Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine

Trust Me, I'm a Quiz Master

by Conrad Brunner |  Published: Jan 01, 2007

There comes a time when I just have to give the advice, "Don't play on PokerStars." Naturally, this kind of recommendation goes against the grain. In fact, if I repeated those words frequently and publicly, I would quickly be looking for another job. But I like to think that PokerStars has a good understanding of its customers' needs, and that includes a degree of straight-talking where necessary. For example, if you wish to play in the big game on PokerStars (the $200-$400 limit game), you will receive a personal phone call from Lee Jones before you are allowed to play, just to put you in the picture and make sure you understand everything involved with poker at that level.

So, why would anyone working for PokerStars advise customers to look elsewhere? Well, the only issue where that might be necessary is with "bad-beat" e-mail. Like any online cardroom, PokerStars receives occasional e-mail from players who have received what they consider to be more than their fair share of unlucky cards. "It's rigged," "RiverStars," "He only had two cards to hit" … you know, that kind of thing. Anyone who has played poker understands the frustrations expressed, and we deal with the complaints sympathetically but also analytically. For instance, we explain the complexities of the shuffle and we analyse the player's recent hand history. For example, if you lose with a pair of aces, we can show exactly how many hands you have won or lost while holding A-A, going back weeks, months, or years. The success or failure of this hand tends to even out over time. Overall, the support team goes the distance to explain that unusual cards and brutal downward swings are part of poker, whether played online or in a brick-and-mortar cardroom. I think that, on the whole, they manage to be respectful of the players' concerns while presenting the hard evidence.

Another key element in responding to bad-beat e-mail - the ultimate rebuttal, in my opinion - is the existence of the PokerStars hand histories. PokerStars has kept a log of every real-money hand ever played on its site. Players can download their recent hand histories automatically from the site, or they can contact support and request a full, lifetime hand history, should they wish. That means that every hand PokerStars has ever dealt is "out there" and subject to analysis. It is free information that players and computer science geeks can pour over and process as much as they like. Despite numerous attempts, not one person - after five years of poker, amounting to around 8 billion poker hands - has responded with a shred of evidence to suggest that the random-card generator on PokerStars is anything other than 100 percent fair, and honest.

If, after the umpteenth bad-beat e-mail, and after all reasonable explanations have been made and sympathy offered, the customer still feels the victim of some wrongdoing, we then recommend he look elsewhere for his online entertainment. This is how a colleague of mine recently ended a long bad-beat correspondence:

"If you'd like to get a mathematician to run a more complete analysis, we would be happy to send you every hand you've ever played. An analysis of not just the few expected bad beats (which will always happen - you should be worried about the shuffle if they do not happen!), but of all your hands, would aid you in being as confident as we are in the randomness of our shuffle.

"I can't make you play on PokerStars, and if you're uncomfortable playing here, of course you should play elsewhere. But please understand that there's nothing about the dealing of the games here that's unusual or nefarious. Wherever you choose to play, I wish you the best of luck."

In the weird world of online poker, trust is a key element, and if the customer thinks that in some way that element is missing, it would be better for both parties to go their separate ways.

Talking of trust, I recently had the honour of being the "quiz master" at my daughters' school parents quiz night. I am a big fan of general knowledge quizzes, and have entered a ton of pub quiz nights in London, with mostly pretty ordinary results. I like the challenge and the community element, and my only problem with these events is the level of honesty I have come to expect from the participants.

I once attended a high-profile charity quiz that was attended by upper-middle-class, highly educated, and media-savvy West Londoners, with TV presenter Anne Robinson (The Weakest Link) kindly offering her services as the quiz master. I don't think I have ever been in a room with so many top-class graduates and leaders of industry, and the standard of questions was way above my head. The contribution I was making to my team was so negligible, I don't think anyone minded too much when I popped out for a quick break. Once outside the quiz room, I noticed a handful of London's finest, all wearing smart suits that suggested six-figure salaries, also loitering outside the hall. Mobile phones, which had been banned from the quiz room, for obvious reasons, were quickly pressed into service to "ask a friend" for answers to some of the trickier questions. I believe the technical term for this kind of behaviour is "cheating."

Even at the school quiz night, where the prize was maybe a bottle of cheap sherry for the winning team, there was some breathtaking dishonesty and quite a lot of plain bad manners. As the quiz reached its final round and tension was mounting between two rival teams, a potentially decisive question came up: "If you take a train from Hammersmith & City underground station all the way to the end of the line, which station would you arrive at?"

As soon as I asked the question, one player put down his pen, got up, and walked over to his bag at the side of the room in order to look up the answer in his Filofax. Is that kind of behaviour really in the spirit of a parents quiz night? Is getting the right answer ("Barking," by the way) so important that you would blatantly cheat in front of your peers?

I enjoyed being quiz master - having all the answers written down in front of you is incredibly empowering - but I did leave longing for the respectful decorum and transparent honesty of my weekly poker game. spade

Conrad Brunner is head of communications, Europe, at