The Self-Entitlement Blues: Justin Bonomo Targets PokerStars in EPT Tantrum
(Author’s Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the owners and publishers of FlushDraw.)
A very public skirmish between prominent poker pro Justin Bonomo and Amaya Inc., owner of both PokerStars and the European Poker Tour has again showed the deep animosity that continues to exist between the globe’s largest online poker site and a section of the site’s highest-volume payers, who were negatively impacted by severe cutbacks to Stars’ loyalty program that were announced last November.
Bonomo, a SuperNova Elite (SNE) player at PokerStars who was among the online players most impacted by Stars’ loyalty-program cutbacks, found himself heads-up for the title in a recent satellite event at EPT Monaco (Event #47, a €2,200 No-Limit Hold’em tourney), and attempted to use the occasion to publicly shame PokerStars for its loyalty-program last year. Bonomo, according to his own reports on Twitter, even shorted himself a little bit of cash in a heads-up chop with official second-place finisher Ahmed Fatah, just to be able to claim the official win and trophy and try to make a mess of the contractually-obligated photo shoot that went with winning the event.
“Part of the deal,” posted Bonomo, “is that I get the trophy and the win, which I really wanted so I can say fuck you to Amaya and refuse to do a winner photo.” Bonomo thus declared that he wouldn’t pose for the photo and do unpaid promotional work for a company — referring to PokerStars and its parent, Amaya — that in his words “has defrauded many thousands of players.”
That kicked off a pissing match between Bonomo and EPT staffers. First, someone at EPT Monaco (according to Bonomo’s rendition of events) told him something like “No photo, no pay-o.” That appears to have been said in the heat of the moment, and parent company Amaya quickly issued a public correction, stating that no matter what happened in a situation such as this, Bonomo or any protesting player would still be paid.
But what was reiterated instead was just as important: Once a player (read: Bonomo) signs an entry form for an EPT event which contains certain terms and conditions, the signing player is legally and contractually bound by those terms. One of those terms is that players must agree to cooperate for such publicity photographs as deemed necessary for proper promotion of the event and results.
Bonomo eventually agreed to do a photo, but first, it was only if he could hold a sign that read, in part, “SuperNova Elite: PokerStars stole $50,000 from me.” That’s the amount that Bonomo asserts PokerStars retroactively cost him in rakeback by not honoring the old SuperNova reward system through the 2016 calendar year.
The EPT staff nixed the sign idea, too, leaning on the contractual language Bonomo signed pre-event and threatening him with a ban from all future PSLive events. That “PSLive” designation includes all EPT stops. Bonomo thought about that one, then finally posed for the extremely pouty photo over on the right. No one said anything about smiling, and holding the trophy sideways is just that li’l extra special touch of petulance.
If only it stopped there, but of course it hasn’t, which we’ll get to in a bit. Let’s gather up all the ensuing threads and topics and try to understand the big picture, tough as that may be.
First, all major poker events have such Terms and Conditions. The WSOP does. The WPT does, too. HPT? Yep. I’m not as up on the details of Europe’s regional events, but I’ll wager they have the same thing.
There was even a lawsuit over such contractual obligations, about a decade ago, when seven prominent US-based players sued the World Poker Tour over certain conditions that effectively precluded them from playing in WPT events. Those players — Chris Ferguson, Andy Bloch, Howard Lederer, Joe Hachem, Greg Raymer, Phil Gordon, and Annie Duke — were all patched-up endorsers of other sites and companies, and the WPT’s policy was to not televise competitors’ brands. That lawsuit was eventually settled (though dropped might be a better word for it) in 2008.
The thing is, all live poker events are hosted by corporate entities that have the legal and contractual right to create whatever conditions of participation they wish. These companies own the events; they get to make the rules. If a player doesn’t like those rules, too bad. One can go play at a different venue or a different site — even if such venue or site is smaller on a given day and doesn’t provide the high-stakes opportunity one craves. From the legal standpoint, one signs and accepts the terms or one can go suck wind.
Players do have choices, too. Like whether they participate at all in live events or play on online sites such as Stars. However, there are many disaffected Stars grinders, such as Bonomo, who don’t like the legal choices they actually have, and who instead are trying to reframe the situation as that of an evil corporate empire that’s denying them their ordained right to play and profit from poker whenever and wherever they wish.
