Mens Rea

An Inside Report on Cheating in the Pokémon TCG

imakuni nasty plot vendingebay.comMama once told me that winners never cheat and cheaters never win, but it bothers me how much glowing praise I hear for players who I know are dishonest. People who are well liked, well spoken, and well read tend to be the most charismatic players of Pokémon, and livers of life for that matter. Not to mention, the best cheaters of all.

Supposedly, there isn’t a lot of blatant cheating in Pokémon. It only ever gets brought up when someone does something stupid on camera. The tournament guidelines are just effective enough to discourage the practice. Obvious (stupid) cheating is something that will inevitably get a person banned in Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon TCG, or any other card game with a basic set of rules behind it, end of story. That said, these games have a terrible problem with cheating that isn’t going to go away.

Good cheaters are con artists in every form. They can kill you with kindness and then steal the shirt off your back.

Today I’m going to write about how to cheat in Pokémon, how easy it is, why that is such a big problem, and what, if anything, can be done about it. If that isn’t what you want to read about today, then I’d stop here.

Bottom line is this: it’s only the dumb cheaters that get caught.

While Pokémon has a supposedly sterling reputation for fairness and fun in the world of card games, I don’t think this is fully deserved. The most infamous bad apples have been plucked away in recent years, but that doesn’t mean good cheaters can’t fly under the radar for years or lifetimes. For how many people play Pokémon (4,264 Masters globally have earned CP this season), the ineligible players list seems curiously short, clocking in at barely a page long.

… Magic’s includes nearly 300 names.

So that means Pokémon’s community is crystal clear in comparison right? Basically spotless?

Pokémon players just aren’t banned very often and it seems naive to think that this is because cheaters are few and far between. Don’t think for one second Pokémon’s player-base is a paragon of morality.

The Great Entitlement

So what is cheating exactly, and why do people do it?

Cheating is to “act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game …” —Oxford Dictionary

Let’s be clear. Cheating is an ACT. You have to have dishonest intentions in order to cheat. You cannot cheat accidentally. If you drop a second Supporter without realizing that you already played Steven’s Advice this turn, you’ve done nothing wrong. We call this a gameplay error; AKA an accident.

Errors like these are what the lenient rules documents aim to protect.

Let’s switch that now. If you drop a second Supporter knowing that you already played Steven’s Advice this turn, then you’ve done something wrong. ‘Round these parts, we call that cheating.

So why, when, and how do Pokémon players cheat?

If it’s your intention to break the rules and raise the stakes, ask yourself these two questions before going all in with a double-edged sword:

  1. Will I lose the game if I don’t cheat?
  2. Will I get caught?

If you can assure yourself that the answers are “yes” followed by “no”, then the time is right. The most crucial question is undoubtedly the second, since you have to keep playing the game in order to cheat. After all, the only thing worse than losing is getting banned.

So why do players cheat? The answer is always entitlement: the preference to steal a win than take the loss yourself. There’s nothing worse than losing to an underdog.

If you have even the smallest bone of arrogance, you’ve probably had one of those games that has went like this: you check the pairings. Maybe you see your buddy in the flock of warm bodies and he asks who you’re playing against. He played the same guy round one and mumbled something about a Fire deck, that it’s bad and that you’ll win, etcetera. Well, that game didn’t go so well. It was a bad deck and you should have won, but your deck ran poorly and you lost anyway.

Even the net-deckiest, try-hardiest stack of Pokémon cards couldn’t take down the casual-that-could. And that’s okay, because luck is part of the game and that’s just how things work in Pokémon, but cheaters are often arrogant enough to turn the tables.

Maybe these players aren’t quite worthy opponents, but one will eventually step up to the plate and hit one out of the park. You’ll lose no matter how good you claim to be, but that’s fair play in action. Pokémon is a game of luck, and most players accept failure as a reality.

