When Veronica Brill first went public a year ago with her accusations that Mike Postle had been cheating in the Stones Live games, Brendan I. Koerner, a contributing editor for WIRED, was completely oblivious to the poker world.
Over the 10 months that followed, following a phone call from a source from a previous gambling story he had written, Koerner immersed himself in the scandal that had taken a small live-streamed game in Northern California and put it front and center. The fruits of his labor hit newsstands and the web this week under the title “The Cheating Scandal That Ripped the Poker World Apart”.
The article includes all kinds of details, some of which the poker community learned for the first time as they scrolled their way down the online article or turned the pages of the magazine, but not everything Koerner learned made it to print. Some were left out for legal reasons while others were edited out for brevity. Everything started with that phone call from a Las Vegas-based casino security consultant pointing him in the direction of Brill and Postle for the first time.
“I started looking into it and at first, I thought it’d be a pretty black and white, pretty straightforward story about this person was cheating and someone called him out and that it would be pretty cut and dried,” Koerner said. “The more I looked at it and the more I talked to people, I realized there were really shades of gray in the story and a lot of nuance and detail that made it really compelling as a sprawling narrative and really a story about two characters. It’s what we call in the business, a two-hander – which is basically a two-character drama.”
Koerner thought there was enough intrigue and drama that he took the story to his editors at WIRED, where he has been writing for the better part of 18 years. Knowing that the poker community was putting together a case against Postle using data was a good enough hook for the WIRED team to give Koerner the greenlight to pursue the story.
“The fact that there’s such a strong analytics component to it and that basically there’s no accomplice that has come forward to say, “I helped Mike Postle do this”, it’s really based on the circumstantial evidence of analytics and looking at the math and people asking, “Does this make sense? What’s within the realm of the possible when it comes to the plays being done here?” I feel that really taps into the same kind of mindset that a lot of WIRED readers have (which) is viewing the world through data can provide to us all kinds of information that can give us a view from a distance,” Koerner said.
Since Thanksgiving of last year, Koerner has been chasing down every angle of this story and talking to as many people involved as possible, including Brill, Postle, Justin Kuraitis, and others. He also had to learn as much as he could about poker in a short time frame.
“Because I am a poker neophyte, I really had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed. A lot of times that just meant after putting my kids to bed at night, going to my desk and just watching a couple hours of hands just to understand what’s going on,” said Koerner.
Writing for an audience that may not be well versed in poker also gave Koerner a challenge. He needed to explain some of the basics – as simple as the rules of Hold’em – while also introducing Game Theory Optimal and making it make sense in one or two paragraphs. Learning and simplifying some of the more complex parts of poker were just a small part of the story and the more time Koerner spent learning, the more the story changed.
“What I originally conceived was pretty different than I think what it ended up being. I think that I, especially as I did have more conversations with Mike Postle in particular to get to know his character a little bit better, my conception of how to structure the piece changed,” Koerner said.
While Postle seemed to have gone into hiding following his appearance on Mike Matusow’s podcast last October, Koerner was able to stay in contact with him and spoke with him multiple times.
“He kind of faded in and out of my life between March and August, essentially. We had some very extended, sometimes contentious conversations. There were certainly aspects of my reporting he did not appreciate, that he was actually pretty fired up about. There were times when he was incredibly cordial,” Koerner said.
At multiple points throughout the process, Postle promised Koerner that he would provide evidence that would exonerate him and show details of a conspiracy he claimed was created by his enemies. That evidence was never made available.
“In the end, he not only didn’t provide that evidence but, as I say in the story, he did not even answer the detailed fact-checking questions we sent to him. That is, in my experience having done this for 20 years, highly unusual for someone to not even respond to fact-checking questions,” Koerner said.
While any scandal is going to provide salacious details, Koerner was intrigued and his writing was driven by the two main characters, Postle and Brill, and the destruction of what was once a fairly strong friendship was an important piece of the narrative.
“I don’t think I’ve ever come across or rarely come across two people who genuinely loathe each other as much as these two. There’s just such bad blood between them,” Koerner said. “So I feel like the dynamic between them, these former friends who actually have life stories that share some similarities, that for there to be such toxicity in their relationship now, to me, is really interesting.”
While Koerner went into great detail about those two main characters and some of the other players on either side of the scandal, there was one key figure that he wasn’t able to track down or even identify that left him wanting more. John – or Jane – Doe, named as such in the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Brill and more than 80 others.
“If there was an accomplice, who was it? I was definitely given some names of people and just cold-called. There was one person in particular I was given a name by some former Stones Live people that they thought it was this one particular person. I just went through an online directory and called every single person with that name in the 916 area code trying to find them. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t do that,“ Koerner admitted.
That frustration was so strong for Koerner, that earlier drafts detailed his pursuit of the potential John Doe accomplice. That part of the story didn’t make his final cut and Koerner thinks that the recent settlement of the lawsuit means that person’s identity will likely remain hidden forever.
