More War of the Worlds Headed Our Way

We were already excited to see the TV version of War of the Worlds due sometime this year, but we’ve since learned David Tennant aka The Doctor aka Scrooge McDuck will be reading an audio version of War of the Worlds as well. We’re looking forward to both! (And we bet some of you are too).

Of course, if you want a version of War of the Worlds closer to our time and our neck of the woods (the Washington, DC area), you can check out the version we did last year.

Corporate Interest in Podcasting

Over at Vulture, Boris Kachka details some of the latest moves by bigger and bigger business entities to monetize podcasting.

Here at our humble JAT headquarters in Deepest Springfield, we keep on watching these sorts of reports the same way YouTubers and others might look at news of changes to the streaming and on-demand video space.

One thing that’s frustrating is that the default definition of “podcast” seems to be mainly non-fiction shows. Don’t get us wrong, we love and listen to many a non-fiction podcast. But as all this money is entering the podcast realm, we can’t help but hope some of that can include full-cast audio stories… and we’d be more hopeful if fiction podcasts were mentioned with more frequency.

We’re still working on getting support through our Patreon campaign, but we absolutely won’t say no to additional revenue sources or, say, someone other than the BBC doing regular audio drama…

Just putting that out there.

The Sound of French Horns… and the Smell of Gunsmoke!

The Library of Congress is an amazing institution and works hard to preserve just about everything, but even they need to prioritize.

To that end, they have registries of films and other media that they take extra care to preserve. Every year, about 25 works are added to these registries due to their cultural significance.

This year, the National Recording Registry added 25 songs and assorted audio works. Their selection is always eclectic, but two items caught our eye in their recent announcement.

One was a hard-hitting episode from the first year of Gunsmoke called “The Cabin.” Written by John Meston, it involves Marshall Dillon taking refuge in the titular cabin during a blizzard, only to encounter two very bad men. We won’t go into any more detail than that for people who haven’t heard it, but rest assured, this was a great example of how Gunsmoke wasn’t going to be about a fanciful, happy-go-lucky West.

The second selection that caught our eye was the whole album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years. If you’ve never heard it, you are in for a treat. As Mark Evanier says, “…it’s either the best history lesson disguised as a comedy album or the best comedy album disguised as a history lesson.”

Our 2019 Season is Coming Soon!

Episode 16 of Rogue Tyger, set to premiere in late April. We happily take advantage of the fact that modern audio editing software gives one unlimited channels…

We’re busy editing away to be ready for Rogue Tyger season two in April… and yeah, we’re also working on the script for our live performance at Escape Velocity.

We can’t wait to share these stories with you, but, well, there’s still plenty of editing to do…

Online Poker: The Walls Come Tumbling Down

On April 15, 2011 — a date that would soon be known as “Black Friday” within the poker world — the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a grand sweep of the three major online gaming sites — PokerStars, Absolute Poker/UltimateBet (which had merged in 2008), and Full Tilt Poker — seizing their domain names and unveiling indictments against eleven stakeholders. Visitors to the online sites were greeted with nothing but images of the Department of Justice and FBI seals, along with a simple message stating that the site had been seized, along with assertions about the alleged activities and admonitions against illegal gambling. (The wording in the Quorum script is excerpted directly from this message.)

So what had changed? The wording of the law had not been altered to formally define poker as a form of gambling. But under New York state law, it was a misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in prison — to operate any game of chance where bets are placed within the state. Under this rationale, even though none of the sites actually operated out of New York, because they accepted bets placed in New York, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was able to obtain felony UIGEA indictments.

The FBI was aided by the testimony of Daniel Tzvetkoff, who had run an Australian payment processor, Intabill. Tzvetkoff had been arrested in Las Vegas and charged with money laundering, bank fraud, and wire fraud. Moreover, the government had evidence that several of the executives behind the gaming sites had collectively used fraudulent means in an attempt to substantially invest in a bank in Utah, SunFirst, with the intent of using that bank to handle player deposits and payouts directly (while simultaneously disguising the transactions’ true nature).

