It’s time we checked in on the controversy surrounding the bizarre “jack-four” hand during an episode of the “Hustler Casino Live” stream that resulted in one of the game’s players, Garrett Adelstein, making very public accusations of cheating against another player, Robbi Jade Lew. One of the weirdest poker stories in recent memory continues to develop in strange and wondrous ways. With an internal investigation by the stream’s owners likely to go on for several weeks, the controversy shows no sign of running out of steam soom.
So let’s take the deep dive. Here, you’ll find a timeline of significant events from the saga, which features an ever-expanding cast of characters and a whole lot of reputations being dragged through the mud.
Bizarre hand triggers controversy
The hand between Adelstein and Lew that’s managed to split opinions throughout the poker world is one of those hands that in a logical, skilled-poker sense, never should have happened at all. Adelstein, an aggressive and highly profitable player in the HCL streamed games, pushed a huge semi-bluff into Lew, who tried a min-raise bluff of her own with the jack-four-off hand that soon went viral in poker chat around the world.
The problem was that while Adelstein had nothing but a huge draw, with 7c-8c on a board where the flop was 9c-10c-10x, Lew couldn’t have known that her Jc was still in the lead on the turn. Adelstein’s three-bet that covered Lew’s stack should have chased Lew out of the pot, but it didn’t. She called off the remainder of her stack, somehow found herself ahead — and this occurred after she and Adelstein agreed to run the river twice — then faded all of Adelstein’s outs on both river cards to improbably scoop the $269,000 pot.
A perflexed, confused, befuddled Adelstein stared at the table, at Lew, and at the other players as he tried to make sense of Lew’s min-reraise and call, while some of the other players joked at the improbability of it all. Lew’s play would’ve been bad poker in a $1/2 game, much less at a streamed affair where the average stack was in six-figure territory.
The fur flies off-set
After a few minutes, Adelstein decided that he’d figured it out, and that Lew had to have somehow cheated during the hand. That led to a confrontation off-set at Adelstein’s request, also including Lew and one of HCL’s owners, Ryan Feldman. At some point another of the game’s players, Jacob “Rip” Chavez, joined the conversation.
What happened in that off-set confrontation remains somewhat in dispute, but most accounts have Adelstein accusing and pressuring Lew, then asking for his money back from the now-disputed hand. Inexplicably, Lew gave him $135,000, though she later said it was done under duress, though the fact that she did give back Adelstein’s share of the pot was proof enough in some observers’ minds that something was indeed amiss.
Despite having been given the $135,000, Adelstein still packed up his things and left the game shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the HCL show producers quickly excerpted video of the hand and pumped it out via social media. The poker world quickly chose sides. Those that thought Lew had cheated cited the odd play in the hand, her inability to coherently explain her strategic thoughts as the hand played out, and that she had given Adelstein the $135,000.
The “no cheating” side was just as adamant, and with just as many solid reasons. Though she was very new to poker and had been coached by hyper-aggressive pro Faraz Jaka, Lew had not yet demonstrated a good grasp of poker’s more esoteric mathematical concepts. She’d been known to make a lot of weird and mathematically unsound bets in strange spots.
Further, as her defenders pointed out, even if she had been somehow signaled through an “inside” person in HCL (and perhaps via another player) that her jack was ahead in the hand, it was still a ridiculous spot to attempt to cheat. Even Scott Tom’s cheating online at Absolute Poker back in the ’00s involved a somewhat better choice of hands than Lew’s J-4 in this spot. One horribly played hand — even if highly profitable in the end — doesn’t prove much of anything at all.
Investigation announced by HCL owners, Sagbigsal theft quickly discovered
That the hand and the cheating accusation went so viral, so quickly, put pressure on HCL owners Nick Vertucci and Ryan Feldman to take steps to defend the security of the game. They soon announced that independent investigators would be brought in to audit all elements of the game, the stream, the employees, and more. And within just a couple of days, the first strange development occurred.
