Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Michael Craig on Problems at the WSOP

Michael Craig, author of The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, a book about the series of games between “the corporation” (a collection of the top pro poker players) and Andy Beal, is fast becoming an indispensible voice in the poker world. On his blog, he posts this article about some of the problems going on at the World Series of Poker and how incompetently it is being run by Harrah’s. It makes me sad because in 2001 and 2002, a lot of us waged a public battle with Becky Binion Behnen, some from close up and some with only our words, over many of the same issues and we hoped that Harrah’s would fix them after they bought Binion’s and the WSOP. Those hopes are now pretty much officially dashed.

Yes, the WSOP has continued to grow exponentially, and the general public has no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. But ask anyone who matters in the poker world and they will tell you that Harrah’s is bleeding it dry, trying to wring every last drop they can out of this cash cow before it dries up. Like Becky, they’re screwing the dealers and the floor staff and chased away all the competent tournament directors:

Harrah’s has squeezed the dealers and floor personnel so badly that there are a lot of incompetent, inexperienced people making important decisions…Harrah’s has fired the most senior, most experienced tournament hands in their stable, either because they don’t want to pay a star tournament director like Savage or Lambert or because they want to go profiteering and can’t handle a tournament director telling them they can’t mess with the integrity of the tournament.

Perhaps most importantly, they have totally ignored the need for safeguards on the number of chips in circulation, clearly compromising the integrity of the tournament. When I heard a few days ago that the reported chip counts add up to more than should on the tables, I dismissed that claim – mostly because the counts reported by Card Player are always inaccurate. But now that we’re down to the final table with only 9 players with chips, it’s pretty easy to do an actual count. Guess what? It’s way off:

Their controls to keep players from buying in and substituting chips into later events are almost non-existent, as are their controls concerning the players’ chips at the end of each night. There are 2.41 million chips at the final table above the number you would expect from 8,773 players starting with 10,000 apiece.

2.41 million in chips isn’t chump change. There are only a few ways this can happen, and all of them are inexcusable and preventable. On top of that, they’ve used cheap cards, and continued to use them, even after the players have found one deck after another to be marked. With the astonishing amount of money that Harrah’s is generating with this tournament, there is no excuse for that. They should have top of the line Kem cards on all the tables at all times.

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to change. Why? Because the public has no awareness of it and therefore won’t pressure them to change it. And because the players will continue to show up. The newbies will keep showing up because they get in cheap through satellites and they’ve got stars in their eyes about becoming a star. And the pros will keep showing up because the newbies keep showing up, which means it’s an all you can eat seafood buffet (all fish and a few hungry sharks). The only way Harrah’s would have any reason to change it is if the players stopped tolerating it, and that’s just not likely to happen.

Update: Oops. The author’s name is MIchael Craig, not William Craig. I was thinking of the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig rather than the poker writer. It has been corrected.


  1. #1 carpundit
    August 11, 2006

    When you say, “even after the players have found one deck after another to be marked,” does that mean the cards are intentionally marked (by a cheater), or that they have become marked by repeated use (the slight bend to the top of the well-used Q, for example)? I assume you mean the former.

    And you mean the casino is using its regular chips? That is, a player could just buy in to a game somewhere else in the casino and secretly move those chips into his tournament stack?

    I play this game with friends, and I entered one small tournament once, so I’m no expert. But those things amaze me. I’m stunned that marked cards and extra chips are even possible in a professional tournament.

    BTW, I think both those actions are probably felonies, even without taking into account the specific laws that Nevada probably has on the subject.

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    August 11, 2006

    I suspect that like baseball, poker as a televised sport is going to have its share of scandals before they get their shit together. The money rolls in and organizers think they can handle the increased exposure and pressure, but running a true professional sports league is hard work. You have to be willing to spend the money to make viewers (much less the players themselves) trust that they’re watching an honest game.

    If they’re not careful they’re going to find themselves with a Black Sox phenomenon, having to rebuild that basic trust between league and viewer. All a sport really has to offer over scripted entertainment is the belief of the audience that they are watching a truly honest game that is not rigged in any way for a pre-determined outcome. Marked cards, bad chip counts, and incompetent management undermine that covenant and once the trust is gone, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    August 11, 2006

    carpundit wrote:

    When you say, “even after the players have found one deck after another to be marked,” does that mean the cards are intentionally marked (by a cheater), or that they have become marked by repeated use (the slight bend to the top of the well-used Q, for example)? I assume you mean the former.

    Mostly the former, but the latter is also a problem. The cards they’re using are all white on the back and very thin, which makes them easily marked just through use in a game through smudges, folds, creases, and so forth. But that also makes them easily marked intentionally. A fingernail pushed into the edge nonchalantly in the right place can mark a card easily. The problem was so bad earlier on that Andy Bloch began folding cards in half to force them to bring out a new deck, but the new ones were often just as bad.

