“Play Poker with the Pros”
If you were near a television, magazine, radio or almost anywhere in the mid-2000s, you couldn’t escape that slogan.
In fact, almost immediately, even if you weren’t in the poker industry, you knew that familiar red logo of Full Tilt Poker.
This site came out of nowhere to take the poker world by storm, only to come crashing down in just as fantastic fashion. This is the history of Full Tilt Poker.
In the early 2000s, online poker became the hottest thing on the internet. Sites like Paradise Poker and Planet Poker led the way, but it was Party Poker and PokerStars that really blew the doors right off and made the game a household name.
However, as important as these were, the fact that amateur players could face off against the best in the world made poker unique. Imagine walking onto a golf course and playing against Tiger Woods in a PGA event.
Impossible. In poker, your money is just as good as that of the pros, so it is a true equalizing sport; anyone can sit down and put their cash up against the best in the world.
A few poker pros started wearing the logos of online sites – Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke being the most prominent. In early 2003, a day trader by the name of Ray Bitar decided that there was still room for more competition in the space (there was), and he started putting together the plans for a site with poker professional Chris Ferguson, the 2000 World Series of Poker Champion.
Party Poker already had a global brand and market dominance due to its early entry into the space. PokerStars had Chris Moneymaker and the angle that any amateur could play on their site and become the next World Champion.
The two decided that their angle would be to use Ferguson’s contacts in the poker world to not only drum up investment, but also to create the face of the site.
In short order, a series of founders were in place, allegedly including an array of the who’s who of poker: Howard Lederer, Phil Ivey, Andy Bloch, Jennifer Harmon, and John Juanda to name only a few.
With this crew of well-known players and a new TV audience that was seeing them on their screens with regularity, Full Tilt Poker was launched in early 2004.
The launch was by no means soft; the company spent a significant amount of money plastering TV poker programs with their logos and sponsoring a long list of poker players to wear their clothing while in and out of the poker room. This aggression would be a key factor in the future of this business.
Bitar, a savvy marketer, realized that if the company was going to have any longevity in a highly competitive market, it would need a logo that transcended the gambling world.
He and the founders spent months working with agencies to come up with a logo that was not poker-related; many of their competitors had poker chips incorporated into their branding. Bitar wanted the logo to have more of a Nike feel to it – one that wouldn’t need the name to be recognized.
Finally, they settled on the red triangle that was featured behind the name of the company. This logo was then placed basically everywhere it could be; most importantly it was on the clothing of the majority of the most well-known professional players in the world.
The company was clearly setting a competitive tone, both on and off the felt. It was almost impossible to look in any direction at poker tournaments without seeing someone wearing the Full Tilt logo, and the advertising campaign of “Play Poker with the Pros” was in full effect by the end of 2004.
The site put its money where its mouth was; the Full Tilt Pros were always on the site, and you could sit down next to them at cash games and tournaments. The site felt like an online Poker Fantasy Camp.
Of course, generating critical mass in the poker world was not cheap at this point; with all the sites flush with cash, the cost of acquiring a player was rising quickly.
Full Tilt Poker did not stop in their pursuit of players; with the seemingly deep pockets of their investors, the continued to spend massive amounts of money on branding exercises, and even more on their growing pool of sponsored players.
We could take up a couple of pages on this site listing all the players who at some point were compensated by the site; it is better to discuss how they were categorized and what this meant for the players and for the site itself.
First, there was the official Team Full Tilt; this was comprised of the founders and some of the other most recognizable faces in the industry like Mike “The Mouth” Matusow and Clonie Gowen.
These players were paid a fee by the site to wear gear, and appear in ads and other promotions that the site put on for their players.
Next, there were the “Red Players,” a series of players who had their screen names in a different color on the site when they were playing. These players were not paid fees but were more likely given some money to play with on the site and given a generous amount of rakeback in exchange for their play.
This was effective for both sides: the players were getting paid to play, and the site was now littered with sponsored players for their database to see whenever they logged in.
Finally, there were the “Friends of Full Tilt”; this was a group of celebrities from movies, TV, and music who were all compensated for wearing the FTP logo.
Many times, these players were bought into tournaments by the site, allowing them to play in some of the world’s most prestigious events without having to pay.
All of this spending and the overall strategy was working; by the end of 2005, Full Tilt Poker had grown to be the 4th largest site in the market and showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, the company doubled down at that point.
They started to produce their own poker television programs; controlling the production ensured that their logo would be the most prominent on the screen at all times.
At this point, amateur players wanted to learn from the best, so having Lederer, Ferguson, and Ivey essentially giving playing lessons on television was a dream come true for many.
Bitar definitely wanted to be the largest player in the space, and this bravado was evident whenever he was to be found at an event. While the owners of Party Poker and PokerStars were in the shadows, Bitar took an approach that more resembled that of Bodog’s owner, Calvin Ayre.
Flashy parties were the norm for Bitar and the site; it seemed as though the site was rolling in profits.
As it turned out, the site was indeed making a significant amount of money, and Bitar thought it made sense to dole out some dividends to the original founding members. Millions were given out to the players who had bankrolled the site, leaving very little margin above the player balances.
A couple of the founders were allegedly against this idea; they felt it was better to hold on to the money to pour back into their now massive marketing costs. However, Bitar was determined to spread the wealth, and the payments continued.
The whole gaming industry was shaken by the events of October 2006. The passing of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act into law rocked the core of the industry – the lucrative U.S. market.
For poker players, that meant seeing some of their favorite sites leaving the market; Party Poker had to walk away from almost 60% of their market.
This left a huge hole in the market; many players immediately found themselves homeless and looking for a new place to play. Both PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker made the decision to stay in the market and began to scoop up the players.
As a result, both firms found another massive growth spurt and quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the industry; this would be considered the beginning of the end for Full Tilt, however.
