The Cheating Scandal Rocking the Poker World

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On January 12, a group of poker players gathered at Stones Gambling Hall near Sacramento to play no-limit hold’em. The game was being streamed on Twitch, part of a regular broadcast from the casino called Stones Live. The audience was able to see the players’ face-down cards because of RFID sensors in the cards and on the table, and the game was broadcast on a half-hour delay so that viewers couldn’t relay information from the broadcast to the players during the hands. Even the commentators, two regular players from Stones Live named Veronica Brill and Jake Rosenstiel, were watching the game on a half-hour delay as they commented on the action.

After about three hours, one player at the table, Mike Postle, the most successful competitor in the Stones Live broadcast’s history, had run his stack of chips up to about $12,000 when he found himself in a hand with pocket 6s. Before it was his turn to act there was already a raise to $100 and a re-raise to $350. Postle called, as did two other players after him and the two initial raisers. Five players were in for $350 each for the flop, and the pot was nearly $2,000. The flop was 2-3-4 with two clubs. Postle checked his pair of sixes. A player bet $680. Another player called the $680. Postle opted to call. Already the action in this hand is ridiculous, and the pot is almost $4,000. The turn was a 5 of clubs, giving Postle a straight to the 6, but also potentially making a flush for one of the other two players. Postle checked, the next player checked, and the third player went all in for his last $2,500. The pot was now more than $6,000.

Mike Postle is one of the loosest players in the game, opting to play nearly half of the hands he is dealt, and is known to take marginal hands all the way to the river, where he then outplays his opponents. When they bluff against him, he will re-raise with hands like bottom pair. When they have a better hand than him, but hands that aren’t very strong, he bluffs with nearly 100 percent success. The regulars at Stones are in such awe of Postle’s abilities to know where he’s at in a hand at any given time that they call him “Apostle” or “the Devil.” They show custom graphics during the broadcast when Postle’s in hands that show him with horns on his head, or with a halo and long hair and a beard—as Jesus Christ.

“He runs so pure if he makes this fold,” Veronica Brill said into the microphone during the Twitch broadcast as she waited for Postle to decide what to do. Brill knows Postle well. When she’s not in the booth doing commentary for Stones Live, she’s a regular in the streamed games and has played across the table with him many times. “He’s Colombian cocaine at its best. If he folds this hand I’m going to fucking get up. … He’s Jesus Christ if he folds right now.”

Mike Postle made the fold.

It may not seem like a big deal to fold a one-card straight with a flush possible on the board. And on its own it really isn’t. But Brill had seen Postle do things like this time and time again. It wasn’t just that he folded the worse hand to a better hand (the other player did indeed have a flush), it was that in nearly identical spots Postle would call or raise when the other player didn’t have the best hand. It was nearly perfect poker. He always made the right decision. For a fellow no-limit grinder like Brill, it was awe-inspiring. Why couldn’t she play so flawlessly? What did he have that she didn’t?

For the last four years, Stones Live has broadcast live no limit hold’em cash games over Twitch and YouTube, part of a growing trend that started with the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California’s Live at the Bike live cash game broadcast. Live at the Bike broadcasts every weeknight to thousands of poker fanatics and has been host to some of the biggest names in poker and seen more than a million dollars in play on the table. The younger Stones Live broadcast airs three nights a week and usually draws an audience of a few hundred viewers, though some heavy hitters have passed through, including 2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker. The games on Stones Live are often lower stakes, sometimes with blinds as low as $1 and $3. Players like Mike Postle, however, have helped ratchet up the effective stakes by buying in with lots of money and making hefty wagers. Players buy in with their own money and can get up and leave, or add on to their chip stack out of their pockets, whenever they want. They are no different than any other cash game in the casino, except for the cameras and the RFID transmitters.

On September 21, Postle was back at Stones, back on the Twitch stream, playing in a very large $10/$25/$50 no limit hold’em game, one of the largest they had ever streamed and the biggest that Postle had played in that year. After about five hours of play, he had run his $5,000 buy-in up to about $25,000 when he got into a hand with the poker vlogger Marle Cordeiro.