Such obscene self-entitlement. Poker players as a whole tend toward being self-centered, but Bonomo’s recent and continuing tantrum is just over the top. And it’s not the only such instance in recent months. Last August, Olivier Busquet and Dan Colman tried to hijack a televised EPT final table for their own political purposes, again utterly devoid of concern for the fact that the venue and the event were businesses owned by others. That misguided stunt forced Stars to immediately institute a rule banning such political statements at their events.
Above it all, though, and as so clearly epitomized by Bonomo in this recent EPT kerfuffle, is the false belief that all these poker-playing opportunities specifically provided for their benefit, and that the planet and all poker providers on its surface must continually provide them with the very best profit-making opportunities.
To paraphrase a Bonomo-defending poster on 2+2, Amaya and PokerStars have a virtual monopoly over much of the world, and thus have the ability to deny these elite pros their rightful profit-making opportunities.
“Too effing bad,” is my response. If you don’t like what Stars or any other site or company offers, you move with your feet and you take your action elsewhere. I’m not often in Las Vegas, but I cannot stand what Sheldon Adelson and Las Vegas Sands Corp. want to do to online poker. I haven’t played at the Venetian since 2009, and I doubt I ever will again.
Inconsequential though my action may be, I voted with my feet. That’s how it’s done.
But apparently not for Bonomo, who took to TwitLonger on Saturday to continue his Amaya-targeting jihad. Bonomo wrote his lengthy follow-up as a response to a piece on written by Lee Davy for CalvinAyre.com, in which he criticized Davy for his “very one sided article.” I read the same article, and I didn’t think it was that one-sided. That’s unlike this piece here, which is very, very one-sided because I am sick unto death of all this self-entitlement crap. Note that Lee writes in a very personal style, and that his pieces are often big hits or complete whiffs, yet the piece in question seems largely neutral to me. That’s also noting that the peeps at CA seldom miss an opportunity to gore the bull wherever PokerStars or Amaya is concerned.
All of this is entertaining and surprisingly important reading, but let’s dig into Bonomo’s latest and extract a few important statements. Regarding Amaya’s “November Surprise” about the VIP and SNE benefit slashing, Bonomo wrote:
What they have done is extremely unethical. I was one of approximately 400 Super Nova Elite players that paid them $181,000 in rake. We did this to earn the ~$120,000 in rewards. None of us would have done it without that promise. It was essentially a monetary exchange. After they took our money, PokerStars decided they were going to pay us $50,000 less than promised. In some cases (high stakes cash game players), they cut the payments by a full 100%. Writers in the media (which is largely bankrolled by Amaya) constantly write about how it’s unfortunate that we worked so hard and didn’t get properly rewarded. I’m not going to use that soft language. We had a financial transaction. I paid them $180k, and they did not give me what I paid for. This is fraud and this is theft.
It indeed may have been an unethical move, but whether or not it was illegal, fraudulent or a form of theft is way less clear. I believe that Stars’ TOS included language that the site’s player benefits were subject to change or discontinuation at any time. Implementing such changes and very arguably not honoring one’s implied commitments sure as hell wasn’t nice, but the legality thing is another story.
Loyalty program benefits are generally not guaranteed, as anyone with a pocketful of frequent-flier miles, dishonored gift certificates or cards, or hotel points can attest. Bonomo wrote, “This is fraud and this is theft.” If it is, and there are 400 players out there who believe they have had such large sums stolen via fraud, where’s the lawsuit? Bonomo just plopped down $300,000 for a seat in this month’s Super High Roller Bowl; surely he and a few others among these nouveau riche poker millionaire can pull together and hire a lawyer if they think they’ve got a case. I even promise to write about it if they do.
Instead, all these angered Stars players staged a series of comical and ineffective sitouts this past winter, thereby depriving PokerStars of action and rake from a high-volume but ecosystem-damaging group that Stars and most other sites and networks wouldn’t mind seeing go elsewhere anyway. “Oh, you’ve got to leave so soon? That’s too bad; let me get your coat.”
Ah, but these players have that global entitlement to earn their expected and accustomed profit from these sites. PokerStars better damn well accept that and get busy with the backlog of required genuflections.
Deeper in Bonomo’s latest screed, the whole thing sort of twists into an attack on Amaya’s besieged CEO, David Baazov. Wrote Bonomo:
Do you know why Baazov went with the short-sighted plan of business? Surely a successful business mogul like that would have a long term vision, right? He in fact did. Unfortunately, his plan was a felony. Baazov is now under investigation for insider trading, and in my admittedly biased opinion he deserves to go to prison for many years. It’s not just the customers he has defrauded, but the investors and the industry as well.
