After an intense week of digesting lots of videos, interviews, articles and forum reaction, it's time for me to give my conclusions on the lengthy Full Tilt Poker saga. On September 7th, @taylorcaby tweeted "As I get older I've realized that people do seem to 'get what they deserve.' A lifetime is a long time." I found the comment intriguing and responded that I thought it would make a great blog topic to expand further on his thoughts. Although he didn't respond, I found his comment to be very apropos regarding my thoughts on what to take away from the entire FTP experience. These thoughts have simmered for months and only recently were reinforced by the Andy Bloch and Howard Lederer Full Tilt Poker interviews. This will be a lengthy blog, but one with a goal of trying to gain some closure.
Before I jump into my observations, let me say I'm no expert on Full Tilt Poker. I never worked for Full Tilt Poker and I have no inside sources. The perspective I share is from someone who was a former player, a former affiliate, a former poker content manager responsible for reporting on industry news and mostly in my personal blog capacity to bring my experience and common sense to different elements of the poker world.
"It's only weird if it doesn't work." - lyric from Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious"
We live in a world dominated by those who come out on top. Your results dictate our perceptions. Successful companies and successful people generally revel in the adulations of the public regardless of the technique they took in achieving their goals. But if that dynamic changes and you fail or go broke, the tides turn and everything is scrutinized.
The story of Full Tilt Poker is a complex one and yet very simple at its core. Some notable poker players began an online poker business to leverage their live success. Much as they did at the poker table, they were strategically looking for edges to exploit so they could build a business and enrich themselves further. Instead of trying to incorporate a diverse set of experienced business professionals into their ownership and management team, they chose members from the clubby and informal poker community. That same poker world that is rife with non-conformists, big risk-takers, and slackers. It is also a world full of stories of making it rich, being cheated, overall degeneracy, and money changing hands without much if any literal or moral collateral.
The leadership structure of Full Tilt Poker was kept simple; calling for a yearly election of five Board of Directors (BoD) to guide the company. As Howard Lederer admitted very early on, after Phil Ivey resigned from lack of interest and Perry Friedman resigned due to troubles working with CEO Ray Bitar, Full Tilt Poker never held any yearly elections or ever filled all five seats (the same 4 members served every year until Black Friday). Poker industry commentator Bill Rini noted in his insightful interview reaction blogs (1 and2), that despite upgrading their technology, facilities and numbers of employees to handle their increased success, FTP never prioritized improving their professionalism and oversight of their business from a systems and oversight perspective.
According to Lederer, the BoD played a loose hands-off advisory role; unlike most boards that emphasize outside members with experience and expertise to enhance the company skill set and contribute important strategic decisions while holding management accountable. The essential checks and balances necessary to manage a business doing hundreds of millions in business were never put in place. Howard Lederer confirms this when he admits his greatest regret was that Full Tilt Poker continued to operate with an outdated California LLC start-up geared Operating Agreement despite the company moving to Ireland (with sizable Canadian operations), leaving the largely American ownership very much removed from daily operations.
In spite of this shortcoming, three key decisions propelled Full Tilt Poker to become the second largest online poker room in the world. First, early on they seized on the idea to recruit and promote the best and coolest poker pros; encompassed in the classic slogan "Learn, Chat and Play with the Pros." Secondly, Full Tilt Poker invested heavily in their software, features and promotions to create a great atmosphere and playing experience for poker players of all levels. Lastly and most importantly, when the United States passed the UIGEA in 2006 Full Tilt Poker chose not to stop serving the U.S. market, largest by far in the world, unlike many of its competitors. That risky decision helped them gain tremendous market share and revenue giving them momentum for years to follow. Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars both became the elephants of the online poker world using their quickly increasing revenues and marketing to largely marginalize the dozens of online poker room competitors.
