"To live outside the law, you must be honest." - Bob Dylan
It all seemed so perfect, this online poker thing. You threw in a few bucks, you played a little poker with a few anonymous avatars, and if you were capable of telling a flush from a straight, you could make some money.
If you were in any way conscious during the last decade, you heard the stories of online players getting obscenely rich; of bug-eyed kids in dorm rooms playing four, eight, ten tables at once; of virtual accounts rocketing skyward like gas-pump meters with three extra zeroes.
And if you took the dive and played, you saw tens of thousands of players online with you at all times. You saw a few cents or a few dollars of every hand you won get vacuumed into the Full Tilt maw – the "rake," as it's called, the house's take. And maybe you started to do the math ... all those tables … all those players … all those winnings ... that's a hell of a lot of money. Surely somebody's keeping an eye on all that money ... right?
Online poker always had an air of sanitized rebellion about it. There's plenty of dispute about whether online poker is even legal at all; the Justice Department holds that it's not, but poker advocates counter that it's a game of skill and, if you know what you're doing, it's not "gambling" any more than, say, online investing.
Thing is, because of the vast sums of money and the dubious legal standing, online poker requires you to have tremendous faith in people you may not even share a hemisphere with. But at the poker table, faith's worth less than a seven-deuce off-suit. Faith deceives you, faith beguiles you, and finally faith bankrupts you.
Poker players put their faith in online poker, and back in April, when the U.S. government shut down Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker, three of the largest online sites, that faith was sorely tested. The poker players who'd grown rich, or even just made a few extra bucks each month playing poker, faced a stark choice: Move their play to brick-and-mortar casinos, move abroad.
On Tuesday, the government may have finally broken the faith of even the hardiest souls with the allegation that Full Tilt Poker was running a full-on "global Ponzi scheme," in the words of Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District.
Bharara left no doubt about the government's view of Full Tilt: "Not only did the firm orchestrate a massive fraud against the U.S. banking system, as previously alleged, Full Tilt also cheated and abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars." Full Tilt's brain trust "lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company.” Whew.
This is an amended complaint of the April indictments, in which the Justice Department charged company executives with illegal gambling, bank fraud and money laundering. In that crackdown, the government seized the domain names of the sites and announced it would be seeking $3 billion from the companies.
How big a problem are we talking here? This: in the amended complaint, the government charged that Full Tilt had only $60 million in cash just before the April shutdown, but owed $390 million to its players. And while the company insisted in the wake of the April indictments that players' money was "safe and secure," according to a Full Tilt statement, the company also lost $115 million it claims was seized by the government and another $42 million it claims was stolen from a third-party payment processor.
Perhaps most shocking in the Tuesday motion was the fact that two of poker's most famous faces, Howard Lederer and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson (below), were named in the complaint. This is seismic; these guys are Dwyane Wade/Tom Brady-level all-stars in the poker world. Their association with “Team Full Tilt” gave the site unmatched cachet, and they, along with many other professionals, regularly played with the masses who flocked from around the world to the site. In the mid-2000s, Ferguson created $10,000 out of nothing at all, starting with "freerolls" -- free tournaments that pay a buck or two to winners – and building a bankroll that he'd eventually parlay into five figures.
But that trick was literally almost nothing compared to what the federal government alleges he and other directors of Full Tilt pulled: taking $10 million per month from Full Tilt's coffers right up until April. The federal government is now seeking $42 million from Lederer and $25 million from Ferguson. (Ferguson was apparently slated to receive $85 million from the company, but never did.) In total, the government charges that Full Tilt's board members drew $444 million in player funds.
How did all this get so far out of control? One hand at a time. Julie Weintraub, a '70s Vegas poker hustler, used to say that the guy who invented poker was bright, but the guy who invented poker chips was a genius – the idea being, of course, that it's a lot easier to throw a few more clay chips into the pot than it would be a few more greenbacks.
By that maxim, then, the invention of virtual currency, where you spend with the click of a mouse, ranks as positively diabolical. The reason why online poker spread so quickly, and terrified so many so deeply, lies in the way you can get yourself into real trouble without ever leaving the comforts of home. Certainly, you can't bet what you don't have, but you could certainly max out that credit card in a hurry.
Back in 2006, U.S. lawmakers pulled a little underhanded dealing of their own, attaching anti-poker legislation to a massive port security bill that was guaranteed passage. That law forbade the movement of money through U.S. outlets for online gambling, but anyone capable of figuring out how to download an illegal MP3 could find an offshore workaround. Players would deposit their money in offshore online accounts, accounts which Full Tilt pledged were kept separate from the company's operating accounts. Not so, according to the federal government; Full Tilt allegedly scooped into those accounts with both hands.
It's for this reason that the Full Tilt news of Tuesday almost certainly kills any prospect of legal online poker for a long, long time. Forget the fact that this news only bolsters the arguments of anti-poker zealots of every stripe; forget the fact that a Republican-dominated Congress is about as likely to legalize online poker as hold a Sean Penn film festival on the inside of the Rotunda.
No, this is about trust broken beyond repair: what idiot is going to put a nickel of money into an unregulated poker site now, knowing that at any moment, with one click of a mouse, someone could zip his winnings right into a distant, unreachable account?
The news comes as a gut-shot to poker players still hoping and praying for some kind of legislative solution to the issue of online poker. "This is a sad and disappointing day for American poker players," said John Pappas, executive director of the grassroots advocacy group Poker Players Alliance, in a statement. "If true, these allegations detail a massive betrayal of player trust which will cause financial hardship for thousands, if not millions, of individual poker players, none of whom are accused of doing anything wrong." The PPA has asked the Justice Department to make repayment of poker players its first priority; which is certainly a lovely hope to have.
There's an oft-repeated line about poker that if you can't suss out the sucker at your table within the first hour, then you're the sucker. For years, poker players sat down at the table with Full Tilt, firing off chip after virtual chip. What's that tell you?