Why the Poker World Can’t Decide Whether Robbi Jay Lew Cheated or Not

Cheating accusations in the poker world are extremely common. Because it’s so hard to prove them, however, they rarely produce more than some short-term drama.

But when the alleged cheating happens on a live stream, it becomes a much bigger deal. At that point, there’s footage for would-be internet sleuths to review ad nauseam, and the debate is likely to rage on for weeks. Such is the case with one fateful hand played between Robbi Jade Lew and Garrett Adelstein. 

Adelstein is a long-time cash game pro who competed on Survivor in 2013. Lew is a relative newcomer to the game, whose previous career choices include working at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in a “senior capacity” (according to the Daily Mail) and being an Instagram model.

The two were playing in a live-streamed cash game at the Hustler Casino. Here’s the nutshell version of how it went down:

Lew, holding an unsuited Jack-Four, missed the flop (Ten-Ten-Nine, two Clubs) but called Adelstein’s bet anyway. That was presumably because her Jack of Clubs gave her back door straight and flush draws, and many of Adelstein’s hands would have also missed this texture.

The turn was the Three of Hearts, where the action got weird. Adelstein bet again. Lew made a small raise and then, after much thought, called Adelstein’s all-in, shocking viewers and the commentary team.

Adelstein happened to have Eight-Seven of Clubs for an open-ended straight flush draw, so Lew was improbably ahead with her Jack High. He was close to even money to hit one of his numerous outs. But even though they ran it twice, Lew ended up scooping the $269,000 pot.

The show’s production team has announced that it has launched an investigation into the claims.

Why is the Lew-Adelstein Hand so Controversial?

There are three competing explanations for what happened. It could be that Lew:

  • Honestly thought Jack-High was good
  • Thought she had Jack-Three and was making a somewhat less insane hero call
  • Was cheating and knew Adelstein’s hand

Of these, the third explanation would ordinarily be the least controversial. Among other things, it’s supported by the fact that she did have Jack-Three the hand immediately before. Having two similar hands back-to-back would make it easy for her to get confused about exactly which small kicker she was holding in the current hand.

It’s also what Lew now claims is the case. However, she complicated the situation by claiming immediately after the hand that she’d known what she had and trying to justify her play. Furthermore, after an argument with Adelstein, she offered to return the money to him, something her accusers say an innocent person would never do.

Certainly, there are aspects of her behavior that don’t immediately make much sense if she’s innocent. However, looking at the situation objectively, they also don’t make much sense if she was cheating.

These sorts of situations are inherently polarizing. People tend to back up their own intuitive beliefs by pointing out flaws in alternative views. When every viewpoint has apparent flaws, it’s easy to justify any position by glossing over the problems with your stance and focusing on the issues with everyone else’s.

On Sexism and Vibrators

Further complicating this is the fact that a couple of high-profile cheating incidents are still prominent in people’s minds. The Mike Postle case looks similar to the Lew case on the surface, though it involved an accumulation of evidence, not just one remarkable hand. Meanwhile, the similarities between chess cheating and poker cheating became apparent when allegations against Hans Niemann came out.

The latter has led to some anti-Lew commenters’ fixation with an earlier moment in the game when her chair seemed to shake while she made a difficult decision. One hypothesis about Niemann’s cheating is that he used a vibrating device to receive signals. To some, the shaking chair seems like evidence of the same.

We can probably throw that idea out. For one thing, the level of vibration required to visibly shake a chair is much higher than what’s needed to send a signal, and (ahem) “insertable” devices are designed to be discreet. It’s much more likely that she was simply shaking her leg, which many people do when nervous or thinking.

The fact that Lew is a woman is also polarizing. Some of her defenders claim she’s being mistreated due to systemic sexism in poker. However, it’s probably equally fair to say that feminists are instinctively more inclined to take her side for that reason.

One Twitter user compiled a list of prominent poker figures and their stance on the issue. Notably, no woman or progressive activist is on the anti-Lew side of that list, though a few are on the fence. What you make of that likely depends on what side you’re on yourself. (Note: Since publication, Vanessa Selbst has updated her opinion to be “65/35 in favor of cheating,” so there is now one woman on “Lew cheated” side.)

