How it started
I am a man. I’m in my late 50s. I’m an atheist. I’m Irish and European. I’m a husband, a father, a son, and a brother. I’m a runner and a poker player (primarily online, but I do play live too). I’m left wing politically, and liberal on social issues. All of these things are parts of my identity to differing degrees, and shape my initial reactions to new experiences and information. They all bring with them inherent biases which will tend to pull me in a certain direction. Sometimes, different parts of my identity draw me in different directions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can stop me from drawing conclusions that are far too rigid based on the data. There are two sides to every story, and doubt can be a positive.
the poker community quickly split into different camps as it so often does
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few days, while the poker world has been ablaze with the latest “scandal.” After a bizarre hand between Robbi Jade Lew and Garrett Adelstein led to an accusation of cheating, the poker community quickly split into different camps as it so often does. There are those who feel Garrett’s behavior was abominable in not only levelling the cheating charge in public with little or no evidence but also asking for and accepting the money back from Robbi, and those who feel she clearly cheated, pointing to her changing explanations for the hand in question and the fact that she offered the money back as smoking guns. I’ll return to those two points but first I want to talk about the polarization we are seeing in people’s views.
I started this piece listing different components of my identity. I think we all need to recognize that we all have similarly multi-faceted identities comprised of components that push us towards different biases. It’s not always simple though.
As a man I might be predisposed towards sympathy for Garrett, but this is more than trumped by the disquiet I feel as a husband and father when I see what I perceive as a strong threatening male bullying a female. As a poker pro, I might feel greater natural empathy to the pro rather than the amateur, but as a pro I strongly believe in a code of conduct that treats recreationals with understanding and respect – something that pulling them into a dark corridor, accusing them of cheating and demanding your money back clearly transgresses. In fact, if anything my own personal biases tend to lean towards recreational players who as a group I find to be nicer more interesting people.
The world is watching
This story has caught the imagination of the poker world and even filtered out into the mainstream with results that are at once both comic and tragic. A couple of things are going on here. The loudest voices seem to be those whose personal biases are pushing them to one of two angry and anger-inducing narrative extremes: either Garrett is a muscle-bound dead-eyed sociopathic poker pro of the patriarchy, or Robbi is a conniving cheating witch that should be burned at the stake.
I rarely find myself on the same side of any issue as Daniel Negreanu and Jonathan Little, yet here we are
Of course, this is nothing out of the ordinary: it seems every issue ends like this. What makes this one different is it is creating some very unusual bedfellows. This may be because there’s so much going on here: male versus female, pro versus amateur, insider versus outsider. I rarely find myself on the same side of any issue as Daniel Negreanu and Jonathan Little, yet here we are.
What I have observed is some clear but complicated lines being drawn. Probably the clearest is the female/male one: I went looking for females on Adelstein’s side and found only Kitty Kuo. Online pros trend heavily Team Gman, perhaps triggered by recent cheating scandals and used to the idea that you catch a cheater (online) by seeing some funky hands. Live pros trend largely team Robbi, acutely aware that amateurs take strange lines and give bizarre justifications for them all the time. Amateurs trend heavily Team Robbi, except for those who think Gman is the GOAT.
Making a Cheat: the “investigators”
Meanwhile, Joey Ingram and Doug Polk continue to stir the pot with their “investigations” introducing a new divide. It’s between those reveling in this ‘Making a Murderer’ approach who believe that if we all rewatch the footage and zoom in on Robbi’s cleavage or crotch enough times we will find the smoking gun, and those of us who think it might be best not to jump to conclusions until the actual investigation is concluded.
I love a bit of clickbait as much as the next shill, but my biases as a runner lead me to believe that if we scream about cheating before there’s any real evidence let alone proof, we may be repeating the own goal of athletics when the message of “we catch drug cheats” blended into “all elite athletes are cheats” in the mainstream mind.
The smoking guns
So far, the two “smoking guns” team Gman seem to be seizing on are the fact that Robbi gave the money back when asked, and that her justification for the odd line she took in the hand changed: the implication being that both these things point towards guilt. Team Robbi have tried to justify this in a number of ways, for instance, highlighting that women are used to having to do things they don’t want when faced with an angry hulk having a tantrum. In reality, I don’t see any need for these explanations given that – in my mind – these two pointers are much more indicative of innocence than guilt.
cheats and scammers even when caught red handed rarely, if ever, give the money back
Let’s start with the money back thing. In my experience, cheats and scammers even when caught red handed rarely, if ever, give the money back unless absolutely forced to. It’s never their first impulse when accused. So to my mind this points more towards a flustered and intimidated female doing what was needed to placate the angry male berating her in a dark corridor (by her own account) than a cheat.
Ok, now the changing story thing. My wife worked for well over a decade as an interpreter for asylum seekers. As a French speaker, her clients were largely drawn from former French colonies in Africa where oppression and political suppression are sadly commonplace. Most of these were oppressed unfortunates forced to flee for their lives through no fault of their own. The remaining minority were on the other side: oppressors who had enriched themselves through the misery of others, now seeking solace in a safe country where they could enjoy the spoils. My wife told me that interrogations in Ireland were generally conducted shortly after they arrived, and then again several months later when the Irish authorities were keen to make a final judgment on whether asylum should be granted or not.