    And you mean the casino is using its regular chips? That is, a player could just buy in to a game somewhere else in the casino and secretly move those chips into his tournament stack?

    No, the chips are unique, but they’re the same for all of the WSOP tournaments. So what happens is that people buy in for an earlier event and tuck away some of those chips to use later on. They also pass them back and forth. Historically, this has been a problem for a long time. Men (the Master) Nguyen, in particular, has long been accused of doing that. He will often back as many as 20 or 30 players in a large tournament, and some have claimed to have seen them passing chips to him. The other way to do the same thing is to intentionally lose chips to one another if they’re at the same table. But those two things won’t increase the overall amount of chips; they don’t bring new chips into the game, just redistribute them. For the new chips, those either have to be stolen (and one would hope there is adequate accounting and security to prevent that), bought in earlier tournaments and saved, or the result of miscounting the starting chips. The problem is that casinos put a lot more effort into making sure that they don’t get ripped off than they do into making sure you don’t get ripped off. And why should they care? It gives cheaters an advantage in the tournament, but no matter who wins, they make the same amount of money.

  4. #4 Jeff Hebert
    August 11, 2006

    And the winner has been determined for the 2006 WSOP! Click here for the results — yes, this is a spoiler, since it tells you exactly what happens on the final table. Don’t click if you don’t want to know.

  5. #5 Kenneth Fair
    August 11, 2006

    I think the marked cards that Ed refers to here are the latter, not the former. A deck can pretty quickly become marked just through normal casino usage, especially when mechanical shufflers are used. Even my weekly home game needs to replace the decks every couple of months.

    The WSOP had a big problem with this at the beginning of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament. The tournament was using decks that had already been in use, and several players found cards that were bent or torn.

    Using high-quality cards like KEM cards helps mitigate this problem, because the cards last longer before requiring replacement. I would be astounded to learn that the WSOP was using normal-quality cards; that strikes me as totally unacceptable.

    I would also be astounded to learn that Harrah’s used its regular chips for the WSOP tournaments. That said, I can imagine that they might have used the same chips throughout the WSOP for all of the tournaments. This again leads to problems; it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to enter lower value events and then pocket a few chips here and there to save for the main event.

    There will sometimes be additional chips appearing at an event because of the mechanics of “coloring up” chips from lesser denominations to greater. But 2.41 million out of 87.73 million? That’s an increase of 2.7%, way beyond what should result from coloring up. Harrah’s lack of control over the chips is more than apparent here.

    The whole point of playing in a casino is to preserve the game’s integrity through the use of professional, disinterested dealers and high-quality, untainted supplies. If Harrah’s can’t provide that, there’s no point in playing there.

  6. #6 Pieter B
    August 11, 2006

    I’m amazed at the lack of chip control. Hell, the Friday night nickel/dime/quarter game I played in 35 years ago had a lockbox for the chip rack and the cash. Appalling.

  7. #7 Blake
    August 11, 2006

    Hey Ed, just wanted to thank you for recommending Mr. Craig’s book the other day. I picked it up from the library on Monday, and finished it Tuesday afternoon, simply couldn’t put it down. Fascinating reading, and it’s inspired me to get a little more serious about my Friday-night game!

  8. #8 Dave S.
    August 11, 2006

    I have a question. Why use playing cards at all in a casino? Wouldn’t it be better all around to use an electronic equivalent? Would speed things up and prevent much cheating I think. Not just poker, but blackjack (where card-counting would also be made useless) and other table card games too.

  9. #9 FishyFred
    August 11, 2006

    Wouldn’t it be better all around to use an electronic equivalent?

    Diebold. Paging Diebold. Diebold, you are needed at the front desk…

    (Translation: I wouldn’t even trust a computer to play a good game of poker.)

  10. #10 tim gueguen
    August 11, 2006

    Using electronic cards would promptly open up the casinos to regular accusations of manipulating the games, whether they would do so, or even be able to do so, or not. Just imagine some high roller who suddenly finds his stack disappearing in the course of a few hands turning around and claiming they’ve reprogrammed the machines to give him crap cards. I’ve seen people complain about the card dealing on online poker play money tables, and I’d bet the online casinos get regular accusations of fishy business on their real money tables.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    August 11, 2006

    What they certainly ought to do is use chips with tracking devices in them (most casinos use them already to make sure dealers are giving out the correct amounts. They could make it so that no one can leave the tournament area with any chips. That would at least protect against the introduction of more chips into the game, and allow for easy confirmation that no chips are missing from the early tournaments. Plus, it would make the chip counts much easier at the end of the day.

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