Thursday, December 06, 2007

Is Account Selling the New Rage of Online Poker Cheating?

It just may be. After the seemingly never-ending Absolute Poker debacle in November, now we start the last month of 2007 with the Full Tilt Poker account-selling scandal. For those of you who don't know exactly what that is, it can simply be defined as the practice of turning over an account late in a major online tournament to a potent, star online player. The practice has come to light only in recent months, after several account-selling incidents were discussed on major poker forums. It was quickly recognized that a star player taking over one of these accounts was gaining a significant edge over his remaining players, who would have no idea that a new tough player, perhaps with a radically different style, had suddenly assumed a seat at the table. The advantages of this scam are real. Not only does it bring in a better tournament player to that account but those playing against the new star player, who may have accurately gauged the previous player's style with its strengths and weaknesses, suddenly find themselves crossed up.

Chris Vaughn, the managing editor of Bluff Magazine (for whom I write poker articles) and Sorel Mizzi, the young online poker star and friend of Vaughn's, have given interviews on their alleged involvement in the latest major account-selling scam. Given my skepticism about online poker and the unbelievable amounts of cheating I've witnessed on it firsthand, it is very hard for me to give anyone accused of anything the benefit of the doubt, especially two people with the obvious knowledge and smarts that these guys have, but in this case I am keeping an open mind and am not yet quite sure who and what I believe. In any event, I will be doing some TV interviews in Las Vegas and elsewhere about this subject, so stay tuned. I will link you to those upcoming interviews.

Here is a summary of what happened and an interview that Vaughn and Mizzi gave to

Before Oct. 21st, Chris Vaughn was generally known in the poker world because of his work as Managing Editor for Bluff Magazine. On that night, Vaughn won the $1 Million Guaranteed on Full Tilt under his 'BluffMagCV' screen name. Not only had lightning struck, but it would soon seem to have struck twice, for a week later Vaughn virtually repeated the feat, capturing (as 'SlippyJacks') the Sunday Million on PokerStars. Other players dreamed about a similar breakthrough performance.

Except… rumors were quickly afoot that the first of the victories officially posted by Vaughn wasn't quite what it seemed, that in fact this might have been a case of account selling. The practice has come to light only in recent months, after several account-selling incidents were discussed on major poker forums. It was quickly recognized that a star player taking over one of these accounts was gaining a significant edge over his remaining players, who would have no idea that a new tough player, perhaps with a radically different style, had suddenly assumed a seat at the table.

Had that happened here? No one knew for sure, though speculation quickly focused on young online star Sorel 'Imper1um' Mizzi, a friend of Vaughn's. An investigation into the Oct. 21st Full Tilt tournament soon began, and unofficial word of Mizzi's role in the tourney began to spread.

However, it wasn't until the runner-up in the Oct. 21st event, Soren Kongsgaard, recently posted an e-mail he had received from Full Tilt that the rumored disqualification of Vaughn's account was confirmed. Kongsgaard had suffered a tough loss at that, being blinded out during heads-up play after a lengthy loss of his Internet connection. The letter, though, confirmed that Kongsgaard would be moved up to the winner's spot, with all other money finishers in the event bumped up one spot as well.

Faced with the evidence and growing outcry on poker forums, Vaughn and Mizzi contacted PokerNews about going public with the events of that night and related matters. Vaughn and Mizzi agreed to a lengthy interview which will be presented here in two parts, detailing the purchase of Vaughn's account and the practice of account selling in general.

John Caldwell: Chris, tell me a little bit about where you were during your Full Tilt win. At what stage you started receiving communications and how you reacted to them and basically what happened after that?

Chris Vaughn: Oh, I think there was something around... I think we were at three tables left. I want to say maybe there were 24 people. I was below average stack – I wasn't one of the shortest stacks – but definitely below average. I don't remember time, details like that. I just remember that I had definitely had - had just gotten to the point where I was starting to really look at first, second, third, like those big numbers, you know? Realistically, in a poker tournament, you have to get really deep to really start looking at those numbers and I guess I - I had gotten that deep, for sure. So, I was playing it... obviously the situation I was in financially as a 24-year-old journalist – the numbers got pretty big, you know? They were pretty effective, so this really led to – I guess me talking to Sorel about this.

JC: So Sorel called you at some stage ?