Postle had a queen and a jack. The flop was 8-9-J, giving Postle top pair with a gutshot draw to a straight. Postle checked to Cordeiro, who bet $200. Postle called. The turn was a 4, changing nothing. Postle checked again. Cordeiro bet $600 into a $760 pot, bringing it to nearly $1,400. Postle thought for a little bit and then folded. His fold was correct. Cordeiro had flopped the joint. She had a queen and a 10 for what’s known as “the nut straight.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Brill said in the commentator’s booth. Her cocommentator, Justin Kelly, was just as stunned. He waxed about how great Postle is. This time, however, Brill didn’t proclaim her love for their lord and savior like she had earlier in the year. This time she stared straight ahead, stunned. “It’s like he knows. It just doesn’t make sense,” she said softly. “It’s weird.”

Despite losing a couple hundred dollars in that pot, Postle ended the night up $21,000 for roughly five hours of play. That was the night Brill says she decided to tell someone at Stones Gambling Hall she suspected that Mike Postle was cheating.

Stones Gambling Hall said it investigated Postle and the Stones Live game and found no evidence of cheating. So Brill contacted Joe Ingram, a popular poker podcaster and YouTuber, and asked him to look into it. Ingram studied hours and hours of footage from the archives of the Stones Live streams, hundreds upon hundreds of hands. He did livestreams on his own channel, where he reviewed clips and talked about what he thought might be happening. A thread on the poker forum TwoPlusTwo ballooned to thousands of posts. Soon every big name in poker seemed to be chiming in on Twitter and on the forums with their own take. Players in the forums were analyzing data, creating scatter plot diagrams of Postle’s plays, scrutinizing his movements with his hands, bulges in his clothing, and who he talked to between hands, and scouring the internet for information about his personal life that might be relevant. Soon the thread on TwoPlusTwo resembled a detective’s corkboard with red string wound around pushpins, connecting the various dots that revealed the definitive answer to the mystery. Ingram went live on his channel every night to discuss the latest findings. He’d stay on for hours at a time chatting with his viewers as he reviewed yet more hands from more sessions.

As all of this transpired, Postle defended himself on Twitter. He said he was innocent, that he had been a professional player for 16 years and his results spoke for themselves. He said he was blessed with good instincts and had studied “human behavior,” essentially arguing that his absurdly accurate play was the result of having solid reads on his opponents’ tells to know what they had. He also deleted his LinkedIn account, which indicated that he was connected to the company that ran the Stones Live broadcasts and had worked for them as a consultant in the past. Stones Gambling Hall announced that it was halting the live broadcasts while it had an external investigation conducted. Meanwhile the external investigation that was already underway, the one managed by Joe Ingram and an army of poker detectives on Twitter and TwoPlusTwo, had already reached ESPN. SportsCenter did a segment on the controversy right after Thursday Night Football, with Scott Van Pelt describing the mystery as an “internet wormhole,” one that seemed to have no bottom.

I have found myself trapped in the wormhole this week, unable to focus on anything else. It is addictive, digging through this evidence. And it’s interesting to wonder why all of this cheating—and I do believe that Mike Postle was cheating—wasn’t obvious to everyone before. It’s like a Where’s Waldo? puzzle. It’s so hard to find him, but once you do, you can never not see him when you look at the picture again. Your eyes know just where to look. And now that everyone is looking for the signs that Postle is cheating, they are everywhere. While his neighbors keep their phones on the table, he always keeps his phone on his chair between his legs, with his left hand holding it in place beneath the table. He almost never brings his left hand up above the table. He puts his head down to glance at his phone before he makes decisions. It all seems so obvious now.

But then I start to see things that seem so obvious, but I wonder whether they aren’t just paranoia after hours and hours of digging into the mystery. Like the fact that he starts wearing a hat that has a strange bulge around the brim—one that vanishes after the game when he’s doing an interview in the booth. Is it a bone-conducting headset, as some online have suggested, sending him messages directly to his inner ear by vibrating on his skull? Of course it is! How could it be anything else? It’s so obvious! Or the fact that he keeps his keys in the same place on the table all the time. Could they contain a secret camera that reads electronic sensors on the cards? I can’t see any other possibility! It is all starting to make sense.

