PokerStars vs. Jason Mo: the Kid Gloves are Off

Alex Weldon : January 18th, 2016


The relationship between PokerStars and its highest-volume, most successful players continues to sour, looking less like an awkward breakup and more like an acrimonious divorce as time goes on. In the latest turn of events, Jason Mo has had his account locked over a comment he made on Twitter.

For a time, it looked like Mo’s account balance – which he says is in the six-figures – might be at risk, but that no longer appears to be the case. It’s still unclear whether Mo will ultimately end up banned from playing on PokerStars*, but in an email he reposted to Twitter this morning, PokerStars has told him that he will have full access to his account balance once the investigation is concluded.

*: Spoilers – He didn’t. See update at end of article.

Mo is a controversial figure in the poker world. He’s known within the industry as one of the best players around, especially in heads-up No-Limit Hold’em, yet his hostility towards mainstream poker media is such that he gets little coverage and is mostly unknown to the general public. As one of the members of a team of players calling themselves the “Evil Empire,” his social media persona is frequently confrontational, occasionally boastful and almost always sarcastic.

At times, his abrasiveness seems to be put on in reaction to the nice-guy image adopted by poker’s self-proclaimed ambassadors. Although he steps on a lot of toes, Mo also commands a certain amount of respect as someone who never pulls his punches and is always willing to tell dirty truths about the poker world which others would like to sweep under the rug.

Where it all began

Like essentially all online professionals, Mo has been harshly critical of the changes PokerStars has made to its VIP Rewards program, but his beef with the site and its employees is much more personal than just that. Back in August, during the EPT Barcelona Main Event, Mo claimed that about 30,000-40,000 worth of chips had gone missing from his stack during a color-up on break. He was shocked to discover that there were no security cameras in the tournament area and that he had no recourse to confirm his correct stack size and recuperate the missing chips.

After Mo had caused enough fuss on social media and the poker forums, PokerStars Head of Poker Communications Lee Jones went on Adam Schwartz’s TwoPlusTwo podcast to discuss Mo’s allegations and other issues. In the course of the interview, Jones stated incorrectly that Mo had made similar claims in other events in the past, and called Mo’s credibility into question. Although Jones later apologized indirectly for what he said, Mo has harbored a grudge against him ever since; Mo may have no interest in being seen as a nice guy, but his reputation for honesty is something he takes very seriously.

That resentment culminated in Mo making an offhand and poorly-considered remark on Twitter last week. Joey Ingram had tweeted that he’d spotted Jones dancing at the Aura nightclub during the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, and Mo responded that he’d pay someone to give Jones a “swift kick in the nuts” and say “jmo sends his regards.” Although Adam Schwartz and others told Mo he was out of line at the time, Mo refused to apologize and still has not deleted the tweet in question as of this writing.

PokerStars fights back

It all seemed pretty much par for the course for Twitter: the sort of thing that people would talk about for a few days but likely wouldn’t change how anyone already felt about Mo, Jones or PokerStars. Instead, Mo woke up the next morning to find an email in his inbox informing him that his account was locked and under investigation. Initially, no specific reason was given, but after three days of talking to support, Mo had it confirmed that the decision to lock his account had in fact been made as a result of him threatening Jones.

Mo’s supporters of course feel that this is an overreaction by PokerStars, while others feel that Mo’s threat was sufficiently credible that it’s a reasonable response. Regardless of how one feels, though, it seems that PokerStars is within its rights to lock the account. The relevant sections of the PokerStars Terms of Service are as follows (emphasis mine):

7.1 The User is prohibited from posting any unlawful, indecent, racist, obscene, libelous, defamatory or threatening material or any material that would violate any law or generally be considered to be offensive, via the Service whether using the chat function with respect to which please refer to the Card Room Rules, the player images option or in correspondence with Amaya Gaming’s staff.

8.1 Without prejudice to any other rights, if a User breaches in whole or in part any provision contained herein, Amaya Gaming or any other company within the Group which provides services to the User reserves the right to take such action as it sees fit, including terminating this Agreement or any other agreement in place with the User, immediately blocking the User’s access to the Service or to any other service offered by the Group, terminating such User’s account on the Sites or on any other Sites operated by the Group, seizing all monies held in the User’s account on the Sites or on any other Sites operated by the Group and/or taking legal action against such User.

In other words, threatening a PokerStars employee “in correspondence” with them is a breach of the Terms of Service (although Mo could potentially argue that a public tweet about Jones is not “correspondence with” him), and PokerStars reserves the right to punish any Terms of Service violation in whatever way they see fit, up to and including account seizure.

It seems that a temporary account lock and possible ban, but no seizure of funds is PokerStars’s standard policy when it comes to threats against its employees. Presumably, the more general policy is that account seizures are reserved for violations relating to game integrity. When asked for comment, the response from PokerStars was as follows: “PokerStars is unable to comment on specific actions taken on the accounts held by individual players. That said, PokerStars takes threats of violence against staff and players very seriously. A routine part of our investigatory process is to temporarily suspend player accounts while we investigate such issues. At the conclusion of investigations, players are able to withdraw any remaining account balances.”

The widening rift

Although Mo will get his money back, there’s still a strong chance that he’ll be barred from playing on PokerStars in future, especially as he’s shown no inclination to apologize. Regardless of whether or not that happens, though, it’s hard not to read this as PokerStars sending a message both to Mo himself and the anti-PokerStars player movement in general.

Even as late as November, PokerStars was attempting to spin its change in direction as positive for everyone and at least feigning concern for the players being negatively impacted by those changes. Once the strikes began, however, the tone began to shift. Although carefully worded, the blog post made by Eric Hollreiser (VP Corporate Communications) following the first strike had a rather passive-aggressive subtext to it and seemed, to me anyway, to be deliberately crafted to needle the players who were making his life difficult.

This retaliation against Mo, then, looks like a more overt continuation of this trend. It’s not hard to imagine that there’s a lot of resentment built up within the communication department at PokerStars, given the amount of abuse they’ve been receiving of late. Last month, the message was that further protests would be futile and complaints would fall on deaf ears; now, it’s that if you give them an excuse, you won’t need to strike because you’ll be locked out.

It’s somewhat inevitable that things would reach this point, as the protesting players have, in a sense, overplayed their hand. After all, in order to have any persuasive power over a person or a company, the latter needs to believe there is some goodwill present which they should try to preserve. This subset of players has made it clear, however, that at this point they could not possibly hold PokerStars in any lower esteem. That, in turn, means that the company has nothing to lose in provoking them further.

In other words, even though PokerStars is presenting this as standard procedure, I think things would have been quite different if the climate were not so hostile to begin with. Locking a high-profile, influential player’s account would ordinarily come with a pretty high PR cost, so a year ago I suspect a tweet like Mo’s, which could reasonably be taken as a joke, would have been overlooked. But now, Mo and his friends would be tweeting obscenities about PokerStars on a daily basis no matter what, so there’s no longer much reason for the PokerStars to pull its punches, either. It’s getting ugly out there, and will likely only get uglier still.

Update (21/01): According to Mo’s Twitter feed, his account has been reactivated.

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

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