SII Focus 14 June 2022

While the bombs fall, so do table tennis balls…

1xBet, a betting company that briefly sponsored Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool and is run by Russians wanted by law enforcement authorities, is profiting in bizarre fashion from Ukrainian Table Tennis. While Russia continues its war against Ukraine, most sport has ground to a halt. Due to the imposition of Martial Law, Football has been suspended since 24 February, as has Ice Hockey and Basketball.

But one sport has continued – Table Tennis. The reason? Gambling.

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, most sport was suspended, leaving the world’s gambling operators with a unique problem they had never faced before. There was literally nothing on which to bet. Some viewed the situation as an opportunity.

In Eastern European countries such as Russia and Ukraine, private Table Tennis tournaments sprang up to fill the void. The scale was staggering. Games took place 24 hours a day and organisations such as the Setka Cup expanded to cover other forms of sport, such as volleyball and tennis. In June 2021, 7,504 Setka Cup matches took place.

When war broke out in Ukraine, the Setka Cup suspended all games in the country. However, TT Cup games continued. Why? To provide odds to bookmakers, who continue to offer odds on Table Tennis games between Ukrainians, taking place in Ukraine.

The main (but not only) Russian bookmaker offering TT Cup odds is 1xBet, which in 2019 shut down UK operations following a British Gambling Commission inquiry, after a Sunday Times investigation uncovered that it was offering odds on children’s sport, as well as promoting a Pornhub Casino featuring topless croupiers. It has also faced regulatory action in Russia and – very recently – in Curaçao.

Russia found the operators of 1xBet guilty of fraud to the value of £459 million, however the four individuals involved have fled to Cyprus, where they continue to operate 1xBet today. They are wanted by the Russian authorities. A website was set up for Russians defrauded by the company, and a separate Curaçao court action by international victims of the 1xBet was recently successful in declaring the company bankrupt.

Screenshot from 6 June showing 1xBet offering TT Cup games from Ukraine (click to open)…

However 1xBet continues to operate. It cannot be accessed from the UK or from a number of other countries, however use of a virtual private network (VPN) shows it continues to offer live odds for TT Cup games. And those odds are supplied by a sporting integrity giant.

The TT Cup

Screenshot of the TT Cup’s internet site from February, showing the UTTF as a partner. They are no longer listed as such (click to open)…

The TT Cup’s internet site is hosted by a Ukrainian company. When we began research for this article in February, it listed its Partners as the Ukrainian Table Tennis Federation (UTTF); sports data and integrity company Sportradar; TT-Energy (a table tennis store); and Stake.com, a bookmaker. 

However after The Sports Integrity Initiative (The SII) sent questions to Sportradar in March and the UTTF in April, the UTTF’s logo was removed from the TT Cup’s internet site. The UTTF is a member of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and it is understood that after The SII raised concerns, also in March, the ITTF took steps to deal with tournaments such as the TT Cup. 

The SII didn’t receive a response to the April questions sent to the UTTF, which were resent in June. This time, the UTTF replied. 

‘The UTTF does not support the TT Cup’, wrote a spokesperson. ‘It is a commercial independent organisation, they decide on their own tournaments and have nothing to do with the UTTF. We currently do not know whether TT-Cup tournaments are held in Ukraine, as the UTTF does not monitor their holding. We do not know who organises the TT-Cup.’

Screenshot of a TT Cup game, showing that it’s ‘UTTF approved’

On social media, videos of TT Cup boast that they are ‘UTTF approved’. However, the UTTF hasn’t listed any TT Cup games on its internet site since Christmas Eve 2021. The UTTF lists Favbet as its sponsor, a Ukrainian betting operator that doesn’t appear to offer TT Cup games. Favbet is licensed by Curaçao and owned by Bintpash, a company with an address in Nicosia, Cyprus. 

The UTTF hasn’t listed any TT Cup games since Xmas 2021…

However, sports integrity and data experts Sportradar remain listed as a Partner of the TT Cup on its internet site. Its response to questions indicated that, unlike the UTTF, it does know who is organising the TT Cup.

‘We are working with the TT Cup to move many of the games to areas outside of Ukraine, including Tallinn and Czech Republic, with some currently being played in what are deemed to be safe locations’, read Sportradar’s March response to questions. ‘Any specific questions on the games themselves should be directed to the organisation by whom we are being guided. We are fully compliant with all international and US sanctions as a result of this war.’

Sportradar declined to answer further questions about the ‘organisation by whom we are being guided’ in relation to the TT Cup. It didn’t deny that it was supplying TT Cup data to gambling operators. This link proves that it is offering TT Cup data, and this link shows that it is supplying that data to gambling operators (search for ‘TT Cup’). 