The result was immediate — U.S. players lost all access to their deposited funds, and the sites were unable to conduct any business within U.S. territory. Though it would eventually be revived in a substantially limited form, the online poker business within the United States was effectively shuttered. The poker world was floored — as much by the lack of warning as by the action itself. A prominent player affinity group, the Poker Players Alliance, immediately went into action, urging members to contact their congressional representatives. And they had allies across the political spectrum, including former Republican Senator Al D’Amato and Democratic Congressman Barney Frank. Antigua and Barbuda weighed action with the World Trade Organization, arguing that the United States was taking action against foreign nations for engaging in activity that was perfectly legal under international law.

The domain names for Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars were allowed to reopen a few days later, but only to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. players’ funds. And on April 26, PokerStars did indeed begin paying back players’ funds. Full Tilt’s actions, however, revealed a far more sinister reality.

The principals behind Full Tilt Poker — including prominent poker personalities Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, among others — had apparently been engaging in a Ponzi scheme whereby they had illegitimately paid themselves and other owners a staggering  $400 million of players’ money. Although they now had the mechanism to return players funds, Full Tilt did not have the actual money to do so. And with U.S. operation shut down, they could no longer continue to hide the shortfall (let alone work toward any kind of recovery). In September, the Department of Justice amended its filing to include charges of fraud against the Full Tilt executive team. Though the individuals accused argued that it was a question of mismanagement rather than actual fraud, the writing was on the wall: Full Tilt Poker was unquestionably finished, and not just in the American market. The scandal — coming as it did on the heels of the initial closures — rocked the poker world, dealing a dramatic blow to the previously favorable reputations of the players involved.

Fortunately for online players who had been left in the lurch, PokerStars eventually arranged to buy out Full Tilt, agreeing to reimburse players and exit the U.S. market, settling with the Department of Justice in the process (and paying fines on the order of six figures). On the other hand, Cereus Poker Network (the parent company behind Absolute Poker and UltimateBet) declared bankruptcy, shuttering while still owing players more than $50 million.

In the years that followed, some states began to develop strictly regulated online poker systems — systems that could only be accessed by people within the physical boundaries of those states (as verified by IP address tracking). Nevada and Delaware kicked off this trend in 2012, with New Jersey following suit in 2013, all three states effectively pooling their players. (Pennsylvania has recently opened the doors to both live casino and online poker, but the details are still being ironed out.) Still, the number of players is a tiny fraction of what it was in the heyday of online play.

Oddly enough, despite testing the waters in the pre-Black Friday days, the larger tourist-oriented casinos — perhaps keenly aware of the minuscule player pool still available — have largely stayed out of the online market (though some may be petitioning for access to the upcoming Pennsylvania market). The first post-2011 online site in the United States, Ultimate Poker, was set up by the Station Casinos group (which had always targeted local residents at its physical casinos, rather than tourists), but the site shuttered once revenues fell far short of projections. Real Gaming, run by the South Point Hotel and Casino, similarly faltered. WSOP.com, directly connected to the World Series of Poker, remains available (at least as of this writing) for online play in those states.

That’s not to say that traditional brick-and-mortar casinos didn’t benefit significantly from the events of Black Friday — even if they themselves aren’t rushing to fill the void left by the collapse of online poker, they are no longer competing for that business. Moreover, in January of 2019, the Trump administration reversed the Department of Justice’s 2011 determination that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting — an effort championed by casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands corporation. The impact that this reversal will have on those states that have legalized online poker remains uncertain.

And after everything else, PokerStars is going strong, clearly dominating the online poker market, even without the benefit of American players — or at least most of them. Players in New Jersey can once again play on the site, and plans are underway to allow play in Pennsylvania in 2019.

Though Quorum is likely to be moving on from the world of online poker in future installments, the real-world roller coaster of events provided some truly fantastic fodder for our inaugural season. (For those interested in additional material — since we’ve really just scratched the surface here — I recommend the book Straight Flush, by Ben Mezrich, which covers the saga of Absolute Poker in compelling detail.) Thanks to all of our listeners for coming along for the ride.

~William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Online Poker Faces Opposition and Scandal

With the rising success of online poker, the U.S. Government decided to act — though support for such action was split, with some politicians arguing that they should in fact move to decrease obstacles to the industry. Central to that argument was the contention that poker was not truly gambling but fundamentally a game of skill.

