I’ve been playing poker full time for about a year the first time I got cheated. One year of online poker is more than enough time to realize that no matter how much you love the game, the many hours you spend each day clicking buttons on the screen is an isolated experience. Therefore, professional gamers almost always end up making a company of their peers to chat quietly with them while they click, which is the virtual equivalent of office co-workers shooting a water cooler. At the time, MSN was the default water cooler (the market nowadays is split between Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to name a few).
He’s flattered that he thinks I’m “worthy” of asking for a call
My MSN contact list consists mainly of other full-time players who have worked the same hours as me. It gradually grew, and one of the additions was the young Irish player Dan who had an impressive resume of online results, a large presence on the Irish poker forum at Boards.ie, and something of a following among Irish poker fans as the “next big player thing.” As such, I was somewhat flattered that he thought I was “worthy” of the connection request.
Our early conversations weren’t out of the ordinary. Some discussion of strategy, a lot of complaining about bad hits (such behavior was tolerated more back in the day), and other forms of idle shooting. He was (as he said) chasing the status of Supernova PokerStars and mobilizing quite a few to get there (it was working at all hours of the day and night).
For those who don’t know what this is, it’s a rewards program that awards (or was doing at the time) big year-end cash rewards for high levels of volume played throughout the year. It was basically an all-or-nothing deal where you get a big lump sum to run a certain volume, and nothing if you go out short.
It wasn’t unusual for guys in the final race to a Supernova’s finish line to lose money faster than they could deposit it into Stars. This was the situation Dan said he was in, so the day he messed up his account after he deposited the maximum for the day, he started asking if I could send him a few hundred bucks. I started doing this with the understanding that once the year was over and a supernova hit, it would be brought back in full. His “tab” had risen to several thousand dollars by the end of the year, but all was well when he not only sent it all back, but with a tiny bit of a celebratory pause as his thanks.
It wasn’t long before requests for relatively small amounts began again to bring it back to the next deposit period. While the previous sweat of having a large portion of my operating capital in someone else’s account wasn’t without concern, the fact that it had been paid off in full and more made the denial of these new orders seem unsettling. Again the tab grew to a large portion of my balance at that time (about 30%).
He had strong reason to believe that Dan was running some kind of pyramid scheme
The first indication from the third party that all was not as it seemed came while playing live at the Sporting Emporium one night. Another player at the table gets a call, then calls a friend who instructs him: “Transfer 5k to Dan on Stars, but first make sure he sends us 5250 on the other site.” After I had a conversation in which I admitted that I had heard this exchange, the other player assured me that we were talking about the same Dan. He also indicated that he had good reason to believe that Dan was running some kind of pyramid scheme or scam given his frequent urgent need to move money from one location to another bypassing the normal ways of doing so, but given Dan’s willingness to pay a 5% transaction fee and the absence of any clear evidence On his skepticism, he thought it best to look the other way.
When I admitted that Dan owed me a large portion of my money, he advised me to do everything in my power to get it back, without revealing it publicly. He made a very persuasive argument that once a man is exposed, he has nothing to fear or to lose, and thus loses any incentive to meet the debt.
I proceeded to pressure Dan on the matter. It was starting to get more dodgy online and when I got it there were various assurances that he was waiting for a check to clear and then he would pay. He finally admitted to having financial problems, but got a job with Full Tilt to install the ship. This in and of itself seemed reassuring for reasons that go beyond just a regular paycheck. Surely a major site would have done some sort of security background check before taking someone to investigate other players for fraud, right? (This view seemed more credible at the time before Black Friday, before the Full Tilt FBI shut itself down and denounced it as a massive Ponzi scheme.)
Needless to say, Dan was short-lived at Full Tilt. He was exposed online as a fraud and disappeared, leaving me and many other unfortunate debtors with hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively on the hook. The following year, I suffered through my first big internet crash and bank stock crash, and I almost fell seriously ill. I spent the following year under the cramped desperate circumstances of Sit and Goes.
Forced to reduce in order to avoid collapse
In addition to the money Dan took from me, it also robbed me of a lot of my potential future earnings at a time when my skill on the normal opponent was at its peak, by forcing me to back off to avoid collapse. All I got in return were my stress levels skyrocketing, and the fear that the day would come when I would tell Mrs. Doc that there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.
Fortunately, that never happened.
The second time
The second time I got scammed, it was someone I considered a close friend. Max Heinzelmann was already one of the most famous internet players in the world when he traveled to Las Vegas on his 21st birthday. A few days later he played one of the most famous hands ever against Sean Depp. That night we laughed at hand.
Max came in second on consecutive European Poker Tours (EPTs). Not just any old EPT either: Berlin and San Remo, two of the biggest and most well-known. In all appearances he was a hugely 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 me.
