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Top 10 under-the-radar poker controversies of the last decade

Phil Hellmuth got serious flak for speaking out of turn.

Phil Hellmuth got serious flak for speaking out of turn.

Poker is an inherently exhilarating game with a lot of ups and downs. Those who play it are often headstrong, resilient and temperamental. Naturally, when you put hundreds, sometimes thousands, of such players in the same room, tensions can run high.

Making matters more intense, if you promise these same players high-stakes, multi-million dollar prizes, incidents and controversies are bound to happen. With all of that in mind, keeping a cool head and a clear perspective, let’s take a look at the top 10 poker controversies of the last decade.

10. Phil Hellmuth speaking out of turn
Where better to start the page on poker controversies than with a legendary player whose career has been marked by many of such events and questionable reactions to various poker hands. During the 2018 WSOP Main Event, Phil Hellmuth got serious flak for speaking out of turn right before his opponent Alex Kuzmin was about to act on James Campbell’s all-in raise.

The “Poker Brat” went off, calling out Campbell and continuing his tirade for what seemed like ages. He stopped yelling and swearing before Kuzmin called the all-in bet. Following this, Kuzmin even managed to come up with the winning hand in the end.

After the game, many notable people from the poker world, including Shaun Deeb, Ike Haxton, and Justin Bonomo, called for WSOP to fine Hellmuth or reprimand his behavior in another way. And, while Hellmuth wasn’t fined in the end, he still went on an apology tour on Twitter and poker-related outlets, admitting his mistake and apologizing to his opponents who were affected by the incident.

9. The WSOP Featured Table slip
A complete opposite to Hellmuth personality-wise, Phil Ivey has always been known as a quiet and tactical poker player who doesn’t seek the spotlight. Even so, his efforts to stay under the radar may have unintentionally caused one of the biggest controversies of the past decade.

In 2018, Ivey was undoubtedly one of the biggest stars in the poker world, but controversies arose when he wasn’t positioned at one of the featured TV tables in a WSOP Main Event.

Although some players prefer to sit at a back table, his absence from a featured table at a major event became such a controversy that draws from the previous reasoning as Hellmuth’s incident. Ivey was simply too big to allow something like this to happen. To this day, it’s still unclear whether this was Ivey’s decision, organizational failure, or something else that led to this. But, it remains one of the rare few incidents in Ivey’s illustrious poker career.

8. Koroknai’s blunder
Although not a particularly controversial event on its own, Hungarian Andras Koroknai’s mistake will be remembered as one of the biggest poker controversies in the 2010s. On Day 5 of the seven-day World Series of Poker event, going up against Gaelle Baumann, Koroknai made a decision that will mark his entire career, unfortunately, not in the right way.

Baumann, who was the first one to act in the hand, raised to $60,000. After her raise, Koroknai moved all in from the small blind with a bet of close to $2 million. The player who acted after him, the late Gavin Smith, folded from the big blind. Forgetting about Baumann’s raise, Koroknai mucked his hand, thinking he’d won.

By the time he realized what he’s done, the dealer has already pulled the cards in the muck. The confusion soon boiled so much so that the tournament director was called to fix the incident. After talking to his consultants for over 15 minutes, the director decided not to throw Koroknai out of the tournament. He only had to put in the $60,000 for Baumann to be awarded the pot.

Although a seemingly innocent mistake, Koroknai’s blunder caused a significant incident that shook the entire tournament’s integrity. Many believe that Koroknai should have been eliminated from the tournament entirely, a debate that still goes on almost a decade later. What caused an even more significant controversy was the fact that Koroknai later eliminated Baumann at 10th place in another big hand soon after.

7. Kassouf vs. Benger
William Kassouf is known as a very talkative poker player and one that doesn’t shy away from provoking his opponents in an effort of tilting them in Texas Hold’em games. But, out of all of the players he’s crossed over the years, his verbal duel against Griffin Benger has been probably the most controversial of all.

During the 2016 WSOP Main Event, Kassouf was in his full-on provocation form when he spent a good deal of time provoking and taking jabs at Benger. The German player fared pretty well for the beginning part before snapping completely and accusing him of verbal abuse.

After this, the two started openly jawing at each other the entire time until the end of the play. At one point, Benger was so irritated that he called out Kassouf to meet him outside of the casino.

Although no further incidents transpired from this, Benger still managed to win the hand even while being visibly angry. Years after, Kassouf is still claiming this to be the most threatening situation he’s ever found himself in, but still not admitting that all of it started because of the provocations on his part.