Later on, Bonomo openly roots for Baazov to go to prison and for PokerStars to be forcibly sold to another corporate overseer, with Bonomo’s preference being 888.
Well, here’s the thing. Baazov may have indeed broken some laws, and he may very well be found guilty, pay some stiff fines, even do some prison time. Yet the crimes Baazov is accused of have to do with trying to make some extra profit from the acquisition of PokerStars, not from actually doing that acquisition itself. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
Bonomo also sings the praises of Stars co-founder Isai Scheinberg, portrayed as a saintly figure who had only the best wishes of the elite poker-playing pro in his heart. Isai might be that saint. However, Isai also knew when to sell out, beset with legal troubles in several international jurisdictions and faced with increased regulatory oversight that was absolutely guaranteed to curtail the growth rate exhibited by PokerStars over the past decade.
Baazov and Amaya bought into all that in a highly leveraged deal, creating a huge debt ceiling that needed immediate servicing. Players expecting Stars’ prior gumdrop-and-lollipop years to continue under a new ownership regime were never being realistic; there were always going to be cutbacks. Deep cutbacks.
Moving on. What I haven’t really touched on yet is the whole “throwing stones while living in a glass house” thing with Bonomo that also needs to be addressed. Years ago, Bonomo was one of a small handful of high-profile players who was caught breaking the rules of sites including PokerStars and PartyPoker by multi-accounting in violation of those sites’ TOS. Bonomo, to his credit, publicly acknowledged and apologized for breaking those rules, and was banned for a while from both of those sites.
It’s also true that such multi-accounting was far more commonplace in that era than many casual players realize. Bonomo paid a steep price, publicly apologized did all the right things. Compare that against most others who have been caught breaking an online poker site’s rules, and it’s a night-and-day difference: Justin’s quite likely the most reformed and ethical of the batch.
Or think of someone such as a longtime friend of Russ Hamilton’s, Blair Rodman, who may well have been online poker’s first massive multi-accounter, Rodman, by 2005 or so, had at least ten accounts on the old UltimateBet. Since UB secretly allowed insiders as many as 30 (!) separate accounts, Rodman’s sleight-of-seat wasn’t technically against the rules, though it was sure as hell done to deceive opponents and was every bit as unethical as what just about multi-accounting episode has been about.
People have been raking over Bonomo over the coals about the multi-accounting stuff, with “Once a crook, always a crook”-type of declarations, but oddly enough, this writer thinks that old MA stuff is relatively small potatoes.
Why people should really discount Bonomo’s self-entitled opinions is more connected to his very earliest history, when he played on some of those same online-poker accounts while underage. Yep, Bonomo was willing to flaunt those sites’ stated rules to serve his own purpose and profit, which is exactly the same thing he’s doing now.
A tiger’s stripes, goes the saying, don’t change.
Had it been me making the rules, all those underage online stars, Bonomo and Josh Field and James Obst and Michael McDonald and Annette Obrestad and many others, they all would have been banned for life from the sites they played on online while underage. The risk and damage those kids presented to the entire industry was severe, and they were free-rolling the system, knowing that even though they were breaking the rules, they’d never have any serious legal issues for doing so beyond possible bankroll forfeiture. Instead the sites themselves had to deal with the occasional shitpiles those kids left behind.
Let’s also not forget that Bonomo, to return to this example, very likely secured the foundations of his considerable bankroll why playing underage. Highly skilled player aside, he simply wasn’t entitled to do that.
When one really grasps the entirety of the perpetual me-first attitude as displayed by Bonomo and others, it’s just so terribly hard to support it or refrain from taking the opposite side. While stating that, I note that there’s nothing wrong with being a profitable, successful poker player, as long as one understands that the poker world itself doesn’t come with guarantees.
To my mind, Bonomo and many others just don’t get it. They aren’t traditional “customers” of PokerStars or other providers. Instead, they are users of an outcome-neutral service that they’re utilizing for their own personal gain. This is not a normal business-to-consumer relationship, efforts to paint it as one notwithstanding.
And thus, the arguments presented by Bonomo and others against PokerStars not only fail, but fail badly. The relationship he wants isn’t the one that actually is. In large part, that’s the way it should be. Bonomo himself stated that his ongoing goal in continuing the screed against PokerStars and Amaya was “simply to spread awareness.” Ditto for this as well.