With their improved financial situation after the UIGEA, Full Tilt Poker began ownership disbursements of roughly $5 million a month starting in April of 2007. Those monthly ownership disbursement eventually grew to roughly $10 million a month all the way up to April 1, 2011, two weeks before Black Friday. Over those four years, roughly $444 million was distributed to the 23 owners despite poker industry analysts asserting that Full Tilt Poker was largely insolvent the last 12-18 months leading to Black Friday.
The reasons for Full Tilt Poker's arguable insolvency all relate to the decision to skirt UIGEA legislation. The U.S. Department of Justice was pressuring payment processors seen as doing business with online gambling companies. When firm cases were established, large sums were seized. In the face of increasing commercial success, Full Tilt Poker chose to consider it a cost of doing business and kept finding new riskier payment processors and depositing methods. Although no definitive report has been made public, there are some indications that $115 million was lost to government seizure pre and post Black Friday. Another poker reporter, Diamond Flush, claimed that three seizures alone in 2009 amounted to $100 million in lost customer/company funds. Then there is the 2008 case of third party payment processor, Intabill (run by Daniel Tzvetkoff) who stole $42 million of Full Tilt processed funds. In a cruel taste of irony, Tzvetkoff was fingered to the FBI for his malfeasance by Full Tilt Poker with Tzvetkoff then turning the tables to provide insight and evidence that helped build the eventual DoJ Black Friday case.
Around November 2010, in the face of a deteriorating operating environment, the decision was made to start crediting player accounts despite the charges not going through to player's bank accounts. In the following six months 130,000 customers would be credited with deposits of over $134 million. The collection backlog was eventually worked down to around $100 million when Black Friday shut down American operations. Lederer later claimed that the eventual cash coverage report determined that only $10 million of that money was ever possible to recover.
Mathew Parvis, the PokerNews Chief Creative Officer who interviewed Lederer,reinforced the notion of an overwhelmed company. "Full Tilt Poker grew to levels that nobody, including the owners themselves, could ever have imagined. Everyone, with Ray Bitar leading the way, was in way over their heads but were all too stubborn to realize that the company would have been much better off in the hands of successful, qualified executives. The whole group of 23 was making a killing with distribution checks, so with so much money coming in, even with all the red flags and questions in regard to Bitar and others qualifications to lead the board, and the membership simply turned a blind eye. This was their biggest mistake and what Full Tilt Poker customers and the poker community should be appalled by."
"It's easier to believe the bad stuff." Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman
My biggest reaction after having watched the seven Lederer Files interviews, read Andy Bloch's interview and the poker community reaction was that I had witnessed the ultimate blame game in action.
For those unfamiliar, there is an actualBlame Game. I've condensed the rules for your enjoyment.
1. Anyone playing is never allowed to take responsibility for anything that ever happens.
2. Someone else or multiple others must be given the blame for what has gone wrong, regardless if they are actually responsible, or even involved in the situation.
3. A motive or reason for the behavior of the recipient of the blame must be created; whether its based on facts doesn't matter.
4. Mixing in indignation and vitriol can add points to your blaming score for its intensity..
5. Blame can be attributed through any convenient communication medium: interview, Twitter, blog, article, telephone call or email. Each medium has its advantage in speed and inability to respond or debate the blaming.
6. Getting other players to join you in assigning blame, gets you more points. There is power in numbers and your new blaming community can commiserate at their collective misfortuned to to the blamed. The community will help you avoid introspection or the misfortune of taking responsibility for your actions.
In the wake of the indictment, eventual collapse, settlement and sale of Full Tilt Poker, people are looking for who to assign blame. Most people profess outrage and disgust as they attribute blame. My desire is to highlight the main players who deserve our scrutiny. In my conclusion, I will share my own thoughts on responsibility.
