This is the third in an occasional series of blogs by the team here at the MPN. In the blog, we’ll be answering common questions and sharing our take on the industry’s pressing issues.
The very first post on this blog was about why the MPN doesn’t communicate with players. In that post, I described how poker operators are our customers, and how we have no direct relationship with players. I also mentioned that the MPN doesn’t hold any player funds. To quote exactly, I said:
The MPN doesn’t register players. We don’t hold players’ money (ever, even for a second). For many operators, we are one of a number of suppliers, who provide products and services – of which ours is poker.
That blog was picked up by some of the poker media and was generally received positively. Nick Jones of PokerFuse Pro published an article on the blog which was neutral to positive in tone, except for the following which refers directly to the quote highlighted above:
Microgaming has always held this stance, for which it has been heavily criticized by online poker players and online gaming affiliates in the past.
On more than one occasion, operators on Microgaming’s poker network have shut down—including high profile closures like Battlefield Poker and Eurolinx—leaving players and affiliates out of pocket. The network stance of “we are just a software provider” meant the network would not help players pursue funds nor offer reimbursements.
Though Microgaming does not hold player funds, a network clearing house to reconcile funds occurs at the network level.
Microgaming has indeed been heavily criticised in the past for this, and continues to be. On 2+2, certainly the world’s most influential poker discussion venue, players still regularly ask if it’s ‘safe to play on Microgaming’, and this really bothers me.
In this blog, I’d like to address these issues bluntly and honestly, with the hope of instilling some confidence and good faith in the MPN.
The Past Operator Bankruptcies
In the past, two Microgaming customers have gone bankrupt while they offered poker as part of the Microgaming Poker Network (now known as the MPN). These problems resulted in liquidation and the loss of player deposits which were held by those operators. They were Tusk Investment Corporation (in 2008) and Linx Media Group (in 2009). In addition, two other operators were terminated by Microgaming in 2012 and went into liquidation some time afterwards (in one case, the operator joined another poker network first).
Company bankruptcies are not rare – in the United States alone, 34,892 businesses went bankrupt in 2013. In the UK, 14,990 businesses were liquidated in the same year. Of course, most companies do not hold large amounts of funds which belong to the public, so the impact of these bankruptcies is often limited to the employees of the companies, their suppliers, and other businesses.
The poker industry has had its fair share of bankruptcies, which is why it’s so important for poker operators to protect players’ funds against that possibility. In all of the above cases, it would appear that the operators had not protected their players’ funds, and eventually used the players’ cash as if it were their own.
Although I have no first-hand experience with the above bankruptcies, nobody knows the effect that they can have on people better than me. In February 2011, I moved to Dublin to start an exciting new job in product design, at what was then the world’s second-largest poker site. Exactly two months later, Black Friday happened, and it gradually became clear that the company was insolvent and couldn’t pay what it owed. The effect on players, including many of my friends, was totally heart-breaking and I have no doubt that the insolvency destroyed lives. Watching Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker, which charts the story of Black Friday through the eyes of several players, moves me to tears even three years later.
Players, and others who were affected by the above insolvencies such as affiliates and the friends and family members of those affected directly, have my utmost sympathy.
The events of 2011 caused me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about the protection of player funds. My wife, who is a senior auditor for a big four accountancy firm, taught me a lot about the legal mechanisms that are in place to protect client funds. When you buy a house for example, typically a legal firm will hold money in segregated client accounts until the contract is fully executed. For example, they might hold your deposit on the house, before forwarding it to the seller upon completion of the contract. Most countries afford a level of protection to client money held in this way, and there are industry bodies who regulate exactly how client money must be held in order to ensure maximum protection. When I started my job at the #2 site in 2011, and received the explanation about how funds were supposedly protected, there were tell-tale signs of trouble that I could have spotted, had I known what I know now. Should I be exposed to similar explanations in the future, I will be informed enough to spot these signs.
The Clearing House
PokerFuse’s article touches on the clearing house, so I’d like to explain here what that is, how it works, and why it doesn’t contain any player money.
On a poker network, players from different poker rooms are playing against each other all the time. Let’s say that Player A wins €100 from Player B. Player A’s operator needs to be credited with €100, and that money needs to come from Player B’s operator. So Player B’s operator pays Player A’s operator €100.
In reality, thousands of players win and lose each day, so every operator owes every other operator some money, but some of these cancel each other out, and this can be a complex issue to solve.
The clearing house system makes this simple. Every operator is required to deposit a small amount of money in a clearing house account. This deposit acts as a ‘float’. Each day, we sum up all of an operator’s players’ wins and losses. If an operator’s players have lost money overall, money is deducted from their clearing house, and if their players have won money overall, money is added to their clearing house. This has the same effect as moving every win and loss, without the need to make thousands of small transactions.