Getting Justin Kuraitis, the Stones tournament director who was also responsible for the Stones Live livestream, to talk also proved to be a difficult task for Koerner. During his reporting, Koerner learned that after allegations surfaced, Kuraitis called Andrew Milner, the creator of the graphics system used to display hole cards on the livestream, to ask if he was aware of any vulnerabilities that could be exploited by Postle or others.
“If he was in on it, I don’t know if he would have made that phone call. It’s possible, but I just found that curious,” Koerner said. “I also heard from someone else in the poker community that there was some soul searching on Justin’s part, but Justin basically didn’t comment to me, just sent me a link to a RounderLife story, which basically accused Veronica of concocting the whole thing to make herself famous.”
Speaking with Milner gave Koerner a crash course in the security protocols for livestreamed poker games. The technology angle of the story was another reason why WIRED pursued the story. He had a very different outlook once he saw Stones in person.
“It was interesting to see, just on the ground, how little security that they had. It really reminds me that security is only as strong as its weakest link in the chain. So you could have signals that are encrypted and so no one can pick them up and de-encrypt them in real time, but if anyone can walk into the control room and look at it i real time and us text the information, that kind of subverts the whole rationale for having strong encryptions,” Koerner said.
Once the settlement, which included the statement from Mac Verstandig, the lawyer representing Brill and 80 others, which said they found no evidence of cheating by Stones or Kuraitis, became public, Kuraitis went on a social media victory lap and Koerner could only watch and wonder exactly what the strategy was.
“I would say that if I was a PR person at Stones or wherever handles Stones’ communications or legal policy, I would be tearing my hair out. It was not a good communication strategy for him to basically get on Twitter and just invite more attention,” Koerner said. The timing was also something that Koerner found suspicious.
“(Kuraitis) did it on September 15 and Mike Postle had reached out to me several days before and asked me when the story was going to run. I didn’t know at that time what the run date was, but I told him “on or around September 15”. So a big piece of me wonders if he did that to get ahead of the story,” Koerner said.
The WIRED story isn’t the only non-poker media coverage that this story will be getting. An independent production company based out of Los Angeles headed by Dave Broome, 257 Productions, is working on a documentary. The poker community has been skeptical about the project and it appears they’re not alone.
“(Broome) is a guy who’s very accomplished in the world of Hollywood. I had some questions about the documentary that I’ve not necessarily gotten satisfactory answers about,” Koerner said. “Myself having recently helped produce a documentary, I know that the way that was done and I’m curious to see how this is going to be done. I would like to have another conversation with Dave Broome to clarify some of the questions I have about it.”
The recently announced settlement and the statement that accompanied it came as a surprise to many in the poker world, but Koerner was aware that the lawsuit was heading in that direction as far back as mid-summer.
“Clearly, those who defend Postle and say no cheating goes on, to them it’s vindication. To others, it doesn’t change the equation at all and I think does raise some questions about whether the filing of the lawsuit may have actually complicated the pursuit of truth in the first place,” Koerner said.
Whether or not that documentary ends up streaming on Netflix, as Broome has told people, or not, the future of the case remains murky. A group of poker players, led by Phil Galfond, are attempting to transcribe and catalogue every hand Postle played on the stream in hopes of showing that the likelihood he didn’t cheat is just a few decimal places away from zero.
“The plaintiffs who did not sign the settlement, they would have to go out and find a new lawyer and refile. It’s tough to foresee that happening, to be honest. There’s a lot of expense that goes into that,” Koerner said. “Clearly, California gaming laws are not very amenable to this kind of civil action, which is probably something that the plaintiff’s attorney should have known about before filing. So it’s tough to see a civil remedy here.”
It’s also unlikely that any sort of criminal action is going to come from this, according to Koerner. While rumors of a grand jury have never been confirmed by anybody, Koerner learned that the California DOJ did look into the case – but not necessarily the complaints against Postle or even Stones.
“From what I gathered from those who spoke to the California DOJ, the California DOJ was most interested in ‘did anyone defraud Stones?’ So with that not being the issue, their interest seemed to wane,” Koerner said. “At the same time, I was told the investigation is ongoing and that’s why I was not able to use public information requests to get investigative files.”
“So, it’s possible there is still an open case on this, but I would say that the DOJ looking at defrauding of other players, that’s a tricky investigation and probably ultimately too little money involved to really make it worth their while. The proverbial bigger fish to fry,” Koerner said.
The story is now on newsstands now and while Koerner believes the potential for any sort of actual justice appears to be fading away, doesn’t mean that he is done with the story. He hopes to follow up over the coming months in particular detailing more about Postle and, hopefully, John or Jane Doe. The initial reaction to the story has shown both Koerner and WIRED that there’s an appetite for more.
“I would assume very few of our readers are really experienced poker players, I mean some of the mare, but it’s probably a pretty small percentage,” Koerner said. “But the story’s been getting a lot of readership. We can see the metrics online. It’s been really gratifying to see it be the most popular story right now on the site for the second day running.”