’60 Minutes’ really dropped the ball with online poker report

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It’s a common occurrence for a poker player. You’re watching a sitcom or movie, minding your own business, kicking back with a brew. … and then it happens: A poker scene weasels its way onto the screen and you’re overcome by a wave of bittersweet feelings. You love poker so much that you cherish seeing it on the tube, yet at the same time you prepare for that inevitable “Hollywood Cringe.” What’s the Hollywood Cringe? It’s when your face twists as the actor …

• Calls a bet and then raises. “I see your $5 and raise you $100!”

• Raises a $50 bet by just $10.

• Wins a hand automatically because he bet more than everyone else has on the table.

• Makes a straight flush as opponents make quads and boats.

• Notices a flamboyant “tell” that leads to him winning every key hand.

People in Hollywood don’t want to be bothered with the particulars of following poker rules or filming scenarios rooted in reality. Directors and producers tell stories for entertainment, not accuracy. And I accept that with a grain of salt.

But when this kind of ignorance accompanies news programs, I refuse to accept inaccuracies and gross negligence, especially when it comes from a show as well-respected as 60 Minutes. For months we had been hearing about the segment CBS (in a joint investigation with the Washington Post) was planning to air on the Absolute Poker and UltimateBet online cheating scandals. We wondered what incredible facts the crew would uncover, whether online poker would benefit or crumble, and who would fall as a result.

It didn’t take long for the Hollywood Cringe to wrinkle my face.

After some obligatory footage of Chris Moneymaker’s improbable run in 2003, we’re unfairly greeted by 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft as he patrols the tournament floor of the Rio’s Amazon Room during the World Series of Poker. Why unfairly? Because using the Harrah’s property and the WSOP as the backdrop for the piece indicates there might be a connection between the WSOP, Harrah’s and online cheating, which there isn’t.

But that’s not the largest offense of this report. Just two minutes in the voiceover says:
“We should tell you that this $18 billion industry is illegal in the U.S., but the ban is almost impossible to enforce since the Internet sites and the computers that randomly deal the cards and keep track of the bets are located offshore.”

Really? Illegal? Show me where it says that in the Big Book of Laws. It’s this kind of misleading sensationalism and preying on ignorance that gives television programs its ratings while throwing a wonderful game such as poker under the bus. Yes, hosting online poker sites inside the United States is illegal, but these companies are performing perfectly legal business practices in the countries where they operate. The quote inferred it was illegal to play poker online, and that’s categorically untrue.

The producers at 60 Minutes should’ve known better than to allow this statement to go unchecked, just like it should’ve known better than to let a bitter Todd Witteles ramble on at the very end of the segment. Witteles, known in online poker circles as Dan Druff, was interviewed for the report and spewed this very damaging and unfounded statement.

“The people who did this were very greedy and very blatant. But the scary thing is, there may be other accounts out there like this, maybe even on other sites, that are not being done with the same sense of recklessness, and maybe this has been going on at more than just Absolute Poker and UltimateBet. Maybe it’s going on at several other places and maybe it’s still going on at these sites.”

This is unacceptable. Imagine how the brass at DoylesRoom, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker felt when they heard that irresponsible diatribe. Sites such as these (and even UB and AP) are working diligently with state-of-the-art security to ensure a safe, enjoyable playing environment for you, and yet one guy is allowed to shake the very foundations of the industry by lumping all poker sites together with a few ruthless crooks.

Yes, what happened at UltimateBet and Absolute Poker was unfortunate, and I’m not sugar-coating the indiscretions. But to be so lax in your reporting and editing that you let these kinds of statements get through is beyond reprehensible. And, for the record, this combined report from two of our country’s leading news organizations did very little in advancing the story. Everything in the television report (and the longer print version that appeared in the Post the next day) had been reported for months in newspapers, poker periodicals and forums. What was the point of this story if they couldn’t expound on what was already available? Was it to just scare the hell out of anyone who was thinking about playing poker online? Were they just looking for ratings? Are they so arrogant as to think a story hasn’t been truly reported until they report it?

My Hollywood Cringe just got upgraded to the Hollywood Grimace.

— Email chris@anteupmagazine.com if you’d like to see a retraction from 60 Minutes.