7 May 2021

Australian charges: the difficulty in preventing match-fixing in table tennis

An investigation by police and Sport Integrity Australia has led to charges being issued against a former Australian table tennis player for utilising information about fixed table tennis games in Eastern Europe. However, analysis of these tournaments and the sheer number of games and participants involved illustrates that sport faces an almost impossible task policing against match-fixing during such events.

The charges

Adam Michael Green, a former table tennis player, has been charged with using corrupt information to bet on table tennis matches, profiting from the proceeds of crime, and providing corrupt information to two other people, reports the Australian Associated Press (AAP). It is understood that at a preliminary hearing at a Newcastle court, it was alleged that Green placed 1,170 bets on table tennis matches he knew to be fixed, generating profits of A$438,000 (€282,000). 

It is understood that Green has been charged with placing the bets between 6 May and 15 December last year, after receiving information about fixed matches and ‘fixed contingencies within matches’ during Eastern European table tennis events. He is also accused of dealing with A$204,383.79 (€131,555.44) in proceeds from his crimes and attempting to conceal it. It is also alleged that Green passed information on the fixed matches to his brother, knowing he was likely to use it to place bets and to Luke Savill, a UK resident, knowing he would use the information to place bets with European bookmakers.

Green was arrested and charged in December last year (see below), following investigations by the New South Wales Organised Crime Squad (NSW OCS) into an alleged gambling syndicate placing corrupt bets on table tennis tournaments. In June 2020, Strike Force Brombal was established by the NSW OCS with assistance from Sport Integrity Australia to investigate the syndicate.

Eastern European table tennis tournaments

The ‘Eastern European tournaments’ involved were not named. However concerns emerged after a spike in betting on table tennis tournaments was recorded last year, following the curtailing of many sporting events due to Covid-19. Table tennis tournaments in Russia and Ukraine were specifically highlighted.

IBIA suspicious betting alerts for 2020…

In 2020, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) reported 44 suspicious betting alerts for table tennis, putting it behind tennis (98) and football (61) as the third most often sport flagged by betting operators for suspicious betting patterns. In quarter 2 of 2020, table tennis topped the IBIA charts.

In May last year, licensed bookmaker William Hill told the Las Vegas Review Journal that table tennis had been its number one sport during the Covid-19 pandemic, and close to US$1 million in bets were being placed on Russian table tennis daily at the time. The main event was the Moscow Liga Pro, founded in 2016, which features numerous matches per day (today’s calendar lists 15 games).

Details from the Setka Cup’s internet site…

Table tennis events in Ukraine operate an even more ambitious schedule. The Setka Cup has numerous games scheduled for today split by the local time in various betting markets, which makes it difficult to accurately assess how many games are taking place. Various sports betting and data sites listed approximately 150 Setka Cup games scheduled to take place today. In the Win Cup, also in the Ukraine, 156 games are scheduled for today alone (12 games in each of 13 halls).

In May last year, Ray Marino of bookmaker.eu told a VSiN podcast that he believes instances of match-fixing may have occurred in the Moscow Liga Pro. The Liga is owned by the League of Professional Tournaments (Лига профессиональных турниров). Its website indicates that it also operates professional leagues involving 3×3 basketball, beach volleyball, short hockey (ice hockey), volleyball, six-a-side football; and eSports tournaments involving basketball, football, hockey, and volleyball.

Partners listed by the League of Professional Tournaments…

No information could be found about who owns the League of Professional Tournaments, however it lists the Russian table tennis federation (FNTR) and the Khabarovsk Basketball Federation as partners. ‘The main league of amateur table tennis in Russia is the Liga Pro’, reads a Russian article about betting on table tennis. ‘Anyone can compete without special preparation. It’s simple: register on the website of the Russian table tennis federation, fill out an application, come to any mini tournament and show your skills.’