A banner at the bottom of the TT Cup’s internet site mentions that it is owned by Ellikson Investments Ltd. This company is registered in Limassol, Cyprus. 

The given address for Ellikson Investments translates as ‘Homer & Arachova’, which reads like the name of an aspiring law firm. The same company is listed on the website of the Cypriot Bar Association.

Alasia House as shown on the company internet site…

The address matches that given for Ellikson Investments. However, the given email is info@PHClaw.eu. The PHC Law Firm address matches that given for Ellikson Investments – Floor 3, Alasia House. The Law Firm’s website features a picture of the building. The only listed Director for Ellikson Investments is Photos Tsangarides, the Managing Director and Founder of PHC Tsangarides LLC, to give the law company its full name.

PHC Tsangarides LLC also operates the FullServe Group. ‘We specialise in forming, managing and administering Cyprus companies, and can arrange for the creation and management of companies in other jurisdictions via our worldwide network of affiliates and correspondents’, boasts its website, available in Russian and English. ‘We are able to provide corporate trustee, management, administration, and fiscal services to our clients’.

Alasia House today…

Perhaps FullServe offers such services to Ellikson Investments Ltd. The SII emailed the company and the law firm with a number of questions, but didn’t receive a reply from either. Research conducted in association with this article revealed that Alasia House no longer exists at its given address, and has perhaps been demolished.

TT Cup in Ukraine

Kharkiv has been one of the most severely bombed cities during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has suffered some of the worst casualties. Recent research by Amnesty International found that Russian forces have targeted the city’s civilians, in some cases using banned cluster bombs. Kharkiv was invaded by Russian forces on 25 February, and heavy bombardment of the city centre began on 19 March.

On 21 March, during this heavy bombardment, Serhii Rutskyi beat Serhij Maksymiv 3:2. The footage is available on the TT Cup internet site. Both players are Ukrainian and the game took place in Hall 7 (Green 2). A day later, ten games were scheduled in that same Hall, involving 20 Ukrainian players and none from other countries. All of Rutskyi’s previous ten games were against Ukrainian opponents; as were Maksymiv’s. 

The website of the Kharkiv Table Tennis club confirms that it hosts TT Cup matches…

The website of the Kharkiv Table Tennis club confirms that it hosts TT Cup matches, including those that take place in the Green Hall1. The potential danger that this presented to players is perhaps underlined by a UTTF Instagram post (below), detailing a Russian rocket strike on a similar hall in Cherniv.

Betting

The 21 March game in question on 1xBet…

This is the reason that table tennis matches continued in Kharkiv1, at considerable risk to participants. On 1xBet, the game between Rutskyi and Maksymiv was promoted as a Ukrainian table tennis game, and odds were offered. The game between the two Ukrainians was differentiated on 1xBet from TT Cup games taking place in the Czech Republic, as the pictures illustrate. As far as customers from 1xBet were concerned, they were betting on a Ukrainian game.

1xBet differentiated the Ukrainian 21 March game from other TT Cup games taking place in other countries…

Stake.com doesn’t offer TT Cup or any table tennis odds when accessed from the UK, despite being a listed as a partner on the competition’s website. In the UK, Stake.uk.com mentions that it is ‘powered by’ the Isle of Man’s TGP Europe, which is licensed by the British Gambling Commission, despite concerns over its ownership by Sun City. FA Premier League club Everton has recently agreed a record sponsorship deal with the company.

The non-UK version of Stake.com offers TT Cup odds…

However outside of the UK, the international version of Stake.com offers live odds on table tennis games, including the TT Cup. Stake.com states that it is owned and operated by Medium Rare N.V., and lists an address in Nicosia, Cyprus. This address, Lizatia Court, 2087 Nicosia, Cyprus, is the same address given by 1xBet for one of its listed owners, Klafkaniro Ltd.

1xBet using Sportsradar’s data on 22 March…

Betting companies couldn’t offer odds on Ukrainian table tennis without a data supplier. The picture on the left shows that Sportradar was supplying TT Cup data to 1xBet on 22 March. The picture on the right, from 13 June, shows that Sportradar continues to supply gambling operators with data from table tennis games taking place in Ukraine.

Sportradar was still supplying TT Cup data on 13 June…

We asked Stake.com if it has any connection to 1xBet. We didn’t receive a reply.

Brick wall

The TT Cup lists over 1,400 players on its internet site. As The SII received no response from Ellikson Investments, the owner of the TT Cup, we accessed social media profiles connected to five players and attempted contact. Perhaps due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, we didn’t receive a response from any of them.