Bryan Sagbigsal, a long-time employee who had worked in several primary roles in the production of the stream, was quickly outed and fired from the show, not for conspiring to cheat with any of the players, but for stealing from Lew’s chip stack after the controversial game involving her and Adelstein.
Sagbigsal’s theft of three $5,000 chips was discovered during a review of that game’s footage. He reputedly used the chips to pay back existing steps to others in the casino and/or gambled away some of the stolen money in the pits, after swiping the $15,000 during the post-stream scrum when players mill about and are occasionally away from their seats. In any event, once the theft had been discovered, Sagbigsal was confronted by Vertucci and Feldman, admitted the theft, and was fired on the spot.
However, while the theft was reported to the Gardena (CA) police department, the local jurisdiction, Lew chose, at least temporarily, to not press charges. Vertucci and Feldman had reimbursed Lew for the lost $15,000, but Lew’s failure to immediately press felony-theft charges — she explained her decision to not further destroy a young man’s life in a couple of posts on Twitter — didn’t set well with the pro-cheating crowd, who assumed ulterior motives. She did publish a series of texts she claimed to have received by Sagbigsal that admitted the theft and thanked her profusely for not pressing charges, though many people who believed Lew had cheated then asserted that the texts were fake.
The morass grew deeper over the following days.
Adelstein presses the issue, publishes ‘report’ on 2+2
Meanwhile, Adelstein doubled down on his insistence that he had been cheated rather than being the unexpected loser in a horribly played hand. In a lengthy “report” he published at the 2+2 poker forums, Adelstein asserted that Lew, Sagbigsal, and another player in the streamed game, “Rip” Chavez, were likely all in on the cheating.
Chavez, it turned out, had backed at least 50% of Lew’s participation in the game, with funds he had obtained from yet another player. Adelstein wrote, “I can again say with great confidence that Robbi was very likely part of a cheating ring of at least three members, including her, RIP, Bryan and potentially others.” (Emphasis Adelstein’s.) “Although I have strong suspicions of many hands that were cheated and the specific methodology and roles of each member of the cheating ring, my legal team has advised me to leave this information out of this initial report. I may choose to disclose additional information in the future if this story continues to be derailed.
“Based on the evidence presented below, what I can say about the methodology is that it is highly likely there were instances when Bryan had access to the hole cards, signaled information about those hole cards to RIP, Robbi, or potentially both, and Robbi likely used this information to cheat in several hands over her 3 sessions playing on HCL. I can also say with great confidence, based in part on the evidence presented below, that Robbi and RIP very likely worked together as a team in the two streams they played together to cheat the rest of the table. The video evidence will show several instances of them using verbal and nonverbal communication to accomplish this goal. Additional camera footage beyond what’s shown in the livestream will likely go a long way in further implicating the two. …”
Adelstein made other allegations as well, and he tossed in a fair bit of character assassination aimed at other players and possible backers who, as is the case with quite a few poker players in the world at large, have less than choirboy pasts.
Sagbigsal responds to Adelstein’s allegations
While Adelstein’s “report” was surely going to fan the flames, one of developments no one foresaw was accused and fired chip thief Sagbigsal showing up in the 2+2 thread to defend himself and others against Adelstein’s claims. Sagbigsal had Lew’s back throughout more than four dozen (!) follow-up posts, though a lot of them were just reposts of Sagbigsal’s initial lengthy response.
However, there were a couple of areas that Sagbigsal repeatedly refused to visit. One was that he refused to confirm or deny whether he was the true author of a series of DMs that Lew had published on Twitter — purportedly written by Sagbigsal — that profusely thanked Lew for not pressing theft charges (up until that point) while claiming a “woe is me” tale.
Whether Sagbigsal or Lew wrote the DMs is almost a sideline, but Sagbigsal’s refusal to confirm his authorship remains quizzical at the very least. While some commenters claimed that any such admission would also be an admission of guilt regarding the $15,000 chip theft, Sagbigsal has already been named and fired by HCL, and Lew claimed while publishing (though she conveniently omitted the actual confirmation) that Sagbigsal had agreed to allow the DMs to be published.