The Sports Integrity Initiative couldn’t verify if that information is accurate, but it does appear that a high proportion of the FNTR’s registered players are competing in the Liga Pro table tennis tournaments. A page on the FNTR’s internet site indicates that anybody can pay a registration fee to play in table tennis tournaments, however that isn’t unusual for a national sporting association and doesn’t suggest any wrongdoing – for example, British Cycling operates a similar policy.

The FNTR’s registration page…

However, there are 5,969 players ranked by the FNTR as of May 2021, and 5,061 players are listed in the Liga Pro table tennis database, which lists players ranked with an FNTR rating from 300 to 1,800. The FNTR’s most recent list (click here to download) of male player rankings lists 3,786 players with an FNTR rating ranging from zero to 1,855. The FNTR’s most recent list (click here to download) of female players lists 2,813 players with an FNTR rating ranging from zero to 1,947.

In July last year, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement instructed US bookmakers to suspend all betting on table tennis tournaments in the Ukraine, reported ESPN. It also advised that bookmakers should not take bets on any table tennis games involving six players, which it named.

Two of the players – Anastasia Efimova and Gleb Zotov – participated in the Setka Cup, which counts the Ukrainian table tennis federation as its partner. Tournament organisers told ESPN that both players had been provisionally suspended whilst investigations continue. Both players (here and here) are still listed as participants on the Setka Cup internet site, however Efimova’s most recent match is listed as 10 July 2020, and Zotov’s as 17 June 2020. 

The Sports Integrity Initiative could not find any evidence of any further action taken against the pair. Zotov is listed as a participant in the previously mentioned Win Cup, another Ukrainian table tennis tournament. He is scheduled to compete today. 

The Ukrainian table tennis federation lists 14,521 players on its internet site. Over 1,000 players are listed as participants in the Seka Cup and 550 players are listed as participants in the Win Cup.

A number of licensed bookmakers offer bets on the Moscow Liga Pro table tennis, the Setka Cup, and the Win Cup. Some operators only take bets on the final result of a game, but others take bets on who will win a particular set. Perhaps this is the ‘fixed contingencies within matches’ referred to in the charges against Green.

New data pastures

In 2018, the Tennis Integrity Review Panel (TIRP) recommended that restricting the sale of live data at lower level matches could be key to preserving the integrity of tennis. In May last year, the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) warned that ‘ad-hoc’ unsanctioned events could pose a threat to the integrity of tennis.

The sheer number of participants and matches that take place in the Moscow Liga Pro, Setka Cup, and the Win Cup appear to fit the definition of ‘ad-hoc’. It is very difficult to keep up with who is competing and when. Matches are often streamed live, which makes it very difficult to control who has access to the data needed for bookmakers to take a bet. 

There is no evidence that the Moscow Liga Pro, Setka Cup, or the Win Cup have been involved with match-fixing. But it is not hard to see how the way that they are organised could attract match-fixers. It is far easier for a match-fixer to convince an unknown amateur Eastern European table tennis player to lose a set than it is to convince a footballer to let the opposition score. Given the relentless schedule, it is unlikely that anybody would notice.

The TIU has now become the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), and has its own Tennis Anti-Corruption Programme (TACP). The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is lagging behind, and only began considering the appointment of an integrity officer in January last year after acknowledging police investigations into match-fixing in table tennis.

However, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by sporting bodies on their own. Neither the Moscow Liga Pro, Setka Cup, or the Win Cup are authorised by the ITTF. As such, it cannot police them unless the Russian and Ukrainian table tennis federations are involved. If they are involved, then the ITTF should sanction them accordingly.

However, if nobody collects data from a sporting event, then operators cannot offer odds on it. The idea of a code of conduct for betting operators and data providers has been mooted before. However, this would require a body to police against transgressors, taking action against those collecting data or offering odds on unapproved tournaments.

The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated that people will bet on anything, even table football and frisbee. Until the supply of data to betting companies is effectively regulated it is open season, and companies will continue to sign data deals offering them control over the information that sport provides to bookmakers because such information is profitable. Bookmakers will buy data that allows them to offer odds on new markets. But as the experience of tennis and table tennis illustrates, this allows match-fixers to move on to pastures new.  

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