Dara O’Kearney: Dreaded Tales of Poker Scammers

  • O’Kearney first suffered a scam after just one year of full-time poker play
  • An Irish player called Dan left him out of pocket at a vital point in his career
  • O’Kearney also lost cash to scammer Heinzelmann, who he considered a friend
  • He managed to evade a third scammer after learning from previous experiences
US dollars in mouse trap
Dara O’Kearney, VSO News writer, has shared some tales of scams he has experienced during his time as a full-time poker player. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

The first time

I’d only been playing poker full-time for about a year the first time I got scammed. One year of online poker is more than enough time to realize that no matter how much you love the game, long hours spent every day clicking buttons on a screen is an isolating experience. Therefore, professional players almost invariably end up cultivating the company of peers to chat idly with as they click, the virtual equivalent of office coworkers to shoot the breeze with at the water cooler. Back then MSN was the virtual water cooler of choice (nowadays the market is split between Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to name but a few).

flattered that he thought I was “worthy” of a contact request

My MSN contacts list consisted mainly of other full-time players who worked the same hours as me. It gradually grew, and one addition was a young Irish player Dan who had an impressive resume of online scores, a large presence on the Irish poker forum at Boards.ie, and something of a cult following among Irish poker fans as “the next big thing.” As such, I was somewhat flattered that he thought I was “worthy” of a contact request.

Our early chats were nothing out of the ordinary. Some strategy discussion, a lot of complaining about bad beats (such behavior was tolerated more back in the day), and other forms of idle breeze shooting. He was (he said) chasing Supernova PokerStars status and racking up considerable volume to get there (he was on at all hours of the day and night).

For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a rewards programme that confers (or did back then) substantial monetary rewards at the end of the year for high levels of volume played over the year. It was basically an all or nothing deal where you get a significant lump sum for playing a certain volume, and nothing if you come up just short.

The setup

It wasn’t unusual for guys in the final sprint towards the Supernova finish line to lose money faster than they could deposit it on Stars. This was the situation Dan said he was in, so on a day where he bust his account having deposited the maximum for the day, he started asking if I could send him a few hundred bucks to tide him over. I started doing so on the understanding that once the year was over and he hit Supernova, it would all be sent back. His “tab” mounted to several thousand dollars by year end, but all was well when he not only sent it all back but with a small amount of vig as thanks.

It wasn’t long before the requests for relatively small amounts to tide him over to the next deposit period started again. While the previous sweat of having a significant chunk of my operating capital resting in another person’s account had not been without worry, the fact that it had all been repaid and more made it seem churlish to deny these new requests. Once again the tab grew to a considerable portion of my bankroll at the time (roughly 30%).

he had strong reason to believe Dan was operating some sort of pyramid scheme

The first third-party indication that all was not as it seemed came while playing live in the Sporting Emporium one night. Another player at the table took a call, then made one to a friend instructing him: “Transfer 5k to Dan on Stars, but first make sure he has sent us 5250 on the other site.” After striking up a conversation in which I admitted to having overheard this exchange, the other player confirmed to me that we were speaking about the same Dan. He also indicated he had strong reason to believe Dan was operating some sort of pyramid scheme or scam given his frequent pressing need to move money from one site to another bypassing the normal methods of doing so, but given Dan’s willingness to pay a 5% transaction fee and the absence of any clear proof of his suspicions, he figured it best to look the other way.

When I admitted that Dan owed me a significant portion of my bankroll, he advised doing everything I could to recover it, short of exposing him publicly. He made the very convincing argument that once a guy is exposed, he has nothing further to fear or lose, and thus loses any incentive to make good on his debts.

Chasing shadows

I set about pressing Dan on the matter. He started to be more elusive online, and when I did get him there were various assurances that he was waiting for a cheque to clear and then would pay. He finally admitted to having financial issues, but had secured a job with Full Tilt to steady the ship. This in itself seemed reassuring for reasons beyond a mere regular pay cheque. A major site would surely have done some sort of security background checks before taking someone on to investigate other players for fraud, right? (This view seemed more credible back then pre Black Friday, before Full Tilt itself was shut down by the FBI and denounced as a massive Ponzi scheme).

Needless to say, Dan didn’t last long at Full Tilt. He was exposed online as a scammer and disappeared, leaving me and several other hapless debtors on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively. For the next year I struggled through my first major online downswing and the banking share collapse, and came perilously close to bust. I spent the next year under rolled desperately grinding Sit and Goes barely making ends meet.

forcing me to grind lower to avoid going bust

Beyond the money Dan took from me, he also took away much of my future earnings potential at a time when my skill edge over the average opponent was at a peak, by forcing me to grind lower to avoid going bust. All I got in return was massively elevated stress levels, and the fear that the day would come that I would have to tell Mrs. Doke there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.

Thankfully, it never did.

The second time

The second time I got scammed, it was someone I considered a close friend. Max Heinzelmann was already one of the best-known online players in the world when he flew to Las Vegas on his 21st birthday. A few days later he played one of the most famous hands of all time against Shaun Deeb. That night we laughed about the hand.

