The Lowdown on the “Coca Cooler”

Today’s big story in the world of poker is the so-called “Coca Cooler” – a hashtag for which has already begun trending on Twitter. In a nutshell, Moldovian player Valeriu Coca has been accused by several opponents of possible cheating in WSOP Event #10: $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em Championship.

The situation is still under investigation by WSOP staff, so nothing is officially known about it and so the information here should all be taken as speculative. The rumor mill being what it is, the story broke on 2+2 early this morning and additional details have been trickling in since then, including statements from some of his opponents.

Suspicious from the start

Although nothing is known for sure yet, the number of red flags surrounding Coca’s appearance in the event is pretty remarkable. Before he had even played a hand, there were some good reasons to suspect something was up.

Coca is not a major pro by any means, nor is he someone who holds a lot of wealth from sources outside of poker, who would be likely to play a high buy-in event recreationally. He has, it seems, spent most of his poker life as a small-time cash game grinder. His tournament results prior to 2015 are largely from events with buy-ins below $1000, and he does not appear to have played on this side of the Atlantic before. So the fact that such a player would spontaneously decide to fly to Las Vegas and fire $10,000 into what is possibly the toughest event on the entire schedule is surprising, to say the least.

He’s also been on a fairly incredible heater since August 2014. His total live cashes amount to just over $300,000, almost all of which has come in the past ten months. In that time he has won four tournaments and final tabled three others. His buy-ins have also been escalating over the course of the heater. Last year, he was playing $500 events; this spring, he had moved up to $2200. And of course, now he has decided to jump all the way up to $10,000 for Event #10.

Now, you could argue that the heater makes his decision to play Event #10 less suspicious, rather than more so. Some guys dream of making the big time, and once they get a taste of success, attempt to run it up huge. Targeting an incredibly tough heads-up event rather than, say, the Main Event is harder to explain, but who knows; maybe he’s more interested in making a name for himself than in the money, and wanted to prove himself one-on-one against the very best.

Here’s the really damning thing, though: he’s a known cheat. He’s already been banned from every major card room in Prague for having been caught marking cards: apparently he was bending the corners of the Aces and Kings. Simple and effective, but unfortunately for him, also fairly transparent and easy to catch.

It’s worth noting that he also had a sort of mini-heater back in late 2012, the biggest cash of which was 4th place in a WPT Event for $12,609. Where was that event held? Prague, the very city he got kicked out of for cheating. The next year, 2013, he has only a single cash, seemingly lying low before reappearing on the scene partway through 2014 and kicking off this second, much larger heater.

On its own, this isn’t solid evidence of anything, but just looking at his history, one likely explanation for his results is that he ran a crude scam, got caught, and then spent a year and a half working out a more sophisticated one, which has been working out well for him until just now.

What his opponents say

Two of his opponents in Event #10 have come forward in the 2+2 thread to share their stories: Connor Drinan and Pratyush Buddiga. Each one has basically the same thing to say, and it seems that they’ve also discussed the matter with Coca’s other defeated opponents, who seem to have had similar experiences. So, it seems unlikely that either of them would be making things up, although we should keep in mind how unreliable human memory can be, and the subjective nature of experience.

For both Drinian and Buddiga, the experience went like this: Coca started off the match by playing slowly and fiddling a lot with his cards, checking them repeatedly. He was also quite tight and passive through these hands, leading his opponents to believe that he was stalling, hoping to rely on luck in the higher blind levels where stacks become shallower and skill is less of a factor.

Upon reaching those later levels, however, he shifted gears and began playing much more aggressively. What struck both players as initially frustrating and eventually suspicious was how uncannily timed his aggression was in terms of their preflop holdings. He would raise several hands in a row, but suddenly fold to them when they happened to be holding a strong hand, particularly one containing an Ace – Drinan mentions that Coca folded to him four times during this later period; the first two times, Drinan was holding AA and AJ, while the latter two were after he had become suspicious and started taking counter-measures against the suspected cheating.

