Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Anatomy of a Cybersquatter, Part I: Bad Blood Runs Deep

For the Internet, domain-name registrations go through various domain registrars and top-level clearing houses such as InterNIC, and are ultimately maintained under the auspices of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. That said, anyone can register a domain name, if no one else has already has claimed it; it is through this registration process that a uniform series of numbers, termed an Internet Protocol (IP) address, is assigned to that name.

Federico Schiavio, an Italian-born tech whiz who prior to the raid mentioned above was the information technology director at Binion’s Horseshoe, registered the domain name during the first days of May 2003, with the registration becoming official on May 7, 2003. It wasn't, however, the first appearance of That occurred much earlier, in February of 1997, and it was registered and paid for by a high-ranking Binion's and World Series of Poker official, the late Jim Albrecht. Here's the initial registration for the domain name, obtained specially for this piece:

Domain Information
* Status: Expired
Registrar: NetworkSolutions, Inc.
Expires: February 21, 2003
Created: February 20, 1997
Registrant Information
Name: Jim Albrecht
Address: ....

What's curious is that Albrecht acquired the domain in his own name, rather than under the auspices of Binion's Horseshoe. Perhaps it was a light-hearted experiment, or perhaps there was an open question among the movers and shakers at Binion's Horseshoe at the time as to the viability of "this Internet thing." This was 1997, remember, not 2006. A 1200-baud dial-up modem was quite acceptable, and the World Series of Poker was also only a small shadow of what it has become today. 1997's Main Event, the unlikely third and final Main Event championship captured by Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, had 312 entrants.

The project seems to have remained on the back burner for nearly a year, evidence of just how lightly regarded the connection between the Internet and the World Series of Poker was considered at that time. Not until February 9th, 1998 was a major uploading of content uploaded to the Web, and it was major only in relative terms. A bit of the content already seemed dated, as if it had been written prior to the 1997 WSOP and had been plugged into an available spot, but the point remains: As of early 1998, the domain existed, was full of content dedicated to the World Series of Poker, and was available for browsing to one and all on the World Wide Web.

A second update was done in June of 1998, when a few of the site's components were updated; one such update announced the schedule for the 1999 Series. The site, though, was largely the same. Here's the central graphic that greeted visitors on the home page:

And over on the left, a simple visual table offered links leading to brief background pieces on several topics, including the 1997 WSOP Main Event champion, Stuey Ungar, the Women’s Event champ, Susie Isaacs, and a handful of other features. One page, seemingly left incomplete, was intended to serve as a historical tribute to some of the earliest Main Event champions. Other pages recapped the schedule of events, a special “radio charity” tournament, press contact information (this was back in the days when the WSOP needed more coverage, not less), and several interesting statistical nuggets. Curious as to who the all-time WSOP money-winners were through 1997? The site offered a clean graphic displaying this information, part of which appeared as this:

It was a nice start, but the site just wasn’t a high priority in the days when the connection between the World Series of Poker and the Internet wasn’t as easy to see. Then something else happened -- the bitter familial split over control of Binion's Horseshoe Casino itself reached its resolution. The battle pitted the children of casino founder Benny Binion against each other. On one side was Benny's daughter Becky; on the other, sons Jack and Ted, although Ted was no longer officially a part of the operation, having been banned by the Gaming Control Board because of his narcotics violations. Ted had received the "death sentence" as it applies to Nevada gaming, being permanently banned from casino operations in 1997.

The war for control over Binion's Horseshoe was bitter beyond all comprehension, quite literally recalling the days when a mobbed-up Vegas settled its disputes by "disappearing" people out in the desert. By July of 1998, Becky Binion Behnen had assumed legal control of the casino, even as the real battle continued. James McManus, in his seminal poker shosetsu Positively Fifth Street, recounts Becky Behnen's first-person account of how a contract was placed on her head, then later rescinded. Another part of the tale for control touched on the "chocolate chip caper," involving a huge number of illicit, chocolate-colored $5,000 Binion's chips, reportedly created by Jack and Ted Binion in an attempt to break the casino and force Becky to resell to her brother. All this happened in the short period between the July takeover and Ted Binion's untimely and unconnected murder on September 17, 1998, one of the most famous crimes in Vegas history.

Were the $5,000 chips real? Fake? Those who would know, don't say. But what did happen was an episode where a handful of the chips, some $300,000 worth, were attempted to be redeemed by one of Jack Binion's closest friends, flamboyent gambler and erstwhile politician Bob Stupak. Stupak repeatedly tried to cash the chips and was just as repeatedly denied by Binion's cashiers, under the direct orders of Becky and husband Nick. 

Stupak's increasingly hilarious attempts to cash the chips included bringing a camera crew to the casino, hiring the entire UNLV football team as bodyguards -- would that pass NCAA muster? -- and eventually, Stupak even donated one of the $5,000 chips to the church of Rev. Jim Grey, a strident critic of gambling (quite literally the Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion), who was in Vegas to monitor the findings of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which was then holding its hearings at the MGM Grand. The chip was forwarded to Rev. Grey, who tried to cash it, and he was denied, too.

