The poker scandal is still under investigation. Is anyone likely to come out on top?
More than a month has passed since an explosive cheating accusation upended the poker world. A final internal investigation report is now not expected until after Thanksgiving. And the results are likely to satisfy almost no one.
The biggest scandal to hit the game in years appears to be headed for an ambiguous conclusion, with no clear-cut answers about what happened — or didn’t — on Sept. 29, when top high-stakes cash player Garrett Adelstein accused newcomer Robbi Jade Lew of cheating in a $269,000 hand that he lost on “Hustler Casino Live.”
“As of today, we have not found any evidence of wrongdoing,” Nick Vertucci, whose company produces the popular YouTube poker show, said in an interview Wednesday.
“I could never come out with, ‘100% nothing occurred,’” he added. “I could say, ‘100% we did not find anything and it was absolutely inconclusive.’”
Vertucci expects an open-ended result to infuriate the niche community. Players around the world have been obsessively following the developments and daily gossip of what has been, by all accounts, a bizarre episode in poker history.
“It’s bad for everyone involved, unless you’re someone who likes to grab popcorn and watch a train wreck,” said Julie Yorn, a Los Angeles film producer and poker player who has played against Adelstein and Lew. She criticized the incident for becoming a “spectator sport.”
Swept up by the intrigue and fueled by insatiable around-the-clock interest on Twitter and other online platforms, amateur sleuths have been busy. They’ve spread conspiracy theories about Lew and other poker players, Vertucci and his employees, and even the casino’s card dealers (although the show films at the Gardena casino, the two are separate business entities).
“Everyone wants a pound of flesh,” Vertucci said during an interview last week on the “Hustler Casino Live” stage, a delightfully gaudy elevated enclosure that is padded in maroon velvet and topped by a gargantuan golden crown. “It’s like, do we want the truth or do we want, you know, a f— TMZ show?”
Vertucci, a burly and heavily tattooed serial entrepreneur who made his money investing in real estate and drives a black Maybach with a BIGSTAK vanity plate, launched “Hustler Casino Live” last year with co-owner Ryan Feldman.
The first episode aired on Aug. 3, 2021; Vertucci said he personally spent more than $300,000 to get the show off the ground. It soon became the No. 1 cash game poker stream on YouTube, broadcasting every weekday at 5 p.m. and hitting 180,000 subscribers and 1 million monthly unique viewers before the Adelstein-Lew scandal broke.
Unlike traditional television shows such as the annual “World Series of Poker Main Event,” where the final table is made up of whoever advances from a huge field of tournament entrants, much of the success of “Hustler Casino Live” is due to the strength of its carefully curated lineup of seasoned pros, recreational players and the occasional celebrity.
Regular viewers credit the show for its alchemy of good no-limit hold ’em poker played at the highest stakes combined with reality-TV-style entertainment. With big money up for grabs and significant exposure from being invited to play, the behind-the-scenes politicking for coveted seats is fierce.
High Stakes Poker Productions declined to provide financial figures but said it was profitable within the first year of production. Besides making money from YouTube ad revenue, “Hustler Casino Live” has secured sponsorship deals with brands such as the World Poker Tour, whose logo is on the felt of the show’s poker table; sells commercial spots that air during the broadcast; and last month inked a $150,000 licensing deal with a Chinese company that includes revenue share. Players don’t pay, and aren’t paid, to be featured.
Robbi Jade Lew invited me to a jeweler in an effort to prove her ruby ring didn’t help her win the Texas Hold ’Em hand that has rocked the poker world.
“Hustler Casino Live” now faces intense scrutiny from players and viewers who believe the show’s security was breached and have called for a suspension of filming while the investigation is ongoing. Instead, the show has continued as usual, with daily viewership up about 35% since Sept. 29, Vertucci said.
He has publicly confronted “the haters and the trolls” online over the last five weeks while defending the integrity of his stream. He pointed to the company’s announcement within hours of the Adelstein-Lew hand — which has gone viral and racked up millions of views — that it would conduct an investigation. Since then, High Stakes Poker Productions has spent “probably six figures,” he said, hiring Canadian cybersecurity firm Bulletproof, Los Angeles law firm Sheppard Mullin and a team of private investigators.
Investigators have combed through the show’s video of the Sept. 29 game from start to finish and reviewed Lew’s two earlier appearances on “Hustler Casino Live.” They used the casino’s security footage to track the movements of Lew and other “people of interest” inside the property and in the parking lot across several days. They reviewed transactions at the casino’s cashier, where players buy and cash in their chips, to look for suspicious activity.
The show’s poker table was dismantled and inspected, and an audit conducted of its second-floor control room. Players and employees have been contacted for interviews, which are still ongoing; Lew said she completed hers by phone on Oct. 27.