Then, a few days later, Lew reversed course and declared that she would be pressing charges against Sagbigsal, and she posted a good bit of mumbo-jumbo about her ongoing discussions with a Garden police detective.
Yet it’s been a week or so, and there’s been no report of Sagbigsal actually being arrested. It is most curious.
Further, among Sagbigsal’s own claims is that he had no idea that the stack of chips he stole the $15,000 from was Lew’s. This is utterly unbelievable. Sagbigsal was working on the show as it transpired, either as the producer or the graphics coordinator, and he would have been seen hand after hand showing Lew as the player in the 2 seat, which was where the stack that he swiped from was. Even more ludicrous is that pre-show video published on Twitter shows Sagbigsal mic-ing up Lew, at the 2 seat, for the coming stream. Sagbigsal has not established himself as being credible, irrespective of all the other players’ accounts.
Lew takes lie-detector test
Then there was the lie-detector (polygraph) test that Lew released the results from last week. Those results assert that there’s less than one chance in 1,000 that Lew was being deceptive when she claimed not to have cheated during the controversial stream. The polygraph test was administered by a licensed technician using the most common brand of equipment in the world, too.
Yet even with that, curiosities remain. Lew was turned on to the whole business of taking a lie-detector test by another occasional player in the recurring HCL game, Maverick Casinos owner Eric Persson. Yet Lew chose not to undergo an even more rigid test recommended by Persson, even if the Lafayette test Lew took is industry-standard.
Further, Lew traveled to Las Vegas to take the polygraph test, for no easily apparent reason, other than that it was arranged for her by her New York-based PR firm. She lives in Los Angeles, and the HCL stream is filmed at Los Angeles’s Hustler Casino, too. Manufactured drama?
Weeks more to wait for investigation’s results
The most recent statement issued by Hustler Casino Live was a notice that the host venue, Hustler Casino, was in contact with California gambling regulators, who were aware of the alleged cheating and much of the furor that then ensured. But within hours, HCL’s Vertucci and Feldman retracted that statement.
It’s likely that the statement was true enough, and that the California Gaming Control Board is looking into the situation, not that the CGCB has a strong track record in enforcement and regulatory matters. It’s also likely that the reason the HCL statement was pulled back is because the CGCB deals with Hustler Casino and not HCL, and the casino was miffed that Vertucci and Feldman made public something that casinos don’t normally publicize.
It’s just one of several gaffes HCL has made in the wake of the controversial stream; Vertucci in particular has not shown any particular skill in negotiating difficult spots in regard to his or HCL’s public image. Cheating accuser Adelstein has also taken plenty of heat for some of the things he’s said and done, including all the shade he threw at people who may not have anything to do with any cheating that might have occurred.
It’s possible we may never learn the truth. Numerous possibilities exist. Perhaps Lew cheated, and if so, it was almost certainly done in concert with others. Perhaps Lew didn’t cheat, but others did, at different times. Perhaps no one cheated at all.
I’ve tried not to offer concrete opinions on whether Lew or others may have cheated. I’ll offer just a bit here. At first, I thought that it was a near certainty that Lew didn’t cheat; I believed that it was the case of a well-to-do poker wannabe, still new to the game, who made an utterly horrible play. I still believe this is the likeliest explanation.
However, the whole Sagbigsal escapade changed my estimates, because his explanations were so much horseshit. I went from “almost certainly didn’t cheat” to “wait a minute, it’s just not adding up.” And though I’m a believer in science, the assertion that Lew completely passed the polygraph test is still less than convincing. Lie-detector test results are inadmissible precisely because they are fallible and because no matter how stringent the controls, methods exist for masking the bodily reactions the test equipment is designed to track. I don’t believe any polygraph test carries a 1-in-1,000 certainty, and there’s enough curious circumstance surrounding the test’s administering that I’m not quite swallowing it whole.
I still think it’s unlikely Lew cheated, but I remain unconvinced either way. Like everyone else, I’m waiting for more information.
(Featured image source: YouTube / Hustler Casino Live)