How Much is an Online Reputation Worth?

Oct. 11, 2011, Posted by Submission

How Much is an Online Reputation Worth?

In the fallout of Black Friday and the disastrous collapse of Full Tilt, everyone is angry at the incompetent governments and malicious companies that conspire to prevent poker players playing poker. Although the game was once a shady, borderline-criminal activity, nowadays online grinders and high-stakes tournament regulars just want to be left in peace to play cards and ship pots. The poker community is seen as broadly respectable; buoyed by airtime on major TV networks and coverage in the mainstream press, professional poker players have taken on the same aspirational image as famous athletes.

Indeed the majority of successful players are hardworking, responsible, trustworthy souls. But just as one cooler can spoil a great session or one Mike Matusow can spoil a great dinner party, the minority of scumbags, cheaters and general degenerates who float to the top of the poker community can ruin it for everyone else.

Take, for example, two recent and depressingly similar stories of staking-gone-wrong at the 2011 WSOP.

Eric “OnlyPlayRagz” Conti received backing for around $50,000 of entry fees for a variety of NLHE and mixed game tournaments. After playing just a small number of events, he disappeared, pocketing the money for the rest of the tournaments and leaving his backers to conclude he’d either died or cheated them out of their cash.

Similarly, Nick “MI_turtle” Rainey sold pieces of a $10,000 Main Event run that never materialised. After accepting backers’ money, he posted some (now-deleted) tweets which ambiguously suggested he had busted in the tournament’s first day. However, canny observers looked through the publicly-available list of Main Event entrants and discovered that he had in fact never bought in to the tournament, but instead had kept the entrance fee his backers helped pay for. It has since emerged that Rainey has moved to Canada, deleted his various public profiles and accounts, and despite spurious claims and pleadings to the contrary, appeared for a time to have no intention of paying his investors back. (He has since begun the process of making repayments, but the full story of why he ran off with backers’ money has not yet emerged.)

While many people sell portions of their action or buy tournament shares without incident, there are a host of similar stories in which seemingly respectable players simply steal money that was given as a stake or loan. The fact that so many of these transactions are carried out in public internet forums means that there is often a morbidly fascinating record of the entire sordid affair.

Typically, these threads begin with impressive-looking graphs, tables and accounts of deep tournament runs or enviable cash-game win rates. Conti and Rainey both pointed to earlier tournament success and drew upon endorsements, implicit and otherwise, from respected figures in the poker community while selling tournament shares. Backers confidently pledge thousands of dollars of investment while wishing the player good luck. Then, gradually, after money has changed hands behind-the-scenes, the tone of the posts changes, as the first tinges of concern begin to show: the seller has been out of contact for a while, or has missed a repayment date.The first concrete accusation of wrongdoing is a breaking point, a catalyst for more allegations, each more forthright and bitter than the last. Stories of previous scams or shady behaviour come out of the woodwork, and at last, often amid half-promises and misinformation from the player involved, the community accepts the unpleasant truth: they’ve been ripped off, and will be lucky to see their money again.

Ultimately, such scams work because they play upon the honesty of other members of the community, and exploit trust built up among peers. A common sentiment voiced in such forum threads is that the fraudster has ruined their reputation, and in the long run their dishonesty will cost them more than the few thousand dollars they gain by stealing from backers. Indeed, this may be true for those players who fail hold up their end of a backing or staking deal through incompetence, stupidity or crumbling under adverse circumstances.

However, the web of trust used by online communities is ripe for cold, considered exploitation by serious scammers. Poker players will always need to borrow money or sell action, but while pros used to trade on their reputation among people they knew and worked with, and everyone knew everyone else, in the era of the internet a reputation can be a screen name, a results graph and a handful of online profiles on sites like Twittter and Facebook. Once upon a time, if you became known as a liar or a degenerate, you, your friends and your family would face serious social stigma, and there would be a real threat of legal (or otherwise) retribution. Now, seemingly all it takes to avoid the repercussions of carrying out fraud is to change a screen name or telephone number, or perhaps move to a new city.

Bear in mind that ripping off tournament backers or reneging on a debt can easily net a fraudster tens of thousands of dollars. While that’s play-money for the true high-stakes ballers, for many people that amount of cash is life-changing. When all it takes to make an online rep is a couple of years of tournament success, a few positive transactions with well-known players and a modicum of pleasantness in dealing with people, the incentive to trade in a reputation for a five- or six-figure windfall is huge for a certain kind of person. Accept a large loan or stake or oversell a large tournament entry, and then simply disappear.

Poker players are never going to stop trading action and swapping eye-watering amounts of money in situations that would make a regular person squirm. But when a reputation is built online and is as disposable as an email address or a Skype account, the stakes are far riskier than they might appear. Often, all the victims of the scam can do is hurl insults and threats at the player involved. As anyone who’s ever found themselves furiously posting on message boards at four am will tell you, no one likes to be insulted on the internet.  But in exchange for a chance to steal tens of thousands of dollars, some people will make an exception.

---  Gabriel Brady

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