Editor’s Note: The following post is Part II of our UltimateBet super-user cheating scandal series. To reread Part I, go here. We will continue to update this post with new information/clarification as it is made available to us.
With the help of Greg Pierson’s team, and specifically a contractor who built the cheating tool that internally became known as going into “God Mode,” Russ Hamilton was now capable of stealing money from friends, business partners, and high-stakes pros on UltimateBet.
In Part I, we detailed the UltimateBet backstory and the “how” phase–as in, how did Russ Hamilton create a super-user tool that eventually caused the biggest scandal in online poker history.
In Part II, after talking to nearly a dozen sources, we will complete the “how” phase, as well as discuss the when and the where.
Unfortunately, until Russ Hamilton frankly and finally discusses the scandal, we may never know the “why?”
How Hamilton Cheated
“He knows it. He called me up, and took my money three or four times a week…” – Mike Matusow to RawVegas.tv, March 5, 2009
It started around the summer of 2003 and continued through December 2007.
From what we’ve learned, two basic patterns formed as to how Hamilton cheated.
First, Russ Hamilton, almost brazenly, would contact a poker pro or business associate to play him heads-up on UltimateBet. Before Full Tilt Poker became the place for nosebleed action, UltimateBet was where the biggest online cash games were played, so getting unsuspecting pros to his site wasn’t difficult.
If a pro was cash strapped, no problem. Hamilton would transfer a player money to battle heads-up, then win that money outright. Add it to the tab.
This is what happened to one of the few pros who has gone on-the-record about Hamilton’s cheating–Mike “The Mouth” Matusow.
Appearing on the Hardcore Poker Show in February of 2009, Matusow dished on his losses to Hamilton, most of which occurred in late 2005.
“This man would call me to play him head-up. I would ship $50,000, $50,000, $50,000. All the money I won when I won the ‘05 World Series Main Event, when I got to the final table and when I won the Tournament of Champions, I gave all to Russ to put on UB while he was playing me head-up and stealing it from me…” Matusow continued, “The two people that got beat the most was Prahlad Friedman and me…What [Russ] did to him was just brutal.”
Prahlad Friedman was “durrrr” before Tom Dwan. He was isildur1 before Viktor Blom–if isildur1 was actually a winning player, that is.
Prahlad was the first online poker God.
And then Russ Hamilton cleaned him out.
What happened to Prahlad fits pattern number two–where Russ had anonymous accounts created for him, which he’d then use to eviscerate the bankroll of people like Friedman–known online at the time as “Spirit Rock” and “Mahatma.”
Friedman discussed his losses with Gary Wise on ESPN.com last year:
“I remember days where I’d be up $50,000 and then I’d play some random guy and he’d kill me. I’d just play and play and play and not quit a guy. I never did that. I would give them 10 buy-ins because I had so much confidence and felt I could adapt to the way they were playing. Occasionally I’d win a huge pot on a hero call. That was tough for me. I was doing so well, was on top of the world and then hit that rough patch. I figured it was variance. Variance happens.”
“After losing so much, it took a while to get my confidence back. I had a style that fit me really well.”
Other pros we spoke with discussed the psychological damage Russ’ cheating caused them. Watching their bankroll get demolished playing a style of game that had won them millions had a long-term effect on their future results. These players ended up trying to fix leaks in their game that didn’t exist. As one pro told us, “If I could’ve sued Russ for what he did to my game, I would. It messed up my game for awhile.”
Account Openings and Money Movement
If you’re Russ Hamilton, and you have the access to go into “God Mode” and cheat people out of millions on your online poker site, are you going to involve many people, including pros on the circuit, or are you going to keep the circle or loop as closed as possible? After all, loose lips sink ships.
Hamilton appears to have gone with the latter.
With Fraud Managers Like You…
Meet UltimateBet’s former Fraud Manager, Carolyn Heick1.
Carolyn worked for Greg Pierson at ieLogic. It was through this working relationship that she first met Russ.
When UltimateBet needed to open a customer service office in Costa Rica, Russ convinced Carolyn to do so. She even moved her family there.
According to our sources, Carolyn was the individual mostly responsible for creating cheating accounts, changing usernames, moving money, and processing withdrawals.
