Could Alleged $10k HU Cheater Valeriu Coca Be Innocent?

Justice scales

Moldavian Valeriu Coca beat five players in the $10,000 Heads-Up Championship event in an allegedly dubious fashion according to reports earlier this week.

All five players - Matt Marafioti, Pratyush Buddiga, Aaron Mermelstein, Connor Drinan and Byron Kaverman – are convinced that something very strange happened to them.

At least two of them have publicly accused Coca of cheating. One of the alleged victims Connor Drinan published this on TwoPlusTwo poker forum:

0172 Connor Drinan
Connor Drinan

Hey 2+2, it’s Connor. We (the players that were beaten by this Valeriu Coca guy in the $10k HU) were trying to keep things quiet until we gave the WSOP adequate time to investigate the situation and come up with a solution, but since there are a lot of rumors circulating and a lot of people know bits and pieces already, I might as well clear things up.

Pratyush Buddiga was the first to lose to him. He is my good friend but seemed pretty tilted so I didn’t ask details until I found out he was my next opponent. I asked for reads and whatnot and he basically told me he was really slow and passive in the beginning and then picked up the pace as the match went on as far as speed of play and aggression.

He thought he was stalling in the beginning to give himself a better shot to win at a higher blind level. He said he would stall by rechecking his cards at a bunch of different angles when it was clear he made up his mind to fold already.

He did the same thing in my match…

Drinan went on to explain that whenever he had a good hand Coca would fold and if he whiffed a flop then Coca would always raise. The similarities were eerie.

Buddiga added:

“I can confirm everything Connor said. I wasn’t sure if I had just been owned by somebody who had a sick game plan coming in or not but as the stories started coalescing, it became pretty clear something fishy was going on.”

Marafioti and Marmelstein both have similar stories.

Foul Play a Strong Possibility

Pratyush Buddiga
Pratyush Buddiga was one of the players who busted to Valeriu Coca

Those kinds of allegations are pretty much unheard of and suggest foul play as a strong possibility.

The tournament's fifth-place finisher, Coca says they are all bad losers trying to come up with an explanation for being outplayed.

They all felt “owned," which is the same as being completely outplayed in poker lingo.

I don’t know these players but I do know that the $10K heads-up event probably contains the most experienced heads-up players in the world.

They have played millions of hands, studied HU in every small detail, and have moves and counter-moves for every possible strategy.

I consider myself an experienced and good heads-up player, but I realize I would have a very slim chance in this event because the guys mentioned above pretty much own the game.

Luck Could Have Played a Huge Role in Alleged Cheating

Chips at the WSOP

To believe that a fish from Eastern Europe (according to sources that have played with Coca) could demolish five world-class-players in a row is hard to swallow.

Then again there is a lot of luck in poker.

That’s the beauty of it, and a necessity for its success, but it also means it's very hard to come afterwards and cry because the proof is gone with the money.

The players who got owned by Coca complained to the officials at WSOP and an investigation into the tournament and Coca began immediately.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Coca has allegedly been banned from all major poker rooms in Prague. According to a source he is a “well-known cheater."

The alleged cheating is supposed to have been Coca marking Aces and Kings by bending those cards a bit.

Imagine the power you would have heads up if you knew that your opponent did not have any of those cards in his hand - especially after the flop.

If Coca Was Cheating, Players Deserve Compensation

Matt Marafioti
All five opponents would deserve compensation

Valeriu Coca played very strange, but given that he spent the first 20 hands allegedly marking the cards and then using the knowledge to his advantage it becomes completely logical.

Basically that’s the only way it becomes logical.

But his opponents were stupid to oblige when he repeatedly asked to see their stack (to see the allegedly marked cards).

They were playing heads up and they should have told him to look at his own stack.

Earlier this week I wrote about a guy who by mistake got a seat in the $25K at Aria for $125.

Despite the fact that I said compensation was a difficult thing in poker, if Valeriu Coca cheated the players he owned they definitely can, and should, have compensation from Caesars Entertainment for not being protected and offered a fair game.

The buy in of $10K would be minimum compensation.

The WSOP is conducting an investigation into the incident but initially couldn’t find any evidence of cheating by Coca.

There was no invisible ink or marked cards, and the cards were not bent or bent enough. Or they could not find video proof of Coca bending the cards.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Russ Hamilton
Some poker cheats get caught.

It must be said that the WSOP is played in a huge convention center and not in a regular poker room.

The video surveillance is by default a long way from top notch. I assume that it’s hard to prove anything with the footage available afterwards.

If Valeriu Coca has been paid his fifth-place prize money of $54,545, he seems to be in the clear if he, indeed, did the crime.

Because it’s a crime to cheat in poker if he was found guilty he could face time in an American prison.

The cards have been sent away to be tested in a laboratory, so the jury is still out.

The prize money has been frozen pending further investigation according to persistent rumors.

On the other hand, what if he was indeed innocent?

Forget about all of his very strange and suspicious behavior. Forget about all of his extremely experienced opponents who all strongly felt that something was seriously wrong.

And you do have to forget about it. A man is innocent until proven guilty; it’s a foundation for democracy and the free world. Never forget that.

Coca Might Even Have a Case for Slander

It stinks like my daughter Coco’s last month’s diapers but without shit on the fan Coca suddenly has the advantage.

You cannot make allegations of cheating without substantiation. These allegations of Coca will stick with him for the rest of his life.

They are damaging to his reputation. He has a case of civil litigation for slander – if the laboratory doesn’t come up with anything.

Given that the accusers are inexperienced young guys with a lot of money I’m sure Coca will get top notch legal representation for free, just merely for a cut of the possible winnings.

Maybe I should mention that the guy who finally beat Valeriu Coca, the eventual winner Keith Lehr, allegedly was banned from Hollywood Casino for cheating? Or maybe I shouldn’t?

Lehr decided to hide his hole cards the whole time and WSOP general Ty Stewart was personally sweating the game.

About Ken Lennaárd:

Sweden's most controversial poker blogger Ken Lennaárd has been around the professional poker circuit for almost 20 years. Among his numerous accomplishments are Swedish Championships both live and online, three WSOP final tables and over $1.5m in live earnings. He's now bringing his singular poker voice to the English world via Look for new posts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Note: Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of

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