If Coca had been outplaying his opponents postflop, then it would be easier to argue that he’s simply very good. Preflop, with little or no betting information to go on, the fact that he was easily dodging their strong starting hands is considerably more suspicious. Of course, this is live poker, so physical tells are also possible, even preflop, but it’s hard enough to get a solid physical tell on a single opponent that you know well. Picking up a tell on every person you come up against, all top level players and none of whom you’ve ever played before, would be essentially impossible.

On top of all this, there’s the extensive fiddling with the cards in the early hands, which could indicate an attempt to mark them in some way. You would think that someone attempting a scam of this magnitude would be more subtle about it, but let’s not forget that this is a man who has previously been caught bending the corners of cards to mark them. It’s hard to come up with a cruder plan than that, short of bringing a Sharpie to the table with you. That being the case, it’s pretty clear that his chutzpah exceeds his card manipulation skills.

Speculation about sunglasses

It doesn’t seem likely that Coco would have been employing a technique quite so obvious as corner-bending in an event as heavily scrutinized as the World Series of Poker, and if he had been, the case would surely have been opened and shut by now. Instead, it seems likely that he was using a technique that is more sophisticated at least in principle, however sloppy he was at executing it.

Current speculation on the forums surrounds his sunglasses, with a number of posters guessing that he was perhaps marking the cards with some kind of ink, visible only through special lenses. As baseless as this is, it does resonate with one comment made by Buddiga, who says that he observed that late in the match, while contemplating his move, Coca would often swivel his head weirdly and for no apparent reason.

I have a background in physics, so what Coca tipping his head in weird ways makes me think of is polarization. Ordinarily, light waves oscillate in all directions, but when light reflects off of non-metallic surfaces, it can become polarized, with the reflected photos oscillating in the same plane as the reflecting surface rather than every which-way. Our eyes don’t detect polarization (though some animals’ do), but special lenses can filter out light of one polarization while allowing other polarizations through.

Polarized sunglasses are readily available, because filtering out horizontally polarized light can be useful in a variety of situations, such as driving or skiing, where glare off of a horizontal surface can be a problem. Playing cards, meanwhile, have glossy, non-metallic backs and tend to be lying horizontally on the table, thereby polarizing some of the light that hits them. If you applied a clear substance to the backs of certain cards, similarly reflective to their natural gloss but with different polarization properties, it would show up as light or dark marks when seen through polarized lenses, while remaining invisible to the naked eye.

What this has to do with Coca’s head-swiveling behaviour is that detecting a slight difference in polarization requires getting the lens lined up just right with the direction of the light waves. If polarization is actually the trick Coca was using, then between him moving around, the glasses perhaps shifting on his face, the cards being in different positions, etc., the conditions would be slightly different for each hand, and he may have had to tip his head a bit to get the markings to show up properly for him.

Obviously, this is nothing more than an educated guess; there are any number of ways that Coca could have been cheating, assuming that he was cheating in the first place. This is just the first thing that springs to my mind when I take the speculation about his sunglasses being involved and put it next to Buddiga’s observation about his head movement.

What’s being done?

Of course, the most important questions are not how he cheated, but whether he did, whether it can be proven, and what will be done about it. As stated, tournament officials are aware of the situation and are in the process of investigating. It has also been confirmed that Coca’s payout for his eventual 5th place finish has been withheld pending the results of the investigation. Thus, if they determine that he did in fact cheat, his winnings can be used to compensate his opponents/victims, all of whom will presumably get at least their buy-in back.

As for Coca himself, he could face felony criminal charges for casino fraud, which could land him with up to 10 years in prison. It’s unlikely this will actually happen, however, both because the standards of evidence for criminal prosecution are higher than for a casino ban, and because, if he did it, then he’s probably already on his way back to Europe and won’t come back to the US for quite a while.

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

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