Cheaters don’t like to lose. These new or unskilled players aren’t experienced enough to know what to look for in a cheater, which instantly makes question #2 (“Will I get caught?”) a resounding “no”, affirming that, yes, I can cheat because I’m unlikely to get caught.

And winning is everything to the cheater.

Reputation Precedes

Let us break down the facade and examine the ugly underbelly of cheating in the Pokémon TCG. The culture of cheating in Pokémon is, first and foremost, empowered by indecisive judges, ineffectual staff, and the tribal aspect of friendships in competitive card games.

Friend groups tend to form around players of the same skill level, but I hesitate to call them cliques; I think Pokémon players deserve more credit than that. It’s no secret that friends tend to want friends that are their peers.

Of course people want friends that raise them up, so it doesn’t surprise me that players are hesitant to speak out against players they know or respect. There’s a lot at risk socially for tight-knit members of the small Pokémon community.

Here are some examples of players who have all dealt with accusations of cheating in the last few years. Gino is the only one of these players who has been banned by TPCi. [Author’s Note: removed mentions of accused players’ last names. As of November 2017, three of these example players have not been punished by TPCi. I no longer believe that they should be singled out in internet searches as having been accused of cheating for the lifetime of this article. That said, the examples above remain relevant.]

Reputation tends to be a great privilege for high-profile cheaters. If a popular player with a good reputation is accused of cheating, be assured that they’ll have more supporters than they will accusers. Wrap your head around that … how can cheaters be dealt with when video evidence isn’t even enough to wheel out the ban hammer?

Nobody can be sure that Henry meant to double nickel his deck, and we can’t ever know if Jason meant to attach a second Energy card in Worlds ’13 or not (or if Dylan knew what was going on, and purposely shifted the game state to get his opponent a game loss). Nonetheless, community support for these players was mind-blowing to me. The hive mind is mindlessly protective of its pariahs.

Even after Gino was banned in 2014, there are plenty of people who still defend him based on his character. There are plenty of giving and kind role models in this community, but the character defense doesn’t work here. Accusations have to be looked at objectively. To think that someone cannot have a positive reputation in the community in addition to being a cheater seems a tad naive to me.

… Let’s be realistic. The double nickel is a deliberate cheat. It is not something any thinking human being does by accident or without meaning to. Doing the double nickel is cheating.

“But what if they were just doing a five-pile shuffle?”

The Truth of Pile Shuffling

merlin magician
“And for my next illusion …”

The pile shuffle isn’t really a “shuffle” at all. There is nothing random about it. Sure, pile shuffling mixes up the cards, but not in a way that I’d call random. When doing one of these, the player is totally in control of where every card goes, even if it looks random.

Christopher Schemanske is completely correct in the assertion partially quoted in Brit Pybas’s recent article

“… the community as a whole generally frowns upon choosing to not pile shuffle between games and looks upon it as a necessary part of randomization. Such a notion is simply nothing more than fallacious fluff — pile shuffling itself achieves nothing in terms of randomization, only even distribution. Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that a player believes pile shuffling achieves a desirable outcome, but it is not a random one.”

Bash PTCGO all you want for the hand of seven Pokémon it dealt you. The nature of randomness says that this will happen eventually. A random number generator gives far less predictable results for a shuffle than human hands will. The reason I bring this up at all is that people seem to complain about drawing bad hands online, but don’t seem to consider that maybe it’s the shuffling treatments people give their paper Pokémon cards that garner optimal results for opening hands. This topic could be an article in itself.

Christopher Schemanske is basically suggesting that pile shuffling is something players tend to do because the result feels better than a deck shuffled only by mashing, and I think he’s right. If pile shuffling makes events of seven Pokémon less likely, then the deck is not random. This is because of clumping.

Due to how a game of Pokémon plays out, it probably wouldn’t surprise us to see stages of an evolved Pokémon fall close together at the end of a game. Pile shuffling spreads cards that are close together farther apart without any chance of them ending up near each other if they are placed in different piles.

