Crime, Punishment and Results Orientation: Thoughts on the Lederer Apology

Alex Weldon : May 20th, 2016

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Black Friday is now half a decade behind us, but for some the wounds are still raw. Most players who had money on Full Tilt when it was taken down have, by now, received their refunds, but that doesn’t change the fact for anyone trying to make money at online poker in the US at that time that they were simultaneously cut off from both a big portion of their savings and their means of earning more. If there were any question about whether people were still sore about what happened, the emergence of Ray Bitar’s wedding photos a few months back and the ensuing reaction from the community put those doubts to rest.

In short, yes, many people are still extremely upset about what was going on behind the scenes at Full Tilt, crimes which compounded the impact of the US Department of Justice’s crackdown on the site’s users. It’s surprising, then, that Howard Lederer, probably the second-least-popular Full Tilt founder after Bitar, picked this moment to step back into the public eye and attempt an apology.

READ THE APOLOGY HERE

Questions of timing and sincerity

His choice of channel to do so – via Daniel Negreanu’s poker blog – is somewhat questionable as well, as Negreanu himself has recently had his reputation tarnished due to his actions and attitude throughout the unpopular recent changes at PokerStars. That’s not to say that Negreanu’s name is mud right now – far from it – but if Lederer was hoping that the public’s love for Kid Poker would soften its opinion for him, his timing on that front couldn’t be any worse.

On another level, however, the timing makes sense, perhaps a little too much sense. It seems calculated. As of last fall, 92% of pre-Black Friday Full Tilt players had been made whole via the remissions process, and most people tend to be more inclined to forgiveness when they aren’t still owed something. Meanwhile, the World Series of Poker is just around the corner and it’s been many people’s immediate assumption that the apology means that Lederer is planning on attempting to play a few events and is hoping to avoid too much harassment at the tables.

That said, as apologies go, it’s not bad. If you want to read the full thing, the link is above, but in terms of gauging sincerity, the bit that struck me was the end:

At a wedding in the fall of 2014, I was sitting with a friend, talking about Full Tilt. I was grumbling about how unfair my lot in life had become. My friend didn’t let me off the hook. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “Howard, it doesn’t matter whether you knew about the shortfall or what you did to help players get paid. These players feel like you lied to them. You were the face of the company in the poker community. Thousands of players played on the site because they trusted you. Many pros represented the site because they thought you were in control. And you happily accepted the accolades while falling short of their trust.”

At the time, my friend’s response felt like a slap in the face, but it is clear to me now that it was fair. An apology is not enough, but it is what I am able to offer to the poker community in the wake of a travesty that I should not have allowed to happen. I am sorry.

Accepting responsibility

It’s possible that I’m just falling for a pretty decent bluff, but the story of feeling sorry for himself years after the fact, getting some tough love from a friend about it, ruminating about it, and finally accepting what the friend says, sounds about right to me. In my life experience, that’s a pretty standard arc traversed by someone attempting to come to terms with their complicity in a situation where they knew they were doing wrong, but which had consequences beyond what they’d anticipated. First they minimize their own responsibility, then they start to feel like they were victims themselves… but then, ultimately, after hearing it from the right person, they start to feel some actual remorse for their own actions, rather than only the personal repercussions of those actions.

That doesn’t mean that the timing wasn’t calculated in the hopes of facilitating a return to playing poker in public. It almost certainly was, but I don’t think he’s only apologizing so that he can play poker; he’s likely at the point at his own psychological journey that he is in fact willing to accept some responsibility for what he did, and wants at least a few people to forgive him.

Unfortunately, based on a Kevin Mathers poll on the subject, it looks like he’s more likely to get grudgingly ignored at the poker tables than have anyone accept his apology. Only a tiny minority of people have indicated that they consider the apology acceptable, yet only slightly more reject it entirely. The most popular poll option is “Whatever,” and that’s among those who actually bothered to answer. Overall, then, there seems more inclination in the poker community to forget than to forgive.

I don’t think there’s anything he could have done differently, however, aside from not having committed his misdeeds in the first place, of course. People aren’t inclined to accept an apology from someone who just got caught, as it reads as an attempt to avoid consequences. This is doubly true when the people in question are themselves still suffering the consequences of the person’s actions. At the same time, the remissions process took so long that by waiting for it to be (almost) complete, it was inevitable that he’d get people asking why it took him five years to say sorry.

Criminal irresponsibility and results oriented punishment

I hesitate to defend Lederer in any way, because he did unquestionably do wrong by Full Tilt customers and initially refused to accept responsibility for having done so. Yet everything he’s done is sadly typical of humans in situations where they can spread risk around to others while taking profits themselves, rationalize that others are doing the same, and also have someone else to blame when those risks are realized. This is the nature of virtually every white collar crime, and depressingly common.

It’s an unfortunate tendency of our society to be results-oriented in punishing those who fall into this kind of ethical trap. As an example, it’s been noted by whistleblowers and investigative journalists that it’s common practice for supermarkets to relabel unsold meat so as to make it appear fresher than it really is. Totally illegal and thoroughly disgusting, but sadly unsurprising. But even with the truth out there, no one is going to be inclined to do anything about it until someone dies of listeriosis from expired meat; at that point, blame for the death will fall entirely on the specific manager who ordered the relabeling of that specific meat at that specific supermarket, rather than being shared equally by everyone engaging in this practice.

One would have to be pretty naive to assume that any business charged with handling large sums of other people’s money – be it your bank, your poker site, your credit card provider and even (especially!) your government – is playing a little bit loose with the rules in ways you wish they weren’t. Examples abound: the US subprime mortgage crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis, to name a couple of the more disastrous ones. It’s financial Jenga, and the loser is whoever is currently tugging on a block when the tower falls. Full Tilt was just that, on a smaller scale.

Fairness is tricky

We can’t and shouldn’t let the Lederers of the world off the hook, but we should acknowledge that there is in fact an element of luck involved in when disaster strikes, and who takes the blame. Every time that Jenga tower falls, it’s not because that one block was removed; many more were pulled out first before instability took its toll, and if other towers are still standing, it’s only because no one has yet had the misfortune of swiping the critical block.

Lederer, for his part, if he truly wants to come to terms with what he did, should understand the chances he was taking and accept the consequences. He can return to poker or he can find forgiveness – perhaps – but he can’t have both. His apology can only be considered fully sincere if it’s not made with the expectation of avoiding further consequences.

If he shows up at the WSOP this summer, as everyone expects him to, then it shows he still has a long way to go in coming to terms with his own guilt and fully accepting responsibility for what he did. Conversely, if he truly wants to convince people of his sincerity, the best way to do that would be to follow up on his apology with a farewell note, and a promise that he’s moving on with his life, but wants to make amends before he does and has no intention of attempting a return to poker.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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