CV: No, no – no, what initially happened was – I guess everyone in the – half the field in the tournament had gotten disconnected at some point. I had started to lag, I guess is what they call it, a little bit. Which means, I wasn't timing out, but I was freezing a little bit, and I work like five minutes, literally from where I live. And so I was considering driving down to work. I'm more comfortable playing there, I play at work a lot – most of the time, on Sundays, and I was considering playing there and , he [Sorel] was one of the people that I would trust to play while I did it. And, you know we were on instant messenger and I sent him a message and, it pretty quickly led to a discussion about selling the account rather than just letting him play for a few minutes. The reason I sold the account had nothing to do with my connection. The reason I initially contacted him probably more so had to do with connection, but selling the account was completely a financial decision and was in no way anything else.

JC: And so it was a financial thing, so you guys came to a deal on the spot for Sorel to buy the account.

CV: Correct.

JC: There were about 24 people left in the tournament, and at that point you, I assume, logged off.

CV: I gave him my password and he logged in.

PN: Right, so you logged off the account, and Sorel logged in. Sorel, is this something you do a lot and is it part of the gameplan? Is this the first time you've done this?

Sorel Mizzi: No, I'm not a – I'm not a cheater; I'm not a multi-accounter. I acted fast without malice and didn't intend to hurt Chris and myself, opponents, or the entire poker community. This is something that was a one-time – it was a one-time thing and I clearly didn't give it much thought, which is exactly why I got caught, because... of actually logging into his account which would be traced. But, I want to make it clear that this is something that was an isolated incident and it's not something that I've done in the past.

JC: So this is the first time you've ever done this – you've never bought an account before online, late in a tournament?

SM: Never.

JC: ... and then taken it over?

SM: Right.

JC: So, are you aware though, the message boards and such would lead you to believe that there's sort of these 'associations,' for lack of a better word, of online players who do seek out players who are still in late in big Sunday tournaments and do buy the accounts or maybe ghost for a piece or something like that. And is that a common practice – have you ever participated in that sort of thing?

SM: Well, there's a lot of speculation happening on the forums – people want to believe what – want to believe the worst. The fact of the matter is that – yes, there's a lot of things going on where players are being ghosted in the middle or late – in the late stages of the tournament by a better player and this is – this is something that can never be regulated. And the fact that there is no one player per hand rule online really gives those people justification for doing this kind of thing. But, I know that it goes on in the high limits and in the low limits and there's absolutely nothing that can be done.

JC: So given that fact, which is something we hear a lot, that "there is no 'one player per hand' rule online and it's simply unenforceable," is this the kind of thing where you've done that type of stuff before, where you may have a guy who's down to eight players in a big tournament, and you'll sit behind him on Messenger and something and do that, or is that not your style?

SM: No, this isn't something – like I said – I mean, this isn't something I regularly do. You know, sometimes people ask me after the hand what they should've done in a situation and I gladly respond to that, but this isn't something I regularly do. You know, a lot of the reason I did what I did is because, not just because of the obvious monetary reward, but also because of the thrill of being deep in a tournament and I still get that – that... {pauses}. I don't get deep in Sunday majors often and, when I have the opportunity to actually play deep in a tournament - it's a very... exciting thing for me, because and it's not just because of the money, it's because I love playing deep in a tournament. It's just a passion for - for playing poker, basically. But, to get back to your question, I haven't done this before in the past and I know that there are people who do this regularly and you know, like that's – I mean I know it's not against the rules – whether or not it's ethical or unethical is another question and that's for each individual person to decide for themselves, but, I mean....

JC: But let's specify that you're talking about ghosting here, as opposed to buying accounts.

SM: Right.

JC: It is against the rules if you buy an account.

SM: It is against the rules if you log into the computer, but as far as I know, I mean out of the five or six years that online poker has been – has been going, no one's been penalized for this kind of activity. So, with that in mind, I never – I didn't give it much thought and I didn't think what I was doing would cause this kind of – the kind of uproar and the kind of....

JC: Drama?

SM: Yeah, that - that exact, that happened and it – it was just all a shock to me, but, with that being said I still think what I did was wrong and I – I feel disgusted at myself and I really… I don't like the fact that it's been really hard for me to cope with it.

