling political operative.
The calm, measured second feature continues on from the first. Titled “Fully Secure Online Poker – Is It Possible?”, Harari’s latest effort underscores the truth that any sensible people already know: These things are always a matter of degree, but by and large, Thackston’s claims are wrong.
Harari does try to his best to toss Thackston an occasional bone, writing, “I am sure that the money laundering via collusion scheme he proposes is valid for certain types of games and sites.” Then the shoe drops…: “There are, however, some major issues with his work:”
Harari, politely enough, lists a few of those issues:
- I have not seen an analysis of the counter measures that can be taken in order to prevent such collusion.
- To my knowledge, his proposal was not tested on a live real-money online poker provider with a collusion detection system in place (e.g., PokerStars, etc.).
- If you want to launder reasonable amounts of money, you would need to play online poker for very high stakes. The high-limit player pool is far smaller and it thus would be quite abnormal for multiple new players to suddenly show up at these tables and fly completely under the radar. This just can’t happen and, at the very least, regular high-limit players would be extremely wary.
- Ignoring all the possible flaws of his system, I do not believe that Mr. Thackston, with all his mathematical knowledge, truly thinks his is an undetectable system. Perhaps it couldn’t be detected today, but his system is 100% detectable via trivial anomaly detection systems.
“Trivial anomaly detection systems” would pick up the cheating, and that’s exactly correct. It’s already old hat.
Still, don’t expect the cold splash of truth to be a deterrent. If you’re a true believer, these little annoyances called facts are always able to be explained away.
Don’t Bother Us with Rational Thoughts
Jacobus, the anti-gambling operative, has already tipped the Thackston group’s next step. Thackston and his supporters had previously contacted gaming regulators in New Jersey and Nevada, demanding that they be allowed to demonstrate how these collusion systems would operate, and that all of the online poker services should be shut down because of the looming danger to Ammurrica.
Of course, Thackston and Jacobus proposed to show their test on a Yahoo! play-money poker site, which, due to its being play money, wouldn’t have the software protections anyway. The state regulators haven’t even bothered to respond, even though a couple of antiquated old poker “pros” with likely hidden agendas, Bill Byers and Dewey Tomko, have joined Thackston’s call for testing.
Testing of and by itself, just as a triple check to ensure all security measures are operational, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Still, even a successful test would then be claimed as being rigged by the state regulators; there’s no winning, rational path for them to follow in addressing Thackston’s bizarre scenarios, hence no incentive to respond.
This makes Jacobus’s next move obvious: Since the regulators won’t believe Thackston’s nonsense and accede to the anti-online gambling group’s weird demands, then those regulators must be corrupt. That logic is warped but internally consistent. Jacobus has already spouted that in a series of Tweets earlier this week. In a series of bombastic Tweets exchanged with this author, Jacobus now accuses the US state gaming regulators of being corrupt.
@Haley_Hintze regulators seem to be corrupt since they sweep collusion & money laudnring risk in iPoker undert he rug. Hence Tomko's op ed— Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus) 21. marts 2014
@CheriJacobus So, are you stating that New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware regulators are corrupt? Evidence of this...?— Haley Hintze (@Haley_Hintze) 21. marts 2014
… moments later:
@Haley_Hintze crazy Haley! I do have other things I do. But yes "on the record" on twitter that I think the regulators are corrupt.— Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus) 21. marts 2014
So why would old “pros” such as Dewey Tomko (a legit pro) and Bill Byers (not so much) be willing to join a fringe group? We’ll save that topic for the next time we return to the strange saga of James Thackston and his NotSoUndetectableLaundering claims.