Hastings Multi-Accounting Scandal: Speak No Evil?

Alex Weldon : June 26th, 2015

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Brian Hastings has been making news all summer, crushing the World Series of Poker and stepping on some toes in the process. His latest story, however, is one he’d rather we didn’t talk about.

The story itself involves accusations of multi-accounting on PokerStars. I won’t go into too much detail, but if you want to look into it for yourself, it began with the following Tweet by David “Bakes” Baker:

This tweet and its follow-ups kicked off an absolutely massive thread on the 2+2 forums and an article by Haley Hintze over at FlushDraw, which Hastings was none too happy about.

Because the story is still largely hearsay, I’m not going to talk too much about the facts of the matter. What I want to talk about instead is Hastings’s public response to the controversy and similar sentiments he allegedly expressed in a private message to Baker. Here is an abridged version of his first post in the 2+2 thread:

I’m aware of the allegations, but at this time I have nothing to add to the conversation publicly. I stopped caring what strangers on the internet said or thought about me many years ago; otherwise I probably would’ve jumped off the deep end by now. What I do care about is something like this being a major story in the poker world at a time in which the WSOP is in full force and we should be trying to promote and grow the game of poker, rather than drag it through the mud. [...] I think especially those of us who are professional poker players should be taking steps to try to promote and grow the game, rather than feeling sorry for themselves because Cardrunners was founded, Black Friday happened, everybody is too good now, etc. With enough hard work, I truly believe that just about anyone (at least anyone smart enough to be browsing 2+2) can make a living playing poker in 2015.

Assuming that the private message posted by Baker is genuine – and personally I see no reason to doubt that it is – the sentiments expressed therein were similar, admitting to his accusations and halfway apologizing, but then criticizing Baker for having made the story public, which Hastings feels hurts the industry and the chances of regulated online poker legislation getting passed in the U.S.

Deflection of responsibility

Baker described the private message as “delusional,” while Hintze commented on Twitter that Hastings’s attitude reminded her of Russ Hamilton’s justification for his role in the UltimateBet scandal. I wouldn’t go as far as either of them, but what I will say is that this sort of deflection of responsibility is depressingly typical of most humans when confronted with the consequences of their actions.

Most of us believe ourselves to be fundamentally good people, yet human beings respond to incentives. Thus, when we see an opportunity to benefit ourselves in a way which we would consider unethical when done by others, there’s a tendency to try to find a way of rationalizing it to ourselves, especially if we think we can likely dodge the consequences. When those consequences catch up with us, then, we’re caught in a state of cognitive dissonance in which our notion of ourselves as good people is contradicted by seeing the harm that we’ve done.

There are a few ways to resolve that contradiction, but sadly the most common is to look for some way to put the blame on others, or at least to share it with them. Hastings’s particular brand of thinking – that no harm would have been done if the truth hadn’t been made public – is especially typical. You see it a lot from cheating spouses and white-collar criminals, for instance. Even in cases where this sort of rationale holds some water (it rarely does), the converse is also true, that the damaging information wouldn’t have existed in the first place if not for the person’s own actions.

You can’t control other people; you can only control yourself. If the integrity of poker is everyone’s responsibility, then we need to begin by acting with integrity as individuals. Rather than hoping that others will speak no evil, perhaps it’s better to nip the problem in the bud by doing no evil in the first place.

Journalism is not public relations

The above assumes that Hastings actually did the things he’s accused of. But even if we imagine that, for whatever reason, Baker fabricated the private message, and that all the other hearsay against Hastings is likewise disingenuous or the result of bad information, and that Hastings is innocent of all wrongdoing… even then, his attitude towards the role of media is wrongheaded. By media, I’m including both professional media as well as amateur reporting and discussion through blogs, forums and social media.

Journalistic integrity is actually a huge problem in the modern world. Even before the internet revolution, most mainstream outlets were beholden to corporate or political interests and the issue has only gotten worse year by year; perhaps some people still believe that their own preferred news sources are “fair and balanced,” but I think by now most people realize that every source has some slant or another. The problem has been compounded by the new information economy. It’s no longer even theoretically possible to remain truly neutral, since only readers stand to gain from impartiality and they are no longer footing the bill.

I don’t think I’m giving away any big secret by saying so, or even by saying that industry-specific media (like poker) is particularly problematic, in that almost of all the money ultimately comes by way of advertising and sponsorships from the industry being reported on. Furthermore, when it comes to poker, most of us who are writing about it are also players, so our interests are tied to the industry in that way as well – for some of us, it’s an additional source of revenue, but for just about everyone it is at least a favorite hobby.

So, it’s unavoidable that the poker media will have a pro-poker slant. We can’t argue with reality on that point. However, we need to keep in mind that this is at root a problem which we must strive keep in check, rather than something to be taken for granted let alone encouraged.

Unfortunately, Hastings is not alone in thinking that the proper role of forums and the media is to handle public relations for the industry, and quite often that ends up being the case… but it shouldn’t be. If the day’s news may result in fewer new players entering the game or a few dropping out, so be it; tomorrow there will be a story which is good for poker, and you know that we’ll be covering that one too. I would like poker to recover from its current slump as much as Hastings or anyone else, but not if it means sweeping inconvenient truths under the rug.

Advertising is advertising, journalism is journalism, and most people are smart enough to know the difference. They know to take the former with a grain of salt, but still expect certain standards of honesty from the latter. If a new player is considering getting into the game, or an existing player is contemplating a transition – from online to live or vice versa, for instance – it is to forums and the professional media that they’ll turn to get their information. If we conspire to get players into the game through deceit – even if it’s only “lying by omission” – then we are all criminals.

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

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