According to Howard Lederer, there are 23 owners of Full Tilt Poker. We can start there:
Chris Ferguson - Largest owner and founder (19.2%). He earned $87 Million in distributions, but eventually only received $25 Million. He was good friends with Ray Bitar from before FTP's creation and Chris was the main reason Ray Bitar was named and remained CEO the entire life of FTP despite stiff opposition at times. He is said to have never wanted distributions, insisting they would only weaken the company. He preferred living humbly and gave most of his eventual distributions to his African charity. After Black Friday, he gave back $14 million of distributions that were in transit to help the company's cash flow. He loaned Erick Lindgren $2 million right before Black Friday.
Howard Lederer - Board of Directors/Owner/Former President (8.6%) He received $42.5 Million is disbursements. He owed FTP $700k and paid it back after BF. According to Lederer and others, Howard was extremely involved in FTP until the move to Ireland and professes ignorance of all fraudulent activity leading to insolvency and Black Friday. He painted the picture of being the most passionate owner to see that some positive resolution came after Black Friday. Outwardly, he chose not to focus on blame, but seeking a solution to the predicament. His interview deflects much personal responsibility while shedding light and blame on Ray Bitar, the CFO's, and other owners (Phil Ivey, Phil Gordon, Perry Friedman, John Juanda, Erick Lindgren and others).
In his lengthy interview, Lederer tried to communicate a clear narrative of not caring who was at fault for making FTP break, but that it was a terrible situation that had to get fixed and that he invested himself fully in seeing it done. Although a believable narrative, that doesn't begin to address how FTP arrived at that point. Many assert that Lederer, as a BoD member, sizable owner , and former very involved President should've been more aware and accepted more blame, rather than doling it out to everyone else. Few doubt the intelligence of Lederer, but very intelligence undermines many of his "I Don't Know" interview answers (I Don't Know parody video,Who's On First parody video, Lederer Confesses parody video). Except for a couple minutes here and there, Lederer seemed to lack the humility, culpability or apology that most felt the situation deserved. As Lederer's harshest critic, Daniel Negreanu insisted that the poker world didn't deserve Lederer's silence, but instead found it "unconsionable[sic], no excuse, they deserved their money and explanations."
In Lederer's words "I was the owner of a company that got itself into a really bad situation, but I didn't actively create that situation. I didn't ever approve any fraudulent reports that were sent off to Alderney or our customers. I went to Dublin on April 17th to try to figure out what was going on and when I found a problem I committed myself to trying to fix it. and I made a decision on that day, the 21st, the only thing that mattered to me until i was either successful or completely unsuccessful that I was gonna try to use the assets of the company to affect a deal to get our customers paid. It wasn't all up to me, but I knew whatever I could do I would.
As an owner of Full Tilt Poker, I took and take full responsibility for what happened. It wasn't right and it caused a lot of pain and suffering and in some cases inconvenience for 3 million customers. That wasn't right. For that I'm truly sorry."
Ray Bitar - CEO(7.6%) $40.8 million in disbursement. Bitar ran a day-trading business before FTP. Generally considered overmatched with the skill set necessary for running what Full Tilt Poker would become. He was seen as passionate, a hard worker, who was willing to do what others weren't to grow the business. All sources indicate he is most responsible for the fraudulent decisions that brought FTP to Black Friday and its eventual collapse, closure, and sale to PokerStars leaving all owners with nothing. Charges of nepotism follow him for having hired numerous family members to positions at Full Tilt Poker. Even after Black Friday, Bitar continued to collect roughly $200k+/mo.
Phil Ivey - Owner (?%) The most popular pro on Team Full Tilt. He owed millions to FTP in loans as of BF. Considered lazy by other owners. Tried to bring in a buyer after Black Friday, then sued when his frustrations grew at not being released to work with another poker site. Despite a very negative portrayal by Howard Lederer, Bill Rini notes that Ivey's name being associated with Full Tilt brought in far more money than Ivey took out of the company (e.g. most popular/used pro, best click thru ads).