Brit asks in his article, “… why pile shuffling would be any worse than riffling since both merely represent various degrees of an order but never something wholly random …” Well, because of the way Pokémon cards tend to be grouped together in un-randomized decks, I would say that pile shuffling leads to a result that is a whole lot less random than indiscriminate mashing.

Although the player might not have any idea that Abra, Kadabra (RIP), and Alakazam are the top three cards when he goes to do his six-pile, the end result leads to a situation where it is impossible for Kadabra to end up next to Alakazam. For this reason, pile shuffling will never put a deck in an “objectively random order”.

But I digress.

No matter how many piles a person makes, five or otherwise, always insist he or she does a lot more randomization afterward. This analysis of common shuffling methods states that seven riffle shuffles will make a deck of 52 cards sufficiently “random”. This seems like a solid baseline for trading card game decks.[†] Despite all this, players who have obviously arranged their decks in a certain way without following up with sufficient randomization (on camera!) are somehow still allowed to play Pokémon. Why is this?

Take this beyond the specific example of the double nickel. Pokémon’s penalty guidelines are exceptionally lenient, as are the judges that supposedly enforce them.

Assuming that everyone is innocent may help the experiences of young, inexperienced, and honest players, but bolstering the “fun” element comes at the cost of giving cheaters a huge edge. Judges that are especially lax on gameplay errors aren’t doing any favors for the community when it comes to stopping cheaters.

[†] Maybe seven is sufficient for a deck of playing cards, but I’m not sure this number works as well in practice for Pokémon cards. Don’t take my word for it. Take an organized deck, give it seven riffles, and ask yourself if you’d want to play with the distribution this method gives you.

I feel like now is a good time to talk about the difference between bad cheaters and great cheaters. Well, here is a no-brainer: one gets caught, the other doesn’t.

So what’s the distinction?

It lies in the way that good cheaters cheat. The best cheaters tend to do the deed reactively.

Reactive Lift

When talking about the “reactive cheater”, I’m referring to a player who cheats in a way that is opportunistic rather than proactive. Proactive cheaters might take cards out of their discard piles, stack their decks, or even steal cards from their opponents. These cheaters run a high risk of getting caught eventually.

People who need high-risk, high-reward techniques like this to win don’t stay in the game very long anyway, assuming Pokémon doesn’t bop them first. The best cheaters don’t need to cheat to win their games. Instead, they cheat to win a higher percentage of their games. Reactive cheaters tend to steer away high risk, high reward cheats to stay subtle. 99% of the time, good cheaters are not cheating. Additionally, this creates very few opportunities for judges to actually catch good cheaters in the act.

So what is an example of a cheat that is strictly reactive?

Well, believe it for not, every human playing Pokémon has eyes, and people tend to be sloppy. Most players also have a shuffling technique. If you’re as set in your ways as I am, it ends up being tough to avoid flashing the bottom card of your deck to your opponent a few times a game. So what should a cheater do with this information?

underground-expedition-rising-rivals-rr-97If the card is important, leave it on the bottom and cut the deck. The card won’t show up anytime soon. If it’s useless, shuffle the deck. You’d rather that card have a chance to end up on the top than anywhere in the middle. But never, ever go beyond this. Even the most underhanded cheaters don’t deliberately shuffle the card to the top. That’s when the cheat wades their way into stupid territory.

To take advantage of this extra knowledge is blatant cheating, but nonetheless tempting to do. I also think it is impossible to treat an opponent’s deck without bias in this situation, so I believe asking the player to reshuffle is the only ethical decision you can make when the randomness of an opponent’s deck has been compromised.

It’s also possible to apply this cheat to your own deck. Not a lot of mid-level players put effort into making sure their opponents’ decks are randomized. Usually it is a simple cut. It’s possible to take this into consideration while randomizing if it’s possible to predict how your opponent will cut. If you happen to peek or know where key cards are in your deck, be sure to put them somewhere in the middle of your deck, anticipating the cut.