The Network Rules regarding the Clearing House are crystal clear – the money in the clearing house does not belong to players. Two reasons for that are:
- The amount of money held on behalf of each operator in the clearing house is small – just enough to cover the net movement for the operator’s win or loss – and is nowhere near enough to cover their total liability to players.
- It would be inappropriate for Microgaming to hold player money since it has no relationship with players, and has no knowledge of the amount of money held in each player’s account.
That final point was originally discussed in my first blog post. It is extremely important to note that, for most of our customers (i.e. poker operators), Microgaming does not have access to detailed account information and does not know how much money is held in the accounts of players. If you asked me how much money was in your account with an operator, for example, I would not know, because most operators don’t share that information. We have no idea what an operator’s total player liability is – we have no right to know, since some of that liability may relate to other products not supplied by Microgaming. However, an operator’s licencing body may require them to file regular reports on their player liability (as is the case in Malta, for example).
What Microgaming Does to Protect Players (and Operators)
I get the feeling that in the past, many involved in the running of poker networks believed that size was the most important factor. There was prestige in having the largest number of operators on your network, and sales teams were keen to sign up as many new operators as possible.
One of the lessons that we have learned is that it is more important to have a few high-quality operators, than lots of low-quality operators. Low-quality operators hurt other operators on the network, as they generally rely on poaching high-volume players and not on delivering value through marketing to new players. Furthermore, low-quality operators may place their players’ money at risk.
My predecessor did a lot of work to clean up the MPN and remove low-quality operators, and since then we have been very picky about who we signed up. We could have a higher PokerScout ranking, and could be making more money if we had not been so picky, but we have turned away operators who we felt didn’t fit our network strategy.
When we do decide to do business with somebody, the process that we follow to ensure that they are trustworthy is extensive. Every prospective new operator goes through a probity process. This is our way of ensuring that we know who we do business with. Among many other things, the process includes analysing the structure of the company and determining who the beneficial owners are – i.e. who eventually gets the profits. It also includes discovering the company’s source of funding. The process is very thorough, and it quickly exposes operators who are potentially unstable or not serious.
We require every operator to hold a valid gaming licence (this might seem obvious, but there are poker networks out there who do not require this). Regulators such as Malta, Isle of Man, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Estonia all require an operator holding their licence to segregate and protect player funds, and report on their liability regularly. Making this requirement part of our contract allows us to quickly terminate any operator who has their licence revoked, protecting the other operators and players on the network.
Our network rules are clear about how operators must manage their money. They require operators to protect funds deposited by players, at the very least by maintaining one or more segregated client accounts, not used for any purpose other than holding player funds. Operators are also required to notify players as to how their funds are protected in the event of the operator’s insolvency.
Finally, we are very strict about how operators manage their clearing houses. Every operator has a minimum balance, which depends on their level of activity. If an operator’s balance decreases below this threshold and this is not immediately resolved, then their players are ‘ring-fenced’ from the rest of the network – i.e. that operator’s players can only play with other players from the same operator. This helps prevent any damage being done to other operators on the network. In the event that an operator’s clearing house drops into the negative, they risk having their poker client shut off. Thankfully, clearing house issues are very rare.
How Our Operators Protect Player Funds
The MPN has a nice variety of poker rooms, including smaller boutique operators focused on a particular type of player or part of the world, and huge publicly-traded operators with global reach. This is one of the reasons why our games are so good – there is something for everyone. There is no reason to believe that our smaller boutique operators are less safe than the larger ones.
Any player with concerns about the safety of their funds should contact the poker room on which they are playing and ask questions. To save you time, I have already written to every one of our poker operators, asking for a statement on the issue. Here is what I asked:
… I will be publishing something on the MPN blog in which I discuss the importance of protecting players’ funds. For this blog, I require a statement from each poker operator that details how players’ deposits are protected in the case of insolvency.
A brief example would be ‘Here at [Operator], we keep all player funds in trust and do not use the funds for operational purposes. This means that in the unlikely event of insolvency, players funds would be protected.’
Operators may be as brief or as detailed as they wish in their response. The responses will be published verbatim on our website, mpn.poker, with a link to the operator’s website.
Operator responses are listed below, in the order that they were received. I have published the responses exactly as received, without any editing (except formatting), and it’s worth bearing that in mind along with the fact that English is not the first language for some of our operators. If an operator is not listed, then that operator has not yet provided me with a response. This section of the post will be updated as and when new responses are received.
Here at Paf.com, we keep all player funds in several different bank accounts clearly designated as client accounts and they can’t be used for operational purposes. This means that in the unlikely event of insolvency, players’ funds would be protected.
Here at PokerLoco, we keep all player funds in segregated bank accounts and do not use the funds for operational purposes. This means that the player funds are always safe and protected since these bank accounts are designated client funds accounts, even if the unlikely event of insolvency, the players funds would be safe and protected.