John Juanda - Owner (3rd biggest %). Disbursements are explicity stated but should be north of $40 million compared with other sizable owners. He owed $250k to the company. He belonged in the anti-Bitar camp who felt he should be replaced and wasn't to be trusted.
Andy Bloch - Owner (?%) In June 2011, he joined those seeking to replace Ray Bitar and the board, but felt deceived and overwhelmed by the position.
Perry Friedman - Owner (?%) and on the early Board of Directors. He was also an early developer on the site. He was the first to resign after having doubts and problems with Ray Bitar. He took a very hands off approach in resulting years.
Rafe Furst - Owner (2.6%) He received $11.7 million in disbursements. He was one of the Board of Directors until resigning after Black Friday and FTP losing the Alderney license.
Phil Gordon - Owner (?%) He belonged to the anti-Bitar camp and attempted to oust Bitar post Black Friday while vehemently trying to ferret out who was to blame for FTP's predicament.
J.K. Scheinberg - Small non-poker player owner member in the anti-Bitar camp. In June 2011, he assumed the very short lived CEO role when Phil Gordon's group temporarily removed Bitar from office. It last five days before he capitulated and went home.
Gus Hansen - Owner. Hands off until after Black Friday where he demonstrated his acumen and passion to see the players repaid.
Tom Dwan - The newest and youngest owner. He wasn't involved in the operations, but heavily in promotions due to his popularity with younger players. Early on, he infamously promised to give up all his earnings from FTP (over a million) to help pay back players if FTP didn't eventually make good. He owed FTP around $1.5 million and agreed to pay it back in August 2012 if FTP was still having difficulty finding an eventual buyer.
Erik Seidel - Owner (?%) John Juanda asserted and Howard Lederer confirmed that Full Tilt Poker stole $5.4 million from Seidel at some point. Despite that, Lederer insisted that Seidel was a consistent quiet advocate seeking that all customers get paid.
Erick Lindgren - Owner. Fun-loving but troubled gambler. Chris Ferguson loaned him $2 mill April 7th, days before Black Friday to help him settle another debt. FTP accidently wired him another $2 mill, that he has yet to pay back. Lindgren has garnered a very troubled reputation as a welcher of sports and fantasy sports bets.
Allen Cunningham - Owner (?%) No mention is made of his ownership role.
Patrik Antonius - Owner (?%) Heavily used in promotions and popular amongst players. No mention is made of his ownership role.
Full Tilt Poker
CFO's - The Chief Financial Officer of any company is largely responsible for reporting the proper accounting and financial health of the company. As such they are critical in overseeing any key decisions made to weaken or compromise the health of a company and deserve significant responsibility in the failure of Full Tilt Poker. While I don't have much information on the history of several FTP CFO's, I'm told that Gil Coranado was influential and largely responsible for setting up many of the systems and may have helped perpetrate the various financial frauds. There is also brief mention by Lederer of Alan ?., a previous CFO mentioned as likable and competent.
FTP Management - I have no knowledge of what other key executives were aware of the various company frauds and abuses, although some would have to have been instrumental in carrying out actions dictated by upper management. Nelson Burtnick, head of Full Tilt payment processing, is an example of an employee who was complicit with some of the fraudulent actions. Management and employees always seemed to struggle in the face of ownership directives that 'big names' were to be treated differently.
Outside of FTP
FTP Loanees - Despite Howard Lederer's insistence that there was a 'culture of poker' which included regular loaning of money to notable pros. The cavalier way in which Full Tilt Poker handled and tried to collect loans it gave various poker pros was highly unprofessional and irresponsible. Sizable loans by a company shouldn't be authorized by staff, the CEO Ray, or even the board, but rather be authorized by shareholders who bear the ultimate responsibility. With that in mind, I mention a few of the non-owner notable poker pros who reportedly owed or still owe FTP money: (I'm told the list is much bigger)
David Oppenheim - owed money
David Benyamine - at one point owed millions
Barry Greenstein - owed $150k, intending to pay back the new owner PokerStars
Mike Matusow - was known to have owed FTP money at various points.