However, sexism and vibrators are both distractions from the real question. Let’s examine why people have a problem with each version of events.

What if Lew Thought Jack-High Was Good?

Perhaps Lew knew what she held and just made a really crazy call that happened to work out for her. The appeal of this theory is mainly that it doesn’t involve any external factors. We don’t need to believe she was cheating or misreading her hand. That said, the call itself is hard to explain.

Why Would She Make Such a Bad Call?

Even if Lew thought she had a Three, it would have been an extremely gusty call. Without one, though, it’s impossible to justify.

Lew says she knew that Adelstein was on a big draw. However, her naked Jack is not far ahead of any draw and loses to any missed draws or pure bluffs if they contain an Ace, King or Queen. For instance, she’d be drawing to two outs against King-Queen of Clubs while only being a coin flip against Adelstein’s actual hand.

So, to believe this version of things, we need to assume one of two things: Either she was on extreme tilt and playing irrationally, despite not showing signs of anger, or she’s somehow good enough to put him on a draw or bluff but simultaneously bad enough not to realize she’s still behind that range.

Why Did She Ask if a Three Was Good?

Before calling, Lew wondered aloud if a Three would be good. We can dismiss this as speech play – that is, saying things that aren’t necessarily true to get information out of the opponent. However, in that case, it’s a weird coincidence that she falsely declared this particular hand rather than, say, Ace-high or a small pocket pair, which would also be reasonable bluff catchers.

Why Does She Now Claim She Misread Her Hand?

Perhaps a bigger problem with this theory is that Lew herself now denies she knew she had Jack High. So, in this version of things, we need to believe that she switched from a genuine but unbelievable story to a more superficially plausible lie.

What if Lew Misread her Hand?

Because the Jack-high call is so ludicrous, most of Lew’s defenders favor the misread hypothesis. Thinking she had a pair of Threes makes a call more reasonable because she’d believe herself to be ahead of most draws and bluffs, if only narrowly.

There are a couple of factors supporting this, which I’ve already mentioned: the fact that she really did have Jack-Three in the previous hand and the point that she mused aloud whether a Three would be good before calling.

It also helps that this is now what Lew herself says happened. However, her accusers would say she only changed her story to match what others already found more believable.

But here, too, we have some big questions to consider.

How Could She Misread Her Hand After Double-Checking?

The most obvious counter-argument is that Lew conspicuously lifted her cards to check them while contemplating her call. That definitely makes a misread less likely.

To believe that she thought she had a Three requires believing that she looked at her cards but didn’t really see them. That’s plausible if she was merely going through the motions while her mind was entirely focused on replaying the hand to guess at Adelstein’s holdings. How likely it is, depends on who you ask.

Why Did She Say She Didn’t Have a Small Pair?

At one point, as she’s contemplating her call, Adelstein asks if she has a small pair, and Lew responds that he’s “giving her too much credit.”

Some see this as evidence that she knew she didn’t have a Three. However, it seems pretty likely that she’s interpreting the question to mean whether she has a small pocket pair, which would be a more likely holding for her, and would have made her preflop and flop calls better.

Why Did She Try to Justify a Call With Jack High?

The other problem is that she didn’t immediately say that’s what happened. She only switched to the misread story after getting accused of cheating.

The most likely explanation is that she was embarrassed to admit she’d misread her hand and only did so after she realized that pretending she hadn’t was even worse.

(This reminds me of an anecdote from my university days: A friend was spotted by a girl he was dating while he was being detained by police outside a bar. When she asked him about it the following day, he was too embarrassed to admit he’d been caught urinating in the alley, so he panicked and told her he’d been driving drunk. She dumped him on the spot, proving that sometimes the lies people come up with are worse than the truth.)

What if Lew Was Cheating?

Either version of “Lew didn’t cheat” requires multiple assumptions to be believable. That alone is enough for many to believe she cheated. But assuming that she cheated also requires us to explain away some things.

Why Didn’t She Play Perfectly in Other Hands?

