In the highest-stakes dispute of its kind in the short history of Internet gambling, an American bettor and a Costa Rica-based Internet casino are engaged in a running battle over $1.3 million that the player says he won fair and square and the house claims was amassed using a banned “robot” software program.
The big-money feud pits the gambler known as “Pirateofc21” against Hamptoncasino.com and, by proxy, Realtime Gaming of Atlanta, the software company that developed and licensed the “Caribbean 21” game that yielded the disputed windfall.
The battle has been raging for more than two months on Internet gambling forums, with “Pirate” and Hampton officials regularly trading accusations, and has become the soap opera of choice for online gambling aficionados.
The experts have further enlivened the discussion by weighing in with theories as to whether the gambler used a “robot” -- an automatic play program that maximizes the player’s odds by eliminating mistakes -- or otherwise cheated the game or was simply the victim of an unscrupulous casino operator.
"Pirate" declined to comment on the dispute when contacted by MSNBC.com, citing ongoing settlement negotiations. Hampton officials did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Gambler took dispute public in early January
“Pirate,” an out-of-work computer programmer whose real name is Brian Donahue, took the dispute public in January when he posted on the public forum on “online casino watchdog” Casinomeister.com, complaining that his accounts at Hamptoncasino.com and other online casinos using Realtime Gaming software had been frozen.
“Pirate” said the action was taken after he ran the balance of his account at Hampton up from an initial deposit of $1,000 to an astounding $1.3 million after persuading casino operators to raise the betting limit in the game -- a volatile variation of blackjack -- to $10,000 a hand.
He also said that he had been denied access to “about $96,000” that he had built up at Delanocasino.com, another Realtime Gaming licensee, playing the same game.
After talking to officials at Realtime Gaming (RTG), Casinomeister Webmaster Bryan Bailey counseled “Pirate” to be patient, saying that the company had pulled the game from public play so that it could check for possible software glitches.
“I just got off the phone with RTG and they assured me that they are looking into this diligently and carefully,” Bailey wrote in a Jan. 5 e-mail to “Pirate” that he later posted in a Casinomeister forum in a timeline for the dispute. “There is a lot of money at stake and this understandably warrants their checking your game play and looking at their software/payout tables. Hopefully, in a couple of days this should be resolved.”
Frantic and accusatory postings
But as the days ticked by, “Pirate” became more and more agitated, as evidenced by his increasingly frantic and accusatory postings on public forums on Casinomeister and Faircasinos.com, another site devoted to online gambling, and frequent e-mails to Bailey.
“The guy was sweating bullets and pacing the floor, wondering if he’s going to get paid,” Bailey recalled this week in an interview with MSNBC.com from his office in Germany.
In mid-January, it appeared that an amicable solution was in the offing.
“Pirate” wrote to Bailey on Jan. 15 saying that the RTG audit had resulted in “a 100 percent clean bill of health to the game engine and (they) are supposed to release my accounts today,” according to Bailey’s account.
Soon afterward, Hampton representative Ron Lewin (believed to be an alias) agreed to begin paying “Pirate” $4,000 a week -- a pace that would require nearly 6 ½ years to retire the debt, according to the timeline.
But a new obstacle reared its head on Jan. 21, when RTG initiated a new investigation in response to a post by “Pirate” in which, apparently trying for sarcasm, he suggested he had hacked the game:
“How did I do it then? I got into their system, changed the game to favor me on multiple occasions at multiple casinos, avoiding detection, leaving no trace, and remember these changes only affected me. Nobody else had the same results at any time playing the same game. Damn, I’m good.”
Phone conversation surreptitiously taped — twice
Two days later, the dispute boiled over in a now-infamous phone conversation between “Pirate” and Hampton’s Lewin -- a heated discussion that was surreptitiously recorded by both parties.
In the taped conversation -- reviewed in its entirety by MSNBC.com -- Lewin told “Pirate” that the company had brought in “outside help” to review the playing logs and developed evidence that he had used a robot program to automatically play his hands, a violation of the site’s terms of service agreement.
“I want you to remember the $1.3 million,” Lewin told the player at one point. “You’re never going to see a penny of it. ... You cheated, you’re not getting paid. End of story.”
