Thursday, November 29, 2007

Link between Tennis Scandals and Casino Cheating?

So what's with these tennis gambling scandals involving Russian tennis players? The latest one implicating Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, a top-ranked player, has us wondering about many questions, one of which surely is "If he's really tanking a match, why on heaven's earth would he do so?" After all, money can't be a problem for a top-ranked international tennis star, can it?

This recalls another alleged cheating incident involving yet another Russian athlete if not a tennis player, the 2000 gold-medal winning gymnast Vera Shimanskaya who was busted in a Spanish casino in 2003 for involvement in a poker card-marking scheme. The same questions abounded after this shocking news: Why would someone with her fame, success and big-money-earning potential be involved in a scam such as this?

Well, very often if not nearly always, people participating in gambling cheating scams, whether famous or ordinary, rich or broke, are usually involved because of a degenerating gambling problem of their own. In fact, had I not been a bust-out gambler during my teen years and early adulthood, I never would have become a casino cheater, so I speak about this with lots of experience. If these athletes are problem gamblers and have lost fortunes, the natural bail-out avenue for some is to gamble on outcomes of sporting events related to their own sport and maybe their own team if their sport is not a team sport...and maybe even fixing the outcomes. We all know the stories about Art Schlichter, Paul Hornung, Alex Karras, Pete Rose and many others. But this is old news. What about once great athletes in one sport becoming cheaters in another sport? Poker is now considered a sport, isn't it? I mean we see it on ESPN and on sports pages across the nation.

For those of you who don't know, there have been several Russian ex-athletes who have become "professional" poker players during the last decade, even before poker exploded into the mainstream. The most notable of these is of course Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was also a subject of a tennis-fixing scam back in 2003, when he lost in straight sets to Fernando Vicente, an unheralded player, who hadn't won in months before this match. At the outset, Kafelnikov was a 5 to 1 favorite, but before the match began the odds shifted dramatically, making Vicente the odds-on favorite. There was a big stink over this and Kafelnikov soon disappeared into the poker world.

A year or so later, I got the first of several e-mails accusing Kafelnikov of being part of professional poker-cheating teams. Players swore that he was involved in collusion rackets at the very least. Although I had no specific evidence to support their claims, I did have my own suspicions about ex-athletes implicated in gambling scams suddenly appearing in the poker world, especially in the years at the dawn of the poker explosion. I have also been made aware that some of these Russian pro athletes and those from other countries as well have accounts with online poker rooms and betting sites, and the natural question is whether some of them may also be involved in cheating at online poker, which would be easier if they are capable, because they could hide their identities. In any event, this possible connection is troubling to both professional sports and the poker world, and it is my opinion that this nefarious link does indeed exist.