In the Mike Postle case, unlike this one, there’s broad consensus in the poker world that he did cheat. The main reason is that a review of his play turned up an overwhelming number of hands across several sessions, where he made unlikely decisions that all turned out to be correct.

There’s no such pattern for Lew, only this one hand. We can postulate that, in order not to be as obvious as Postle, she was only cheating in specific hands. But that leaves the question of why she – or a hypothetical partner – chose this exact hand to cheat in.

It’s an unlikely one to choose. Firstly, it’s such an insane call that it guarantees that she would come under this sort of scrutiny. Secondly, she wasn’t even a favorite to win the hand. The call – knowing Adelstein’s cards – was positive in terms of expected value. However, it was far from the best spot she could have chosen if she was only going to be cheating in select hands.

Why Didn’t She Use the Misread Story from the Start?

Before calling, Lew implied that she was holding a Three. To believe this was just speech play requires believing that she needed a read, which is not the case if she already knew Adelstein’s cards.

Perhaps she was faking speech play to try to make her behavior more believable. But that would indicate that she realized the call would be suspicious. In saying she had a Three, she provided herself with an excellent alibi for making the implausible call. Why would she then back away from that before returning to it?

Believing that she cheated requires us to think that she was canny enough to feign speech play during the hand to make it look natural, yet still naïve enough not to realize she’d need an alibi after the hand, nor that she’d given herself one.

What’s With the Minimum Raise?

The turn play before the all-in is another big question mark. Making a minimum raise instead of just calling the turn makes no sense if we believe Lew (or a partner) knew Adelstein’s cards. It would have been much more profitable to call, then get away on the river if he drew out on her or make the Jack-high hero call if he bluffed with a missed draw.

Even if she wasn’t cheating, it’s a sketchy play, but there are plausible explanations. For instance, she might have hoped it would get him to check to her on the river so that she could get to a showdown more cheaply with her (imaginary) Three. It would require far more contortions to justify if we assume she was cheating and would have known if she had the best hand on the river.

Giving the Money Back Could Make Sense Either Way

Finally, there’s the fact that Lew gave Adelstein his money back. This is a hard decision to understand, regardless of what you think happened.

True, gamblers don’t generally give back winnings they came by honestly. However, cheaters also don’t usually do so until they’ve exhausted all their options for trying to deny the accusations.

Presumably, Lew felt uncomfortable with the whole situation and the impending social media backlash Adelstein warned her of. She thought giving the money back would defuse the situation. But is that incriminating or exculpatory?

A Twitter exchange between Lex Ozias and Daniel Negreanu neatly summarizes the divergent views on this point.

Ozias tweeted:

I think the reason [Adelstein] accepted the money back is because he understood,in his mind that, with her giving the money back it is admitting that she cheated, because no person who didn’t cheat would ever give back $135k. So he “accepted” the $ back from her as an admission of guilt

Negreanu responded:

Nah. A scumbag cheat out to rob people isn’t giving the money back. A rich, female noob, under pressure in a dark back room who doesn’t want to deal with conflict might.

A Point About Bayesian Thinking

Poker players think about probability for a living. Some of the more careful thinkers weighing in on the scandal have brought up Bayesian probability.

Bayes’ Theorem tells us that, when guessing at unknown facts, we must consider both new evidence and the prior probability. That is to say: when the original chance was very small, even very compelling evidence doesn’t make it as sure a thing as you might think.

Imagine, for instance, that 1% of the population has a particular genetic defect. Someone takes a test that’s 98% accurate and gets a positive result.

Some might naively assume that this means the person is 98% likely to have the defect. But in fact, that 2% chance of a false result is still larger than that 1% prior probability that the person had the defect. The real odds that they have the defect are now closer to 33%, and we should be retesting them to be sure.

How does this apply to the Lew story? The fact that her strange behavior doesn’t make much sense either way shouldn’t change our opinion much. And our initial view of Lew should have been, as it is for all players, that she’s probably not a cheater.

Or, as Phil Galfond put it on Twitter:

Given that someone flip-flopping on their story is only slightly more likely if cheating (IMO), it doesn’t move the needle much as evidence.

Also, most importantly, Bayesian probability: People misread hands more often than they use signaling vibrating anal beads!

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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