For the next year or so, it seemed as though Full Tilt Poker could do no wrong; they sponsored many tournaments around the world (in the U.S., they got away with this by promoting a play money site, FullTiltPoker.net, which had no access to real money games).
More pros came on board, and the site forced these pros to receive their funds online and play through them to cash them out, similar to bonuses given to players.
One board member quit in 2006, citing that the current management could not handle how large the company had become. In 2008, it was revealed that a lawsuit had been filed by former Full Tilt sponsored player Clonie Gowen.
Gowen claimed she had been offered a 1% stake in the company in exchange for her sponsorship in 2004; the suit was dismissed. A former employee also sued the company in 2009 claiming wrongful dismissal.
In 2009 and 2010, some players started to sue the company for unlawfully taking money from their accounts, and trying to tie them to breaking the UIGEA law. While neither of these suits amounted to anything, it certainly seemed like Full Tilt Poker was now squarely in the crosshairs.
The fact that the company wanted to fly their flag in the face of the Department of Justice and with two very high-profile owners was not sitting well with the government. A 2010 report surfaced that they had started their own investigation into the site and owners, although this was denied by the DoJ.
The stress of keeping this site growing was becoming evident to players as well. Many once-sponsored players were removed from the website as a cost-cutting measure. Then, it seemed that players were being stalled on payments.
In fact, by early 2011, there were signs that the site was in serious financial trouble. One high-profile incident came to light: a player who had won a $1 million tournament on the site had his withdrawal requests denied and canceled for no reason; the site was clearly having a hard time coming up with the money to settle.
One of Full Tilt Poker’s payment processors decided that they no longer wanted to work with the firm, and tried to walk away with millions of dollars of Full Tilt’s money that it had in its coffers.
The site threatened the owner of the processing firm, Daniel Tzvetkoff, with planning to tell the government that he was illegally processing U.S. players’ credit cards. This move backfired, however, as Tzvetkoff flew to the U.S and turned himself in. He offered the government exactly what they needed – confirmation of who was accepting payments from U.S. players and emails from guilty parties – in return for immunity.
Soon after, on April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice seized the domains of PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker and indicted the owners, charging them with mail and bank fraud.
The sites were given the potential deal of having their URLs returned to them in exchange for paying a fine and paying back all the U.S. players. However, this is when it became very clear that Full Tilt Poker did not have the money to do either.
A quick estimate showed that while the bank accounts held balances of about $60 million, almost $300 million was listed as being in player accounts.
As this information spread quickly through the industry, the site owners went into hiding. This was for a good reason; they would find no friends in the gaming industry, especially if they had stolen or spent hundreds of millions of dollars that didn’t belong to them.
The story had crossed the lines of the gaming industry, and it soon was being reported as a Ponzi scheme in the general press. Whatever it was called, one thing was for sure; this was a black mark on the online gaming industry.
In 2012, it was announced that PokerStars was going to pay a fine to settle their case with the Department of Justice. When reading through the press release about the deal, two items were of particular note: first, the fine they agreed to pay was massive – just over USD 750 million.
Also, there was a part of the deal no one expected. PokerStars negotiated the payout of all Full Tilt Poker players in return for the database and assets of the firm.
This was another shocking turn in this story; players rejoiced that their balances were going to be returned to them, and the site was going to re-open for players outside the United States. Full Tilt Poker had been thrown a lifeline from an unlikely source – their number one competitor.
Full Tilt Poker did return to the market in 2013, however quickly changed their branding to remove “Poker” from the name – PokerStars decided to have that brand focus more on sports betting and casino games while blending their poker database with the original Stars group.
So, that’s how Full Tilt Poker managed to become one of the most well-known brands in American and around the world in a few short years, and just as quickly flamed out and became known as one of the darkest memories in the history of online gambling.
Here is a summary of what has happened since the return of the site to operational status.
Howard Lederer, after a couple of years in hiding, held an exclusive interview to set the record straight on the events leading up to Black Friday. You can see the interview here:
The response to the interview was less than favorable; Lederer seemed to win back no friends in the wake of this lengthy “apology.” He finds himself a pariah in the industry, although recently he has shown up in Las Vegas at the tables of the World Series of Poker.
Ray Bitar forfeited millions of dollars in assets that he had overseas as part of a plea deal. He was spared jail time as a result of this USD 40 million settlement; his lawyers explained that Bitar was suffering from a major heart issue and would likely die quickly in prison.
Phil Ivey continued to play poker professionally, although he definitely switched to his other love: baccarat. In fact, Ivey has found himself in hot water in this arena as well; he was accused of “edge sorting” in two casinos who then refused to pay him the almost $20 million he had won as a result.
Ivey sued in both cases and has yet to be successful in recovering any of those funds; many industry insiders feel this is karma coming back to haunt him.
Ferguson also spent many years out of the public eye. However, he found himself back at the tables by 2016. In fact, he played well enough in tournaments in 2017 to win the 2017 WSOP Player of the Year title; a banner with his face will be hanging next to all the other winners next year at the Rio in Las Vegas.
As for Full Tilt players, in 2016 their wishes finally came true, with the Department of Justice ending their investigation and refunding money back to players who had balances.
The process was a bit cumbersome (you had to remember your information and the best guess at the balance) but millions of dollars were returned to their rightful owners.
The rise and fall of Full Tilt Poker opened the eyes of many people both inside and outside the gambling industry. The branding and approach to growth were both wise and foolish; while the strategy seemed sound in design, the costs associated would be too much for the company to bear in the long term.
This led to a catastrophic turn of events, which were only saved by their biggest competitor in the space.
The industry will never be the same as a result of the actions of Bitar, Lederer, Ferguson and the rest of the ownership of Full Tilt Poker.