Steve Friess: In WSOP’s Card-Marking Controversy, Autism Must Speak Louder

Written By Steve Friess on July 6, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
WSOP Card-Marking Controversy

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


 

Czech poker pro player Martin Kabrhel may or may not be a card-marking cheater. There is reportedly an ongoing investigation by the World Series of Poker into allegations surrounding his third-place, $2.3 million win last month in the $250,000 buy-in Super High Roller event. We’ll see how that goes.

He says he’s not a cheater. Another pro, Andrew Robl of Michigan, believes otherwise.

Robl has pointed to a thread of some videos on social media that purport to show Kabrhel putting nail indentations on cards and demanding Kabrhel be banned from the WSOP and other major poker events. The legend Phil Hellmuth concurred on Twitter, congratulating Robl for being “gutsy to go public w this truth.” Hellmuth also says it’s “unanimous” among top pros that there’s something fishy about Kabrhel’s play.

The videos are inconclusive at best. There’s a peculiar, unnerving intensity with which Kabrhel stares at the backs of his opponents’ cards, and the way he stands up and walks around to get a better look at their backs does add some credence to the allegations.

All of this is being adjudicated. But there was one beat in Kabrhel’s online defense that took the conversation in a totally new direction for me:

“You can accuse me of controversial manners, bad jokes, uncomfortable play, or whatever stickers you put on my autistic behavior, you can call me pain in the a** but calling me a cheater is something completely out of line. I am not a cheater, this is not true!! This gossip is damaging me not only as poker player, but also my business activities and my family.”

So far as I can tell, this is the first time Kabrhel has ever said publicly that he is on the autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

I have asked him for an interview to talk about it. We’ll see if he complies. As the father of a 3-year-old on the ASD, I really hope so.

Online denizens attack autism as an excuse

The problem with revealing ASD in the heat of the moment like this is that many people will view it as an excuse. And, right on cue, a few immediate tweets:

  • @Tpace13: Playing the autism card and threatening to sue? Buddy between this and your antics that I saw your easily the most lame being I’ve seen in this verse in 5 years.
  • @MrZeroVB: You can’t blame autism for your bullshit, asshole like antics and stalling every hand. Fuck you Martin. I hope they never put you on TV again. You’re the only person that is more annoying than will Kassouf
  • @waznboi03: then STOP MARKING THE CARDS U RETARD. you’re literally on stream marking cards on purpose.
  • @TJ_Whiz: Although lying about autism does not prove he cheated, it would prove his penchant for dishonesty. It also feels like a pre-built defense to damaging cards.
  • @Gigante111190: weaponized autism

For the record, Poker.org reports the WSOP folks pulled three decks used in the tournament that led to Robl’s accusations and found no evidence of any indentations on the cards.

But the skepticism here, however understandable, matters. A lot of the people who are rejecting the autism reference refuse to believe it. They have a particular understanding of autism — that it involves speech impediments, an inability to socialize, certain mannerisms, a lack of awareness of one’s eccentricities — that may or may not be accurate. It’s a spectrum, as they say, because the variety of manifestations is so broad and so complex that they envelope a lot of behaviors that would surprise people.

My son, for instance, is an extremely friendly and clearly bright kid who smiles, waves and looks directly at everyone. He has no sensitivities to food textures, bright lights or loud noises, three very common telltale signs of ASD. He slept through the jerks across the street setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July right outside his window; his 21-month-old neurotypical sister, however, lost her mind. That said, he’s still struggling to figure out how to get his shirt and socks on and pedal a tricycle; his challenges processing many physical tasks and his speech delay are his ASD indicators.

This is why Kabrhel owes a more expansive explanation. He brought the question of how his autism affects his behavior into the public realm. He could do a lot of good by talking more about it.

Autism and gambling have a long history

Ever since Tom Cruise brought Dustin Hoffman down the Caesars Palace escalator in beautifully tailored, matching suits so Hoffman, as the title character of “Rain Man,” could apply his preternatural mathematical abilities to counting cards, we’ve all been aware that some autistic people possess a form of genius that could be useful in gambling.

More recently, two-time WSOP bracelet winner Dan Cates spoke at length to the Washington Post in a fantastic profile about his autism. This passage, about Cates figuring out that he was on the spectrum at age 12, resonated because it sounded a lot like my kid:

“His parents took him to Johns Hopkins, where professionals confirmed Cates was on the spectrum. The family could finally begin to understand a unique child who was gifted in math, struggled to connect with other kids and tended to be trusting and blunt, curious and stubborn. It would take some time, but many of the qualities that caused so much frustration in childhood — hyper-focused, analytical, determined — would fuel a meteoric tear through the poker world. Now, at 33, he has a pair of World Series of Poker bracelets and $23 million in career earnings.”

The piece goes on to describe how Cates became a very successful online player but then struggled when he started playing in person. He had untoward outbursts when he lost and was barred from playing at one casino for six months after shattering a glass on a poker table.

He says he refocused on learning social cues and how to be a person who other players would want to play against. He took acting and cooking classes to learn the art of conversation, among other efforts.

This is the counter to Kabrhel’s approach. And that’s the problem.

Autistic or just an a–hole? Why not both?

When you figure out your kid is on the spectrum as early as we did, you have a lot of time to frame how he sees the world and others. When it goes undiagnosed for years or decades, on the other hand, the world treats you so harshly and your parents can be so frustrated and angry at your behavior that you retreat into yourself and perhaps embrace the image of yourself as “bad.”

If Kabrhel actually has an ASD, this seems likely the case. By his own admission, his behavior is obnoxious and inconsiderate. His pacing, his nonstop chatter, his “bad jokes” as he put it – he’s taken that as his persona. Maybe it’s strategic, maybe he knows it will unsettle and distract opponents and throw them off their game. His Twitter handle adds an extra “l” to his name — @MartinKabrhell — as a nod to his disruptive, bothersome style.

But he’s fast approaching a reckoning, as Cates did before him. Consider this tweet from Max Silver, the poker pro and trainer, about Kabrhel:

“I remember when Kings casino hosted WSOPE and struggled to attract players for a huge super high roller, they then reached out to players saying Kabrhel wouldn’t play because so many players thought he was cheating”

Another player at the final table, fifth-place finisher Chance Kornuth, piled on on Twitter after the controversial WSOP tournament. He called for Kabrhel’s ban from high-roller and WSOP events, whether he cheats or not:

“Martin is possibly cheating in a way that security isn’t able to notice yet or he is intentionally trying to make it look like he is cheating to gain an edge. … He stands up and makes a show of looking at players cards when he’s faced with almost any decision – he knows that he’s been accused of marking cards in the past and wants players to be thinking about that – a huge angle shoot.”

Time will tell what becomes of Kabrhel, who is 40. He’s free to be a jerk as a player if he finds that is a way to succeed. There are all sorts of players with all sorts of antics — women who pretend to be ditzy to exploit sexism, LGBTQ players who act flamboyant to unnerve the bros — and that’s fair game. This is poker, after all. It’s a game in which you are encouraged to — and be rewarded — for lying.

Still, he’s on thin ice here. He’s thrown out a medical explanation for what he’s doing. So let’s hear the rest of the story.

It might not make him any more sympathetic. Like people of every other walk of life, some autistic people are, in fact, just not nice.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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