Max came second in back-to-back European Poker Tours (EPTs). Not just any old EPT either: Berlin and San Remo, two of the biggest and most prestigious. He was to all appearances a massively successful player. He was also a very nice guy, and I enjoyed my time in his company. I was also a little flattered that someone of his stature less than half my age seemed to enjoy mine.

He bought pieces of me in tournaments. We swapped when we played the same events. We sometimes talked hands. We went to dinner. We drank beer together. I considered him a pretty close friend. He often sought advice on general life issues, and he often railed me on online final tables. He railed me the night I chopped Super Tuesday, and seemed thrilled for me. We chatted for over an hour after it was over. He asked if I was going to a forthcoming EPT. I was. He said he would be there too, but had too much Sterling so maybe he’d take some if I needed it. I said I’d take 3k and shipped him the money on Stars there and then.

Here we go again

He wasn’t at the next EPT. When I contacted him a little annoyed saying I was basically cashless in London. He apologized profusely saying he had a last-minute health issue and offered to try to get one of the other Germans to give me the cash. After hearing no more from him I managed to get an English friend to give me a loan until I got home.

I started to wonder if Max even had the money

Max said he’d see me at the next UK and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT), which was a little odd as he had stopped travelling for them since getting a bit too big for UKIPTs. But I thought maybe he just wanted to socialize with his many UK friends. I saw him next in Vienna at an EPT, and we went out to dinner with two English pros. Not wanting to embarrass him in front of mutual friends, I was hoping to ask him about the money in private if we got a minute alone. We didn’t. What we did end up doing, at his suggestion, was credit card roulette for the bill. I obviously lost (as I have on all eight other occasions I’ve degenned) but I couldn’t help but notice two things. When Max pulled out his wallet, there was a whole lot of credit cards but not a single note, and he seemed to be sweating the outcome a lot more than you’d expect. For the first time I started to wonder if Max even had the money.

I tried to catch him at tournament breaks but he proved elusive. When I got home I sent him some private messages. He eventually responded saying he was having problems withdrawing from Stars. When I told him I was fine with him just transferring the money back, he said he had transfer limit issues. I continued to press him on and off until I was contacted by a close English friend who told me Max was about to be publicly exposed as a scammer. My friend had managed to get back the money he was owed by threatening to expose him, but had been tipped off that another friend was about to go public.

The outing

Once poker players recognize a scammer, they know it’s only a matter of time before that person is exposed as such. They also know that as soon as that happens the chances of ever retrieving any money owed dramatically diminishes and often disappears. So they are incentivised not to expose that person at least until they are repaid themselves. But most poker players have enough integrity to want to limit the prospects of anyone else being scammed. So what tends to happen is that word spreads through the grapevine not to lend money to so and so, until inevitably someone does go public.

He contacted me privately admitting to gambling addiction

Most scammers simply disappear into the cyber ether once exposed. Max didn’t. He responded to a thread on 2+2 with what looked like full disclosure, with a full list of the people he owed, and assurances that he would repay everyone, but needed time. He contacted me privately admitting to gambling addiction but assuring me he would find some way to repay me.

He remained in contact every few weeks saying he was still working on it. In his final message to me, he assured me the matter would be resolved within a few weeks. For once, he was true to his word: the matter was resolved, but not in the way any of us would have wanted. I woke up in Vegas to reports that Max’s life had ended in tragedy.

The third attempt

The only good thing about being scammed is you are more likely to recognize the warning signs if and when they arise in future. At an EPT in Berlin, I met a young Canadian online phenom when I went to dinner with an American friend. I knew he’d won the Sunday Millions and generally beasted online, and I’d heard he crushed high stakes live Pot-Limit Omaha. He was charming and engaging, and seemed genuinely happy to meet SlowDoke. He told me a great Phil Hellmuth story that I retold in a Bluff column. We hung out again at EPT Prague, where he was charming and complimentary.

He contacted me online shortly afterwards selling for the Aussie Millions High Roller. I bought a piece and sent him the money on Stars. He didn’t cash.

A few weeks later he contacted me again saying he was coming to Dublin for the EPT and would be selling again for high rollers. I offered to buy a piece. He asked for the money online. I told him I’d send nearer the date. He came back saying he would need cash in Dublin. I said I could pay him that way. He said he needed more than what I would owe him. A lot more. I said we could do that if he sent me the money on Stars.

I resolved never to lend or transfer a cent to him

He never showed up in Dublin, saying he had changed his mind and was grinding high stakes live cash in Canada. He asked if I could give the high roller buyin to a horse of his. I said I could do that if he sent Stars first. He said he would but never did. By now alarm bells had gone off in my head as I replayed our encounters in my mind. His clear interest when he was told who I was when we were first introduced in Berlin. The compliments about my game that flowed easily when we hung out in Prague. The constant stroking of my ego when we chatted online. The casual name dropping of ballers he was supposedly friends with and supposedly swapped with in high rollers. There was now sufficient doubt in my mind that I resolved never to lend or transfer a cent to him unless he transferred first.

Shortly after EPT Dublin he was exposed as a scammer. When I told a friend who had hung out with us in Prague, he expressed zero surprise: “I felt like he was grooming you in Prague.”

In my next piece for VegasSlotsOnline News, I’ll give some concrete tips on how to spot possible scammers.