“Pirate” initially reacted with outrage to the accusation, repeatedly stating that he had not used a robot program or otherwise cheated. But Lewin continued to hammer away, at one point offering to pay “Pirate” $300,000 if he would turn over the robot program and in another instance offering to “go partners” so they could use the software to beat other casinos running the RTG game.
Nearly 30 minutes into the conversation, “Pirate” finally changed his tune. “I wrote it myself,” he said quietly, adding that it had taken him a month to create the program.
Excerpts posted on Internet
When Hampton representatives publicly accused “Pirate” of using a robot and gave that as their reason for negating his big win, the gambler responded by contending that he only went along with Lewin’s suggestion to see what how far the Hampton owner would be willing to go in his attempts to coerce him to admit wrongdoing. He also sent Faircasinos.com two excerpts from the phone conversation (click to listen to the excerpts — Call 1 and Call 2) with Lewin in which the casino boss could be heard trying to bully him into admitting he had used the program.
Hampton officials responded by playing tapes of the full conversation -- including the confession -- for Casinomeister’s Bailey and selected operators of other gambling-related sites, who then shared the contents with their readers.
The admission did nothing to calm the controversy on the gambling sites, especially when RTG’s director of engineering, Michael McMain, issued a statement on Feb. 18 on the Casinomeister forum stating that the company’s review of the Caribbean 21 game showed it was “statistically accurate” and refuted the notion that the player won by hacking the game.
McMain, responding to questions from other posters, also said that the review failed to find evidence that a robot program was used and agreed with other gambling experts on the forum by saying that such a tool would not create a “positive expectation” for the player in a game where the house has an advantage, merely make play more efficient.
Despite the finding, many in the online gambling industry remain suspicious that “Pirate” discovered a flaw in the Caribbean 21 software that enabled him to win at many RTG-affiliated casinos in recent months.
Winning streak called ‘very unusual’
Scott Owens, marketing director for the BreakawayCasino.com in Costa Rica, told MSNBC.com this week that his company had paid “Pirate” about $40,000 in winnings on the game since last summer despite suspicions that something wasn’t on the up-and-up.
“People win sometimes and people win a lot of money sometimes,” he said. “But normally people win a lot of money on a big jackpot game. When people win a lot of money at a table game over a period of time, that’s very unusual.”
Owens also said that “Pirate” had asked casino managers to raise the game’s limit for him but was turned down. “We decided we didn’t want to do that,” he said.
But many gamblers blame RTG and the casinos for disputes like the “Pirate”-Hampton standoff. Such problems occur all too often, they say, because the software company fails to exert any oversight on its licensees and that, as a consequence, some of the RTG-affiliated casinos run shady operations.
David, a professional gambler from Canada who spoke with MSNBC.com on the condition his surname not be published, said that after RTG returned the Caribbean 21 game to action, he won more than $30,000 from an online casino in a single session, playing with a limit of $250. But when he tried to collect, David said, “They wouldn’t pay me.”
‘The owners don't like to lose’
“It’s a terrific game,” he said. “It’s just too bad the owners don’t like to lose.”
Keith Furlong, deputy director of the Interactive Gaming Council, a gambling industry group that promotes best-practice guidelines for online betting sites, said that some problems with RTG licensees occur because the U.S.-based company has had to go to considerable lengths to insulate itself from its licensees out of concern that it would otherwise run afoul of federal anti-gambling statues.
“That’s why we’ve advocated for government regulation since 1996,” said Furlong, a former New Jersey gaming regulator. “.... Without regulation, our most-responsible gambling companies, which guarantee fairness and understand issues like problem gambling, aren’t allowed to participate in this industry and give it credibility.”
As the controversy continues to simmer, there are indications that a settlement of the case could be near.
Realtime Gaming President Michael Staw told MSNBC.com on Friday that a settlement had been reached and that he expected it to be finalized shortly.
He said an unidentified third-party had agreed to purchase Hamptoncasino.com from its current owner and had reached an agreement to pay “Pirate,” though it was not clear whether such a settlement would involve the full amount.
But Bruce Holway, a gambler from California who says he has previously had success persuading reluctant RTG casinos to pay off and is advising “Pirate” in the negotiations, said Friday that the third-party had not yet put a dollar amount on the settlement offer.
“A deal can’t very well be imminent if we don’t know the figures,” he said.