Cheat Streams (Are Made of This)
Stones Gambling Hall Cheating Allegations
Mike Postle is a poker player from the Sacramento area who has won a lot of money in the last year playing poker on “Stones Live Poker.” Maybe too much? His winning percentage is through the roof, so much so that some of the commentators of the live streaming poker game at Stones Gambling Hall labeled his play god-like.
However one of those commentators, Veronica Brill, a poker player herself, noticed that his play just didn’t seem normal. His playing strategies were bat-shit crazy but he won — and he won a lot! Believing something just didn’t look right she went to the Director of Stones Live Poker, Justin Kuraitis and expressed her concerns about Postle. Kuraitis brushed them off. So in late September Veronica took her concerns to a place where people do pay attention - Twitter.
The poker community went off. Some at first were nasty towards Veronica, defending the god-like aPostle (sorry). However, Veronica has her own following and the poker fraternity paid attention. Why wouldn’t they? No one likes a cheat, especially if you’re the ones being cheated. A day after Veronicas insightful tweet, Stones Gambling Hall responded by tweeting the following:
“Earlier this year an accusation was made that a player was cheating in our game. We conducted a full investigation & found no evidence that any cheating had occurred. Stones Live stream remains a secure poker streaming platform. The recent allegations are completely fabricated.”
Despite the casinos rebuttal, the accusations of possible cheating prompted a number of online sleuths to comb over the numerous hours of Mike Postle’s play from live stream video archived online. One in particular, Joey Ingram, a poker player/personality with a large online following viewed and analyzed 277 hours of Postle’s play from 2018. The result: Postle had won $253,000 in 62/69 winning sessions. He posted his video analysis online highlighting the weird plays and added his support to Veronica’s claim.
On October 2, three days after their original response to Veronica’s suspicions of cheating, Stones sent out a new tweet:
“@StonesLivePoker is suspending all broadcast of poker play, including live streaming, while we expand our multifaceted investigation with outside experts. This investigation will be thorough and detailed. We will report the outcomes when they are available.”
As the poker community continued to weigh-in on the online videos and analysis of Postle’s playing behavior, the support for Veronica’s suspicion grew. The accusations were even highlighted on ESPN’s SportsCenter. On October 9, a $30M lawsuit was filed by 25 players (including Veronica) against Postle, Stones Gambling Hall and Justin Kuraitis. The list of plaintiffs has since grown to over 70.
In short, the plaintiffs are accusing Postle of using technology for the purpose of cheating hundreds of thousands of dollars from players while playing the live streaming poker game. The plaintiffs claim concerns and suspicions were brought to management’s attention on numerous occasions; however, the casino downplayed their concerns while simultaneously promoting Postle as a gifted poker player.
The players believe Postle with the aid of a confederate, cheated other players by exploiting the technology that identifies and communicates players’ hole cards via RFID chips in the cards. They believe the identity of the cards was transmitted to a device in Postle’s possession probably with the help of someone involved with the Stones Live Poker production technology. The accusation of using a cheating device is backed up by the analysis of Postle’s play where he was observed continually looking at his cell phone for long periods of time before making a decision. On a number of occasions he displayed odd playing decisions that unbelievably always worked in his favor.
Full disclosure, I’m not a poker player and my knowledge of the game is limited. But as a casino game protection guy, there are a number of things that I have read either in the lawsuit or in Twitter posts that would give me reason for concern and further investigation.
For me the three main red flags would be:
1. The math. Postle is a low stakes player. The amount he has won since 2018 seems remarkably high. One online mathematician put his numbers at being 12 standard deviations above the mean. That’s not a red flag. That’s a Jolly Roger.
2. The constant looking at his cell phone before making a decision. He rested his cell phone on his lap under the table. For a guy who has previously made comments that he plays on instinct and being able to read players behavior, his own behavior in the game during the winning streak indicated he was more interested in reading his phone before making a decision.
3. Apparently he has a fondness for only playing Stones Live Poker. There are sixteen other poker tables at Stones Gambling Hall and numerous other poker games in California and Nevada where he could apply his talents and make more money. Why only the Stones live stream game?
At this point it should be noted that the public has not been made aware of any evidence that cheating has taken place and there have been no criminal charges laid. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. However, it is reasonable to expect casino managers who receive allegations of cheating from their customers to take them seriously. Most legalized casinos have an obligation to diligently investigate any claims that the integrity of the game has been breached.
What is Live Streaming?
If you’re not into poker you may not know that streaming live poker games on a regular basis has become popular with casinos in recent years. You can trace the roots of live poker streams back to The Bicycle Hotel and Casino in 2005 when they founded “Live at the Bike.” Live streaming poker is seen by operators as a way by to promote the game and the casino. It increases exposure to favorite players and allows people to learn from the pros.
Streaming live poker requires the use of RFID playing cards. Chips are embedded in the playing cards. As they are dealt RFID readers installed in the table identify the cards and a graphics software package allows viewers online to see each players hole cards on their monitor screens. Games are not actually streamed live but delayed 15-30 minutes to prevent hole card information from being communicated amongst viewers and players. Well, so the story goes.
Producing a live poker stream is like producing a TV show. It requires a production person or team and commentators to call the game. The production team controls the audio visual aspect of the game and has access to game information in real-time. The commentary is conducted on delay, the same time that the public is viewing the game online.The video of the games can also be watched at a later date in archives set up online.
