Calling for action

Turning 18 is a big moment in any man's life. Granted, these days it's not as honorary as it was in the age of the hunt, but you can vote, serve in the military, and in some countries, you can play poker anywhere you damn well please.

Recently, Josh Field hit the big one-eight. Before we get into who Josh is, can you think of any time when an 18th birthday ever registered in your mind in relation to poker? Each year, lists of up-and-coming soon-to-be 21-year-olds are compiled as we try to figure out who the next big thing at the World Series of Poker will be, but 18 is a whole other matter.

Field is a different story because he's emblematic of a lot of the problems within this industry. That's not to say he's responsible for them. He's a kid who was smart and cold and merciless enough to take advantage. Those familiar with Field's story will tell you he epitomizes the problems in the poker industry. They're right, but the problems in question are not the ones they're thinking of. Bear with me.

Field is better known to many as "JJProdigy." It's his online alias that he once used at online tables. "Once used" because two years ago, he was caught multi-accounting and was made an example of, banned by PokerStars and PartyPoker and made a pariah by the online community he once called home.

Rather than take these developments as a calling to something more earnest, Field continued going with what he knew. "My immaturity again was working against me," he wrote in multiple online forums, confirmed by ESPN.com on Dec. 22, 2007. "I didn't think what I was doing was wrong. After that, it was a downward spiral. I was a fugitive in the online poker world. I used the reasoning, 'If I'm already a wanted man, I might as well maximize my value.'"

In the time since his actions first came to light, he's continued to break online poker rules by multi-accounting, purchasing accounts mid-tournament and gaming the system, all without showing much in the way of remorse. He apologized for his actions in that Dec. 22 posting, but without any reparations other than public embarrassment. After all, this is poker, where the object is to get the most money. In this particular version of the game, he was winning.

Justin Bonomo, a 22-year-old pro with experience in both the live and online poker worlds, wasn't impressed with that rationalization.

"In the history of poker, 'JJProdigy' is the only person to be publicly caught cheating more than once, and it was a lot more than once," he said. "I don't think JJ realizes, even now, that what he's done was wrong. I wish he would realize the damage that cheating does, not only to his opponents, but to the image and health of poker as a game."

Bonomo knows of what he speaks, because he used to be a "JJProdigy." He was banned from multiple sites for the same offenses, also around the same time Field was. Not surprisingly, in poker circles, their names have become synonymous. The difference however, is that Bonomo has expressed continued regret for his past actions, constantly taking steps to not only repair his once-fractured image, but also to educate the poker community about the mind-set behind cheating and how it might be prevented.

The reception to Field's writings was divided. On one hand, he was unrepentant and therefore undeserving of forgiveness. On the other, there was the realization that for all of the rule-breaking he's done and the monies gained through illicit dealings, there was no punishment. Cheat the system for a few years, apologize for a few years and move on. That's what Field was attempting to do, without so much as giving a penny back.

It was when Field mentioned in another post that he'd be going to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure a week after his 18th birthday (which made him legal to play in some live tournaments abroad) when a backlash began. PokerStars was flooded by complaints and as an apparent reaction to public demand, released a message to concerned players (and ESPN.com) which informed Field he would not be allowed to play in its event. Field adapted and decided that his first live tournament would be played at the 2008 Aussie Millions.

It was there he did two interviews that caught the community's attention . The first was with Amanda Leatherman for pokernews.com and the second was an appearance on Poker Road Radio, the Joe Sebok/Gavin Smith/Bart Hansen show hosted online. Both interviews threw Field some soft-toss questions, not shying away from the tough subjects but not condemning him for his actions, either.

It was after the two interviews when Dani "Ansky" Stern had enough. Stern, a 21-year-old pillar of the online poker community, wrote a long, passionate, frustrated diatribe about how the interviews had let Field off too easy and how the community should not. He called out to players to be more vigilant in ostracizing those few who would remind the world of poker's checkered past instead of embracing the newer, cleaner game. He also called out industry leaders to come together to ensure players like Field would not go unpunished.

"The casinos are brutally efficient in weeding out the card counters, they even keep records with rival casinos about the card counters because it suits both their interests to do so," he wrote. "If someone is caught counting cards at the Bellagio on Monday, do you think he will be able to walk into the Venetian the next week? Fat chance.

