IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

by ecograap on March 18,2009

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Perceptions count, but are not always well founded as a recent online poker study in the UK illustrated

By Andrew Beveridge, CEO, eCOGRA Limited

“Perception is reality” is a popular and well-worn cliché that has persuaded many people to abandon or suspend their critical faculties and to disconnect from issues. The result of such blind acceptance of a popular view, or one induced by an isolated personal experience, can often be a skewed and inaccurate perspective.

Such is the case, I believe, with a recent UK survey which found that a disturbingly large number of the 2 500 respondents did not trust online poker websites. This despite the fact that there are many long-established and very respectable enterprises of proven integrity involved in Internet poker operations, handling hundreds of thousands of transactions every day with less than single digit problem percentages.

Nevertheless, the online poker sector ignores these perceptions at its peril because leaving these negative views unaddressed can expand and perpetuate the false perspective, causing further damage to business, corporate and industry reputations.

And it has to be acknowledged that there are some – even if in the minority – in the industry who care little for best practice efficiency, player protection and fair play. It’s always a good idea to distinguish one’s reputable business from that sort of venue!

The lack of uniform standards and regulation applicable to an industry which, by virtue of the Internet, transcends international borders tends to exacerbate the situation.

One solution is independent and genuine certification and monitoring that has proved to be credible and can be trusted.

What the playing public needs is assurance. Assurance that the venue they are considering for a little online poker action is player sensitive, offers fair games, is well managed and efficient, fast-paying, takes measures against collusion and fraud and respects player privacy.

Many, if not all, operators would lay claim to such attributes but how can the player really be sure?

It was this question, and a desire to meet international best practice levels that persuaded several major and usually competing online gambling companies to come together 5 years ago and found eCOGRA (eCommerce and Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance).

The key to the credibility of any standards and certification body is independence and impartiality, and for this reason eCOGRA was set up with a controlling board dominated by highly respected and experienced broader gambling industry executives unconnected with the founding companies.

The organisation was based separately in London with its own budgets and staff reporting to the controlling independent directors, and its mandate was to accept any applicant prepared to commit to its standards and central priority of player protection….and able to meet requirements enforced by professionally conducted inspections, reviews and continuous monitoring.

The demand for its services was immediate from companies wishing to work to accepted international standards as a means to improve business efficiency and as a powerful marketing statement of a commitment to integrity and efficiency.

The demand for a wider range of certifications soon followed, resulting in a series of major initiatives to collaborate with international experts in the development of appropriate sets of best practice standards that could be applied to online casino, poker room, live dealer, skill games, mobile, bingo, sports betting and even, more recently, affiliate marketing programs.

To handle the demands of these diverse applications, the staff at eCOGRA – which has to some extent become self-financing through professional services fees – was expanded and now includes fully qualified IT and accountancy professionals who travel internationally to carry out comprehensive compliancy audits on-site at applicant companies.

Certification programs without substance are generally worthless, and for this reason the eCOGRA system is both detailed and thorough.

It starts with an assessment of the software in use in cooperation with the applicant and the provider, moving on to an initial on-site visit by a multi-skilled eCOGRA compliance team armed with a detailed set of relevant operational requirements and standards. These embrace every aspect of operational activity including management probity, financial and accounting systems, support facilities, anti-fraud measures, dispute channels and responsible gaming systems.

Where an applicant falls short in any department, a detailed ‘coaching’ report is submitted to assist in addressing the shortcoming, after which the inspection is retaken. Many applicants have been pleased with improvements in efficiency brought about by the professional advice available from the inspectors, and through the subsequent regular reviews and monitoring required by eCOGRA to maintain accreditation.

To reinforce the concept of player protection, eCOGRA offers the player community another essential element for credibility – a completely impartial Fair Gaming Advocate service which provides free mediation services for any player unable to obtain satisfaction in any dispute at operational management level at venues bearing the eCOGRA Safe and Fair seal used to distinguish accredited and monitored sites. This has proved one of the most powerful trust indicators for players, because the results of its interventions, where these favour the player, speak volumes.

Today, eCOGRA actively reviews and monitors 126 sites involved in the online gambling industry, with many more in the inspection pipeline.

All are part of well established and highly successful tier one Internet companies committed to positioning themselves at the top of the industry by demonstrating a commitment to good business and player care.

There are few, if any, immediate silver bullet solutions to adverse perceptions such as appear to exist regarding online poker, but consistently impeccable and professional corporate conduct allied to credible certification and the maintenance of high operating standards is a practical and convincing alternative to more cosmetic and perhaps short term publicity campaigns.

Many large companies have come to this conclusion, a large number of major European betting groups associated with the European Gaming and Betting Association among them. EGBA and eCOGRA are partners in promoting professional standards and conduct, and all EGBA members apply these standards and best business practices.

There are significantly more good online poker operators than there are bad in the United Kingdom, and this is an opportune time to emphasise the difference by example and deed rather than mere words.