In the end, though, none of this additional evidence is even necessary. The gaggle of online Jim Garrisons have simply picked up more momentum than is required and they can’t stop themselves. The fact is, the mystery was solved a long time ago. It’s just like De Niro’s Ace Rothstein says in Casino when the yokel slot attendant gets hit for three jackpots in a row and tells his boss there was no way for him to know he was being scammed. “Yes there is,” Ace replies. “An infallible way. They won.” According to one poster on TwoPlusTwo, in 69 sessions on Stones Live, Postle has won in 62 of them, for a profit of over $250,000 in 277 hours of play. Given that he plays such a large number of hands, and plays such an erratic and, by his own admission, high-variance style, one would expect to see more, well, variance. His results just aren’t possible even for the best players in the world, which, if he isn’t cheating, he definitely is among. Add to this the fact that it has been alleged that Postle doesn’t play in other nonstreamed live games at Stones, or anywhere else in the Sacramento area, and hasn’t been known to play in any sizable no-limit games anywhere in a long time, and that he always picks up his chips and leaves as soon as the livestream ends. I don’t really need any more evidence than that. If you know poker players, you know that this is the most damning evidence against him. Poker players like to play poker. If any of the poker players I know had the win rate that Mike Postle has, you’d have to pry them up from the table with a crowbar. The guy is making nearly a thousand dollars an hour! He should be wearing adult diapers so he doesn’t have to take a bathroom break and cost himself $250.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit surprised by all of the attention this particular scandal is receiving, however, and I’m equally surprised at my own willingness to get lost in it all. This isn’t even close to the biggest cheating scandal poker has had this century. In 2007, players on the site Absolute Poker complained of accounts that were playing so perfectly they had to be cheating. The site reviewed the accounts and denied that there was anything going on. But players took to TwoPlusTwo and reviewed hand histories, of which there were many thousands, because the company accidentally sent a player a master hand history list when he requested his own. The forum parsed the data in those hand histories to identify an account that had results that simply weren’t mathematically possible without having knowledge of the other players’ cards. Eventually Absolute Poker admitted that the account must have been cheating.

Later, a similar situation occurred on the site Ultimate Bet, which was owned by the same company as Absolute Poker. Players approached the company with their accusations and the data to back them up, and Ultimate Bet found a host of accounts that it agreed were hacking somehow and had access to opponents’ hole card information. Five years later audio recordings leaked of 1994 World Series of Poker champion Russ Hamilton admitting to being behind the cheating on Ultimate Bet and conspiring with executives to cover it all up. Hamilton used a “God Mode” feature the company had installed and provided him access to. In the end it was determined that the amount stolen from players through cheating was more than $20 million.

So why is this scandal, one that involves far less money and fewer coconspirators (that we know of so far), so much more tantalizing and attention-grabbing than the massive cheating operation that went on at Ultimate Bet? For one thing, today’s online culture seems fixated on the idea of the “grifter” or “scammer.” From swindlers who take money under false charitable pretenses to Instagram stars who curate fake versions of their lives for followers, scammers take many forms, and internet sleuths delight in exposing them. The Ultimate Bet scandal was a corrupt company ripping off its customers in the most egregious way possible. It was disgusting, but it was also very much in keeping with what was going on in the U.S. at the time, when banks were being exposed for selling worthless mortgages and lying about their risk, bringing capitalism nearly to its knees. In that context the Ultimate Bet scam may have even seemed quaint. Mike Postle, by contrast, is but one man, and he tried to outsmart the public. I’ll admit there is some amount of joy in taking a person who thought themselves so smart down a notch or two.

But my guess is that the video has more to do with what makes this scandal more intriguing and enthralling than the Ultimate Bet scandal before it. The work of catching the cheaters on Absolute and Ultimate Bet was determined by the meticulous and boring work of combing through data. The investigation being conducted online this week into Mike Postle’s cheating involves watching hours of footage of poker games. Ten years ago, players and the general public had none of this spectacle. Just pages and pages of hand histories. Today we have hours and hours of moving images, and we layer on top of those images the livestreams of Joe Ingram or Doug Polk or Scott Van Pelt watching it all with us, debating what we are seeing, rewinding the clip and playing it again, listening to see whether we can hear what Postle said right before the cards turned over, looking closely to see whether we can tell where his eyes are focused. Just as Mike Postle wants us to believe he can perfectly know his opponents’ cards by reading them for tells, for slight changes in their manner and method, we, too, believe we can suss out Postle’s true methods. We study him for tells, not the kind that reveal his hand, but the kind that reveal his whole heart. That’s what’s at the heart of this dustup. For poker players, the investigation is yet another game, but one where Postle has no unfair advantage. He can’t just pick up his chips and leave whenever he wants. We’re all watching him now.

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