All this might seem far afield from the story of the domain battle, except for this: The highly regarded Jim Albrecht, who obtained personal ownership of the domain name, was a loyal and important member of the Jack Binion camp. And as the "Becky" era began, anyone loyal to Jack either left on his own or was quickly shown the door.

One is tempted to assume that Jack Binion was the evil force in all this, but the poker world clearly took his side in the bitter war against Becky Behnen --- and in large part, that story is far beyond the scope of this tale. Numerous people knowledgeable about poker in the earlier days of the WSOP refer to Behnen and husband Nick with descriptors such as "stupid," "evil" and, of course, "hated;" one even referred to Nick as the "devious Nick Behnen." Such epithets are included here under no pretense of accuracy, but instead to illustrate the depth of ill will touching all those involved. Nick was not even a casino official, but his proclamations carried authority, even if they were later overtuned. People in the know universally use the word "dysfunctional" to describe Binion's Horseshoe at the time.

Did Becky Behnen demand that Jim Albrecht turn over the site to her, free of charge? Or did she blow the matter off in its entirety? At the very least, Albrecht would have been due the nominal amounts he spent to register the name and house the site, which was originally set up through a Blue Diamond, NV web-design startup called The Internet ADvantage.

Albrecht is dead now, the victim of what was widely presumed to be muscular dystrophy. But it's important to recognize one thing. Whatever the nature of the shenanigans between the various members of the Binion clan, the poker people who Jack Binion brought on to run his poker room and his tournaments were universally held in the highest regard... they were knowledgable, ethical men. Among the very highest and most well-regarded were Jack McClelland and Jim Albrecht. They were the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside at the the top of Jack Binion's World Series of Poker team; McClelland was the recognizable face on the floor, while Albrecht handled the behind-the-scenes stuff, the promotions and the marketing efforts that were just beginning to transform the World Series of Poker into the modern-day marketing force it has become. This writer has met McClelland and concurs with the general consensus about McClelland's high integrity, and there's no reason to believe that Albrecht was any different.

Whether Behnen made an attempt to purchase the domain from Albrecht, demanded it free or charge, or remained all but clueless abut the potential value of the name is unknown. What is known is simply that the domain remained in Albrecht's hands. It's highly unlikely that the two could have reached any sort of amicable deal or were even on speaking terms as 1998 neared its close. Yes, Jim Albrecht had paid a nominal fee to register the domain for a few years, perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, and what was a piddling sum like that worth in the context of the greater Binion-Behnen war? Despite that, though, some extreme personal nastiness must have occurred, enough to drive the highly respected Albrecht to an act of retaliatory spite.

Albrecht had control of the name, and he wasn't going to allow something that he owned, at that point without formal challenge, to serve Becky Binion's purposes. In December of 1998 the original World Series of Poker content was pulled down, and a full-screen banner was put up its place. It looked like this:

It can't be said for sure that Albrecht himself created the banner. Nonetheless, the site would stay like this for nearly five years, a veritable "Fuck you, Becky!" of the Internet age.
. . . . . . . .
It must have been frustrating for Federico Schiavio, who reportedly joined Becky Behnen’s operation in early 1999, to recognize the viability of the Internet, to see that there had been a web site, and to see that the opportunity had already slipped away. Becky had the files and the old content, but Albrecht claimed title to the domain. And there wasn’t any interest on the part of Behnen to do a new site immediately following the split from brother Jack, since there were far more important concerns on the board. Jack Binion's high-rolling friends had deserted the Horseshoe in droves, and the Horseshoe itself was in Vegas's struggling downtown, miles away from the bright lights of the Strip. 

True, the Fremont Street Experience was still a fresh draw, but as the casino's owner, Behnen was on the hook for some of that as well, to the tune of more than $3 million. With no high rollers and a losing battle for the average Joe's gambling dollars, the Horseshoe entered a long, slow slide toward financial oblivion, or as a famous poker name described it, she and Nick "ran it into the ground." Jack Binion never needed to make those bogus chocolate chips, if in fact he did; the house was going broke, regardless.

One bright light remained in the Horseshoe's lineup, the annual pilgrimage to the Horseshoe by the world's best poker players for the World Series of Poker. A few big names boycotted the event during what became known as the Becky Years, but spurred in part by the explosion of online poker, the World Series still skyrocketed in growth. Yes, Chris Moneymaker's 2003 victory drop-kicked the WSOP into the mainstream, but the WSOP was already on the Autobahn, just not necessarily in the fastest lane.

After a hiatus in 1999, it became clear by 2000 that a web presence for the poker world's largest extravaganza was mandatory. Perhaps burned by the previous experience, and with that faux porn site still in easy view, Behnen had no intent on letting another non-Binion's-owned site promote the World Series of Poker. Beginning in 2000, the official WSOP information on the web was found on the site, a development that Schiavio even refers to, obliquely, in his own public defense against Harrah's: “For a variety of reasons, Binion's Horseshoe did not want to own any domain names other than and”

Is this statement true and complete? It could possibly pass muster within the time frame of Schiavio's service at Binion's, but it is quite incorrect in view of the old history behind the site. Binion's had never owned the site, Albrecht had, and Albrecht's parting message on the site had almost certainly poisoned any thoughts on the part of Behnen to try to obtain and resuscitate the domain. Yes, Behnen could have probably launched a legal battle to obtain the site, just as Harrah's would do in 2004. Of course, the name was a whole lot less valuable back then.

