October 18, 2015
PARIS â€" Her black hair is pulled back into a bun, and she's wearing a pair of hoops and light lipstick. It's 10 p.m., and Sima is leaving her Parisian apartment to go to work. She takes a cigarette from its pack, the first of many on this particular night. Relaxed, she walks along almost deserted streets, as though the city is hers.
Her phone rings. It's a friend calling to say she'll pick her up to go to the Cercle Clichy Montmartre, a poker group, or "circle," situated in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. "It's my second home," Sima says.
Her two youngest daughters â€"7 and 9 years old â€" are in bed at home with her partner and her 22-year-old daughter. "During school, I leave every evening around 9 or 10 p.m., after I kiss them goodnight," Sima explains. "They know I'm going to play. The youngest one kisses me and tells me, â€˜You're going to win, Mom. Don't be scared of all those men." I come home the next day around 6. I can prepare breakfast, drive them to school and go back to sleep until 2 p.m."
Sima has three daughters by two different fathers. A professional poker player for four years, she recently joined Roger Hairabedian's Ladies Team. Hairabedian, known as "Big Roger," is the only Frenchman who holds the double champion title. Sima's gambling winnings currently constitute her only income, which pays her rent, feeds her family and earns her enough to spoil her daughters.
Sima, 40, has a degree in sociology and can intersperse her conversation with long excerpts of Russian, Persian and French literature. In the mid-1990s, when she arrived from Armenia with her first husband, she initially worked as a saleswoman and a waitress. That was before a staph infection confined her to a hospital bed for a few weeks and nearly erased some of her memory, she says.
She also tried to create a nonprofit organization to offer chess lessons to disadvantaged children, but that project stalled when she couldn't find office space. She arrived in Place de Clichy after the separation from her second husband, and she was determined to earn a solid living.
200 euros every night
"My friends who are chess players told me about poker," she says. "I got into the circle to watch, and I started learning by observing others. This one, he was one of my subjects of study," she says, smiling and pointing to a guy walking towards her. "He's been to all the poker circles of Paris. I was very scared of his aggressive style of play at first."
There are now experienced players who fear her, even though she pretends to ignore it. "There are some great masters here, but we all form a community," she says. "And it's not because I know how to play that I won't be a "fish" some day. We all are someone's fish!"
A "fish" is someone who systematically raises his bid and who can be easily ripped off. Poker has its own codes and its Anglicisms, which aren't always easy for novices to translate. For example, "all in" is when a player bets all his chips in the current hand, the term "sizing" means to adjust one's bet.
Sima says she approaches the game like a good mother, never leaving home with more than 200 euros or so, her cigarette pack and her cellphone. "I'm a small player," she says. "I don't spend more than 200 or 300 euros. I know that's everything I can lose. I can't go any further."
At 84 rue de Clichy, a group of mostly male players smoke cigarettes outside under the watchful eyes of a security guard. Sima puts out her cigarette before going in. It's not possible to follow her inside, as journalists aren't welcome.
The Cercle Clichy-Montmartre is the last survivor of Parisian gaming's legal world. Since 1919, casinos haven't been allowed in the capital. "Circles," though, are considered distinct and are legal and are oddly considered to be NGOs.
It's a crowded night in the nice 19th century brasserie converted into a gaming room. Sima waits as usual for a table to become available. During the daytime, behind the glass-front double doors, we can make out the 10 round tables dedicated to "low limits," those who bet between 50 and 100 euros. Higher-dollar players are directed towards a well-hidden VIP room.
With its massive windows and tall engraved mirrors, the place looks like a Belle Époque-era tearoom, nothing like the movie scenes in The Sting or Casino Royale. "There is no subdued light or shady atmosphere, and I don't have a pale and despairing face," Sima says laughing. "This is serious here. Rules are very strict. We can't get mad or even talk loud. If two players insult each other, the croupier reports it immediately."
About 200 people come here every night of the week, like others go to the office. In this small world that she calls her "Clichy family," Sima has her habits. Between two games, or when she is waiting for a table, she sits at the bar and takes out a small ivory chess game, a gift from the staff. "I know all of them â€" the croupiers, the managers, the regular gamblers," she says. "Some of them are my friends. I told the boss that if I left the circle one day, I would take one of his mirrors. I spent too much time looking at myself in it."
Her long-standing chess playing â€" she still remembers the position of her pawns during a championship she lost at 8 years old in Armenia â€" has helped her to refine her bluffing skills.
"When we play chess, when we compete, we learn this body language," she says. "We can't find that on online gaming sites. They lack analysis of the adversary, his psychological portrait."
Her largest loss to date â€" 1,000 euros â€" happened one evening when the other players had only average cards. "I had 60 euros left," she recalls. "The next day I left with these 60 euros and I won 800."
It's a day-to-day lifestyle she tries to consider like a normal job â€" except with no fixed wage at the end of the month. At the beginning of the school year, her daughter explained to her new teacher that her mom was a poker player. "That's not an occupation," the teacher replied. Upset, the daughter questioned her mother. "I explained to her that her teacher stayed up for eight hours a day to give her lessons," Sima says. "And I was sitting for the same number of hours at a gaming table to make a living. Most of the gamblers I know don't dare to tell their children what they're doing."
But for Sima, bluffing is only for her opponents.
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It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
October 27, 2021
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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