Is backing another player ethical?

Updated: December 30, 2005, 12:39 PM ET
By Steve Rosenbloom | ESPN Poker Club

Let's cut to the chase: Poker players financially back other players in World Series of Poker events and other tournaments when they're playing in the same tournament and maybe even at the same table.

Many times, these investments result in some big payoffs. Erik Seidel and John Juanda staked Mike Matusow all the way to a million-dollar payday at the final table of the WSOP main event this year. Erick Lindgren backed Josh Arieh to a $2.5 million bonanza for third place in the 2004 big one. Billy Baxter put Stu Ungar into the 1997 WSOP championship and saw his man win it all.

It has been this way for a long time, which doesn't necessarily make it right. It just makes it what it is.

Question is, is this OK? Is this legal? Is this ethical? Is this a festering conflict of interest that is the biggest threat to the public embracing poker's new smiley face instead of the game's outlaw image?

"I think poker has to define itself,'' says thoughtful poker pro Casey Kastle. "What is it? I would like someone to define for me whether poker is an individual sport or a team sport.''

The issues are numerous. Perhaps the biggest and most obvious is backers playing in the same events as players they have staked, and maybe even at the same table, could lead to suspicions of soft playing and collusion.

"I would take a lie-detector test,'' says Lindgren, who plays in many of the same tournaments as the horses he has backed financially, such as Arieh, Gavin Smith and Bill Edler. "I don't care how well my horses do. That investment has been made. I'm not going to adjust to how they do. I don't care. I want to beat them. I want their chips as much as I want everybody else's, and if they think otherwise, I'll take advantage of them. I don't care. I want chips from anybody.''

"Humanly impossible'' is Kastle's take on that -- not on Lindgren specifically, but the concept of not altering your game when playing at the same table as someone you have a financial interest in.

"People tell me, 'I play exactly the same whether I have an interest in another player or he has an interest in me,''' Kastle says. "I have said many times, 'In my view, Jesus Christ would have a hard time with that proposition. Even if he could figure out all the mathematics involved, I think emotionally under the pressure he would still have a difficult time making the exact same decision, and I don't believe you can do it either.'

"I'm not capable of it, and I feel I'm a fairly ethical person and a fair person. That's why I don't put myself in that position.''

Ethics aside, there is a hard money reason why Barry Greenstein doesn't back players in tournaments.

"If they can't make enough money playing poker to be able to have the buy-in, I just assume they're a losing player,'' Greenstein says. "Why would I want to stake them? "

And yet, backers do put themselves in that position. Why?

If you wanted to play every major tournament this year, you could easily be looking at about a half-million dollars in buy-ins alone. Despite what you think, not every poker player is rolling in that kind of green. In fact, few are. But many of those who aren't flush still rate as positive equity -- threats to cash. So businessmen/players financially back the good ones who are money-challenged. It's an investment.

But not necessarily a good one.

"Backing players is pretty much a losing proposition,'' says Ted Forrest, who has backed such players as Cyndy Violette and Layne Flack. "I've lost a lot of money backing other players. There's only a few players that have been lucky to back players that have won for them. I think [Phil] Ivey has backed players that have won for him and Daniel [Negreanu] has been lucky with players he's backed. But for the most part, backing other players is a losing proposition.''

Backing deals come in many sizes. The basic version calls for a backer to pay another player's buy-in and entry fee, then split the winnings after the buy-in and entry fee are taken off the top.

Sounds simple. But backers have found themselves staking players who don't cash for four, five, maybe 10 major events, and suddenly the tote board has the backer out $100,000. That's where backing deals include a "makeup figure,'' meaning all of the buy-ins and entry fees get taken off the top before the winnings are split.

So, yeah, it can get pricey. So why do it? Turns out, for all his stoicism at the table, Forrest is just a big softy.

"They're like wayward kids that you don't want to see go hungry, so you have a hard time saying no to people,'' Forrest says. "But I'm getting a little better at saying no.

"First and foremost, I'm a poker player. That's the only thing I win at. Business-wise, I've lost with everything I've ever touched, except for maybe a couple home runs in the future. The first 20 swings for the fences were all strikeouts or foul balls.