JC: When the scuttlebutt started coming out, obviously you spend a lot of time on message boards as well, so you're very familiar with that culture. But when the scuttlebutt on the message boards came out, hey "I hear this," "I hear that," whatever, were you concerned at that point that this would become an issue and if so, why didn't you take action then?

SM: So you're saying, when the first forum thread came out?

JC: Right, when the first forum thread came out, "We hear that CVBluffMag {Vaughn's Full Tilt account} was taken over by Sorel," or someone - anyone for that matter, and you knew it was yourself obviously, how did that make you feel and what did you do at that time and how do you feel about what you did?

SM: Well, I didn't really do anything. I kind of, I actually remember the night that I saw the post and the point that I was actually leaving to go on a flight the next morning to Vegas and I think I left looking at the post with like 70 or 80 responses and I kind of just let it evolve – I kind of just let people speak about the issue rather than me talk about what I did or what happened. And I think it's not a very good environment, you know, the public forums – to basically talk about this kind of issue because there's just way too much, {pauses} – I mean, you've seen it – there's just way too much hatred and it's just not pretty, so this is why I wanted to do this with PokerNews to basically address everyone's concerns in a professional manner in a professional atmosphere and I... I think that my initial reaction was just not to make a comment. I had planned on making a comment the very night after, but, I actually was scheduled to come to Vegas at twelve o'clock and my flight got overbooked, so I ended up coming late at night because I had to go to Phoenix first, so I actually saw the thread progress a day after – a day after all the – all the posts were made, so I didn't actually see what was going on until after. So I had decided initially not to make a response and then once I saw all the threads being made about it, I basically… I didn't really know what to say – I wanted to come out with an apology and basically tell the truth, but I was advised that I should do it in a more professional manner and not – not resort to the forums, so….

JC: Chris, you did respond, online. The perception I got from reading the threads was that you had responded at some point.

CV: Yeah, I think the one response I remember making was – I responded once on TwoPlusTwo saying that someone else had no involvement in this and my other post was to say that the interview would not be done with Bluff Magazine – I think those are the only two times I ever posted on it.

JC: And you went on the 'BigPokerSundays' internet radio show on, and responded. I re-listened to that interview again last night.


PN: Do you regret what you said on there – do you think Haralabos and Huff's assessment of what you said on there is fair?

CV: The question – for one – the question threw me off guard. I absolutely knew what they were talking about - I mean, obviously, I'm not stupid. It caught me off guard – I didn't think they would ask it. I probably wouldn't have done the show, you know. It was… I wasn't ready to be asked a question about this. You have to understand anytime either of us got asked anything about this. We're not talking about other people that have been in solo incidents. We're both involved in this and it's really difficult to answer questions like this when someone else is directly affected by what you say. But that being said, it threw me off guard and I just lied.

PN: And do you now regret that?

CV: Oh yeah, of course I do. I mean, it's – I regretted it the second I got off the air, I was like – oh, that's bad, that was – that was bad what I just did – I knew it was bad when I was saying it, I knew it was – I mean it was just, it was my instinct to lie, I got caught off guard. It's just like when you, when this happened with the account, it was like – is what I'm doing wrong? I know it's wrong, I absolutely know it's wrong. Even if I don't think I can get in trouble for it. Even if I'm not sure if it's against the rules. I know what I'm doing is wrong. I know it's unfair. It's just like when they asked me the question on the show, I panicked and I lied. You know, I – I had the chance to apologize to Scott Huff – one of the hosts of the show who's, who's really nice about all this. I just, I'd love to go back on the show and apologize. I hate that I lied about it. I wish that I could take it back and I wish I could go back right now and at least say no comment and wait for a better spot, you know, but – yeah, I mean, absolutely I lied. I think everyone knows that now.

JC: So, now, let's talk about the process of Full Tilt discovering that this had gone on. What was the first piece of communication you received and when did you know it was going to be a real issue?

CV: I guess someone contacted them and asked for an Pokerstars investigation. I assume they did this to PokerStars and Full Tilt both. Full Tilt found reason to believe that we were in violation of their rules. They temporarily suspended our accounts to investigate and the correspondence began. They had questions, and they had to use their technology to investigate what they thought happened and it took a couple weeks of just going back and forth. Their questions were pretty cut and dried, as in: What happened? Did you disconnect? That kind of thing.

JC: And so in the meantime your account was frozen?

CV: Correct.

JC: The money – you couldn't cash out?

CV: Correct.