Bought pieces from me in tournaments. We exchanged when we played the same events. We used to talk sometimes about our hands. We went for dinner. We drank beer together. I considered him a very close friend. He would often seek advice on public life issues, and would often attack me at online end tables. He denounced me the night I cut Super Tuesday, and seemed happy to me. We chatted for over an hour after it was over. He asked if I was going to an EPT meeting soon. I was. He said he’d be there too, but he’s got a lot of sterling so maybe he’ll take some if you need him. I said I’d take 3k and charge him money on Stars there and then.
here we go again
It was not in the next EPT. When I called him he was a little annoyed saying I was basically without money in London. He apologized profusely, saying he had a health problem at the last minute and offered to try to convince one of the other Germans to give me the money. Having heard no more from him, I managed to get a loan from an English friend of mine until I got home.
I started wondering if Max had money
Max said he was going to meet me on the next UKIPT Poker Tour, which was a little weird because he has stopped traveling for them since he’s too old for UKIPTs. But I thought maybe he just wanted to mingle with his many friends in the UK. I saw him then in Vienna at EPT, and we went out to dinner with a couple of English pros. Not wanting to embarrass him in front of mutual friends, I was hoping to ask him for money in private if we had a minute on our own. We didn’t. What we did in the end, at his suggestion, was credit card roulette. Obviously I lost (as I did on all the other 8 occasions I veered) but I couldn’t help but notice a couple of things. When Max pulled out his wallet, there were plenty of credit cards but not a single note, and he seemed to be sweating more at the result than you’d expect. For the first time I started wondering if Max had money.
I tried to catch him in the championship breaks but he proved elusive. When I got home, I sent him some private messages. He eventually responded saying that he was having problems withdrawing from the stars. When I told him I was fine with him once the money was transferred, he said he had issues with the transfer limit. I kept pressing him on and off until a close English friend called me to tell me Max was about to expose him publicly as a fraud. My friend was able to get his money back by threatening to reveal it, but was informed that another friend was about to reveal it.
Once poker players get to know the fraud, they know that it is only a matter of time before the person is exposed as such. They also know that once this happens, the chances of getting any money owed are greatly diminished and often disappear. So they are incentivized not to expose this person at least until they have compensated themselves. But most poker players have enough integrity to limit the chances of anyone else getting scammed. So what happens is that word spreads in karma for not lending so and so, until someone is inevitably announced.
Call me privately acknowledging my gambling addiction
Most scammers simply disappear into the electronic ether as soon as they are exposed. Max no. He replied to a thread at 2+2 with what appeared to be a full disclosure, with a full list of people he owed him, and assurances that he would repay everyone, but needed time. He called me privately admitting to my gambling addiction but assuring me that he would find some way to make it up to me.
He kept in touch every few weeks saying he was still working on it. In his last letter to me, he assured me that it would be resolved in a few weeks. For once, he was true to his word: The problem was solved, but not in the way any of us would like. I woke up in Vegas to be told that Max’s life had ended in tragedy.
The only good thing about being scammed is that you are more likely to recognize the warning signs if and when they appear in the future. At the EPT in Berlin, I met a young Canadian online phenomenon when I went to dinner with an American friend. I knew that Sunday he made millions and was generally pretty wild online, and I heard he crushed the high stakes in Omaha with pot-limit. He was charming and charismatic, and seemed really happy to meet SlowDoke. Tell me the wonderful story of Phil Helmuth retold in Bluff’s column. We stopped again at EPT Prague, as it was charming and free.
He contacted me online shortly thereafter to sell an Aussie Millions High Roller. I bought a piece and sent him money on Stars. He did not pay the money.
A few weeks later he called me again saying he would come to Dublin for the EPT and would sell again to the big players. Offered to buy a piece. Request money online. I told him I would send soon. He came back saying he would need money in Dublin. I said I could pay him that way. He said he needed more than I owed him. Much more. I said we could do it if he sent me money on Stars.
I resolved not to lend him or transfer a cent
He never came to Dublin, saying he changed his mind and was grinding big money in Canada. He asked me if I could give preference to his horses. I said I could do it if he sent the stars out first. He said he would, but he never did. By now, alarm bells had been ringing in my head as I replayed our encounters in my mind. His interest evident when he was told who I am when we were first introduced in Berlin. The compliments on my game were flowing easily when we stopped in Prague. Constant stroking of my ego when we chat online. The unofficial name that drops from the ball players he was supposed to be friends with and presumably switched in high reels. I now had enough doubt that I had decided not to lend or transfer a cent to him unless he had transferred first.
Shortly after EPT Dublin, he was scammed. When I told a friend who had finished hanging out with us in Prague, he expressed zero surprise: “I felt like he was taking care of you in Prague.”
In my next article for VegasSlotsOnline NewsIn this article, I will give some concrete advice on how to spot potential scammers.