And if you have a Pokémon that’s purely a Bench-sitter, put it on the top or the bottom of your own deck before the game and it will almost never find its way back to the top when it’s time to draw.

I know it’s a struggle, but if you want to be pretty sure your opponent isn’t “overthinking” his or her randomization, shuffle the deck when it’s offered. Always.

Reactive cheaters are in it for the long haul. These players are smart enough to be conservative with their cheating and won’t risk getting caught with their paws in the stupid jar of stupid cheats. They capitalize on circumstance and never go into games planning to cheat, but boy can they get the job done when the time comes. The most dangerous cheaters of all are reactive cheaters with good social skills. Be advised: there are plenty in the game of Pokémon.

The Happy Accident

smearlge trio three number happy
“Oops!” ?

You’d never call him a toxic player. He’s smart, probably educated, and definitely socially fluent. When you call the judge, he is the one to take control of the situation, explain what went down, and portray his “errors” as innocent mistakes.

The only thing is, whether or not his gameplay error is ACTUALLY an “error” or an intentional ploy to gain an advantage matters very little in the eyes of the cheater’s declaration of independence, AKA the Pokémon Organized Play TCG Penalty Guidelines.

Awkward people can’t really get the job done here. It takes a social butterfly and a fair bit of acting to consistently pass off intentional gameplay errors as innocent mistakes. But there is one big thing about the culture of Pokémon that lets this happen.

For whatever reason, the benefit of the doubt almost always falls on the player in the wrong. Consider the following. Our opponent draws an extra card. If it’s caught immediately and you call a judge. Never fear, the rules are here, and your opponent apologizes, it’s all good … just an innocent mistake. Right?

And if it wasn’t? Who cares.

Certainly not the penalty guidelines. They effectively say that we can make gameplay “errors” and call them mistakes. That alone is a huge boon for cheaters. The action of drawing an extra card will almost always garner a warning on the first offense. No harm, no foul, right?

Cheaters can afford to make these “happy accidents” several times during a tournament. Warnings can and do add up, but often players catch gameplay errors and resolve them on their own. Pokémon players are just nice like that. Honest players like to have fun. They like it when their opponents are having fun too. Honest players don’t often see much sense in drawing bad blood over a little mistake.

On the other hand, this practice defeats the purpose of documenting warnings. Unfortunately, there isn’t often much of an incentive for players to call judges when they can reverse mistakes themselves. Cheaters don’t accumulate warnings very quickly, nor are judges especially eager to give them out.

Players and judges mutually enjoy and benefit from being on good terms with their opponents and players respectively, especially at local events. Call it Pokémon’s equivalent of networking. Being nice is great for individual relationships, but not so much the overall health of the community. It’s not worth anyone’s time to call a judge for an error that’s caught before it becomes a problem, and as far as getting caught goes, this is the best case scenario for the serial cheater. As you’ll see, being bold with “mistakes” is the #1 way to get away with cheating.

Innocent Until Proven

Maybe this is obvious to more casual players, but when talking about cheating, competitive players definitely overlook the reality that leniency in penalty guidelines is a necessary “evil”. It’s crazy to throw an innocent player a game loss for trying to attach a second Energy card a couple of times during a tournament. But at the same time, doesn’t it also seem crazy that cheaters can take advantage of these rules? I don’t have a good solution to this issue, other than playing 100% of games through a program like PTCGO.

A gameplay error can just as easily be an accident as it can be thinly veiled cheating. And from a judging perspective, there isn’t any way to tell the difference.

Inexperienced players are on guard for stupid and elaborate cheats that will get cheaters banned, but in reality a cheat as simple drawing two cards can prove more than enough to turn the tides of a losing game. That said, the second draw is always a risky move. This is a “proactive cheat”, meaning the cheater takes on all the initiative to do the cheating. These players usually don’t have any recourse when they’re caught. Proactive cheating is risky. Get caught and you’re going to get a strike on your record, if not banned from play altogether.

