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Poker News | Casino Poker | Tournament Reports Grinch Steals Christmas Prize Money

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When the last thing the internet poker industry needs is another black eye, steps forward to deliver. After years of arguing with friends and family that the funds in online poker sites are as safe as bank deposits, one of the major players in the internet poker world proves me wrong. has taken thousands of dollars out of the accounts of winners of a Christmas tournament, citing an "error" that made them pay out too much money for a tournament that was supposed to be mainly prize-based. Instead, tournament winners expected and were paid out over $19,000, only to wake up later and find their money gone.

On December 16, held a $20 + $2 Christmas tournament, called The Big Christmas Tourney. The information in the tournament lobby said that it was a $19,000 guaranteed tournament, meaning that no matter how many people registered the prize pool would be at least $19,000. Additionally, the winner would receive a high-definition television worth $2,000; second place would receive a PokerRoom home poker kit worth $489, and third through tenth would receive a travel poker kit worth $149.

Only 265 people registered, producing a large overlay and increasing the attractiveness of the tournament. An overlay occurs when the guaranteed prize pool is greater than the amount of money put into the prize pool by all the registered players. For example, if a tournament has a guaranteed prize pool of $100,000 and a $1,000 entry fee, then the tourney needs 100 entrants to meet the prize pool guarantee. If 90 players register, then there is a $10,000 overlay.

These kinds of overlays are common on smaller sites or holiday weekends. The Pokerstars Sunday million for Christmas Eve had a massive overlay as well, nearly $175,000 in overlay for the 4,125 players who signed up. Pokerstars didn't blink at the overlay, simply paid out the money up to the $1 Million guarantee that was announced in the tournament lobby. Full Tilt scaled back their Christmas Eve tourney to a $300,000 guarantee, but still paid the $23,000 overlay without batting an eye. These sites understand that while a bluff is a bluff, all gamblers consider their word to be worth more than gold, and they stood up for their word.

Well, didn't quite stand up to their word with their Big Christmas Tourney. They paid out the $19,000 in guaranteed prize money, but when they realized that someone had made a mistake about the payout structure, they went into players' accounts and took the money back. Yep, it's worse by far than not paying out what they had announced. went into the accounts of the winners and took the money out without notifying them ahead of time and with no recourse for the players.

The "error" in question was in listing the tournament as a guaranteed $19,000 prize pool and paying out accordingly. According to, it was not their intent to make the tournament a cash guarantee, even though it was listed as such in the tourney lobby. So instead of honoring the implicit agreement they made by describing the payouts in the tourney lobby, they decided to go take back the money they had already paid to the winners of the tournament.

The following is a response to a player from support. With regards to your query, as stated before in the previous emails, the tournament was advertised on the lobby tournament information incorrectly. There was around $15 000 added to the pot by a technical error on our side and we do apologise for the inconvenience caused due to this. The funds that was paid in access was [sic] removed as part of the rules set out in our terms of service.

Because this was a mistake made from our side the amount we have removed does
not include the buy in of the tournament ($22) which is a goodwill gesture from
us for any inconvenience caused. If you were in the top ten of the tournament
you will of course still receive your merchandise prize as stated on the
promotional page for this tournament and we have also added $100 to your account
as a token of appreciation.

Tournament winner "Zander" was to receive a $2,000 High Definition TV in addition to his prize money. "Like many, I played in this tournament because of the overlay. I received $3,829.81 and a voucher for a TV. Then an email explaining that my payment should have been $404.75. Goodbye 3,425.06." Zander was later sent a $2,000 payment to be applied to his purchase of a TV, but has received none of his prize money, despite the admission of error from the site. representatives, both in technical support emails in posts on their forum, continue to hold to the statement that the tournament was not announced ahead of time as a guaranteed tournament, but the screen captures that several players saved clearly show the tournament lobby announcing the tournament as a $19,000.00 guaranteed prize pool. has as yet shown no interest in refunding the monies taken from players' accounts or any real damage control on this serious PR issue, which raises the ever-present spectre of "is my money safe?"

What responsibility do the sites have to honor their guarantees? What recourse do players have when something like this happens? The responsibility is that of ethical business practices and truth in advertising, but those laws and mores change from locale to locale, and there may be no regulations in place in the country where a site is located to enforce truth in advertising. Depending again on the location of the site, players' options vary. is an eCOGRA (e-Commerce and Online Gambling Regulation and Assurance) approved site, which adheres to a set of auditing and self-regulatory standards. eCOGRA offers a mediation process by which players may file grievances against a site and eCOGRA will work with the player and the site to attempt to mediate a solution.

Since this is a voluntary organization and gambling sites have little to be gained by being members, other than a type of "seal of approval" from eCOGRA that the site engages in fair business practices, there is little in the way of enforcement that eCOGRA can do, other than revoke the approval if there is sufficient cause.

More effective is the ability to file claims with the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, the licensing body for internet gambling in North America. For an Internet Casino to be legal, it should be licensed in the country where it or its' web servers physically reside in, and have to report to the local government to some extent. The Kahnawake Gaming Commission in Canada provides this physical server location for many online sites, including
The Kahnawake Commission website has an online complaint form for players to file grievances about sites. It is unclear what actions the Commission would take in this case, but their powers are broad, including the ability to remove the site form their servers. More likely, if the Commission chose to get involved, it would simply pressure the site to live up to its guarantees.

For years, I and most other internet players have argued that our money is safe in online poker sites. And for the most part, this is true. Most sites, like Pokerstars and Full Tilt Poker, have stellar reputations for living up to their word and protecting their players. Occasionally, though, someone will come along and do something so egregiously stupid as to give the entire industry a black eye when what it needs more than anything is clear, above-board, ethical behavior on the part of all sectors of the industry.

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