It can be extremely difficult to detect cheating in a casino after the fact, said Mac VerStandig, a Las Vegas-based gaming lawyer who represented dozens of plaintiffs in a 2019 civil lawsuit involving a poker cheating allegation at Stones Gambling Hall near Sacramento. The case was eventually dismissed.
“An investigation can only uncover wrongdoing in the areas that are being examined,” VerStandig said. “If you undertake an investigation that’s hyper-focused on access to a server, or the manner in which media traveled through wires, you’re not looking at whether or not there was a lower-tech version of corruption that visited a game. And if you’re focused on the individuals, looking for low-tech corruption, you may not be as well-focused on the wires.
“I understand the thought would be that eventually you could just look at everything, take in the whole universe, but that’s almost never practicable.”
There’s always going to be doubters forever.
— Ryan Feldman, co-owner of High Stakes Poker Productions
The state’s Department of Justice declined to discuss Adelstein’s cheating allegation and would not confirm whether its Bureau of Gambling Control — the law enforcement authority with special jurisdiction over gambling activities in California — was investigating. Shaun Yaple, Hustler Casino’s general manager, said the gambling bureau was “aware of the situation” but opted not to get involved. The casino has been assisting with the show’s investigation and is also conducting its own.
A week after the incident, High Stakes Poker Productions released the first of its findings, saying a video review showed 24-year-old Bryan Sagbigsal — a production employee who was in the control room during filming on Sept. 29 and had access to players’ hole-card information, transmitted via radio frequency identification tags embedded in the playing cards — removing $15,000 in chips from Lew’s stack after filming had ended.
Lew initially declined to file a police report but changed her mind a few days later after the poker community accused the two of colluding. Gardena Police Department officers attempted to arrest Sagbigsal last week in Long Beach on suspicion of grand theft but were unable to find him, forwarding the case to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Gardena Police Department officers spent Wednesday looking for Bryan Sagbigsal, 24, but were unable to find him.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the district attorney confirmed that the case had been submitted and was under review; it could take several weeks for prosecutors to decide whether to file charges. Meanwhile Det. Hugo Gualotuna with the Gardena Police Department said he was still “actively conducting an investigation in order to make an apprehension.”
Vertucci has vowed to overhaul the show’s protocols and security measures at both the employee and player levels regardless of what investigators find.
Previously, several staffers were privy to players’ hole-card information, which is shown to viewers so they can follow along while a hand is being played (games are broadcast on a delay of one to four hours). Going forward, Feldman will be the only person allowed that access.
Pro poker player Garrett Adelstein risked his reputation, and maybe his career, when he accused another player of cheating him in a $269,000 hand. The clip, and the controversy, quickly went viral.
Players already were prohibited from bringing cellphones and other electronics to the poker table, but soon personal belongings such as backpacks and keys will be required to be placed in $300 signal-blocking duffel bags that Vertucci ordered. They will be sealed during play and placed in a corner of the room.
He is also hiring a dedicated security team that he plans to train himself. Players and employees will be electronically wanded before filming begins.
Neither Adelstein nor Lew has waited for the official investigation to play out, each embarking on a largely self-directed campaign for vindication.
Lew, 37, has maintained that she is innocent, saying her controversial all-in call with jack high in the now-infamous hand was due to a combination of misreading her cards and outplaying her opponent. She has gone on numerous podcasts to tell her side of the story and spar with those who have cast doubts.
In October, the former biopharmaceuticals rep from Pacific Palisades scheduled her own lie detector test in Las Vegas, touting her passing results online. Vertucci said the show’s lawyers have asked Lew to take a polygraph test commissioned by the investigation and is waiting for a reply; Lew told The Times on Wednesday that she was willing to do so, but that her legal team has asked that the other players at the table, as well as both of the show’s co-owners, do the same.
“I feel like I’ve done all the necessary steps I can possibly do at this point,” she said. “I’m just sitting here waiting and it seems like my life is at a standstill until the investigation is complete.” She has continued to play in high-profile poker games, though not on “Hustler Casino Live.”
Adelstein, 36, remains convinced that he was cheated. Since the game, he has retreated from the professional poker scene to conduct his own investigation from his Manhattan Beach home with the help of friends in and out of the poker community. He said Wednesday that even if the official investigation wraps up with no findings of cheating, it won’t change his opinion.
Feldman said the same will be true for “tons of people out there that are still going to be convinced in their mind that something happened.”
“There’s always going to be doubters forever,” he said.
Vertucci believes the fallout will blow over and brushes off notions that “Hustler Casino Live” could suffer in the long term.
“Our show will outlast a few people that have their reservations,” he said, “and they’re welcome not to watch.”
Times staff writer Daniel Miller contributed to this report.