For moving money and processing withdrawals, Carolyn may have been assisted by long-time Hamilton friend, Bonnie Leinhos (more on Bonnie below).
As one source put it, there is “no doubt” these two women assisted Hamilton in his cheating endeavors.
While many claim Russ is a cheat and a scoundrel, nobody we spoke to thinks he’s stupid. He likely knew that to keep his cheating going without being detected, he’d need more accounts, and more accounts specifically not linked to him and his name.
Carolyn seems to have obliged in helping Russ do so. In total, approximately 23 accounts and 117 usemames were established and linked to cheating. According to sources, in almost every case, these accounts can directly be traced to Carolyn Heick and Russ Hamilton in some way.
Internal evidence at UB even shows that accounts such as h_curtis, which many (including us) naturally assumed belonged to UBT producer Houston Curtis, was created by Carolyn Heick and used by Russ Hamilton.
23 accounts. 117 usernames. $22 million dollars. Where did it all go?
How The Money Was Moved
Bonnie Leinhos is old-school Vegas. She’s been around the gaming scene for years. At one point during poker’s early boom, she was Tournament Director for the Four Queens Poker Classic event. She knew Russ for awhile, and they were and still are tight. Bonnie was even Tournament Director for UB’s Aruba Poker Classic–before she was let go for allegedly pocketing tournament chips.
Still an avid circuit player, we were able to confront Bonnie on her alleged involvement in the scandal right after her cash in 2010 WSOP Event #27.
She told us that she “had two accounts” on UltimateBet, neither of which were implicated in the cheating scandal. Bonnie claimed that she “…never opened an account [for Russ], ever.” When we continued to question if she opened accounts for Russ, she said that it was “impossible” for her to do so. She claimed she knew of Carolyn Heick but did not really know her, and that she hadn’t seen another close Hamilton associate, Travis Makar (more on him shortly), in “at least two years.”
While Bonnie may not have opened accounts for Russ–it turns out she was closely tied to one important aspect of the scandal.
Bonnie was listed as Director of Tour Operations and Affiliates for the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, another Russ Hamilton business endeavor.
The September 2009 KGC report stated that, “The Commission found clear and convincing evidence to support the conclusion that between the approximate dates of May 2004 to January 2008, Russell Hamilton, an individual associated with Ultimate Bet’s affiliate program, was the main person responsible for and benefiting from the multiple cheating incidents.”
More clearly put, UBT had an affiliate relationship with UltimateBet before the scandal (it has since been ceased). Bonnie Leinhos was UBT’s affiliate manager. Money was moved from cheating accounts to the UBT affiliate. So if she didn’t know where all of this money was coming from, she should’ve known.
Other players’ accounts were tied to money movement as well.
Freddy Deeb2 has at times been mentioned as a super-user. While there is no current evidence to back those claims, Freddy may have unknowingly been used by Russ to move money around.
According to sources, Deeb had “excessive” transfers from cheating usernames to his account. Approximately $4.5 million was shifted from Russ personally to Deeb and another $325k in transfers from other cheating accounts.
In the older UltimateBet days, Freddy was a guy who did a lot of money transferring to other players. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for players on all sites to do this. But it’s worth noting that there is no evidence to support that Freddy had any knowledge that the money being transferred to and through him was dirty.
Another name tied to money transferring is Lyle Berman. According to sources, a total of $4.1 million was transferred to Lyle from two different accounts (a Hamilton account and a Deeb account, specifically).
However, the reason for Lyle’s transfers are likely tied to the World Poker Tour–a company he co-founded–and the aforementioned UB Aruba Poker Classic.
It can be assumed that over the course of a couple of years, Hamilton transferred money to Berman for WPT sponsorship payments, buy-ins, and other expenses tied to the event.
Like Deeb, there is no evidence to support Berman knew any of the monies involved in transfers was dirty. Lyle himself is not linked to any cheating accounts, and in fact had accounts that were cheated significantly.
So the Lyle money transfers were likely tied to the the Aruba tournament–an event that always had rumors of shadiness surrounding it. Multiple sources claimed that if the event was short on players, Russ “could find ways” to get a lot more participants there–a good thing considering it was one of the biggest parties on the circuit.
The way money was flowing in the early and less regulated online poker days, most people probably didn’t think twice to question where these large sums and transfers were coming from. Why bother? Life was good. Poker was booming. People were getting rich.