"If they want to say no backing of other players, that would help me a lot.''

Could they say that? Could they prohibit staking players?

"There's no way to legislate it,'' Baxter says. "A guy's broke, another guy's got money, so they make a rule you can't do it, so he gives him the money in the restroom. Talking about stopping it is a waste of conversation.''

Kastle is not one to take no for an answer. He's passionate about his game and his causes, such as his campaign to ban smoking in tournament poker rooms six years ago. No way, people told him. Won't happen. Poker games have always had smoking.

But two years later, they didn't.

"I got the exact same response: It's always been there, it's part of poker, what can you do about it?'' Kastle says. "I tell them, 'You're part of the problem for saying that.'''

In that case, count tournament directors as part of the problem. Although there is talk that the Tournament Directors Association will attempt to address the matter of staking players, the rules do not specifically cover it.

"The biggest issue is this,'' WSOP tournament director Johnny Grooms says. "Collusion is the hardest thing in the world to prove. We can tell guys they can't make deals. We can tell guys they can't sell percentages of themselves. But once they leave this area and there's no surveillance, who's to say that a month down the road they won't pay off each other? There's no way to enforce collusion 100 percent. It can't be done.''

One of the sticky parts of this discussion is that the players are the ones putting up all the money. It's their buy-in, it's their entry fees, it's their prize pool.

"Until there's some significant sponsor money, where we're playing with their money,'' says Howard Lederer, "I feel like it's a really hard thing to say you can't do something with your money.''

It's what you do about your money afterward that might lead to problems ethically, if not legally.

"There is an ethical problem,'' Grooms says. "If somebody can suggest a way for me to enforce it, I'll be more than happy to.''

Glad you asked. Negreanu has an idea.

"What needs to be monitored is what's happening in those relationships,'' Negreanu says. "One of the key things they should do is make them public, so everybody knows the situation. You're at the final table and you say, 'Hey, I want you to all know that I have 25 percent of this gentleman.' That way, it's out in the clear and nobody thinks there's anything going on. It's better than it being all hush-hush.''

Greenstein's solution is to convene a panel at each tournament to rule on potential improprieties.

"I saw years ago an incredible hand where the flop came Q-9-9 and it went check to the river,'' Greenstein says. "On the river, one guy bet $100 and the other guy called. One hand was queens full and the other was four 9s, and each of those guys had a piece of each other and they didn't want to knock each other out. That should be penalized.

"If we have a panel to judge those things, we can rule on those things. People who don't play ethically get penalized and potentially barred.

"Whenever someone files a complaint, during a break in the tournament, you grab five players who are reasonable, thinking people, who are top players -- the tournament directors will choose them; they know who are fair-minded people -- and you say, 'This is what happened; do you think there should be a penalty enforced here?' If you get a panel of five people, they'll say, 'Yes, this is very egregious here; you can't let someone make that kind of play,' or 'He folded his hand on the river because he didn't want to knock his friend out.' You'll get good decisions. As long as people know these things will get ruled on, less of it will happen.''

Whatever is going to be done about the matter, something is called for.

"Yeah, I think it is a major issue,'' Negreanu says. "If the public did know some of those stories, it would put a stain on the credibility of the game. That stupid show 'Tilt,' if you watch it, you'd think everybody's doing that. While there's always been elements of impropriety and cheating in poker, today I feel I can honestly say that I feel there's less funny business than there ever was in poker. There are more knowledgeable people. We know what's going on. The poker world is a small world. Everybody knows who's got who. Realistically we're doing a good job of policing ourselves, I think.''

How much the public knows about the issue of staking players and how the public thinks this reflects on the integrity of the game, no one knows, which means no one knows what effect it would have on the TV gravy train. Not much, Negreanu suspects.

"It won't stop people from watching,'' he says. "People watch 'The Sopranos,' and those aren't honest guys.''

Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback, check out his mailbag.

Steve Rosenbloom has been contributing to the ESPN Poker Club since March 2005. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Rosenbloom writes for the Chicago Tribune and is the author of "The Best Hand I Ever Played."

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