The question of transparency and openness in online poker has been debated for years. You have the disgruntled losers who persistently cry "cheat", versus the old pros who shrug, saying that luck is cyclical and losing streaks are inevitable.

These arguments were probably destined to bubble away on poker-related messageboards for eternity – until a recent incident opened the discussion to the wider internet community. Six weeks ago, a player on the Absolute Poker website suspected that the eventual winner might not have been playing fairly – and, specifically, that he was able to see the hands of the other players.

Absolute issued a denial, and emailed the player in question a spreadsheet containing the logs of the game by way of proof. This spreadsheet laid bare the details of everyone's private hands and revealed some interesting details – not least that the winning player didn't put a single foot wrong from the third hand onwards. I don't know much about poker, so when I'm told that the winner "called on-the-turn with 9-10 when their opponent was holding 9-2 for a busted flush draw", I'm none the wiser. But those who analysed the spreadsheet were unanimous in concluding that the winner evidently knew what the other players were holding.

Since these accusations surfaced the story has been moving rapidly. At first Absolute issued a statement categorically denying any wrongdoing, but the arguments continued. "Gambling in a virtual world is a gamble in and of itself," said one comment. Others were less convinced by the evidence. "All I see here is irrationality and paranoia," read another comment.

Finally, a full statement was issued last week by Absolute Poker. "It appears that the integrity of our poker system was compromised by a high-ranking trusted consultant," it read. "As has been speculated ... this consultant devised a sophisticated scheme ... to view the cards of other customers."

Few people expected such a frank admission, and additional cries of foul play were directed at other major poker sites. These appear to have no substantiation, but one thing is abundantly clear: that confidence in online poker has taken a knock. And for a game whose successful operation depends on trust, this could present a big problem for the casinos. "What's sad," said one blogger, "is seeing poker regaining its reputation as a seedy, violent, morally corrupt game played by no one but degenerates."

Of course, thousands of people are still enjoying trouble-free online games every day. But those who have their suspicions have reverted to playing with a real deck of cards, on a solid table.

Diagnosis required

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