PocketFives and Online Poker’s Illicit Kiddie Corps: Someone’s Been Watching

One of the problems facing the legitimacy of online poker and its hopes of being formally regulated within the United States is the specter of underage gambling.  It’s on this topic that today’s piece dwells, and it’s a story that asks some uncomfortable questions.  This isn’t quite news, nor is it quite op/ed, but instead it’s a little bit of a romp through this writer’s memory and a wry nod to the truism that what ye sew, ye eventually reap.  It all comes all around.

Remember a week or so ago when the Costa Rica-based super affiliate PocketFives bore the brunt of this writer’s scorn?  This is another PocketFives piece, and no, we don’t plan these things in advance.  Sometimes things just work out that way.  Nor is this really a scornful piece; it’s just an examination of what happens when  you think only of yourself and short-term profits, and don’t pay enough attention to global concerns.

To begin the tale, I’ve been a poker writer for most of a decade, and in that time I’ve generally gotten a feel for most of the  industry’s major news and media outlets.  PocketFives is one of those that’s been around for a long time, and I have (or had) and account there, though I doubt I made more than five posts on those horribly organized boards in a half dozen years.  P5s just isn’t my style.

Still, I’d lurk there on rare occasions, and one thing always struck me as distinctive about the site: If there was ever a poker forum where underaged online players came to brag about their ability to lie to the sites, cheat the system and play for real money online, it was (in my sincere opinion), surely PocketFives.

Perhaps because of the site’s location in Costa Rica, the site’s owners and moderators took a very laissez faire approach to it, too, never reproaching the underaged players for the secondary harm they could cause to the sites on which they were surreptitiously playing.  After all, affiliate payments don’t contain age penalties.

In fact, and this goes back several years, I remember when the P5s podcast was prominently interviewing one of these players, upon his turning age 18, and thereby becoming “legal” to play on the same sites on which he’d been playing all along.  This was back in the time of Michael McDonald and James Obst, two such underaged players, and it might have been one of them or someone else.  I don’t remember — and I can’t check, P5s having shut off my ability to send private messages and read old DMs, in apparent response to my recent features which didn’t paint the site in too kindly a light.

(At least I think they turned the access off recently.  Honest to gosh, I haven’t been there in a year, and if not for the prompting of this other story, related below, I wouldn’t even have thought to check.)

Anyhow, for whatever player this was, the podcast hosts invited forum readers to submit questions via DM, and I did just that, sending in a question asking whatever player it was if he felt any responsibility at all for playing on the sites while underage, and thereby increasing (in a small way, incrementally) not only the possibility of those sites facing government action for unknowingly allowing underage gambling, but also for actually supplying the proof, by showing up on P5s and bragging about his activities with all his 16- and 17-year-old buddies.

I figure there was no way the P5s hosts would ask the question, and I was right — sort of.  They did their interview, said good night to the young player, had him hang up, then asked the question — not to the player but to themselves.

Their financial interests in not rocking their underaged-player boat shone through that night, at least to this one-time listener, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never bothered to listen to another P5s podcast.  I just chalked it up to industry knowledge, told myself that this is where the kiddie players hang out, and while I’ve mentioned it briefly in maybe two or three stories in the several years since, it was just one of those “way of the world” things.  Wasn’t much I could do to change it.  And even if there were a lot of underaged players hanging out at P5s, they were still a minority, outnumbered by the hordes of 18-and-up college-aged kids that also seemed to find a home there.

Still, there’s something to be said for this truism: When any sort of group congregates in an unusual way, others tend to notice.  It turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed the predilection of the P5s site to cater to younger players.  And there’s a bit of a complication to the story, which someone else has duly noticed: In New Jersey, the age of legality for casino playing isn’t 18, it’s 21.  It’s a big, big problem for Stars’ hopes of getting a Jersey license.

I was reading through the recent American Gaming Association (AGA) brief, filed in New Jersey, which announces the AGA’s plans to block PokerStars application to own and operate the Atlantic Club Casino in Atlantic City.  Then I came across this passage:

“Yet, as detailed in the 2011 federal indictment, PokerStars took bets from New Jersey residents for many years, including from underaged bettors who are barred by state law from gambling in licensed casinos.”

Attached to the above is a footnote tag, leading to this:

“Examples of players residing in New Jersey who have publicly acknowledged gambling on PokerStars’ website include Collin Mellars of Morris Plains, www.pocketfives.com/profiles/lespaulgman/, Aleksey Shestyan of Vorhees, www.pocketfives.com/profiles/naluneabezshapki/, Leonard August of North Bergen, www.pocketfives.com.profiles/smoothustler/, and Joe Steur of Blackwood, www.pocketfives.com/profiles/eaglesfn1127/.  Also, throughout the relevant period, PokerStars permitted players under the age of 21 to participate….”

It’s a safe bet that at least one of the four players is under the age of 21, based on the wording in the brief, and it’s one of the many weapons that the AGA plans to use against PokerStars.  But the brief is chock full of footnotes; despite some of the shaky legal assertions the AGA offers elsewhere on other points, they did do a lot of legwork, most often at PocketFives.

There are somewhere between 9 and 13 US states where online gambling is technically prohibited (though rarely if ever prosecuted), though it’s only a felony in the state of Washington, a state which PokerStars duly departed when that state passed its 2006 attack against online poker.  As for the other states, Stars went on accepting that business, and the AGA has scraped PocketFives’ user profiles in each of those states to find players who were likely underage (based on the states’ definitions, not PokerStars’) while they played.  The footnotes in the brief contain specific mentions of players from states including Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Louisiana, South Dakota, Oregon and others.

Meanwhile, for a hilarious digression, when you sign on to PocketFives today, you are tagged to visit recent postings by players based on the US state that you live in, apparently based on your computer’s location.  Gee, you think that might come in handy to state or federal investigators looking to crack down on online players?  That’s like wearing a propane-tank backpack and taking a walk through burning coals.  It might add to PocketFives’ own bottom line and traffic stats, but it probably isn’t going to be a benefit to any US-facing site… or, if they bothered to think about it, to the players themselves.

The greater point to all this?  It really doesn’t matter whether it’s a 16-year-old signing up under his dad’s name and credit card, or a 19-year-old using his own information; the under-21 crowd has always been a questionable legal market, and in the final shakeout, it’s going to be the state that decides the age of majority, not anyone else. Both the sites and the affiliates that have catered to these college-aged (and younger) players have done the reputation of online poker as it exists today little good.  Underage is underage as defined by the jurisdiction, not by anyone else.

So who bears the responsibility of having marketed to and profiting from all these underaged players?  Well, that’s a question that shouldn’t be asked, remember?

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