She tells me that interrogators quickly identified a very strong pattern that distinguished the genuine asylum seekers from the less-wholesome second category. Simply put, if you compared the initial testimony of the genuine asylum seekers telling the truth against the one they gave several months later, you would usually find considerable discrepancies. This is because human memory is fragile, and changes over time. It is susceptible to trauma and other pressures.
By contrast, the second category were much more consistent in their testimonies of woe. Often they were word-for-word the same, which interrogators quickly realized was a red flag in itself. Ask anyone to repeat what they said a while ago and you’ll rarely get a word-for-word recounting: unless it’s a lie they carefully fabricated and rehearsed in advance.
Cheats are acutely aware of the possibility that they might be accused and/or caught. As a result, they generally have a carefully prepared defence in the form of a well constructed and plausible lie, or if they can’t find one, silence. By contrast, less experienced players who have just made a play their table finds bewildering often flounder around looking for a justification that won’t make them look like a donkey, and try different lines until one of them sticks.
In the eye of the storm
It’s worth bearing in mind that when you’re in the eye of the storm you can sometimes be a little less than perfect in your recollection of all the details. The same comment also applies to Garrett: he initially claimed that he had not demanded a refund but been offered one by Robbi – a view at odds not just with Robbi’s recollection but also that of producer Ryan Feldman, the only witness to the encounter. While I have seen no rush towards the viewpoint that “he must be lying about the whole thing then,” any who feel that way should be willing to cut him some slack and accept it’s more likely a genuine error than a malicious manipulation of the facts.
if you want to cheat on a high stakes live stream, don’t be an attractive female
Earlier this year, 23-year-old Paulina Loeliger aka Pokerbunny caused quite the stir when she started appearing on the Hustler Casino Live stream. Viewing numbers soared, the YouTube chat and Twitter were ablaze with fans and haters alike analyzing her every move, word, costume, and gesture. As one of her backers in these games, I quickly realized just the level of scrutiny someone like her attracts. When she inadvertently introduced then removed a Bellagio chip from her stack on stream my DMs blew up with messages of concern that she was stealing from me and other backers. This was quickly resolved by talking to Paulina herself who explained clearly what had happened, and rewatching the footage to confirm her testimony. Hustler did the same and reached the same conclusion. One thing that became clear to me from this episode was if you want to cheat on a high stakes live stream, don’t be an attractive female because that’s the one thing that guarantees you’ll be watched like a hawk.
Garrett and Paulina appeared together on a few streams. He did not seem to enjoy her presence at the table, generally acting in a manner somewhere between dismissive and rude towards her that contrasted with his normal welcome to new players. She responded sensibly by minimizing interactions with him. When she made a stack size error based on miscounting an opponent’s stack and was visibly upset by it, he was straight in with the needle. When she left the table to call her backers to ask for permission to quit the game on the basis that she didn’t feel she could guarantee performing her best while upset from having made the mistake, the game continued until a few others quit the game after getting stacked by Garrett.
After the game broke, Garrett took to Twitter blaming Paulina for “breaking the game,” a clear falsehood that so annoyed her principal backer, my close friend Jan Suchanek who sadly passed recently, that he was ready to go to war with Garrett on Twitter. On this occasion, Garrett quickly withdrew the statement and deleted the tweet when called out by Jan and others:
Given that he is for now sticking to his guns that he believes he was cheated in his latest tweet, it’s clear he feels differently this time. As such we should give him the benefit of the doubt that he genuinely believes this, and cut him some slack for his less than optimal handling of the situation, a point made by Poker Bunny in her only public comments on the controversy. There is probably nobody better placed in the whole world to understand both the reasons why Garrett might feel cheated, and the reasons why in the heat of battle under the glare of public scrutiny an inexperienced young female might wilt and do something that looks bizarre. Many were surprised even if I wasn’t how even handed and empathetic her take was given her own history with Garrett and his super fans:
In general, the females of poker have covered themselves in glory with the best and most balanced takes on the case. Most have cautioned against a rush to judgement, and special credit to Melanie Weisner for what is in my opinion the best breakdown of the competing views:
Meanwhile, the investigation rages on. Despite thousands of eyes scouring the footage for smoking guns, no real evidence of cheating beyond speculation and conjecture has emerged. If, as seems likely, Robbi is cleared, I sincerely hope Garrett is big enough to admit he was wrong both in his conclusion and his methods, and his fans would do well to reflect on their own rush to judgement. Beyond that, Robbi will be due multiple apologies at the very least, and possibly legal compensatory damages. And even if it turns out Robbi cheated, he would do well to reflect on how he could perhaps have handled it and himself better rather than just focusing on all the “hate” his actions summoned up. At the end of the day, no matter what happens, there are no winners here, and poker as a whole features in the losers column.