The TT Cup lists two ambassadors on its Instagram page – British Commonwealth Games Gold Medal winner Paul Drinkhall and German/Ukrainian Beijing 2008 Silver Medal winner Dimitrij Ovtcharov. The SII contacted both of them with questions about the TT Cup, but didn’t receive a response.

Maksim Ovcharenko was born in 2004, making him 18. On 5 January 2021, when he was under 18, 35 bookmakers offered pre-match odds on the result of his TT Cup match against Igor Sukovatiy, according to Oddspedia. The odds comparison site indicated that live odds were available when the match took place.

Collecting and selling in-play data, for example on who will win any of the typical five or seven competition ‘games’ in a table tennis match, allows betting companies to offer live, in-play odds. However, offering these types of bets in sports such as tennis, table tennis, darts or snooker is considered by many to make these sports vulnerable to match-fixing – especially when young players are involved. In a 2020 Report, Europol concluded that these types of in-play bets are often targeted by organised crime groups.

The TT Cup isn’t the only table tennis tournament offering odds on games involving young players. This Win Cup TT player is 17, and is still at school. Research conducted by The SII revealed that odds have also been offered on her games.

The Setka Cup resumed on 10 March…

However, the Win Cup suspended games on 1 April, as did the Setka Cup on 10 March. The Setka Cup resumed in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on 25 March. The Win Cup has resumed under a new organisation, Winners Sports Hub, however it is difficult to discern where matches are taking place. The TT Cup, meanwhile, continued.

A Telegram Messenger channel proffering information on fixed TT Cup games…

In July 2020, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement suspended betting on all three tournaments following concerns about match-fixing. A year later, an investigation by police and Sport Integrity Australia led to charges against a former Australian table tennis player for fixing Eastern European table tennis games. The SII found a Telegram Messenger channel proffering information about fixed TT Cup games.

Data trumps lives

The continuation of sport during wartime is often recognised as being beneficial to a nation’s morale. Ukraine’s elite athletes have displayed a keenness to continue competing overseas, in order to give the citizens of their beleaguered country hope.

However they are competing overseas. That point is key.

The TT Cup didn’t suspend operations and continued, in Kharkiv1, during heavy bombardment of the city. This perhaps illustrates that for some, the data that Ukraine’s players generate for gambling operators is more important than their safety. If your home city was being heavily bombed, would you enter a large potential target building to play table tennis?

It would appear that the reason that the TT Cup continued was not for the benefit of its players, but so that data could continue to be collected and sold to gambling operators. The TT Cup appears to be a secretive organisation that like its Partner Stake.com, and 1xBet, has links to Cypriot shell companies.

The TT Cup has been accused of match-fixing in two jurisdictions and has been disowned by both the international and national table tennis federations. Its Partner appears to know more about who owns it than either the ITTF or UTTF.

The ITTF said that it has been monitoring private tournaments since they began to emerge during the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘From an integrity perspective, it would be preferable for all tournaments to be approved (i.e. sanctioned), which the ITTF is working towards’, it wrote in response to questions. It also said it would take ‘extremely seriously’ any attempt by a member federation to jettison ownership of a tournament and claim that it is privately owned, and further action against that federation may be considered.

There is no point fixing a match unless gambling operators are taking bets on it. Data has continued to be collected from TT Cup games, a tournament associated with match-fixing, and sold to gambling operators whilst Russia has bombed the country where those games are taking place. In addition, TT Cup data has been supplied to 1xBet, a bankrupt gambling operator founded by four Russians that has been subject to regulatory action in three jurisdictions. 

‘The ITTF would expect a reputable data/integrity company to do due diligence before working with unsanctioned tournaments, including collaborating with the relevant governing body to assess the integrity measures implemented by the private organisers‘, read the ITTF’s response to questions on this. Yet the supply of TT Cup data to gambling operators is continuing, even after the UTTF disowned the tournament.

Sportradar may not be the only company supplying TT Cup data to betting operators. But it is the TT Cup’s Partner, and supplied TT Cup data to 1xBet while Russia bombed the very city1 where games were taking place. Not a good look for an organisation committed to integrity 24/7.

• The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

 

Footnotes

1. On 22 June, after this article was published, Sportradar said there had been no TT Cup matches in Kharkiv for 18 months, and that organisers had moved the Green Hall games from Kharkiv. It also sent information indicating that its Universal Fraud Detection System (UFDS) indicated that table tennis had ‘the lowest ratio of suspicious matches to matches played’. It also pointed out that it has an integrity agreement with TT Cup which covers: UFDS monitoring of all matches, Integrity Audit and Risk Analysis, and that the company works with the TT Cup to implement enhanced integrity measures such as ‘codes of conduct for participants, as well as educational support, with integrity training for event organisers and athletes’.

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