The vouching system, which the poker community uses to conduct almost all of its business, is ripe for scamming. I made a post about this once before, but it was a bit schizophrenic and poorly argued. The Jose Macedo scandal and this thread in HSNL have reminded me of my thoughts on the subject, so I decided to dust off the old blog and give you guys a patented (though uncharacteristically hastily written) NSD rant on the subject:
The fact that someone once managed to avoid screwing someone over when he had the chance doesn’t mean that he won’t screw over the next guy. A vouch is sort of helpful in that you learn that someone is capable of not scamming and perhaps less likely to scam, but it doesn’t come close to guaranteeing your safety. This is of course evidenced by the tons of people who have scammed, cheated, or robbed people after a long period of interacting with the poker world without scamming, cheating, or robbing anybody.
Circumstances can change in all sorts of ways that can make someone who didn’t scam, cheat, or rob someone else decide to scam, cheat, or rob you. Maybe the person doesn’t screw over his friends but is perfectly okay with screwing over a stranger. Maybe he specifically doesn’t like you. Maybe he’s in a bad mood today. Maybe the idea hadn’t occurred to him before, or maybe his views on what’s acceptable changed.
And, of course, maybe he just lost money. Obviously the single most common reason that someone in the poker world scams, cheats, or robs someone else is because he just lost money. The gambling world is full of people who have much less money than everyone thinks, are used to a really expensive lifestyle, and feel that they deserve more money than they have. (In fact, that’s almost everyone in the poker world…) That’s the type of person who might be willing to exchange some integrity for some money.
This isn’t just some theoretical problem. Changing circumstances have struck repeatedly. There are lots of examples of people in the poker world who were perfectly ethical and reputable until they weren’t.
To be clear, this problem is inherent in the vouching system and cannot be solved. Every time that anyone uses a vouch to make a decision, he should recognize the very significant risk of changing circumstances. The rest of my post deals with problems that can be fixed, but the main point I want to get across is that the vouching system is inherently flawed. This flaw is a much larger issue than the various nitpicks below.
Vouches that say nothing mean nothing
When you do use a vouch, only use vouches that actually say something.
The typical vouch is as boring as “I vouch for him,” and this statement is thrown around so casually that it basically means “I’ve spoken to this person before, and I didn’t think he was the worst person I ever met.” (In the case of Jose, it’s still not clear whether all of the people who vouched for him had actually spoken to him and not Haseeb Qureshi.) In spite of this, people risk huge amounts of money based on this simple statement.
A much more reasonable thing to say is “Well, I’ve never done any business with him, but I know the guy” or “I’ve done transfers with him, but he always sends first” or “I’ve staked this guy, done transfers with him, and loaned him lots of money with no problems. Many transactions in which I trusted him with over $100k went fine.” This type of information is actually legitimately helpful and allows the person receiving the information to make an informed assessment.
Often, when you force yourself to put some detail into your vouch, you’ll realize just how meaningless it actually is. I know that more than a few times I’ve excitedly said “Sure, I’ll vouch for you!” and then realized that I was about to encourage someone to trust lots of money to a person because that person had gotten my Skype screen name somehow.
A saint’s friend isn’t a saint.
Vouches based on friendship provide almost no information, but people often think that they do. It’s pretty common for people to vouch by saying “I talk to him all the time” or “I’ve known him since high school” or something similar as a vouch. Even people who are really reluctant to vouch in general will typically hand these types of vouches out to close friends.
I realize that when you’re close with someone, you start to trust them. I obviously have close friends, and I obviously trust them a lot. That’s natural, and it’s a wonderful part of being human and interacting with other people. (The reason that this works out okay is because almost all people are incredibly trustworthy in almost all situations and most people don’t regularly give their friends chances to screw them over in ways that they would even consider. The poker world is a huge exception, of course.)
However, pretty much everyone has a really close friend, and most scammers, cheaters, and thieves don’t come from the rare subset of people who don’t (though some certainly do). So, having a really close friend doesn’t make someone trustworthy. Whether or not that friend is a poker player–or, indeed, whether or not the friend is trustworthy himself–doesn’t change that. So, when you learn that someone is close friends with someone else, be very happy for them of course, but don’t use this as evidence that they’re going to behave with integrity.
And, of course, this argument is bourne out by the facts. Lots of close friends of members of the poker world have gone on to scam, rob, or cheat. Jose Macedo is just the latest example.
It’s hard not to vouch for someone.
When someone asks for someone to vouch for him, it’s difficult to turn him down. There are tons of people in the poker world who don’t have an established reputation but vaguely know someone who does. If they ask their reputable acquaintance for a vouch, it’s pretty damn hard for him to say no.
Often those vouches simply say “I vouch for him,” which obviously ends up being deceptive. Even when they’re more descriptive, they often embellish a bit to be nice: “I’ve never done any trades with him, but he seems like a good guy.” That type of vouch is obviously designed to simply be nice to someone who’s asking for a favor, but it risks being read as “This person is trustworthy.” (Admittedly, I write these all the time.)
Vouchers should not be responsible for their vouchee.
A commonly proposed solution to the many problems with vouching is to make the voucher responsible for any losses that result from his vouch. I hate this idea.
This proposal is based on the flawed idea that someone can vouch for anybody with perfect confidence. Given the fact that nobody can know what’s in another person’s head and that past performance does not guarantee future results, nobody can do this. So, rational people of integrity simply would never vouch for anyone if this rule were enforced in the community.
Plus, I have a problem with any system that’s as easily scammable as this. Assuming that people were naive enough to vouch for friends of theirs under this set of rules, any friend who was deemed worthy of a vouch could steal any amount of money by simply finding a partner, asking for a vouch, and then having the partner claim that he was robbed.
So that’s my rant. I know I’ve agreed to write up some more of Life as a Poker Pro. I still would like to do that, but Subject: Poker is a huge time commitment, as is being a human being, so I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I haven’t forgotten about it, though, and I know that a lot of you are waiting for it.