AKA the Flower Supp trick.

Luckily for the cheaters, Pokémon is relatively gentle on even proactive cheating if it can be made to look unintentional. There used to be a player I knew who was well known for attaching as many Energy cards in one turn as he could possibly get away with. He would try to double-attach in almost every single game he played.

Eventually he backed down to simply asking his opponents “did I attach this turn?” One of his opponents would inevitably say “no”, when the answer was actually “yes”, and he would get away with it. It’s as easy as being bold and going for the second (or third) attachment.

Drawing extra cards is the hard mode version of this cheat. There is an added danger that comes with breaking the game state. The second Energy attachment doesn’t break the game in quite the same way, and even if the “mistake” gets caught a turn or two later, the game state is probably fixable. If the Energy sticks for that long you’re probably home free. When the game sequence is that far removed from the error, it’s awfully hard for a judge to rewind without letting the game hinge on a he-said-she-said situation. The benefit of the doubt generally falls with the cheater if the victim has no evidence against him or her.

The Slow Burn

That brings me to one of the most talked about and most impactful cheats of them all. Unlike most cheats that I’d ever be bold enough to use, this one is about as proactive as can be. It’s stalling.

We all know what it means to stall a game out into a win or a tie, and it’s incredibly easy to do. John Kettler’s 2013 article “The Ugly Truth” talks about stalling and ways to combat it.

1. When an opponent gives first hints of milking the clock, or otherwise having questionably laggy pace, you immediately, albeit politely, ask that they pick up their pace.

As a professional cheater, I recommend just not doing that. If you’re well on the way to stalling somebody out, they will know. The key is to turn the tide of the game into your favor in such a way that doesn’t let the poor victim do a thing about it. When they ask you to play faster, oblige, but don’t actually do it, and indirectly dare them to call a judge. If they’re not assertive enough to make the judge call, you’ve already won.

Which brings us to Kettler’s next point …

2. For a player displaying a demonstrably disproportionately slow pace, don’t be afraid to call the judge.

Now we’re getting somewhere. While the judge is around, all we can do is play at a normal pace. But thankfully for us, and as Kettler points out, judging resources are stretched remarkably thin now that matches often last a full 50 minutes. Judges cannot often justify sitting at your table watching your pace of play. At worst, a clinging judge will only force you to play fairly, which is what good cheaters do 99% of the time anyway.

What judges should do is continue to watch pace of play from a distance even after they get up from the table, this way they catch a change in the cheater’s behavior without intimidating the cheater into playing fairly. Calling a judge on a slow-roller has become a temporary fix to a longstanding problem, especially when it’s one of a judge’s trusted or local players doing the stalling.

In the tight-knit communities Pokémon tends to create, it’s not uncommon for judges that know their local players to be far less aggressive when judging their pace of play. Consider what it’s like as a cheater dealing with inexperienced judges or judges who aren’t assertive people. Passive judges are a cheater’s favorite flavor.

imakuni vending machine loseBulbapediaNobody is crazy enough to believe that Pokémon players are all perfect people. Every facet of life holds a few individuals who believe they are above the law, but the problem is that nothing is being done about them.

Penalties are too forgiving and the community is quick to forget. It is extraordinarily easy to cheat in Pokémon TCG without any repercussions.

I did name names here but only because it’s a fact that they all have been accused of cheating in the last few years. I think the community’s reaction to these accusations is worth highlighting, especially after seeing videos. I’m not really trying to call out cheating, just bring attention to accusations.

Karma is not a boomerang. You’ve probably heard an old saying that goes: “When you cheat, you’re really cheating yourself.” In school that’s true to an extent, but in a competition, there’s personal gain to be had for cheating and nothing to lose.

We all know that the world values honest achievements more highly than cheated ones, but until the cheater is exposed for what they are, the world will be none the wiser.

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