JC: And so that money is now on to Soren Kongsgaard? (Kongsgaard was the runner-up in the Full Tilt tournament in question.)

CV: Yes.

JC: Have you been officially told that your account has been closed at Full Tilt?

CV: Correct.

JC: So, is there any type of statement that says you're not welcome to open another account with them?

CV: Correct, yes there is.

JC: So, Sorel – On to you. As an Internet pro, I assume not being able to play at Full Tilt is like a baseball player being told he can't play in the American League. How has this, and the surrounding attention, affected you?

Sorel Mizzi: The attention that I've received has been astronomical, both positive and negative. On the extreme side, the physical threats that I've received have been tough on me mentally, even if I don't believe them to be credible. And my goal in 2007 was to win the online player of the year. I was locked in and I felt my chances were very good. However, the inability to accumulate the necessary points by eliminating a huge resource in Full Tilt Poker has thrown these strong chances away. I am now limited as an online pro. I have lost good friends and my credibility.

JC: So, what can you say about this experience?

SM: Well, first of all I'd like to come out with an apology, because I know that what I did was wrong. The more I think about it, the more I believe what I did was wrong and it's something that I want the poker community to know that I would never do again. And my primary focus, like I said, was to be a contender for the online player of the year and because of all these things that have happened, my resource from Full Tilt has been cut off and I can no longer play on there, so I think I'm more inclined to focus on the live tournament arena and sort of move more away from online as the year ends. Hopefully people can forgive me for what I've done and I can move forward with my life and not be known as someone who cheats or someone who multi-accounts, rather, known for my achievements online and my achievements live. That's kind of what I'm hoping from the situation.

JC: You brought up something I think is interesting. You said that there's good elements and bad that have been reacted to positively and negatively. Tell me a little bit about the positive reaction. I assume this is from people from the culture of online poker who don't see this as problematic?

SM: There have been a lot of people – and a lot of the PMs (personal messages) have been very positive, that I've gotten. There's a lot of people that don't think what I did was a huge issue and those people, instead of posting on the forums and getting lynched, they decided to PM me directly and tell me how they felt about the situation. And the truth of the matter is, the whole thing has been blown severely out of proportion and I think that I've suffered enough, to be honest. I mean, the fact that I can no longer make a run at the online player of the year, my account is closed on Full Tilt for good, I lost the good amount of money that would've been helpful and I've also lost a lot of people, or a lot of friends and a lot of fan base because of the issue. But the positive from it is like a lot of the players have come up to me personally and a lot of players have PM'ed me, like I said, and told me that they're still friends with me and they still believe in me and they still have trust for me and everything like that and I really appreciate those comments. Although there's a lot of people who seem to think that, this is not a big issue, the more and more I think about it, the more I realize that it is a big issue.

The support that I have received from both my family and close inner circle of friends has truly helped me cope with this disastrous situation. Even upon arriving to Las Vegas this week to play the Venetian and Five Diamond, having other big known pros pull me aside and offer support has helped me pick up a little bit. I have been advised as to my course of action and hope that everyone was able to see I felt a need to express myself in a professional and sincere manner. Most importantly, making light of the story in a setting that is both professional and appropriate. But, so yeah, I've received a lot of support from people that I know in the community and people who have said that they still think that I have a lot of potential for the future and that this situation shouldn't really affect me as much. A lot of people are optimistic that my reputation will be recovered and I'll have the credibility that I once did have and a lot of people have told me that this will all pass over – which I'm really looking forward to happening.

JC: Chris, do you feel it's fair that you be held to a different standard because you are a member of the poker media?

CV: Separately from working in poker, I think that anyone who enters a poker tournament should be held to all of the same standards. I feel that any random player that plays the Sunday Million should have the same ethical standards that a poker journalist should have. That's not to say that poker journalists should have more standards than the average player – or less. It's something that, maybe because of my opportunity to work in the poker media that I might understand better than some others, because I understand the history of online poker – stuff like this – and I understand the kind of trouble that can be gotten into by doing things like this, because I work for a major poker magazine. I obviously should've behaved myself in a much different manner, for sure.

JC: So, how have the people at Bluff reacted to you?

