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Game of thrones

tennisballonclay.jpg"If a sport could have been invented with the possibility of corruption in mind, that sport would be tennis," wrote Richard Ings, the former Administrator of Rules for the Association of Tennis Professionals, in 2005 in a report not published until now.

This is a tennis story - but it's also a story about what happens when new technology meets a porous, populous, easily socially engineered, global system with great economic inequality that can be hacked to produce large sums of money. In other words, it's arguably a prototype for any number of cybersecurity stories.

A newly published independent panel report (PDF) finds a "tsunami" of corruption at the lower levels of tennis in the form of match-fixing and gambling, exactly as Ings predicted. This should surprise no one who's been paying attention. The extreme disparity between the money at the highly visible upper levels and the desperate scratching for the equivalent of worms for everyone else clearly sets up motives. Less clear until this publication were the incentives contributed by the game's structure and the tours' decision to expand live scoring to hundreds of tiny events.

Here's how tennis really works. The players - even those who never pass the first round - at the US Open or Wimbledon are the cream of the cream of the cream, generally ranked in the top 150 or so of the millions globally who play the game. Four times a year at the majors - the Australian Open, Roland Garros, the US Open, and Wimbledon - these pros have pretty good paydays. The rest of the year, they rack up frequent flyer miles, hotel bills, coaches' and trainers' salaries, and the many other expenses that go into maintaining an itinerant business style.

As Michael Mewshaw reported as long ago as 1983 in his book Short Circuit, "tanking" - deliberately losing - is a tour staple despite rules requiring "best efforts". People tank for many reasons: bad mood, fatigue, frustration, weather, niggling injuries, better money on offer elsewhere. But also, as Ings wrote: some matches have no significance, in part beeause, as Daily Tennis editor Robert Waltz has often pointed out, the ranking system does not penalize losses and pushes players to overplay, likely contributing to the escalating injury rate.

Between the Association of Tennis Players (the men's tour) and the Women's Tennis Association, there are more than 3,000 players with at least one ranking point. The report counted 336 men and 253 women who actually break even. Besides them, in 2013 the International Tennis Federation says counted 8,874 male, 4,862 female, professional tennis players, of whom 3,896 men, 2,212 women earned no prize money.

So, do the math: you're ranked in the low 800s, your shoulder hurts, your year-to-date prize money is $555, and you're playing three rounds of qualifying to earn entry to a 32-player main draw event whose total prize money is $25,000. Tournaments at that level are not required to provide housing or hospitality (food) and you're charged a $40 entry fee. You're a young player gaining match practice and points hoping to move up with all possible speed, or a player rebuilding your ranking after injury, or an aging player on the verge of having to find other employment. And someone who has previously befriended you as a fan offers you $50,000 to throw the match. Not greed, the report writes: desperation.

In some cases, losing in the final round of qualifying doesn't matter because there's already an open slot for a lucky loser. No one but you has to know. No one really *can* know if the crucial shot you missed was deliberate or not, and you're in the main draw anyway and will get that prize money and ranking points. Accommodating the request may not hurt you, but, the report argues, each of those individual decisions is a cancer eating away at the integrity of the game.

Ings foresaw all this in 2005, when he wrote his report (PDF), which appears as Appendix 11 of the new offering. On Twitter, Ings called it his proudest achievement in his time in sports.

Obviously, smartphones and the internet - especially mobile banking - play a crucial role. Between 2001 and 2014 Australian sports betting quintupled. Live scores and online betting companies facilitate remote in-play betting on matches most people don't know exist. And, the report finds, the restrictions on gambling in many countries have not helped; when people can't gamble legally they do so illegally, facilitated by online options. Provided with these technologies, corrupt bettors can bet on any sub-unit of a match: a point, a game, a set. A player who won't throw a match might still throw a point or a set. Bettors can also cheat by leveraging the delay between the second they see a point end on court and the time the umpire pushes the button to send the score to live services across the world. In some cases, the Guardian reported in 2016, corrupt umpires help out by extending that delay.

The fixes needed for all this are like the ones suggested for any other cybersecurity problem. Disrupt the enabling technology; educate the users; and root out the bad guys. The harder - but more necessary - things are fixing the incentives, because doing so requires today's winners to restructure a game that's currently highly profitable for them. Thirteen years on, will they do it?

Illustrations: Tennis ball (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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