August 10, 2010

Stupid Poker Tweets—The McMaster Disaster Story Is Not #goodforpoker

As you may have heard, last week Samuel McMaster, Jr. pled guilty to 26 felony fraud counts arising from a securities fraud scheme he concocted which ultimately bilked his elderly clients out of a reported $440,000.  McMaster apparently used at least some of the stolen funds to finance his gambling habit.

The poker twist on the story is twofold:  McMaster's gambling habit included a lot of poker playing, and McMaster is now attempting to earn the money needed to make restitution to his victims—by more poker playing.  As reported by Deke Marston at Bodog Beat:

The deal was created by [McMaster's] lawyer, John Rhinehart, who stated that his client's only income is derived from poker games now that he's banned from working in the securities industry.

"We do have the unusual case here where we are agreeing to delay sentencing for a period of time to allow Mr. McMaster to set a track record as to whether or not he can pay back $400,000 in restitution," said lead prosecutor Phyllis H. Bowman.

One provocative headline about this story blared:  "US judge:  'I sentence you to go and play poker' ".  However, I haven't found any reporting of an actual order or ruling entered by the judge, and the only insight into the court's rationale I have found is some good ol' secondhand hearsay:

Teala Kail, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, which brought the case against McMaster, said that poker playing was recognised as a profession by the Internal Revenue Service and was therefore accepted by the judge as a legitimate way for McMaster to repay the money he stole.

Although the restitution arrangement is unusual, judges tend to be open to alternative sentencing options when they are worked out jointly by the prosecutor and defense counsel.  Personally, I question whether someone who funded his poker playing through a massive securities fraud is any good at the game, but maybe McMaster simply had T.J. Cloutier syndrome—a winner at the poker table, and a loser in the pits.  In any event, if his victims can't be repaid any other way, then why not let McMaster take a shot at earning money through poker?

Although I tweeted about this story yesterday, it wasn't really on my radar as a noteworthy poker story until this morning, when I saw this pair of tweets:

@Kevmath:  @ESPN_Poker Sam McMaster playing poker to stay out of jail, #goodforpoker or #badforpoker ?

@ESPN_Poker:  Lose-lose situation. However, judge basically says "skill game" with this #goodforpoker. RT @Kevmath: @ESPN_Poker McMaster good/bad?

Now @ESPN_Poker is the Twitter name for Andrew Feldman, a respected poker journalist, as well as the poker editor and a poker blogger for  Feldman and Phil Gordon co-host the weekly ESPN poker podcast, "The Poker Edge", which I follow on my iPhone via Stitcher.  Although I generally find Feldman to be a thoughtful poker commentator, I think his tweet on this story misses the mark. 

First, there is no reported evidence that the judge specifically ruled or said that poker is a "skill game", nor does it appear that poker's status as a game of skill or a game of chance was relevant to the restitution plan.  I suppose one might infer that the attorneys and the court believe poker to be different than gambling by their endorsement of the restitution plan, but that's a pretty slim reed to grasp.  Even if the court did specifically state in its ruling that poker is a game of skill, that issue was not litigated by the parties, so the court's comments would have no precedential value (the statements would be what we lawyer-types refer to as "mere dicta").

More important, however, is that there is nothing even remotely good about this story for poker players.  Think about how this story is playing in the media:
  • McMaster is a poker player. 
  • McMaster cheated elderly clients out of their retirement money, to the tune of a whopping $440,000. 
  • McMaster used the stolen money to fund his own gambling habit, which included poker playing. 
  • McMaster is trying to use poker playing as a method to avoid or reduce his possible prison time for 26 felonies. 
This story is a anti-poker legalization advocate's wet dream soundbite, reinforcing every moralizing crusader's laundry list of poker evils:  poker is gambling, poker is addictive, poker players waste large sums of money feeding their gambling habits, and poker players will cheat and steal to fund their gambling habits.  Throw in the perception that McMaster is being allowed to gamble it up all over the U.S. rather than being sent to prison like any other felon, and this story is a public relations nightmare for poker.  I doubt many people hear this story and think, "Hey, the judge said poker is a game of skill.  Never thought about that before."

The McMaster story is yet another public relations train wreck for the poker community.  In fact, I bet Senator John Kyl is licking his chops, waiting for the chance to use this story if and when the Senate Finance Committee ever holds hearings on the Menendez online gaming bill (and I bet Representatives Bachus and Bachmann regret this story broke too late for them to use for their moral grandstanding in the recent House Financial Services Committee hearing on HR 2267).  The sooner the McMaster disaster story gets buried, the better.


  1. judges tend to be open to alternative sentencing options when they are worked out jointly by the prosecutor and defense counsel.

    I can see why the defense attorney would agree to this, but why would the prosecutor? It doesn't make sense to me.

  2. Way to much is being made of this plea deal. It is standard for somebody out on bond prior to sentencing (or on probation after sentencing) for stealing to have a part of his/her bond (or probation) be "don't set foot in a casino" and "don't leave the state unless it is necessary and pre-approved by the Court."

    Here, one of the State's and victims' chief concerns is restitution. The guy is ordered to pay $7,500 per month in restitution starting now. As part of this agreement he whines he can't get employment, has had success in large poker tournaments, and should be allowed to play in them. He is allowed to leave the state for the purpose of playing in poker tournaments to hopefully make his $7,500 per month payment.

    The key to the agreement is if he misses two monthly payments of $7,500 in a row it is void and he's going to be sentenced.

    This says absolutely nothing about poker as a skill game. It says a guy that has purportedly had some success in large tournaments has been able to convince a court he can contribute to restitution payments by playing in them.

  3. " is gambling, poker is addictive, poker players waste large sums of money feeding their gambling habits, and poker players will cheat and steal to fund their gambling habits." This all seems to be true when you view the majority of players objectively, whether this hack or the "professionals". I don't see a realistic argument against these patterns.

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