4Poker, an online poker startup founded by industry veterans, including a number of former PokerStars employees, announced this week that they signed Bryn Kenney as an endorser. Kenney’s name has been tarnished this year by cheating allegations, including ghosting and the use of real-time assistance. The poker pro, who is currently number two on the all-time money list, even admitted to ghosting players in his stable a few times on a recent podcast interview, though he denies most of the allegations.
So why would an online poker site want to hire a player whose reputation has been so badly damaged? What do they need from Kenney, or even expect to get from him? And what could he possibly have to offer that would be enough to make up for the stain that his name might leave on the company for years to come?
What Kenny brings to the table
Kenney is a huge name, and signing him brought attention to a company that had been virtually unknown until the news broke. The old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” might apply here, but when that publicity is to attach your online poker site to cheating allegations, it may very well be “bad publicity.”
Unfair games are the cardinal sin in the gaming industry and the one thing that players never forgive. Most poker players just want to play, and they have little concern for anything your company has done in the past. Boycotts fail miserably for this very reason. But, cheating allegations are the one thing that drive even the most die-hard players away in big numbers. No one wants to play a rigged game.
Even so, it’s entirely possible that 4Poker really needed that publicity that signing Kenney would bring. Their Twitter account currently has 105 followers and a Google search didn’t bring up a website for them in the first few pages or search results, so they’re essentially anonymous at the moment. And the signing did yield articles by all the major poker news outlets. But two questions are important here. Is exposure the only reason they signed Kenney, and will it work?
Could Kenney actually be good for 4Poker?
The answer is probably no. Kenney’s reputation is ruined and will likely never recover. He will be forever known as the face of a huge cheating scandal, an icon representing all that’s wrong with poker to millions of players. Cheating allegations brought Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker to their knees, and the brands were so badly tarnished that they became worthless and never returned.
Bringing Kenney on board will likely destroy any chance the site had of being a major success, no matter how many “industry veterans” and former PokerStars employees they bring along. If the site works, it will be in spite of this blunder, rather than because of it. If players don’t feel safe playing on your site, there are other places for them to play.
In a best-case scenario, with brilliant software, player-friendly rake structures, and impeccable customer service, the site could become a real player in the industry. But that won’t be helped by making their first big splash by signing a player who’s hated by the vast majority of their potential customer base.
This isn’t professional wrestling. A heel won’t bring in crowds because we aren’t going to see a hero show up and toss Kenney out of the ring and attack him with a steel chair. All the customers will see is his smiling face, probably winning tournaments on the site. And those customers will wonder how many accounts he’s playing, and whether he has access to his opponent’s hole cards.
The masses are responding with mockery and clown faces — not exactly what you hope for when launching a new business in an industry where integrity is so important. It hasn’t even made the site controversial, as a publicist might hope. It’s just made them a laughing stock.
Is there more than meets the eye?
The 4Poker Twitter account only follows one person. You guessed it, Bryn Kenney. They don’t even follow any of the other execs on their team. They don’t follow any other pros. Just Kenney. Did they need an infusion of cash that Kenney was able to provide or something else that only he was able to offer? Are they hoping that he’ll bring a big stable of players and help them grow their high-stakes tournament fields like he did with GG in his tenure there?
If any of those options are true, Kenney may see the deal as a way to rehab his image and make new headlines that put the old scandals behind him. Being part of a successful poker site that players love might help him recover from this scandal in the same way players like Justin Bonomo or Brian Hastings have rehabbed their images over the years after cheating allegations.
Maybe 4Poker has other plans for Kenney
Heath Cram is the most recent big industry name to join the 4Poker team as the site’s chief operating officer. Cram was a big deal at PokerStars and worked in collusion prevention for the company in Australia. He knows a lot about cheating in online poker and how to handle those issues at a large site.
The fact that 4Poker put Cram in charge, instead of someone more focused on player acquisition or publicity, leads to questions about what their real plan is. Could they have another approach in mind with the Kenney signing?
We’ve all heard the stories of former criminals who go to high schools to talk about their experiences and show kids the right way. Former con men and hackers are often hired by companies to test their security or help them catch the bad guys. Who better to catch a weasel than a weasel?
If 4Poker is really clever, I can see a way that this whole thing might work out for them. They have our attention now, and any moves they make will be news. What if they make Kenney into that same character — a recovered con man who advises them on how to run games that are straight and avoid the kinds of things he and his team are accused of on other sites?
If Kenney comes out in a few months talking about how easy it is to cheat on other sites, and explains how it’s done, he could really damage some other poker sites. And if he also talks about how he’s worked with 4Poker to help them avoid these problems, it could serve to enhance their reputation while, at the same time, rehabbing his name in the poker world.
A clever publicist could use Kenney this way to give his company a huge boost in both visibility and credibility, the two things that matter to an online poker site. If they reassure the public that Kenney isn’t allowed any special access, and can convince players that he won’t be bringing his stable or backing any players on the site, it might work.
The question will be answered in the coming months. Are the folks behind 4Poker clowns who think they can simply overcome the negatives attached to Kenney’s name, or will they turn it all around and use him as the very reason that their site is the safest place to play?