Thursday January 17, 2013 : WHERE DOES THE BUCK STOP IN ONLINE GAMBLING?
Cheating accusations highlight gaps in player safety and fair gaming assurance
For several weeks a major allegedly cheating software scandal has been brewing on internet gambling message boards, more recently spreading to online media and gaining momentum that could spell reputational trouble for several leading internet gambling companies.
The issue first aired on the Casinomeister site, where a player complained about the Reel Deal game offered by the Betfred website.
Instead of the usual emotional outburst that the game was rigged, the player approached the problem in a disciplined manner and produced mathematical substantiation for her claim that the card game was not performing in the same random way as physical cards would – a regulatory requirement for fairness.
There was also evidence that the free-play version of the game performed significantly better than the real-money version, prompting speculation of "bait-and-switch" tactics.
The game is a product of UK provider Realistic Games, but was distributed in Betfred's case by Finsoft-SpieloG2.
Eliot Jacobsen, a respected gaming fairness expert who verifies game integrity as a business, devoted some thirty hours of his time for free in confirming the player's allegation that the game was gaffed, and in contacting the UK and Gibraltar regulators along with Realistic Games, Finsoft-SpieloG2 and operators using the games in an attempt to achieve concerted action in the interests of player fairness.
The rather slow and generally non-productive initial response – and in some cases no response at all – was surprising given the detailed evidence he and the player had assembled and the gravity of the allegation.
Jacobson calculated that the chances that the card distribution in the games was fair was 1 in 1,048,712,149,670,420,000,000,000. In his words, this is the same as receiving four consecutive pat royal flushes on a video poker machine or in Five Card Stud.
With the issue gathering speed as indignant players and webmasters became involved in the discussion, it became apparent that whilst the game and another similarly suspect offering titled Hi/Lo Gambler originated from Realistic Games (which remained silent throughout), the products had been allegedly modified before being made available to a number of operators by SpieloG2, which also remained close-mouthed.
The resultant ‘pass the blame' game that developed raises the critical question of just where the buck stops when it comes to properly testing games before they are presented to the online gambling public.
Despite garrulous terms and conditions by regulators, providers, distributors and operators, in this case there were clearly gaping holes in what many had assumed was an effective safety system, and that leaves the player vulnerable. It also impacts perceptions of the industry, it has to be said.
Some regulators hold the operator responsible for ensuring that games are fair and honest, whilst others in the industry feel that the safest form of serious software testing should be a la Nevada and in the hands of independent regulators, although there remains an onus on the distributor and/or operator to ensure that fairness is assured.
Operators could presumably hold their software provider culpable in the event that defective or unfair games were delivered, and it is true that providers have a commercial interest in maintaining a whiter-than-white reputation.
Given the player-disinterested and lackadaisical attitude of some licensing jurisdictions, a regulator-based assurance would likely be scoffed at in some cases. The levels of expertise needed to carry out such testing may also be lacking, although that sort of professional service could be outsourced if necessary, as is currently being developed by regulators in Nevada.
With operators offering suites of games from several different developers an industry trend today, the dangers of such uncertainty and reluctance to accept responsibility are obvious.
In the case under discussion, Betfred rather tardily responded (although it was the holiday season) by withdrawing the suspect games pending a full investigation and promising to recompense players that had used them.
A company spokesman made a public statement that appeared to implicate SpieloG2 as responsible for the flawed games, but the distributor remained silent.
"Realistic Games provided the assets and rights to the Reel Deal game but SPIELO G2 developed the game for their operators and in doing so changed a number of core features. As such, it is not right to identify Realistic Games as responsible for how the game performs.
“On developing the game, SPEILO G2 developed two version: fixed odds and fixed price," the spokesman revealed, passing the issue off as a transposition of the two versions and a wrongly posted help file.
The fundamental rule that online card games should emulate the action of physical card games and involve a fair deck appeared to have been overlooked in this explanation, as many experienced gamblers and industry observers have noted.
Betfred's regulator, Gibraltar, was no doubt interested to read its statement, and is now believed to be making further enquiries after a somewhat slow start following Jacobsen's notification.
Nordicbet, another operator using the SpieloG2 package, was more decisive and forceful, immediately removing the entire Realistic Games-SpieloG2 suite and undertaking to recompense players.
Indicating that the Spielo versions of the game may be exceptional, bet365, which gets its Realistic games either direct or from another distributor, advised that it had undertaken tests that showed the games as presented on its site were not tainted.
There were a number of other operators using the package, many of them big names in operator-land, but their actions were not known when InfoPowa went to press.
It seems incredible that Finsoft-SpieloG2 (formerly Boss Media-GTechG2 and now part of the Lottomatica group) could be involved in any suggestion of questionable behaviour, but the company's silence has heightened suspicions, and the allegations have not gone away.
Perhaps more importantly for Lottomatica is the fact that it is in the process of acquiring a Nevada online poker licence, and that could entail having to answer some awkward questions.
As one online poker information site noted this week, the group also owns the International Poker Network, another sector of the industry deeply dependent on players' trust and confidence in a fair game.
Experts have pointed out that the games in question could relatively easily have been checked out for fairness before being released to the public, which begs the question of why the operators or their fairness verifiers did not pick these anomalies up.
That suggests that operators leave it to their distributors, software providers or games verification labs to deal with the problem… either way the system appears to have failed at the players' expense in this case.
The possibility of genuine human error or incompetence at SpieloG2, as opposed to an intention to cheat or a lamentable lack of understanding of gambling laws, has been raised but remains unanswered until either the regulator's conclusions have been published or SpieloG2 breaks its unfathomable silence.