Live streaming has also become a thing with other games in the casino. Slot machine live streaming has popped up in recent times. Slot players armed with a camera or two are streaming their play in the casino back to followers online. People can now watch their favorite slot machine player (I can’t believe I just wrote that) complete with colorful commentary live from a casino that has made an agreement with the player. There are some casinos in Europe that even allow players to stream live while they are playing table games. It appears the “no video” signs are coming down in casinos, much to the horror of casino game protectors everywhere.
California Card Rooms Are a Little Different
Let’s get back to the poker cheating allegations at Stones but before we do, if you’ve never been to a California card room, there’s something you should know. They’re not exactly like normal casinos. They are gambling joints that only provide card games. No roulette, no craps. No integrated resort. No hotel. No unnecessary distractions from playing cards except maybe a place to have some nosh and get your horses shoed. It’s old school gambling and one of the oldest forms of legal gambling in California dating back over 100 years. There are currently 74 licensed card rooms in California.
One of the most interesting things about California card rooms is that they don’t bank their own games. They use outside groups to come in and bank the games against the players. The house makes money by taking a rake.
In my opinion card rooms are not as tightly regulated as Indian casinos in California. Indian casinos are regulated to adhere to state and national standards. Not so with the card rooms. Card rooms are not required to have a manned surveillance operation unless they have over 60 gaming tables. Stones has 34 tables so they are not required to have a surveillance department that operates independently from operational staff. They are only required to maintain a video storage room that managers can access if they need to. Or, to put it another way, wolves can guard the henhouse.
A Question of Integrity
The accusations are currently being investigated by the California Bureau of Gambling Control. It’s been about two months since the investigation began. Stones is not making any public comments about the players’ accusations until they complete their investigation.
This case is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. It raises many questions about operating a casino in 2020 and beyond. As a casino surveillance guy I tend to subscribe to a mantra of suspected cheats being guilty unless they are proven innocent. In this case there’s just too much stuff to ignore. With the secrecy surrounding the case, I’m standing on the outside of this as a game protection Monday morning quarterback chomping at the bit to find out more. I have a lot of questions. Here’s some of them.
Surveillance or Not? Do they have a separate surveillance department responsible for investigating allegations of cheating? If they don’t who in the casino was tasked with conducting an investigation when cheating allegations were originally raised? How was the investigation conducted? Where’s the report? According to marketing information online the casino has 200 cameras. Did anyone zoom in to see what Postle was looking at on his cell phone? Was there a camera installed in the production room to monitor employees and communication? Was Postle ever put under surveillance for any length of time? Was any surveillance ever conducted on the game after reports of cheating surfaced 12 months prior? What about the dealers - what did they see?
The Technology What measures are in place to ensure live streaming information is secure and can’t be intercepted or communicated to a third party? Are there any regulatory requirements to ensure strict security protocols on the system? Was there any vetting of the technology supplier and the production team? Does Stones have an IT director? Has Mike Postle ever been associated with the company that provides the live streaming technology used at Stones Gambling Hall? Have any audits from reputable IT security companies been conducted to ensure best practices and standards on par with industry leaders like the World Series of Poker?
Using Devices During Play Full disclosure - I’m that guy who thinks casinos are crazy to allow the use of smartphones or devices during play. I think I may be the only one left. Let’s just call smartphones what they are: mini computers with video cameras, apps and communication capabilities. But I’m not going to preach about it anymore. I’ve come around to the idea that for some reason most humans feel the need to be connected for 24 hours of the day (even during high-stakes card games). However, letting players use them during play is at a casino’s peril. Smartphone use on games is a casino industry-wide policy issue. It’s a threat to game protection that casino managers have chosen to ignore in favor of customer service (comfort). It’s a slippery slope that started with casinos allowing phones at the table, progressing into allowing players to communicate to third parties during play using non-verbal means like apps, text and email. Crazy. Quite frankly, I have no sympathy for casinos that get scammed by players using devices during the game. Casinos, you’re on your own.
Transparency Finally, I believe all casinos should have mechanisms in place to be able to quickly resolve all customer disputes, especially questions concerning the integrity of the game. The handling of these accusations by Stones has been bush league at best. The rest of the casino industry generally works very hard to preserve and maintain public confidence in gaming. In most states and countries it’s a licensing requirement. The handling of Veronica Brill’s concerns should not have been handled with a Tweet claiming the “allegations are completely fabricated.” They should have been handled seriously with a comprehensive investigation and the appropriate follow up with Veronica. Sweeping serious accusations of cheating under the table smells like a cover-up of crime or incompetence.
It’s been two months now since the investigation started. That’s a long time for what most casinos would handle in a call to surveillance. That tells me something went down that may be bigger than we thought. Or not. We may never know.
Regardless of the outcome, this is a fascinating case that raises a number of questions for me. Are casino operators “playing Atari while the customers are playing X-box?” Are third party technology vendors pulling the wool over the eyes of casino and marketing people? Is live streaming and the need to keep up with the Joneses on social networks good or bad for casinos? Do casinos have the right mechanisms in place for whistle blowers to discretely come forward when gaming integrity is in question? Should surveillance spend more time watching non-house banked games like poker? Are casinos prepared for the new type of digital gaming scams in 2020 and beyond?
I look forward to learning the truth.