6. Matthew Hopkins bubbles at 2018 WSOP
In July 2018, Matthew Hopkins found himself at 1,183rd place in a WSOP tournament that paid 1,182 players. But, while his unfortunate position isn’t the controversy on its own, what enraged the fast is that no licensed platform covered the event’s end that night. The money bubble is always a dramatic outcome of every poker tournament, and this one was particularly nail-biting well into the night.

Unfortunately, as all poker crews went home and there were no dedicated cameras in the room, there is no video recording of this event. And, although Hopkins is probably very glad that his mishap isn’t recorded for everyone to see, poker enthusiasts all over the world missed one of the most dramatic finishes of the entire year.

5. Randall Emmett’s attention-demanding entrance
Randall Emmett, a fairly unknown producer who’s worked on various poker movies and reality shows, made sure that his first WSOP Main Event entrance didn't go unnoticed in 2018. Copying Hellmuth’s trademark over-the-top entrance style, Emmett entered the venue accompanied by great fanfare that included a marching band and showgirls.

This event was very polarizing in the poker community, with some players calling it detrimental to the game and others simply corny and cheesy fun. The biggest reason why Emmett’s entrance caught a negative connotation in public is that many people worried that after Hellmuth and now Emmett, more players will start doing the same, disturbing those who are already playing at their tables during such extravagant entrances.

4. Nipping racism in the bud
It seems like 2018 was a major year for poker controversies, but no one was more significant than the one involving Maurice Hawkins and Adrian Sorin Lovin. During a WSOP tourney, Hawkins accused the Russian poker player of calling him the N-word at the poker table, sparking substantial controversy minutes from his statement.

What was even more disputed was that Lovin only got a one-round penalty for his behavior. However, just an hour later, Jack Effel, one of the most prominent executives in the WSOP, ordered Lovin to be disqualified and walked out of the venue. The organization’s swift reaction showed that poker is a game with zero tolerance to racism and other discriminatory behavior.

In 2011 Epstein was the only man at a final table in a ladies event.

In 2011 Epstein was the only man at a final table in a ladies event.

3. Manning at the Ladies’ Table
In 2011, Jonathan Epstein was the only man on a WSOP final poker table. This wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary if he weren’t playing a ladies’ event in the tournament. Epstein ended in this scenario even though he didn’t cheat his way through, nor disguise or pretend to be someone he’s not. In fact, he just sat at the table and started playing the game.

So, how did he pull this off, and why did it a poker controversy? Well, Epstein managed to enter the tournament by using the anti-gender-discrimination laws, which prevent WSOP from denying any male or female player from participating in a tournament organized for the opposite sex.

That said, while it’s expected from men not to sign up for ladies’ poker tournaments, Epstein didn’t pay much attention to this unwritten rule. Besides him, a few men have taken advantage of this over the years, but none received as much public backlash as Epstein. In the end, he finished at 9th place and went home with a little over $13,000. A small prize for the boos and shouts he had to endure as he progressed into the later stages of the tournament.

2. The Girah Scandal
The poker story arch of Jose “Girah” Macedo is one that seems to be straight out of the movies. By the time he was 18 years old, Jose Macedo was one of the most promising young talents in the game and already considered one of the best poker players. Recording a tremendous rise in late 2010 and early 2011, Macedo was bound for the stars as potentially one of the poker greats.

But, by late 2011, the aura of Macedo’s incredible skills and talent quickly started falling apart. The first scandal he was involved in was in regards to his “coaching classes,” through which he scammed his students for large amounts of cash.

Macedo persuaded other players to go up against an unknown online opponent he identified as a bad poker player. But, what his students didn’t know was that he used his coaching profile to see their hole cards while at the same time playing as the unknown opponent.

This continued for quite some time before many other online poker players admitted to being taken advantage of by Macedo through similar scams and account frauds. After this controversy became public, Macedo completely disappeared from the poker scene, never to play the game professionally again.

1. Chip counterfeiter goes to jail
Finally, a poker tale old as time itself shows that cheaters never prosper in this game. Christian Lusardi, a professional poker player with no notable career winnings, made all of the poker headlines in 2014 when he was caught using counterfeit chips in the Borgata Winter Poker Open $2 Million Guarantee.

Lusardi brought in millions of dollars’ worth of fake chips into the casino. Although controversial and downright illegal, this daring attempt isn’t even the best part of the story. After suspecting that the staff had discovered his counterfeit chips, he ran to his room and tried to flush them down the toilet. He was so panicked in doing so that he clogged the pipes and exposed himself when the water started leaking.

This major controversy landed Lusardi a jail sentence of five years, as well as a fine of over $460,000, which he had to pay to the Borgata casino. To top this off, Lusardi was also forced to pay $10,000 for the damage he did to the casino’s pipes. After showing good behavior, he was released from prison on parole after serving eight months.

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