CV: They've treated this as a poor decision that I made, on my own, in my personal life. They've been very supportive of me. You know, the people I work with have been some of the people that have been most supportive through all this. I've had people that have had my back that have really helped me a lot – that have offered me continued and pretty unconditional support, so, I'm very proud to be working there. They, I think, have shown a lot of character throughout this, when, I put them in a spot where they didn't necessarily even need to be. [Editor's Note – Bluff Media sent us a statement when they heard we would be conducting this interview. Their statement runs at the end of this interview.]

JC: As Chris Vaughn, online poker player, how does it make you feel that there are going to be people out there, especially poker media people, who are going to say you're affiliated with something that was really, really bad for poker? How are you going to deal with that personally going forward and how do you deal with those people?

CV: I'm angry at myself and I expect other people to be angry at me. I wish there was something I could do. I can't. I think I just have to listen to their concerns and address them. I don't think there's any real response that I can give anyone at this point that's really going to change anything that we did. I can apologize, I apologize on behalf of myself, and on behalf of the magazine I work for. You know, it's embarrassing – I'm embarrassed of myself.

JC: Chris, Let's talk about the Sunday Million tournament you won on October 28th. You and I have spoken a few times throughout this process. You have always maintained that you sat at your own computer, and played that tournament with absolutely no assistance from any other player, is that correct?

CV: Correct.

JC: Ok, and every piece of evidence out there seems to indicate that that is exactly what happened. Anything to say about Stars? Has Stars been in touch with you at all?

CV: No, not at all.

JC: And your account is still open and active?

CV: Sure. I play on it all the time.

JC: Last question for you both, let's start with you, Chris. Who do you feel personally the worst for in this entire situation?

CV: We've both been through a lot in this. We've taken a lot of heat. We've taken a lot of heat in different ways. It's hard to say. You said "feel bad." The best way to put it is I feel sorry for myself. It's difficult to wake up and think about this everyday for sure. Do we deserve it? Probably. You know, it's a hard lesson learned. You deal with it everyday – you wake up, you try not to read the posts, you read them. It's ruined a lot of days, it's ruined a month, but you just have to deal with it one day at a time and yes, it's real easy to feel sorry for yourself. But I think you have to accept blame and as far as feeling bad, I think you have to feel bad for the players that were involved in the tournament where you cheated them out of their money. All of a sudden they're playing a world-class player. It was me and now all of a sudden, you were putting –

JC: A world-class player in your seat?

CV: Sure, right, and of course once you realize what's happened, you start to accept that and you really start to feel bad for everyone else that was involved. It's hard not to feel bad for Sorel too because he's gonna feel this a lot more than I will. It sucks for everyone.

JC: Sorel, same question for you. Who do you feel the worst for in this situation?

SM: I feel equally bad for me, as I do for Chris, as I do for the players involved in this. To be perfectly honest, at the time, I didn't think of how it would affect the players as much as the financial gain and playing the tournament. I think I had a really bad Sunday that time, so it was a new opportunity for me and I was excited about it. But, I think that we all have equally suffered from this. The poker sites have probably suffered a little bit, and we have suffered. To have that amount of money taken away from us, and the suspension of the accounts and Chris being a respected member of the media. It's just been a really terrible situation for everyone and it's something that should've never happened and I think that we all, equally, have suffered. I think that Chris and I have suffered the same amount as the players have suffered. I really hope that everyone can move forward and forget about the situation. I have had a clean track record online for over two years and nothing like this has ever happened and I hope that people will respect me like they once did and look at me as ambassador of the game, because that's what I want to be. I want to be an ambassador for the game because I love poker and I love everything about it and it's something I see myself doing for a very long time.

JC: Sorel, when someone sees you on the tournament floor – what do you want them to know?

SM: I want them to think of a young, naïve 21-year-old who made a mistake and is trying to put it all behind him and move forward. I think I've grown through this situation and I've realized that a lot of my morals and beliefs have changed about the situation and I want them to think that I am working on a better me and I'm trying. I want them to think that I've gained maturity throughout this whole situation and that it's something that I never see myself doing again and it's something that I look down upon.

End of interview.

Statement from Bluff Media on the Chris Vaughn situation:

"Bluff Media in no way, shape, or form condones the actions of Chris Vaughn. We were extremely unhappy, and disappointed. However we feel that Chris has always acted in a professional manner at BLUFF in the past, and we have no plans for terminating his employment with the company. He has been given a warning, and is on probation. We hope that we can all move past this, and learn from it."