Alderney (AGCC) As the main licensing body for Full Tilt Poker, they had responsibility to ensure proper capital and financial health to maintain their gaming license. Some claim they didn't maintain proper oversight, while others insist that Full Tilt Poker falsified and forged records to create a healthy business picture. Should they have dug deeper or done independent verification? Howard Lederer claims the AGCC was responsible to indicate if FTP was financially solvent for their licenses, but in post-Black Friday negotiations even the AGCC seemed unsure of their own standards by initially stating $300 million and then $150 million in capital was acceptable for customer responsibilities. It remains unclear what was the proper role and responsibility of Alderney.
U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) The DoJ was charged with enforcing the 2006 UIGEA legislation. Their uneven investigations, seizures and enforcement caused havoc for online poker rooms. Their efforts made players feel criminal when only payment processors were strictly illegal. Their actions ultimately held hostage poker players money. Representing a law that was sneakily passed and mostly unpopular, The DoJ ultimately got a large settlement of $731 million from PokerStars.
"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." - Jean-Paul Sartre
The title of this blog sensationally claims we all deserve responsibility. It is an unpopular message in a culture and society that prefers to deflect blame. The blame game is a big and serious one. But if we are to ever learn from the past, we must accept our role in it.
- The 23 owners of Full Tilt Poker who received great wealth but didn't actively participate or question deserved what they got.
- The 23 owners who refused to communicate clearly or accept deals shortly after Black Friday out of greed deserved what they got.
- The Board of Directors who took a hands off role, not monitoring, questioning, or leading appropriately, deserved what they got.
- FTP Management and employees who followed orders or put out statements that may have been illegal or violated business ethics deserved what they got.
- Red Pros who profited and enjoyed the benefits of status deserved what they got.
- The AGCC who didn't insist on segregated funds or audit carefully enough deserved what they got.
- Around 130,000 players who deposited over $130 million but weren't debited from their accounts deserve what they got.
- Three million customers/players who played on a poker site that was in violation of UIGEA, documented funds seizures, and poor customer service, deserved what they got.
As history has indicated, what devalues people and companies the most is not their actions, but their resulting cover-ups and lies. Humans have an amazing capacity for forgiveness. They also have an amazing capacity to avoid, lie, and deflect. As Bill Rini and vocal critic Daniel Negreanu have stated, FTP mishandled so many aspects of their misdeeds.
Rini's suggested FTP statement that was never made "While the board and I had no knowledge of Ray's actions, we are the board of directors and that means that the moral and ethical responsibility falls on us. We didn't do a good enough job protecting the company, protecting the investors, protecting our employees, or protecting our customers from the actions of a rogue executive who violated every principle we stand for."
Negreanu's suggest FTP statement to players "I'm terribly sorry for those players who haven't received their funds yet and while I'm unsure what will happen at this point, I can assure you that FTP will do everything it possibly can to make the players whole."
Rini's suggested follow up statement "We realize we've made some statements after Black Friday which we have since found to be untrue. We relied on information provided by members of management who did not provide us with an honest picture of the company's finances. Those people have been removed from their management roles, we have a new team of people auditing the company, and we are getting to the bottom of this."
In the end, I'm not saying that all injustices that occur are our fault. It isn't our fault if someone tries to lie or defraud us (e.g. your funds remain safe and secure, funds are segregated, our company is financially healthy). If we accept their words without questioning, then we also accept partial responsibility. It is our responsibility to be more vigilant. Ignorance is no excuse. If we profited, we are complicit.
If I drive to the local store to get some groceries and a drunk driver hits me, am I at fault? It is easy to blame them, but we live in a world where every action we take has inherent and potential risks. We need to be responsible for putting ourselves in situations where harm can come our way.
In that context, I got what I deserved. We all got what we deserved. And we deserve better.