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Runner Runner: The truth about online poker


24 Sep 2013

Set for an early October 2013 release date, Runner Runner is a crime drama that promises to give moviegoers a glimpse into the world of online poker, and those who operate poker games online, starring future Batman Ben Affleck and *NSync star Justin Timberlake, along with Britain’s rising star Gemma Arterton.

The plot – and the only spoilers here are already revealed if you’ve seen the trailers – revolves around Timberlake’s attempts to win enough at online poker to pay for his school tuition, a $60,000 sum, and his belief that his ultimate losses are the result of cheating by his opponent.

Cue a twisted, tangled plot in which Timberlake seemingly ends up working for the enemy; an FBI agent who’s not afraid to kidnap people to get his job done; an alligator scene straight out of a Bond movie; and an Arterton character that sadly seems to be little more than a gangster’s moll.

But we won’t know until October whether Runner Runner is any good or not – so let’s take a look instead at some of the issues raised in this unapologetically sensationalised thriller.

Online poker ‘back doors’

Runner Runner gambling

Is it theoretically possible to hack an online poker site? Well, yes, in the same way that it’s theoretically possible to hack a bank, or a government – if it’s online, it’s probably potentially hackable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

These are sites that handle millions of dollars (or euros, or pounds) in financial transactions; unusual betting patterns will be automatically flagged up, and accounts can typically be frozen, at least while an investigation is carried out.

Multi-layered security protects the random number generators used, as well as the software turning those random numbers into virtual cards on a screen – and the banking is typically separate from the rest of the site too, making sure money is kept safe.

Runner Runner’s ‘back door’ premise is like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, or The Lord of the Rings’ eagles – a quick and easy get-out that advances the plot, but isn’t necessarily the most fact-based part of the storyline.

Gaming without borders

Do all online poker operators live on yachts moored at their own private island? Perhaps not – and those that do probably do so purely because they can afford to, not because they have anything to hide.

It is true that online gambling websites that accept US members are often not based in the US with Costa Rica being a popular destination for operators. But for any online gambling operator that doesn’t accept US players, the choice of location is often not about dodging the regulatory system – it’s usually just a case of paying lower taxes. In many cases, these offshore jurisdictions that have become havens for online gambling operators have developed respected, stringent regulatory structures to ensure games are run fairly and winnings paid out in accordance with the law.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, commonly referred to as UIGEA, has been compared to the prohibition of alcohol for its controversial attempt to block online gambling in the US – and it was not until March 2013 that 888 Holdings became the first operator to receive a licence to run online gambling activities in the US.

With a more welcoming legal system to be found offshore, and the chance of lower taxes in island jurisdictions, it is little wonder that many operators are not located within the continental United States.

It’s worth noting, too, that many sites were quick to stop accepting US-based customers and transactions when the Act was passed, without the need for dogged pursuit by the FBI or any other American law enforcement agency, as depicted in Runner Runner.

Catch me if you can

Runner Runner FBI

At this point, let’s take a moment to consider the case of Calvin Ayre – not that we’re suggesting Affleck’s character is based on him, but some of the events in Runner Runner bring to mind Ayre’s experiences in recent years.

His run-ins with the US government earned Ayre a place on the cover of Forbes, with the caption ‘Catch me if you can’, which has now become infamous in the publication’s history.

Ayre’s Costa Rica home demonstrates the high stakes at play in online poker – and its appearance on MTV’s Cribs perfectly indicates how the most successful online players achieve celebrity status. In 2006, the property was raided, and in 2012 Ayre was indicted, although we’ve yet to see anything come of that; the case dates back to before UIGEA was introduced, and has been criticised by Ayre as a profit-making exercise, so it’s likely to run and run before any kind of final resolution is achieved.

All of this is fairly ‘by the by’, and nobody’s saying Runner Runner is biographical of any period in Ayre’s life; it’s just interesting to note the parallels between the two, and wonder if real life had any influence in the mind of the screenwriter for this movie.

Liar Liar?

Does a James Bond lifestyle await those who are able to win big at online poker, as Runner Runner seems to suggest?

Well, if you mean tuxedos and land-based casino tournaments, yes, certainly you can expect to be invited to a few of those if you establish a decent online reputation. If you mean island hideouts and feeding your enemies to crocodiles, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Runner Runner is, after all, entertainment for the movie going public, and not a documentary about the online gambling industry – and it is fairest to think of it as fiction, rather than lies.

This is nothing new, and the gambling industry has been painted in a fairly negative light plenty of times in the past, so perhaps Runner Runner’s outlandish plot is to be welcomed, as few who go to see this film are likely to walk away believing they have just witnessed a true story.