The poker world has been rocked in recent years by various scandals from the Absolute Poker super user and the collapse of Full Tilt Poker to the recent Borgata counterfeit chips scandal. This got me to thinking about honor and integrity in gambling and reminded me of the words a bookie in Alabama told me over 35 years ago.
Eddie was the life of our home poker games for years. Every Tuesday he would come by our game and settle up with the poker players, and then he would throw a little money away in the game. He was not really trying to win; he just liked to gamble.
This week time was different. He owed around $25,000 and called to say he would need a week to settle up. This sent shockwaves through our small poker world. How could this happen?
When he stopped by the next week, I called him into a room and said, “Eddie, what happened? You have always been so honorable.” He said, “The truth is I didn’t pay attention to my business. I always wrote the parlays and teasers and put them in a cigar box and looked at them on Monday mornings because they were usually losing propositions. This time they all won, and it was for over $1 million. I got broke. I’m now poor Ed. Robert, you can only be honorable as long as you can be honorable.”
The mistake Eddie made took away his honor, but he had confronted the issue head on; he didn’t try to hide from it. The following story told to me by legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, now running the South Point’s Race and Sports Marketing division, demonstrates the opposite.
Jimmy was talking to a bookmaker friend of his who was having a bad season. He said, “Jimmy, it has all come down to an airplane game.” Jimmy asked him what an airplane game was, and he replied, “I’m going to the airport to watch the game. If my players lose the game, I’m back in action and have a bankroll. If my players win, then I’m catching a plane to who knows where.”
Poker in California was in a similar predicament at one time. For over 50 years, California had become the training ground for the best cheats in the world because everybody handled the deck in pass-the-deal games. This created games that were plagued by everything from petty cheating to full-blown organized theft.
However, when hold’em was legalized in California, it changed everything. George Hardie and Mike Caro were at the forefront of this change. As Caro says, “I realized that the old days of pass-the-deal and five-card draw would vanish.” He explains this change would “lead to a complete rethinking of the California poker product with professional dealers and much safer and ethical games.”
After George Hardie cleaned up the games, I remember a couple of cheaters came down from Northern California and cheated the high-limit games at the Bicycle Casino with marked cards, which they had managed to get a floor person to put in. This resulted in thousands of dollars being lost at the big game, and Hardie instructed his management team to give the players their money back, which was over a hundred thousand dollars.
Hardie could do this because he had the money, and it protected the future of the business he had founded and protected the integrity of the game. He let people know he would do whatever it took to restore the honor of the game.
I remember the similar challenges I faced as the general manager of the Horseshoe Casino in Gardena, California, as we transitioned from the old pass-the-deal days to center dealers. Changing the way people perceived the card room was my biggest task.
Today the new frontier is online gaming, and it is experiencing some of these same growing pains. Caro, along with his colleague Bill Handy, continues to advance ethical poker by working on a new system called COPS to detect online cheating. This shows how things change and still stay the same.
This takes me back to the words Eddie said at the beginning of this article. You can be honorable only as long as you can be honorable. And in the case of Borgata, regulation can only go so far; you can only regulate what you can regulate.
If someone is determined to cheat, he will find a way. We, as players, always need to be vigilant to protect each other and the game we love. That is the only honorable thing to do.
Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Twitter @thechipburnerRobert can be reached at [email protected].