"Card counters are not cheaters, and yet they are so vigilantly and unequivocally barred from casinos. Yet known cheaters are banned from one site and not the next, or are banned from one tournament and not the next. Why is there no unity amongst the casinos or the sites in this case, but such fervor for unity in the case of card counters? Oh right, money, it's always about money, and never integrity. Card counters win money from the casinos, multi-accounters and cheaters pay rake just like everyone else, they are only stealing from us. This is why the burden is on the PLAYERS to pressure the casinos, the sites, and even TV networks to be harsher about this, and why people like JJProdigy should not feel comfortable enough to sit down face to face with two important figures in the poker community."

There weren't a lot of answers in Stern's post. It was more an attempt to wake the world up and inspire some action. In reading through Stern's and Field's writings, one thought kept screaming through my mind: "Who cares?"

Harsh? Yeah. I mean, I obviously don't want these actions to occur, and more importantly, the offending players aren't being punished. Like Stern wrote, it's all about the money. As far as the short term is concerned, caring for the state of the game is not a profitable endeavor. The answer to "Who cares?" is "The wrong people."

I've long held to a theory about poker players in business doing business like poker players. Accustomed in their time at the felt to employing a "me against the world" mentality, they often (or so the theory goes) allow that mentality to supersede other logical progressions in their business dealings. "Grab as big a piece of the pie for me while I can. Rake in those pots. Let someone else worry about the greater good, I'm here to make money."

There are exceptions to the rule, but their pleas often fall on deaf ears, and that leaves an industry that exists in a cyber Wild West vacuum. Without a regulatory body, everyone makes their own rules and those rules only fall over the scope that the rule-makers survey.

There are no real solutions here. After all, I'm just a lowly writer sitting on my perch commenting on the big things other people should do. The thing is, if I were one of the folks sitting on an eight- or nine-figure bankroll, looking at the game that had attained me that lofty station, I'd want to do something for the good of the game, even if that wasn't commensurate with profitability. Knowing I feel that way, I take the prerogative and wonder why those folks have done no such thing.

Poker remains to this day a world divided: WSOP and WPT, Bluff and CardPlayer, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, the biggest islands in the lawless industry ocean. If these entities stopped focusing on beating the other guy for just a minute of each day, it would mean so much to the long-term health of the game.

A regulatory body supported by, funded by, but not answering to industry biggies could codify the rules of the game and the punishments for breaking them. It could blanket the players in a measure of security. The relationship between regulatory body and poker room would benefit the latter in being recognized by the former. Is there any way to ensure rogues don't try to get their piece of the pie? No, but at least the prospective player would know the risks they'd take by taking a seat with an unrecognized entity. Any company donating either time or money toward this endeavor would gain the benefits of being recognized as an industry pillar that wants to better things for all of us.

Greg Raymer, the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, has been one of the few TV pros who has been open-mouthed with their disdain for Field's actions, vigilant in his referrals to them as criminal activity. On the idea of our autonomous body, he's cautiously optimistic.

"Anything we can do to make cheating more difficult is going to be a deterrent," he said. "There are always going to be people who try to cheat the system, but knowing there are real ramifications for those actions might stop them before they start."

Raymer points out there are many little issues that would need to be handled. Overshadowing them all, however, is the reality that this is an industry in which the money is the scorekeeper, so chucking some cash at "the good of the game" endeavors is about as likely as I am to find the money needed to start such a project in a jacket pocket.

Bonomo agrees, however, that our hypothetical organization's existence would go a long way toward stopping cheating at its roots: "A set of standardized rules could eliminate the gray areas of cheating. Once everything is defined as right or wrong, it becomes a lot harder to justify the wrong."

Cheating, unfortunately, is inherently human. We as a species are never wholly content to sit on our laurels when there are advantages offered, especially without matching consequences. It's frustrating to know that players like Field have cheated, but if it weren't him, it would be someone else, and then someone else and then someone else. It's also inherently human to strike out at those few individuals who tarnish the game in loud, emotional but ultimately forgotten strokes. Companies of massive standing have the power to be inhuman, to do the things that individuals can't for the greater and enduring good. The real blame should be placed on the shoulders of those with the power to make change that aren't seizing the opportunity. Until they do so, the Josh Field's of the world won't have much to disincline them from doing what they do.

I hope I'm wrong. Happy birthday, Josh.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.