At StanJames.com Poker, we ensure that all player funds are ring-fenced from operational cash to ensure that in the highly unlikely event of insolvency, player’s funds are protected.
At Gaming Media Group, protection of player funds is paramount for all brands including PokerHeaven.com, HeavenCasino.com and HeavenBet.com. We segregate, safeguard and report on player funds to comply with the requirements of our Gaming Licences provided by the Maltese LGA. As such, we maintain ‘ring fenced’ bank accounts – separately from our working capital – to match and safeguard our players’ account balances.
Here at Betmotion.com, we do not use player funds for operational purposes. This means that in the unlikely event of insolvency, players funds would be protected and all players will be able to get their money back. 100% safe! Furthermore, we have a financial policy which ensures we benefit from a very stable financial background and have contingency funds should any situation require it.
We have clients accounts approved by the LGA for the protection of player funds. Every month we also make a report to the authority with all balances including screenshots of such accounts. These accounts are strictly for player funds. On top of that our auditor at the end of the year confirms such balances and accounts in the audited accounts.
Under the terms of its Isle of Man operating licence, betinternet operates separate client bank accounts that securely hold all of its clients’ funds. These accounts are protected so that in any circumstances, the clients’ funds will always be separated from any of betinternet’s company operating funds.
Monies deposited with BetVictor are segregated in a bank account in the name of BetVictor with other customer deposits, which holds the monies in the account for you and other persons entitled. As such, in an insolvency situation you would be entitled to claim any monies held for you in such an account.
At OlyBet the trust within players is very high since OlyBet is subsidiary of PLC Olympic Entertainment Group AS (OEG). Olympic Entertainment Group AS with its subsidiaries operates a total of 93 casinos in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Belarus and Italy. OlyBet is highly trusted due to being a subsidiary of PLC, all the financial transactions are audited by external auditors and reports are available for everybody. The players highly appreciate a possibility to play both Live and Online games within the same company, the synergy between the two is creating an excellent gaming experience.
At Betsson Group all customer deposits and account balances are held in separate bank accounts with regulated, tier-1 financial institutions.
Headlong Limited is licensed and regulated by the Lotteries & Gaming Authority (LGA), Malta. Headlong complies fully with the LGA’s regulations which includes extensive player protection measures and in particular, relating to the security of player monies.
As you can see, our operators take the issue of player fund protection seriously. You should never be afraid to question an operator on this issue, because an operator who has nothing to hide does not fear being asked.
Publicly-owned companies are required to produce year-end accounts, which have been audited by an independent third party. In these accounts, you can typically see the profit or loss that the company made on their products (including poker), the amount of cash the company has, and information about the company’s debt. The Directors are required to assess whether there are significant doubts about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern and to disclose any uncertainties in the year-end accounts.
There is also an audit opinion, in which the auditor confirms that the accounts give a true and fair view of the financial position of the company and have been properly prepared, in accordance with the relevant accounting standards and company law. If there are material doubts about whether a company is a going concern (i.e. whether it is in a position to continue doing business for the foreseeable future) then the auditor must declare this in their audit opinion.
While being a public company is no guarantee against insolvency, the audit opinion and an examination of the accounts may help to reassure you that your money is safe and secure.
Here are links to the corporate pages of our publicly-owned poker operators:
- 32Red PLC
- Betsson Group AB (Betsson, Betsafe, Bets10, Dhoze, NordicBet, Triobet)
- Olympic Entertainment Group AS (OlyBet)
- Ålands Penningautomatförening (Paf)
- GVC Holdings Plc (Sportingbet)
No online poker room, no matter how large, can guarantee that they will never become insolvent. In fact, no business in any part of the world can ever guarantee this. All a poker room can do is to take good-faith measures to protect player funds in the unlikely event that something bad does happen to the company.
Microgaming is picky about who we do business with, ensuring that we only deal with operators who have real potential and who won’t undermine the poker network. We conduct extensive probity on new operators to ensure that the owners have no ties to unethical or illegal business practices.
We apply stringent requirements on our operators, requiring them to be licensed and to protect player funds as a matter of course. We keep a close eye on operators to ensure they pay their bills on time, so that players and other poker operators don’t lose out – and we take action to protect players and operators if there are problems.
However, the bulk of responsibility to protect players lies with operators themselves. Microgaming holds only a small amount of money per operator, and doesn’t know an operator’s total player liability. While we can take measures to limit risk, there is only so much that we can do to protect money that we don’t hold ourselves.
Going forward, I hope that players choose to play with operators who show the most commitment to the protection of player funds, and that this becomes a competitive advantage in the marketplace. There are many such operators to choose from on the MPN, and Microgaming is dedicated to working with them to improve this protection in any way we can.
Alex Scott (@AlexScott72o) is Head of Poker at Microgaming, which operates the MPN.
Any opinions contained in this blog are the personal views of the author only, and not of any other person or organisation.