Even so, the government made initial forays into pursuing the online gaming sites. Early efforts included the assertion, made by way of thinly-veiled threats of prosecution, that online gaming violated (or at least might violate) 1961’s Wire Act — an assertion that would later be undermined by the Department of Justice’s own determination that the Wire Act’s restrictions only applied to sports betting… though more on that later. These threats were enough to keep the online sites on their toes (and sufficient to deter some smaller operators from venturing into the market, even in a support capacity), but not enough to undermine their activities entirely.

In early 2006, the online poker world was hit with its first major “multiaccounting” scandal (with which Quorum listeners may find a familiar parallel to Jimmy Harmon’s history). Online player Josh Field opened several different accounts on PartyPoker and entered the same tournament using two of those accounts — ultimately winning with one of them. Because this setup allowed Field to effectively “collude” with himself (for example, playing one account in a manner that would benefit the other), PartyPoker froze the winning account and ultimately confiscated more than $180,000. That same year, another online poker player, Justin Bonomo, used six different accounts to enter a tournament, and was similarly caught and fined.

In October of that year, President Bush signed the SAFE Port Act, ostensibly intended to improve port security; attached to that act was a seemingly unrelated rider called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, or UIGEA. While this didn’t go directly after the online poker sites — which, again, were located outside U.S. jurisdiction — it made the knowing transfer of any funds related to online gambling in any state where such gambling would otherwise be illegal a crime in and of itself. While the law was technically directed against “gambling businesses,” the wording encompassed financial institutions as well. In effect, this prevented any American bank from handling any funds going to or coming from these sites.

This was a blow to the industry — several online sites (including PartyPoker and 888) quickly shut down U.S.-facing operations — but ultimately not a fatal one. In fact, the departure of these sites presented a huge opportunity for those that remained. Payment processing companies located outside U.S. jurisdiction (including processors originally set up to handle adult-website traffic) took over the task of handling transactions, despite the legal risk. Moreover, that risk was mitigated by the general interpretation that (DOJ assertions aside) the UIGEA explicitly did not apply to poker: no definition of “gambling” had been codified into law (other than sports betting), and it could reasonably be argued that poker was a game of skill and not gambling. Believing that the government would be biting off more than it could chew if it attempted to bring an actual case, business went on as usual.

Another blow came in 2007 and 2008 with the revelation of cheating at both UltimateBet and Absolute Poker (which had apparently been going on since 2005). In each case, cheating software or “superuser” accounts allowed insiders to see the normally hidden “hole cards” of all players at a table, and transmit that information to online collaborators. (Estimates of illicitly obtained funds were approximately $10 million in the Absolute Poker case; a preliminary figure of $6 million in the UltimateBet instance was later revised to more than $22 million.) Both sites ended up addressing the issues, paying fines, and making payments to affected players, but the critical trust that allowed the sites to retain players had been damaged. Even so, the damage proved temporary. In the case of UltimateBet, an investigation determined that the main perpetrator of the hack was former World Series of Poker Champion Russ Hamilton, who steadfastly refused to make any effort at restitution (and has effectively been blackballed from the game since).

In November of 2009, a mysterious online player known only as “Isildur1” (later identified as Viktor Blom) sent shockwaves through the industry after amassing net winnings of nearly $6 million, beating several prominent professional players in the process. But shortly thereafter, he set the record for the greatest single-day loss in online history, losing $3 million… and then turned around and broke it again just weeks later, losing more than $4 million. Later investigation discovered that three of his opponents had data-mined more than 30,000 of Isildur1’s past hands, giving them an illegitimate advantage. The players were fined and censured for their behavior, but the results of the games in question were left to stand.

Still, even after these setbacks, online poker, as an industry, seemed to be a permanent part of the poker world. Professional live players still leapt at the chance to garner sponsorships from various sites, wearing site logos prominently at public appearances, lending tournament play an almost NASCAR-like atmosphere. Online sites regularly sponsored live tournaments and continued to advertise on televised events — though to skirt advertising restrictions, they only promoted their free-to-play “.net” sites as opposed to their real-money “.com” counterparts, a distinction that fooled precisely nobody. Full Tilt Poker set up a whole league of professional players — “Team Full Tilt” — and regularly positioned those players on ostensibly “educational” television shows, shows that actually served as direct marketing for the site.

But these ups and downs were nothing compared with the absolute game-changer that was on the horizon…

~William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum