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Absolute Poker Situation: Q&A with Nat Arem, Part 1

Introduction: PokerNews has kept a close eye on developments in the Absolute Poker situation since significant evidence emerged suggesting insider cheating, due to the efforts of many people in various poker forums and elsewhere. The way in which the story emerged is in itself a long and interesting saga, though one largely beyond the scope of this series. However, one of the people closest to the informal investigation has been Nat Arem, the driving force behind thepokerdb.com (now part of Bluff Media). Arem, though young in years (25), nonetheless brought extensive poker and technical expertise to the informal investigation as he and many others searched for answers, and Arem himself was the first to discover key information which strengthened many players' suspicions.
Arem became an unofficial conduit of sorts for information between Absolute Poker sources and the general poker public, with an offer even being extended to Arem by Absolute Poker to travel to AP's offices and ask more questions concerning the affair. While Arem was unable to accept the initial offer for various reasons, there was still incentive for him to make the trip, both to see if he could gain any insight into the allegations and to inquire about the steps current management has taken to rectify the situation and began the process of repairing AP's image. AP's current management has already taken steps in this area, such as the rapid repayment of funds to known affected players. To avoid any possible impropriety, or the appearance thereof, PokerNews and Arem agreed to send Arem to Costa Rica, and have him report back on what he found.
PokerNews will present, over the next few days, multiple parts of a 'Question and Answer' session with Arem about his findings on his trip to Costa Rica. PokerNews states that Arem by no means represents the opinions of the poker world as a whole, nor should his views and opinions in any way be construed as being those of PokerNews. Nonetheless, we believe that Arem had a unique insight into the situation, and possessed enough knowledge, both poker and technical, to present a one-of-a-kind perspective on the situation. The questions as posed are a combination of those asked by PokerNews, those constructed by Arem himself, and those that were submitted to AP or to Arem by others as news of his possible trip became known.
For purposes of full disclosure, Absolute Poker was aware a third-party entity was sending Arem on the trip, but to our knowledge it was never disclosed to AP management that Arem was acting in any way on behalf of PokerNews. With that in mind, we present Part 1 of our Q&A with Nat Arem about his trip to Costa Rica to meet with AP and Gaming Associates officials. We at PokerNews are hopeful that this situation can be resolved, and that the online poker world is a stable and more secure environment going forward.
Lastly, we would like to thank Nat Arem, Serge "Adanthar" Ravitch, Michael Josem, and a large number of other participants on several poker-discussion forums who contributed to this unofficial investigation, working diligently and selflessly to try to make the online poker world a more secure environment.

PokerNews: While our readers are familiar with the basics (AP story # 1) (AP story # 2) (AP story # 3) (AP story # 4) of the situation, how did you become involved in it, and what led to your making a trip to Absolute Poker's Costa Rica offices?

Nat Arem: I got involved in the Absolute Poker investigation when I saw PocketFives posts from 'TheWacoKidd' [Jared Hamby] alluding to the POTRIPPER Excel file. I asked another online player, 'MrTimCaum' [Steve O'Dwyer] to send me a copy and he obliged. I then set to work looking through it for clues as to who was doing the cheating. Along with 2p2er 'snagglepuss' and many others, I helped to piece together the clues and the evidence as best as possible. We eventually found an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence that pointed to Absolute Poker insider involvement.

While I have been asked to not name the individual who put me in contact with AP, I had been speaking with a person with ties to the whole company who also spoke to the new head of AP. My contact put me in touch with the new head of AP and I was invited down to see the facilities, ask questions and view selected data.

PN: When did you make your trip to Absolute Poker?

NA: I flew down to San Jose on October 27th and while I was originally scheduled to return on November 3rd, I extended my trip for a few reasons mainly not related to the AP visit. I went into the Absolute Poker offices on Monday the 29th and Thursday the 1st. In addition, I met with the Gaming Associates auditors on the evening of Sunday the 4th.

PN: Were there any terms attached to your visit?

NA: The terms were that I could see what I wanted to see except for data reserved for the audit. The restricted data included information on all of the known cheating accounts.

PN: How was the cheating done?

NA: I was not able to view the cheating method first-hand. AP told me that the vulnerability had been fixed and therefore was not available for viewing. However, the method used to gain hole-card access was described to me as a backend tool called "Servman" that wrote the hand histories before hands were completed. As originally developed, the "game log" supposedly did not display admin-level hand histories until the hand was over. I was told that a software change in mid-June 2007 changed this feature so all hands were written to the database as the hands progressed. The timeline makes sense in a number of ways because there is significant independent evidence that AP was testing their 8.0 client in the mid-June timeframe. Therefore, it's likely that the company made a number of changes to the code on their live-game server to allow for testing of the beta client. I do not know which programmer(s) made the changes and I'm not sure whether it was a mistake or ordered by a higher-up. I was not able to examine source code of the client.

PN: How many accounts were involved?

NA: I know of five cheating accounts: GRAYCAT, POTRIPPER, DOUBLEDRAG, PAYUP and STEAMROLLER. POTRIPPER was AJ Green's account as far as I know. [Editor's note: AJ Green is one of the people widely alleged to be part of the insider-cheating scandal; PokerNews acknowledged Green's possible involvement after Green was mentioned by former AP spokesman Mark Seif in connection with "hole cards" and the AP situation in a video that appeared on another site.] I was also told confidentially that one of the other four is the account known as #363 that appeared in the suspect Excel file, but I am not at liberty to state which of the four is #363. The NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement] that I signed at the AP offices prevents me from stating the aforementioned information.

Observers noticed chip-dumping sessions from the cheating accounts to ROMNALDO and SUPERCARDM55, thereby implicating those accounts as well in the scheme.

PN: The cheating, which involved the ability to view opponents' hole cards, has now been documented and acknowledged. When did this cheating start?

NA: I am not comfortable saying this for sure, but I have not seen any suspect hand histories outside of the August and September 2007 timeline. Considering the claims that the aforementioned software change happened in mid-June, it is not yet clear if there was cheating in June and July as well. What seems most likely is the software change was noticed and exploited a month or so after being put in place. This lends some credence to the idea that the software change was a mistake and unknown by the AP executives in Costa Rica and Panama. Therefore, the most current theory is that the cheating was limited to August and September of 2007.

PN: Describe what occurred on October 18th. What happened that changed the nature of the investigation being conducted on an amateur basis by all these online poker players?

NA: On October 18th, Absolute Poker informed people at PocketFives.com that they were going to admit an internal breach regarding the hole card vulnerability alluded to earlier. As it was described to me later, AJ Green went to people at Absolute Poker and admitted what he had done. I don't know if that is true.

But once Absolute agreed to admit the internal breach, the investigation shifted from one of "digging for dirt" to trying to understand exactly *how* everything happened. I, along with many others, spent hours and hours searching for information on how the breach occurred, how long it occurred for, who was involved, etc. I spoke to many current and former Absolute employees about the company's backend systems and what sort of mechanisms would allow hole cards to be viewed.

PN: Assuming that insiders were involved, then in your opinion, how many people in the company knew about this prior to October 18th?

NA: My personal feeling is that a number of people knew. I think the lower-level employees were largely kept out of the loop and did not know what was going on. But as you get higher up in the company, I am told that a number of employees knew about the breach and felt that it was in everyone's best interest to cover up the whole thing as best as possible. [Editor's note: More questions and answers on people alleged to be involved in the scandal and the way it was handled will be presented in Part 2.]

PN: In the above, you use the phrase "I am told." Did you have one or multiple sources, and how reliable do you consider these sources to be?

NA: I have multiple sources indicating that people in the company knew about these problems, although it is not clear to me exactly when the people in the company knew there had been a breach. I am sure it was before October 18th. However, it also seems as if those people who knew before the 18th only learned what was going on a short amount of time before the 18th. I don't think there were a large number of people who knew what was going on when the cheating itself was going down. I consider my sources to be very reliable; much of the information that they have provided has checked out elsewhere and I have no reason to believe that they would be misleading me on this matter.

PN: Your visit was in conjunction with an audit of Absolute Poker that was announced soon after the company acknowledged the cheating. What is the timeline for the audit?

NA: I think the plan was for a three-week audit consisting of a week in South Korea, a week in Montreal (or elsewhere in Canada) and a week in Costa Rica. As far as I know, November 9th is the final scheduled on-site day of the audit. I don't know for sure how long the auditors plan on taking to produce their final report, but I assume the KGC [Kahnawake Gaming Commission], AP and some poker organizations will see some sort of report within a matter of weeks. At one point in the process, a copy of the audit report was promised to PocketFives, BLUFF Media and possibly other media organizations. I'm not sure if that promise is still on the table, but I have no reason to believe that it isn't. [Editor's note: PokerNews also hopes to obtain an official copy of the audit's findings, once completed.]

PN: Who is conducting the audit? Are they independent?

NA: The auditing team consists of at least four people from Gaming Associates. Three of them made the trip to Costa Rica. Gaming Associates originated as an auditor of the Australian gaming industry, which has a reputation for being a tightly controlled and well-regulated industry, as far as I know. Therefore, I believe it is a significant risk for Gaming Associates to take on this audit and I think they will take it seriously. If they give an opinion that later turns out to be incorrect, they would suffer a major hit to their credibility and business.

I met with the auditors in San Jose, Costa Rica on November 4th and I found them to be credible and independent. I did some background research on the people that I met with and my personal opinion is that they are truly looking for holes in the AP story. They were genuinely interested in my take on things and I found them to be among the most credible people that I've talked to about this whole subject. I shared a fair amount of information with them and I hope they can put it to good use in their audit.

In Part 2 of this Q&A with Nat Arem, we'll explore some of the issues about people alleged to be involved, and how the situation was handled.

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