The article about Internet poker misstated the amount won by a player using the name Potripper in a 2007 tournament. The winnings totaled $10,000, not $428,520.
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Cheating Scandals Raise New Questions about Honesty, Security of Internet Gambling
Although players can be fiercely competitive during a match, it is not unusual for them to share information afterward. "Most of the top players know one another," said Ravitch, who plays on his laptop from his home in Queens. "If I don't know someone in the seat next to me, chances are I know his friends."
Ravitch is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who realized he enjoyed playing poker more than filing legal briefs. "Sunday is my work day," he said. "That's when all the big tournaments are."
Each week, Ravitch said, he averages about 20 hours of play while spending an additional 10 hours studying a large database of hand histories he has compiled, searching for competitors' tendencies. "Poker has become mathematically much more sophisticated," he said. Among the successful participants, he added, "there are no dumb players."
Ravitch offered to help analyze the suspect hand histories. He was joined by Nat Arem, a former auditor in the Philadelphia office of the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. Like Ravitch, the 26-year-old Arem is good at math and with computers. In 2006, he attended Emory Law School in Atlanta for a semester but dropped out after selling a software program that players use to track the results of poker tournaments. He now lives in Costa Rica, where he develops poker-related businesses.
In the fall of 2007, Arem and Ravitch obtained copies of Marco Johnson's spreadsheet file and started analyzing the data. Arem wrote a software program to decode the information. Joined by a handful of other poker detectives, they quickly identified improbable betting patterns for Potripper and several other suspect accounts. The patterns suggested that the players with improbable win rates could somehow see their opponents' face-down, or hole, cards.
"Obviously, if you can see your opponents' hole cards, you have a huge advantage," Ravitch said. "That helped to explain how the suspect accounts never seemed to lose."
One of the first things the poker detectives noticed was that Potripper was playing exclusively in "nosebleed stakes," games with the biggest pots. "He got caught because it was easy to catch," Ravitch said. "There are only a handful of other players playing those stakes, and everyone knows one another."
Instead of losing a few hands to deflect attention, Potripper continued to win every time. "It would have been so easy if he had just lost a few hands. No one would have ever suspected a thing," Ravitch said.
In addition to hand histories, the poker detectives said, Johnson's spreadsheet contained e-mail and Internet addresses that appeared to connect one of the suspicious accounts to Costa Rica, to a home owned by Scott Tom, the founder of AbsolutePoker who sold the business to Joe Norton in October 2006. When the poker detectives posted their findings on a popular poker forum called Two Plus Two, bloggers pounced on the information as proof that Tom must have known about the cheating, if not have cheated himself.
It was not clear from the information, however, whether Tom used the account or whether someone else may have had access to it. AbsolutePoker officials did not address the bloggers' charges. Instead, they released a statement saying that Tom had not worked at the site for more than a year -- a claim that they would later be forced to retract. In fact, Tom continued to manage day-to-day operations at AbsolutePoker until October 2007, when he resigned as the cheating scandal was heating up.
Norton was "aware of the press releases but did not [initially] realize they were false," the company said in response to written questions from The Post. "The fact that they were misleading, if not outright false, contributed to Joe's decision to change the management" in October 2007. AbsolutePoker officials have said that Tom was not involved in the cheating, but they have declined to say who was. Tom declined requests for comment.
Tom's father, Phil, defended his son in interviews and via e-mail, saying Scott was "attacked viciously and unfairly by bloggers" who tried to link him to the cheating. "I couldn't believe some of the things they were saying, how he was the cheater," he said.