Ten years ago, legal online poker in the United States died.
By 2011, some would have said we’d already seen the passing of online poker’s golden age. That’s because when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act in 2006, many online poker sites, most notably Party Poker, left the U.S. market. Before UIGEA, there were so many sites, many with extremely generous deposit bonuses, and it was quite easy to build a bankroll by just signing up for new online poker rooms. (We called this “bonus whoring.”)
That stopped after UIGEA, but we mostly just shrugged it off because we still had PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and the Cereus network, Absolute Poker and Ultimatebet.
Games were good, the biggest stars in the game were on these sites. You could see them on TV wearing their Full Tilt gear. Rakeback deals were still common, and if you grinded hard enough, you could make a decent living by being a break-even player by mass multitabling.
It was also widely accepted at the time that UIGEA did not apply to poker. But on April 15, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice seized the domains of PokerStars, Full Tilt and AP/UB. Shockwaves rocked the poker world as players tried to log into their accounts only to see a takedown notice.
Thousands of account holders had their funds frozen, with many of them having essentially their life rolls on the sites. They were broke and had lost their jobs.
“I had just signed a pro deal with up-and-coming online poker site Surebet Poker,” poker pro Mike Wolf told Deadspin. “I flew to France for the World Series of Poker Circuit, all patched up. Came home ready to become the online top boss — I had my own avatar.
“Three days later, I was broke with my schlong in my hand. I spent a year drinking, doing drugs, gambling, and being broke. I was mostly bitter toward the government: I can go to war for my country but I can’t sit in my living room on a Sunday, drink a beer and play a poker tournament?”
(This author had won a small stakes tournament just two days before Black Friday, and it took three years to get my roughly $2,500 balance back.)
Of course, there was a lot of anger and resentment at the government and then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, the man who brought the Black Friday indictment.
“I grabbed a stack of business cards and drove to Atlantic City, thinking there would be a lot of poker players who quickly needed some guidance,” said attorney Mac VerStandig, managing partner of VerStandig Law Firm in Las Vegas. “That’s actually what started my practice.
“I was a razz (a lowball variant of stud) player. It is hard to find a razz game in a brick-and-mortar poker room,” VerStandig said. “From a purely legal perspective, they enforced the laws that were on the books. It wasn’t an overreach, it wasn’t a creative application of an ambiguous law. If you asked me a decade ago, I would have told you I thought it was unnecessary, they were unnecessarily meddling in a fairly self-regulated world. But it turns out they might have prevented a lot of heartache for Full Tilt Players.
“With Full Tilt, that bubble might have burst at some point, it might have been worse, sitting on (poker forum) 2+2, hearing stories of bounced checks and trying to piece together what was happening.”
That’s because Full Tilt, founded and run by some of the biggest names in poker — “the place where the pros play” — was robbing Peter to pay Paul. The principal owners, Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer, are still reviled in poker circles today. They did not keep player funds segregated from the rest of the business, they spent enormous sums on advertising, and when business was shut down, they could not pay off player balances. While PokerStars paid out its American players within days, Full Tilt could not. Players would not be made whole for at least three and a half years, after PokerStars agreed to purchase Full Tilt.
Ryan Rice of Pittsburgh says he was one of Full Tilt’s biggest winners at $1/$2 cash games, winning $89 an hour while 6-tabling. “I needed that money, I had to get a job as an administrative assistant in Long Beach for some shitty PR firm to pay the bills. It was quite the rude awakening.
“They ‘only’ took $5,000 from me,” said Rice. “Did the runaround for a while, and finally the DOJ said they took the $5,000 to pay my outstanding college loan debt.”
The poker giants’ downfall also made it harder for players to get hands in and improve. Because you can multi-table online, it is quite common for players to see more hands in a year online than the brick-and-mortar old-school gamblers would see in a lifetime.
“I never deposited, I ran my bankroll up on freerolls,” said Jacki Burkhart of Portland, Ore. “I’m a mom, I work full-time. I was playing a couple freerolls a week. I went from super part-time poker player to almost frozen in time.”
Burkhart stuck with the game, learning from poker forums like CardsChat, where she eventually became an ambassador.
“At my level, free strategy articles and the strategy forum really helped me. It sent me down a path of studying, which I was really excited about. But after a year I was very bummed that it was so hard to play. Working 40 and being a mom is a big barrier to being able to play live games.”
Burkhart went on to final-table a WSOP Ladies Event in 2018, and won entry to the PokerStars $25,000 Players Championship in Paradise Island by submitting a winning essay on how she got started in poker in 2019. She parlayed that into an $86,000 score, proving that it’s still possible to achieve success in poker in the post-Black Friday world, it’s just a lot tougher.
Still, there are those who were scarred by it.
“Black Friday was a micro event that jibes with my macro experience with the government in general and ‘law enforcement’ in specific,” said former online grinder Ben Amlin of Las Vegas.
“That day, and all the crazy online poker policies that came before, had nothing to do with public interest and everything to do with backroom, corporate D.C. nonsense,” said Amlin. “It defined my views on larger more significant issues in the U.S. from drug-addiction policy to foreign wars. They make soundbites that sound good to white people, and make policy that destroys any real hope of progress while ensuring the next military budget gets passed. I don’t have much hope for online poker, and even less for the country.”
While online poker did return to the U.S. two years later, it wasn’t the same. Party Poker paid a $105 million fine to be allowed to operate in the U.S., but only players in New Jersey can play on it. PokerStars is available in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan. WSOP is available in New Jersey and Nevada. It’s not like the old days where you had a global player pool and millions of dollars changing hands every minute in star-studded nosebleed games, like the gone-but-not-forgotten Rail Heaven on Full Tilt that featured Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius, Gus Hansen and other top pros battling each other and people like billionaire Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, who reportedly lost $26 million, and later claimed he was the victim of collusion.
While it doesn’t appear that the DOJ has any interest in pursuing other poker companies who aren’t quite operating legally, it’s hard for any of us who remember Black Friday to ever be so complacent. The pandemic and the loss of available casino games drove thousands online, including private games on apps. Many players now make more money as “agents” who recruit players for the games than from playing. Of course there are risks in dealing with unregulated games, and the government might take interest in this again, but now it looks like more states are open to the idea of regulated sports betting, and might be willing to legalize online poker as well.