Monday, February 11, 2008

Russian Tennis Stars linked to Organized Online Poker Cheating!


ESPN has recently updated the ATP investigation of Nikolay Davydenko, who is strongly suspected of throwing a tennis match last August. Among the information coming from confidential documents obtained by Outside The Lines were the user names of two Betfair clients based in Russia. One with the user name “DJULTS” reportedly bet more than $540,000 (U.S.) on Vassallo Arguello to win and then 15 minutes later added more money on him with the Argentine as a surprising 1-7 favourite. Another Russian gambler with the handle “SGENIA” was reported to have bet more than $364,000 (U.S.) in the second set on Vassallo Arguello at odds of 1-5 after Davydenko had won the first set. Davydenko eventually retired in the third set trailing 1-2 with an alleged big toe injury. But he played in Montreal the following week, and went 17-5 at his next six tournaments.

When asked about whether he might be connected to the Russian Mafia, Davydenko replied that the Russian Mafia didn’t exist. Come on, Nikolay, you can do better than that!

American tennis star Lindsay Davenport was recently interviewed at the recent Australian Open about the spate of gambling scams enveloping the world of professional tennis. She said she had no knowledge of them directly but heard much talk about it among her fellow tennis stars in the players’ lounges. Her feeling was that if any of this alleged match-fixing is proven to be true, it should be dealt with accordingly.

To date, most of these tennis gambling scandals have centered on Russian and Soviet Bloc players, both men and women. The last major one implicating Nikolay Davydenko, a top-ranked player, came about last summer when an online betting company reported unusual betting patterns during a match between fourth-ranked Davydenko of Russia and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. The company, Betfair, voided all bets and the ATP has been investigating ever since. Davydenko, who as a heavy betting favorite quit while trailing in the third set and denied any wrongdoing. But this story had us wondering about many questions, one of which surely is “If Davydenko’s really tanking a match, why on heaven’s earth would he do so?” After all, money can’t be a problem for any top-ranked international tennis star, can it? Well, if they’re playing a lot of poker and their betting strokes aren’t as lucky as their forehands and backhands are good, that certainly could be a possibility.

We’ve also had incidents with not-so-top-ranked tennis players, and even non-Russian ones. Back in December, a couple of low-level Italian tennis players, Potito Starace and Daniele Bracciali, got fined and suspended over friendly $7 bets they may have been making as a fraternal joke among their fellow players. Even though the Italian Tennis Federation denounced the penalties by the governing body as an “injustice,” and the players themselves said they had been made scapegoats, Starace, ranked 31st, was suspended for six weeks and fined $30,000, and Bracciali, ranked 258th, was banned for three months and fined $20,000. On the surface, this double “illegal” incident appears miniscule and not worthy of any mention. But is there more to it? Were the “$7 bets” quoted in the newspapers missing a few zeros? Is some larger, more corrosive body of gambling cheating cloaked in this? And is it related to poker?

First, all this recalls a major poker cheating incident involving yet another Russian athlete if not a tennis player. I remember how shocked I was when I read it in the newspaper in the summer of 2003. At the top of most of the world’s sports pages that day was a color photo of the beautiful Russian gymnast, Vera Shimanskaya. I couldn’t believe it! The diminutive dirty-blond, blue-eyed Russian knockout was a goddamn poker cheat! Not only was she an Olympic gymnast but she was also an Olympic gold-medal gymnast. That’s right; Vera won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. Later, unfortunately, the gold medals didn’t seem to satisfy her anymore. Vera wanted gold chips instead. Apparently her road to these riches followed down the inglorious path to organized poker cheating.
According to the article, Vera and her “Eastern European” boyfriend had taken to the Western European road as a he-and-she poker-cheating team. They were not at all of the nickel-and-dime bust-out variety. When Vera was arrested at a Spanish casino near Valencia, authorities claimed she and her partner had scammed poker players at that casino for $10,000. In one night! And that was only at the casino where she finally got caught. In the ensuing investigation, it was determined that the stylish duo ran up similar ill-gotten gains at six other casinos in Spain before their tainted luck ran out.
Imagine this, I thought putting down that newspaper. A graceful Olympic gold-medalist tumbling off her podium, spinning all the way down to the pits of poker cheating. What was the world coming to? And then I wondered how they did it. The initial shock of who did it wore off, so I asked myself how an athlete such as Vera could go from Olympic sport queen to Madame Ripoff in so short a period of time. Was the boyfriend the real gaff artist and Vera just the sexy distraction? They must have done something banal to distract everyone in the whole casino. Something not unlike having Vera, dressed in a skimpy leather skirt with her leg muscles pumped up by stiletto heels, bend over in front of the poker table to pick up the lipstick she “dropped” on the floor while her comrade switched in a stacked deck. That would seem the most likely way it went down.

It wasn’t the case. It turned out that Vera had been playing poker regularly in several of London’s card clubs, though she had never been accused of cheating in one. But somewhere in her brief sojourn as a poker player, she learned how to mark cards. In doing so she would’ve had to put some time and concentration into it, and then a lot of practice. I am not saying that the dedication to training as a card-marker need be as stringent as what she’d given to gymnastics, though Vera would’ve had to perform similar nimble twirls with her fingers in order to bilk ten grand from a casino’s poker players. The Spanish authorities refused to give details on the exact method she and her partner used, though journalists covering the incident reported being told it was very advanced.

So, if we add the latest Russian tennis gambling scandals to the Russian Gymnastics Queen poker scandal of the past, the same questions abound today as did then: Why would someone with fame, success and big-money-earning potential be involved in poker scams such as these?

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 professional poker and 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 sometimes their own team, as they would know more about their own team than any opposing team. And if their sport is individual competition like tennis, they might be prone to gamble on themselves or, much more serious, against themselves, which would entail fixing the outcomes.

We all know the stories on both sides of the Pond about famous athletes implicated in gambling scams. Both in Europe and the US we’ve heard the same stories about corrupted officials refereeing games. In fact, just last year one of the NBA’s referees was indicted for gambling on the very pro basketball games he was officiating. 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 everywhere on TV and on sports pages across the nation, right?

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 that 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. When photos then surfaced of him in the company of known Russian mobsters, suspicious talk about a possible ugly relationship intensified.

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 absolutely ZERO 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 easily hide their true identities. And speaking of online gambling sites, there is also a connection between some high-profile Russians of ill-repute and the ownership of several online gaming companies. Whether this has any direct association to tennis gambling scams involving Russian players and betting action at either online sports books or poker sites is not specifically known at this time.

In any event, this possible connection between pro tennis and brick and mortar and online poker cheating is troubling to both professional sports and the poker world, and it is my opinion that this nefarious link does indeed exist.