The House of Cards Falls with NioNio
Eli Bajayo3 was a friend of Russ’ in Costa Rica and an occasional circuit player, with a number of cashes in the late ’90’s.
Like many friends of Hamilton, Eli was cheated by one of Russ’ super-user accounts.
Unlike many friends of Hamilton, Eli had a teenage nephew who unknowingly became a central figure in the cheating scandal.
Haim Bajayo, Eli’s nephew, was a 13 year-old who lived in New York. At Russ’ request, Carolyn Heick set up an account in Haim’s name. This account came to be known as NioNio.
With the Absolute Poker scandal blowing up in late 2007, online railbirds and 2+2 forum posters were paying more attention to unusual activity on poker sites.
And there was almost no poker account with more unusual activity than NioNio.
On January 8, 2008, a 2+2 post was created discussing how some players on the high-stakes tables on UltimateBet were winning at unusually high rates playing less than “optimal” strategies.
Specifically, forum posters “trambopoline” and “dlpnyc21″ began reviewing their hand histories. Under examination, they determined that NioNio–the 13 year-old wunderkind who had no idea he may be the greatest online poker player in history–had managed to win over $300,000 in just 3,000 hands.
From there, mathmatician/poker pro Michael Josem created a chart (at right) comparing NioNio’s results against a large sample size of what would be considered “normal” accounts. As Josem told MSNBC, NioNio’s win rate was tantamount to “winning a one-in-a-million lottery on four consecutive days.”
What started as a post by Brett “Gank” Jungblut on PocketFives just a few weeks earlier (in which Gank stated that he had an internal UB source claiming there were “up to 25 usernames registered to 1 player’s name on UB”) quickly snowballed after Josem’s chart was released. Sleuths like Nat Arem and “Mookman” on 2+2 continued to dig up dirt. And what they found was increasingly similar to what Prahlad Friedman experienced with Hamilton’s second pattern of cheating: a new account would pop up, that account would crush it for a few sessions, and then that account would essentially never be heard from again. Then the same account would change usernames, reappear under the new handle, crush it for a few sessions, and go away.
23 accounts. 117 usernames. $22 million dollars.
Where Did The Cheating Take Place?
In the Gank PocketFives post (read in full here), Jungblut also noted that cheating occurred by players “registered to the same name and use [of] the same IP address…”
Some of the main cheating and transferring accounts–such as the infamous “Sleepless” and “NoPaddles”–were actually tied to a Las Vegas address at 1725 Glenview Drive. The owners of this property were none other than Russ and Carolyn Hamilton. The house was sold to them in May 2006 by a man named Travis Makar.
Who is Travis Makar?
In researching this story, no one really knows who Travis is. A few pros, such as Barry Greenstein, have confirmed that Travis was considered Russ’ “assistant” and “right-hand man.”
Travis, along with Russ, owned property directly linked IP addresses associated with cheating accounts.
And as noted on Donkdown here, Travis, his wife Lauren, and his mother Rebecca, were all linked to super-user accounts, including Sleepless (attributed specifically to Lauren).
Travis’ mom, Rebecca Makar, married Charles “Woody” Moore, who was another old-school close friend of Russ. Moore was part of the infamous Russ Hamilton roast, at which alleged super-user Dennis Novinskey was also in attendance. From what we can best surmise, Travis came to know Russ through his mom.
Travis owned a computer company called LVC of Nevada, Inc. This company may or may not have been a front for funneling cheating money, as the address of the store was located directly next to a check cashing operation. The company was at one time listed as doing nearly $500,000 in revenue. However, based on various research posted in forums and through public record searches, LVC of Nevada did no real business and had no real clients.
Travis at one time was also linked to be a software developer at UltimateBet. While some claim this to be 100% accurate, we have not been able to confirm the information.
In essence, Travis Makar is the Verbal Kent of the UltimateBet scandal. Nobody knows much about him, he’s been implicated to varying degrees (Hamilton has gone as far as to tell friends within the industry Travis was the mastermind behind the entire scandal), and as soon as the shit hit the fan with the scandal, Travis and Lauren got out of dodge and moved to St. George, Utah. No word if he straightened his limp foot out and glided into a full speed trot on the way.
Was It Just Russ?