But what about that old domain name? It was out there, in existence but not being profitably used, and then another unfortunate development occurred: As mentioned above, Jim Albrecht was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Even as Albrecht began working to help promote the new Jack Binion's World Poker Open series, friends inside the industry became aware of Albrecht's declining health, beginning with an increasing limp, and then with the sight of Albrecht being confined to a wheelchair for the last year or so of his life.

Word travels fast within poker's inner circle, and it's likely that Schiavio was aware of Albrecht's deteriorating condition by, at the latest, early 2003. Dead men don't renew domain registrations, nor do dying ones, and Schiavio rightly guessed that the domain name might become available once again. 

Sometime prior to the end of February 2003, Schiavio put in a reservation for the domain in case the existing registration lapsed. Albrecht had a far important struggle at hand than an old vendetta against Becky, and in the end, Albrecht succumbed, dying on October 16, 2003. At the time of Albrecht's death, Schiavio had owned for almost five months.

Any assumption that Schiavio just stumbled across a vacant name wouldn't be believable, not that he's ever made the claim. Schiavio, attuned to the latent value of the name, was in a unique position to get to the front of the waiting line. In Schiavio’s words: “By early 2003, I registered for possible later registration with a service called, if the domain later became available. On May 7, 2003, I received the domain registration for, and I immediately told Becky Binion Behnen about this registration and offered to transfer the domain name to Binion's Horseshoe. Ms. Behnen told me ‘you keep it’ as the Horseshoe was not interested in the domain name.” In a separate legal document, Schiavio asserted that he was willing to make the transfer to Binion's for free, but was told "Good luck with it," declining further interest in the matter.

When Schiavio made his ownership of the domain known to Behnen, it might have seemed to her to be the same old thing, since she likely had considerable animosity toward the name based on the old feud. Whatever the details, Schiavio kept the name. Here's another Schiavio quote, from nearby on the same page: “At this point, I already owned with the consent of Binion's Horseshoe, and Binion’s saw no conflict. Binion’s had never used WSOP as a trademark and did not want the domain name.”

Yet the tale is oversold, and it's the point where Schiavio’s straw house of prior ownership claims in his battle against Harrah's begins to whistle in the wind. “Binion’s had never used WSOP as a trademark” is another way of saying that Binion’s never filed official trademark papers to register the acronym WSOP with the government. What it does not say is that Binion’s didn’t use the acronym WSOP -- because it had, and you'll see the proof in Part 3 of this series. Furthermore, not only was it used in conjunction with the World Series of Poker, but as just stated, the acronym WSOP was the series' original name of choice when creating an Internet presence.

The same sort of incomplete logic is used to sell the phrase “(Binion’s) did not want the domain name.” That may well be true, but it ignores the fact that was already a property poisoned by those earlier events. It also ignores one other possibility: Despite being universally regarded as being uninformed on all matters Internet, Behnen may at least have recognized that allowing the domain to remain in Schiavio's hands could well create an additional complication for Harrah's at a later date. 

Becky Behnen likely hated in the first place, but she still could have seen that outside ownership of the domaint as something that, if not exactly a poison pill, would at least be a thorn to that unwelcome suitor at the door, Harrah's. How else to explain the "Good luck with it" comment?
Because of this, the assertion that "Binion's saw no conflict" is not, on its face, believable. If there was no conflict, then Schiavio would have not needed to seek Behnen's approval in the first place.

Oversight or lasting spite? Either fits, given both the greater scope and the fact that Becky Behnen would've been well aware that Harrah's was not only pursuing her property but was in negotiations with brother Jack's now-separate casino enterprise. Becky Behnen likely viewed in a highly negative way, embittered by five years of staring at Jim Albrecht's final, animosity-driven parting shot that stood as reminder to a family feud beyond most average folks' comprehension.

Though Behnen may well have caused the animosity, the result was the same -- was damaged goods. Either Behnen couldn't see through the old bad blood to understand that the name would once again become a valuable, sought-after property of its own, or she did, but recognized that it could well cause problems to whoever assumed the World Series of Poker property, if that were to occur at a later date. If Behnen could hold on to the casino, then no problem -- Federico Schiavio was a faithful employee and something could be worked out. If not, and the WSOP went to Harrah's or back to brother Jack, then at least one small, last laugh was in order.

Perhaps, for Behnen and Schiavio, the fact that had been owned by a loyal Jack Binion executive made it all the sweeter.

Next -- Part II: Cybersquatting 101

© 2007, Haley L. Hintze. All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons Rights Superceded on this Material.

Link to Introduction
Link to Part 1
Link to Part 2
Link to Part 3
Link to Part 4
Link to Part 5
Link to Part 6

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