By now, almost everyone in the poker world knows the story. José "Girah" Macedo, a young pro who dubbed himself the "Portuguese Poker Prodigy", socially engineered his way into the trust of some high-stakes players and got them to reveal their hole cards to him via Skype chat, which he mercilessly exploited into a $30,000 profit. The story seems to be developing as more information is released and more people who knew Macedo online are coming forward with information and anecdotes.
One question which seems to have vexed observers of this story is, unsurprisingly, one of the more obvious ones: how could the victims of Macedo's scam have been so naive? Poker media maven Jess Welman tweeted today, in reference to the story, "It doesn't excuse the behavior, but I am genuinely floored at how trusting the HSNL community appears to be of ppl they've never met IRL," a tweet that has led me to this post.
And yes, to some extent, common sense dictates that if you're playing 25/50 NL heads-up on the internet, you shouldn't tell your hole cards to a guy you've never met. Yet, I find myself oddly sympathetic to the victims. I've been around poker a long time and I've also been playing online poker for decently serious money since about 2002. And I am fortunate to be blessed with a great group of friends -- pros, amateurs, and industry people -- that I have met through poker. But I think the young guys that are highly successful these days in online poker are still in the process of building their social networks. I think a lot of young people make questionable decisions about whom to trust and this is only exacerbated by the fact that they have not been able to form tight social bonds with too many of their fellow pros "IRL" yet. A lot of these guys have yet to turn 21, a lot of them may live in more remote areas where there are not many other online pros, and some of them simply haven't yet developed that intuition that tells you whether a person is honest or deceitful.
There is a natural need for friendship, companionship and camaraderie in most people. For those who for whatever reason are unable to fulfill these needs via traditional "real-world" interactions, there is the internet. And in many ways, the pseudo-anonymity of the internet can forge real emotional bonds, since individuals who may have trouble opening up in person are more than willing to share their dreams, aspirations, fears and regrets over a chatbox with someone who lives half a world away. In the case of José Macedo's victims, the desire for professional camaraderie -- and to be sure, some amount of greed -- led to a significant error in judgment.
There is also an element in trust that is inherent to being a high-stakes pro. To be perfectly frank, poker is ripe for the picking for cheats. I feel like live poker is just waiting for a gigantic bomb to drop and that one day there will be a massive live poker scam that blows people's minds. It could be anything from marked cards in a high-stakes game, to a very sophisticated collusion ring, to someone in the live televised poker industry being paid off, to any number of things that my mind hasn't even yet conceived of. For a long time, I said that the only way to be sure you would never be cheated was to only play heads-up poker on the internet. And then the UB/AP scandal happened and it turns out even that wasn't a certainty. The problem is that high-stakes poker (really, poker in general) can't function without some measure of trust. You have to trust that the cards aren't marked; you have to trust that everyone is playing for themselves; you have to trust that the camera behind your hole cards will not be used for any nefarious purpose; you have to trust that you are not playing a superuser online. You can do a lot of things to protect yourself, but at the end of the day, you simply cannot function in the poker world if you are a paranoiac because you will never be 100% sure you're not being cheated. You have to have some trust, and especially if you play high stakes. And once you have some trust, it is a slippery slope to trusting more. I trust that Joe in Seat #3 is not cheating me. Okay, I've been playing Joe for months on end, now I trust him enough to back him in a WSOP event and pay me if he cashes. Okay, he cashed and he paid me, now I trust him enough to ship him $10000 online and have him pay me back. Now I have built up this level of trust with Joe to perhaps even the point where I am letting him sweat my online sessions. Does any of these individual steps seem that dramatic a step from the previous one? Not really. In all human relationships, trust is built slowly, a little bit at a time, and destroyed with great immediacy and impact.
So those are a couple reasons why I am able to empathize with the victims of José Macedo. By all accounts, this kid is quite eloquent, charismatic, and understands poker well. Those are three attributes that a young online pro would value for someone in their social circle. Yes, they neglected attributes like "honesty" and "character", but those are much harder ones to judge. I think unless one fits the very specific demographic of being quite young, quite successful, and a high-stakes poker player, one should to take the above into consideration before deciding that the community of young high-stakes players are naive dupes. Macedo's scam is not even remotely the first social engineering scam that has separated intelligent poker pros from their money; it is simply one of the most dirty, devious, under-handed, and chilling ones.