As noted above, Russ has implicated Travis as a super-user. But was he really? And was anybody else?
One could assume that given Travis’ closeness to Russ as his “right-hand man,” and that Travis’ name is actually attached to cheating accounts, that he was in fact a super-user.
Problem is, as detailed with NioNio, just because someone’s name is attached to an account doesn’t necessarily mean they were a super-user.
There is some evidence that two long-time Hamilton friends who were part of the infamous Roast, Ron Saccavino and Dennis Novinsky, at least briefly had access to God Mode. They both played in the Aruba Poker Classic, and in 2006 their accounts FlipFlop2 (Saccavino) and Dannyboy55 (Novinsky) finished first and second in an online $1k satellite qualifier for seats to the tournament. That’s a huge coincidence. Was Russ (or Travis) with them using the cheating tool while they won their seats? That’s not a hard leap to make. Or did Russ just have some machines set up and won Saccavino and Novinsky seats on his own? That, actually, is a harder leap to make.
Early speculation as posted by Gank also implicated a UB administrator named Jeremy Day4 as a super-user. Jeremy was allegedly busted for using the tool in Costa Rica. He and his mother (Susanne Day, a General Manager at UB) were then subsequently fired. Susanne now lives in Montreal, close to where the Kahnawake Gaming Commission is located. However, we don’t have any specific account names linked to Jeremy (or Susanne) at this time.
Bottomline though, the list of people who had access and opportunity to go into God Mode was pretty slim.
We May Never Know All of the Details
Until more key players connected to Russ Hamilton and the early stages of UltimateBet’s founding, such as Greg Pierson, Jon Karl, Travis Makar, and Carolyn Heick, start talking about the super-user scandal, we may never know definitively who knew what when, and who kept things quiet.
What is clear is though is plenty of people should’ve known Russ was going into God Mode and moving around millions of dollars.
How could Greg Pierson not know something shady was going on with a tool he, along with Russ, had created? He was an owner of the company, after all.
And why hasn’t current PartyGaming CEO Jim Ryan5, who served as both CFO and CEO of CryptoLogic and Excapsa, respectively, never had to answer questions about the scandal? If you’re CFO/CEO of a company that’s moving millions of dollars around that was never accounted for, you’d have to know something about it, right?
So yes, the circle of people directly involved with the super-user cheating scandal was ultimately small. But the sphere of those who should’ve known, and have said nothing, is not.
There is certainly more information to come. People like Haley Hintze have been steady in their work uncovering information on the scandal and demanding the release of scandal-linked hand histories. These hand histories would surely open more clues (and perhaps close some doors as well). However, it’s also important to note that of the high-stakes players who have received their hand histories and refunds, none have found issue with the information or requested additional restitution.
And as we’ve neared publication of Part II, buzz is generating that other people who were in the know are going to step forward and start talking.
Ultimately, the more information that is out there, the more likely people will step forward and be forced to address how the scandal happened–and ensure nothing like it ever happens in online poker again.
1 – We attempted to reach Carolyn Heick for comment via multiple channels, and were informed she had “absolutely no interest” in discussing the story.
2 – Since publishing the story, many within the industry have stepped forward claiming they believe Freddy Deeb was more implicitly involved in the scandal. However, Deeb received refunded money from a cheating account. During the time of the scandal, sources have told us Freddy was “flat broke.” If he did know at some level that there was cheating going on at UltimateBet, he did not benefit from it at the time, and we have no other evidence to support he had any knowledge.
3- While some posit that Eli Bajayo was a super-user, there is no data we have found to support this, and Eli himself received a refund from a Russ Hamilton cheating account.
4- Jeremy Day’s super-user cheating was not connected to Russ Hamilton and “God Mode.” According to sources, Jeremy was able to manipulate an auditing tool similar to what occurred at Absolute Poker. His overall cheating was minimal in compared to the Russ Hamilton cheating–with estimates of money stolen anywhere from $50,000 – $350,000.
5- We attempted to contact Jim Ryan through multiple channels, including direct contact via email, and he never responded for comment.
Watch This Week In Poker today (here) with our guest, UB pro Joe Sebok. If you have a question for Joe about the UltimateBet super-user scandal, please ask now in comments below or live during the show in the Ustream chat or on Twitter.