The PokerStars Smear That Never Was
What happens when a disgruntled former employee tries to embarrass his former employer by way of damaging revelations about his former company’s operations? Sometimes it can indeed be a bad day for the targeted company, but other times, not so much.
Recent days treated sharp-eyed watchers to a very brief display of the latter, as a former Amaya worker or independent contractor (it’s not quite clear which), decided to vent his frustration over being released by outing all sorts of nasty SEO (Search Engine Optimization) “secrets” involving Amaya and its operation of two of the world’s largest online poker sites, PokerStars and Full Tilt.
The former employee’s name was Serge Pon, and “Pon” itself may be the shortened, Anglicized version of the ex-employee’s longer Eastern-European surname. It’s what Pon was threatening to do that was both intriguing and somewhat laughable, and serves as the basis for today’s tale.
Sharp-eyed poker writing veteran John Mehaffey was the first to uncover the footprints of the site that Pon was about to launch, at a now disabled domain called poker.wtf. Let’s allow the site’s top-of-home-page summary to speak for itself:
A former Ex-SEO manager of an online Poker company has been revealing secrets to the techniques being used to try and gain new customers and get them hooked. Online gambling companies now have launched legal action against him to stop their secrets being revealed, which could cost the gambling industry tens of millions of pounds.
The former employee, who says people believe online poker is a game of skill when it’s a game of luck, has launched his campaign to reduce the online gambling addiction problem.
A former SEO Manager of one of the biggest online Poker companies in the world has launched a campaign to reveal the damming secrets of the Internet Marketing techniques being used to entice players. Serge Pon, who launched his campaign a few days ago and has now been threatened with legal action to stop the secrets being revealed, is also set to reveal all the tricks within the online gambling world.
The former employee, who said online poker companies try to make people believe the game is a game of skill, has said online poker is not like casino poker and instead is a game of luck.
Serge Pon, who could lose the gambling industry tens of millions of pounds once the secrets are revealed, has today, 26th August 2015, received a hand-delivered legal letter. The legal document is demanding that he stops revealing the techniques used to get people to play online poker and casino games.
Whether or not Pon was an Amaya “SEO manager” or not remains unknown, though one thing seems obvious from the chain of events that followed. Whatever the circumstances involving his departure from Amaya, he likely had previously signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that would have prevented Pon from revealing those “secrets” he threatened to release.
There’s a big exception to NDA’s, however; they can’t be used to help a company cover up illegal deeds of any form. Such NDAs are null and void — the point being, if whatever Pon claims Amaya was doing was really and truly illegal, he wouldn’t have pulled down his planned site.
As to what Pon’s plan smear involved, the ghost page still available via Google Cache shows the following. Clearly, English is not Pon’s first language, but let’s go with it, unedited:
Ignoring their threats, he is set to reveal
1. How PS and FT manipulating search engines
2. How PS and FT hiding gambling advertising behind editorial content
3. How PS and FT operating in countries even where they have no licence and their domains constantly blocked
4. How PS use celebrities and other influential people, to create a myth that poker is game of skill
The secrets will send shockwaves through the online gambling playing world. Serge Pon hopes with his campaign that MPs and the governing body of online gambling will investigate the techniques being used and put a stop to them, which is helping to increase the online gambling addition problem.
Serge Pon said: “I want people to know the secrets of the techniques these gambling companies use. Over nine million people a year turn to online gambling and in 2013; it was reported £2 billion a year was being spent online. I want the addition to stop.”
Errm, “addiction” is what I think he met, not to be divisive about the matter or multiply Pon’s problems. Yet to borrow a word from Pon’s side of the pond, it’s all tommyrot. With the exception of Point 3 in the above, which I’ll get to specifically, the other points reek of silliness and stupidity.
First, the claim that poker is a game of luck, not skill. Poker is quite easily (and has been repeatedly) demonstrated to be a game of skill with significant elements of chance (luck) involved, meaning the variance of the cards themselves. One of simplest tests of whether a game has significant skill elements is whether the game can easily be lost, other than by forfeiting or refusing to play. Poker easily clears that simple hurdle, and the game’s far deeper skill elements have been repeatedly demonstrated in court cases around the globe. Poker can still be defined as “gambling,” sure, because of its elements of chance, but that has nothing to do with the skill involved.
But the greater question is this: If Serge Pon believes that there’s no skill in poker, what the hell was he doing working for Amaya? Did Amaya dig a sidewalk bear trap and hire the first person that fell in?
Similarly, Pon seems to have no clue about how celebrity endorsements work, or that they’re a part of global capitalism in general, not specific to Stars or Tilt or Amaya or any other gambling site. This stuff is just so odd to see, even though it won’t be seen widely, or for long.
Finally, there’s the matter of the claim that Amaya’s Stars and Tilt brands are evading nation-operated blacklists and operating in some countries without a license. The truth of the matter is that many supposedly open countries have in the past operated such blacklists; I’ve got a couple of samples on my computer that emanated from Nordic countries nearly a decade ago.
(Most readers would be surprised to learn that Denmark once quietly blocked over 4,000 gambling domains, without telling their citizens, and did so in general violation of EU open-market treaties. For all I know, they still attempt it.) There a couple of countries which are truly “gray” markets, in which the rules governing online gambling change every six months or a year, contradicting themselves; Russia is one such prominent example. I would, however, state that the assertion made by Serge Pon generally reverses the real situation, especially in several European online markets: It’s the governmental creation of these unannounced and publicly unauthorized blacklists that’s been the illegal move, and whether Amaya or any other company responded by creating alternate domains, I simply wouldn’t care in the least.
Pon should know this industry background stuff, having worked either within Amaya or as an independent SEO contractor. Which, in turn, makes the entire theme of his claims just that much more suspect.
What was weird, however, was the anticipation shown by some anti-Amaya peeps in hoping to spread the pending smear, whatever it turned out to be. Check out Victor Rocha, for instance, who Tweeted the following four days ago:
Ex-SEO Manager of PokerStars and Full Tilt Launches Campaign to Warn People About the Dangers of Online Gambling http://t.co/Qrup7daCPp
— Victor Rocha (@VictorRocha1) August 28, 2015
Rocha is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pechanga.net, which generally serves as a locus for all sorts of tribal-gaming and tribal-politics news. The Pechanga Nation in California, of course, is in a heated battle with Amaya over the possible future of online poker, the US’s most populous individual state. The Pechanga Nation is at the head of a small but powerful group of about nine California tribes that envision a future United States where all online gaming is controlled solely by the tribes that exist in individual states. 36 or 37 of the 50 US states, at last count, offer some form of tribal gaming. Hardline tribes such as Pechanga have zero tolerance for the concept of a more open online market that might include other players (such as race tracks), though other tribes are more pluralistic and open about the online-gaming market’s future. Well, Rocha probably hoped to be able to promote the hell out of Serge Pon’s planned expose. Except it didn’t happen. Whatever legal threat Amaya made, it was indeed sufficient to force Pon to take down his site, as all indications are the site should never have been conceptualized in the first place. Amaya’s director of corporate communications, Eric Hollreiser, added a brief note on Twitter which will almost be the company’s sole and final word on the incident. Said Hollreiser: