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Poker's Black Friday 2011: What Happened When & Why


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The world of online poker has never been the same since the tumultuous and disruptive events of Black Friday. On April 15, 2011, internet poker – particularly in the United States – was dealt a heavy blow from which it spent the next few years slowly recovering.

The consequences of Black Friday are still being felt today, and this landmark incident serves to roughly divide the history of online poker into two distinct epochs: pre-BF and post-BF. Any serious follower of the industry has taken the time to understand what happened on Black Friday, the impacts it had on online gaming, and the reverberations from BF that echo on until the present day. If you consider yourself an online poker aficionado, then perhaps you would do well to refresh your knowledge of Black Friday by reading the article below.

Poker's Black Friday

What Happened on Black Friday?

The story of poker's Black Friday begins on April 15, 2011. On that date, unsuspecting poker players who visited the websites of the three largest online card sites serving the United States at that time – PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and the Cereus Network (Absolute Poker + UltimateBet) – were greeted with a very distressing message:

Black Friday Takedown Notice Message Shown to Visitors of the Major Online Poker Websites

On that same day, an indictment was made public[1] that charged 11 poker site founders, executives, and payment processors with crimes including bank fraud and violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. At around the same time, a civil suit was launched against the companies themselves[2], seeking $3 billion from them. The legal paperwork was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The masterminds behind this crackdown were Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Office Janice K. Fedarcyk.

Preet Bharara and Janice Fedarcyk Preet Bharara (left) and Janice Fedarcyk (right) Were the Masterminds of the Black Friday Crackdown

In the wake of these legal proceedings, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars suspended U.S. customers from being able to access their real money games. It took Absolute and UltimateBet about a month to follow suit, but ever since then, no American users have been able to play at any of the four affected sites.

Once the hammer dropped and they were no longer able to sit at the tables on their favorite online sites, many U.S. players were left wondering exactly what the heck was going on. The status of the money in their accounts was also in limbo without any definite assurances when or indeed if it would be paid out to them. The poker community waited apprehensively to find out what would happen next.

Black Friday Background

Before going any further with our account of Black Friday and the fallout resulting from it, we feel that it would be prudent at this point to review the events that led up to this dismal day. Although it appeared to arrive totally out of the blue, there were prior hints that something terrible was in the works.

UIGEA

As previously mentioned, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was one of the tools used by the government in its attempt to shut down the internet poker industry. In actuality, the applicability of this law as it relates to online poker has not exactly been firmly established. This didn't dissuade prosecutors, though, as they love engaging in the shady tactic of bringing a mass of charges against defendants in the hope that at least a few individuals will cave in and cop to pleas.

The UIGEA was passed through Congress as a result of shady backroom politics and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2006. This bill subjects companies that process financial transactions for illegal gambling to certain penalties. The text of the UIGEA itself[3] does not specify what constitutes illegal gambling instead relying on other federal, state, or local laws to make this determination.

George W. Bush“They [online poker site managers] misunderestimated me”

In the months following the enactment of the UIGEA, several prominent poker organizations voluntarily exited the U.S. market. However, no prosecutions occurred under the act for several years thereafter, making these departures look somewhat hasty in retrospect.

Indeed, the full implementation of the UIGEA was not set to occur until the necessary regulations for banks and other financial institutions were drafted, which took place Nov. 12, 2008[4]. These rules went live on Jan. 19, 2009, but institutions had until Dec. 1 of that year before they had to begin following the new guidelines. This deadline was pushed back to June 1, 2010 by a subsequent act of Congress.

Given that enforcement of the UIGEA as it pertained to banking could not start in earnest until June 1, 2010 at the earliest, it's easy to understand why it was only in early 2011 that the authorities moved ahead with their ill-conceived crusade against online poker. They undoubtedly needed the intervening months to plan their strategy and gather evidence.

Tzvetkoff Turns State's Evidence

Daniel Tzvetkoff, the head of internet payments company Intabill, was the first person ever charged with UIGEA-related infractions when he was arrested on April 16, 2010. Though banks and other financial corporations were not required to police transactions for UIGEA compliance at that time, the activities designated as against the law were still illegal and could be prosecuted as such.

Tzvetkoff's firm had processed hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for some of the leading online gaming sites, but his company went belly-up in July 2009, owing tens of millions to former clients. Full Tilt had in fact sued Intabill for $52 million Australian dollars. PokerStars and Absolute had also reportedly been stiffed by Tzvetkoff.

Daniel Tzvetkoff Daniel Tzvetkoff, Payment Processor Who Decided to Turn Government Informant

Tzvetkoff, an Australian, was apprehended during an ill-conceived trip to Las Vegas to attend an industry conference. Facing a possible 75 years in prison[5] and having run his formerly lucrative enterprise into the ground, Tzvetkoff made what was probably the only reasonable decision left to him: He opted to cooperate with prosecutors, providing information on how the offshore payments industry operated in exchange for leniency on the counts brought against him. Daniel was quietly released from custody a few months later.

People in the know are convinced that Daniel Tzvetkoff's help was instrumental in the construction of the Black Friday case. It's no coincidence that the entities targeted in April 2011 were his former customers.

Details of the BF Indictments

Armed with the results of their investigations, including the assistance given by Daniel Tzvetkoff, prosecutors levied multiple charges against each of the Black Friday defendants. The people accused of crimes were:

  • John Campos, 57, part owner of SunFirst Bank
  • Chad Elie, 31, payment processor
  • Bradley Franzen, 41, payment processor
  • Ira Rubin, 52, payment processor
  • Ryan Lang, 36, payment processor
  • Isai Scheinberg, 64 (est.), founder of PokerStars
  • Ray Bitar, 39, founder of Full Tilt Poker
  • Scott Tom, 31, co-founder of Absolute Poker
  • Brent Beckley, 31, co-founder of Absolute Poker
  • Paul Tate, 37, PokerStars director of payments
  • Nelson Burtnick, 40, Full Tilt director of payments

More About the Charges

The crimes of which the Black Friday defendants were accused fall broadly into two categories: those relating to the provision of illegal gambling services, including UIGEA violations, and those dealing with bank fraud and money laundering. The authorities focused their efforts on the latter group of offenses.

UIGEA-related Allegations

The UIGEA, as we have noted, does not define exactly what types of gambling it covers. It instead relies on other anti-gambling statutes to trigger it.

For Black Friday, prosecutors relied on a New York law[6] that makes promoting gambling a class A misdemeanor (punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine of up to $1,000). The applicability of this statute in regard to poker is not clear because New York treats as gambling only those games in which “the outcome depends in a material degree upon an element of chance,”[7] and it's possible that the amount of skill involved in poker means that it is not gambling in the eyes of the law of New York.

Regardless, this misdemeanor charge at the state level was necessary to invoke the UIGEA and its more substantial penalties of up to five years' imprisonment and heftier fines. The Illegal Gambling Businesses Act[8] was also brought to bear because it contains provisions allowing for the seizure of assets related to gambling crimes. The justice of elevating small-time misdemeanors into serious felonies through the mechanism of chaining together disparate state and federal laws is a subject for another time, but suffice it to say that it’s a commonplace practice in law enforcement.

Bank Fraud and Related Charges

The bulk of the Black Friday indictments were concerned with the various workarounds employed by the poker sites and their payment processors to get around strict bank rules against online gambling. Even before the UIGEA was dreamed of, most corporations in the finance sector frowned upon gambling and strove to identify and block transactions related to it.

Therefore, the principals at offshore gaming organizations had to get creative if they wished to accept deposits from their American customers. They concocted various means of circumventing the strict rules in place against gambling transactions.

The scheme that got them into the most trouble was miscoding credit card transactions to appear to be purchases of goods and services other than gaming. They even set up fake companies complete with bogus websites detailing the bicycles, golf clubs, pet food, et cetera that were for sale. These made-up merchants would initiate the credit card charges on behalf of the poker companies, using the relevant transaction code for whatever merchandise was allegedly being sold and avoiding the code for internet gambling.

GolfShopCenter.com GolfShopCenter.com, a Bogus E-Commerce Storefront Used to Trick Banks

In the eyes of the FBI and DoJ, this constituted bank fraud. It's hard to see who suffered any harm from this minor deception: Neither the players, the banks, nor the credit card firms themselves lost any money as a result. Nevertheless, this was an important plank in the case against the 11 defendants.

Another aspect of the way online poker business was done in those days was the creation of multiple layers of shell companies used to interface with the ACH system[9] for the processing of e-check deposits. Had the poker sites tried openly to set this functionality up by themselves, they would have been denied by the banks, which were loath to get involved in the industry. By cloaking their intentions through multiple intermediaries, they concealed the connection between the ACH transfers and internet poker.

A few of the payment processors even got together and reached an agreement with SunFirst Bank in Saint George, Utah. In exchange for investments in SunFirst to the tune of millions, the bank would turn a blind eye to the miscoded online gaming transactions passing through its system. SunFirst also received payment processing fees for each transaction.

SunFirst Bank SunFirst Bank in St. George, Utah

Because of the sums of money being moved around, the clandestine nature of the transactions, and the fact that many of the defendants were working together to achieve their goals, they were accused of money laundering conspiracy in addition to bank fraud.

Accused Rounded Up

It didn't take long for the government to start detaining the suspects once the indictments were announced. The FBI stated that SunBank exec John Campos and payment processor Chad Elie had been arrested the same day the press release announcing Black Friday[10] was issued, that is, Friday, April 15, 2011. Payments purveyor Bradley Franzen turned himself in on Monday a few days later. All three were released on bail following their first appearances in court.

Long Arm of Law Extends Overseas

The other eight defendants were not located in the United States and thus could not be detained by U.S. law enforcement personnel. This did not dissuade the DoJ and FBI, however, as they began to liaise with foreign jurisdictions, secure international extradition cooperation, and engage in private negotiations with the accused's lawyers.

One by one, the remaining indicted persons returned to the United States, willingly or not, and had to face their day in court. The last remaining holdout was Isai Scheinberg, founder of PokerStars, but he surrendered himself to the U.S. authorities in January 2020 after living in Switzerland for many years.

Guilt Not Definitively Established

All of the individuals charged as part of the Black Friday crackdown pleaded guilty to at least one offense. Despite the whopping array of charges against them, sometimes carrying maximum possible prison time of multiple decades, the longest sentence meted out was just three years. Additionally, some of them had to pay fines.

Notably, all of the “guilty” parties entered plea bargain[11] arrangements. None of the cases went to trial.

It's understandable that prosecutors did not wish to try their luck with the vagaries of the trial system especially given that their legal position was not exactly ironclad. This means that, despite the zeal with which the accused were tracked down and forced to appear in court, there's no telling whether or not the charges they faced would actually have resulted in guilty verdicts if presented before a jury. Moreover, the government's legal reasoning remains untested, and so we can't be sure that United States v. Scheinberg, et al. had a solid foundation rather than just being an example of prosecutorial overreach.

Fate of the Companies Hit by Black Friday

The entire online poker industry was thrown for a loop by the staggering blow that was Black Friday. Still, corporations that had already left the U.S. market earlier were not really affected. It was the sites that still served Americans that had to do some hard thinking, none more so than the three entities directly mentioned in the court filings.

PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet all had differing responses to these unexpected events. These reactions revealed what kind of operations they were, and the news about some of them was not pretty.

PokerStars

The largest poker site in the United States (and the world) at the time, PokerStars didn't delay in closing its tables to U.S. players just a few hours after federal law enforcement dropped the bombshell.

On April 20, PokerStars regained the use of its domain name as part of an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York[12]. 'Stars agreed to continue to prevent Americans from accessing its platform. The government entered this agreement in part to facilitate the return of U.S. players' funds to them.

In the last week of April, less than two weeks after Black Friday, PokerStars began allowing Americans to withdraw their funds. They were even able to convert their Frequent Player Points to cash[13] and therefore derive full value from them.

After the shock of Black Friday subsided, PokerStars continued to operate without issue in the rest of the world. It remained the largest online cardroom in existence notwithstanding the turmoil caused by its U.S. player base vanishing overnight.

Isai Scheinberg Isai Scheinberg Founded PokerStars in 2001

On July 31, 2012, PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and the Department of Justice reached a deal[14] whereby PokerStars would acquire all the assets of beleaguered Full Tilt (see below) and, in addition, the civil legal action against 'Stars would be dropped. The cost: $731 million in fines and penalties!

PokerStars fulfilled all the conditions of this settlement, so the civil complaint against it was dropped, and it gained all the assets of Full Tilt Poker. However, the criminal charges against two PokerStars executives were still outstanding and were not dismissed as a result of this agreement with the DoJ.

Full Tilt

Full Tilt was not slow in responding to the events of Black Friday by ceasing to offer real money games to Americans just a few hours after arch-rival PokerStars did. Full Tilt, much like its larger competitor, also signed paperwork with the authorities on April 20 allowing it to regain its domain name as long as it pledged not to allow Americans to re-enter its poker room. However, after these initial positive steps, things started getting progressively worse for the site and its former customers.

As April turned into May, users from the United States were still unable to cash out their balances. Representatives of Full Tilt assured everyone that everything was fine and that U.S. customers would soon receive their money. However, no such withdrawals were forthcoming, and even payouts to non-U.S. users slowed to a trickle before ceasing altogether.

On June 29, the Aldernay Gambling Control Commission, the licensing authority overseeing Full Tilt, suspended its gaming license[15]. All games on the platform around the world stopped.

Then in September, Full Tilt's already tottering reputation suffered two serious blows. The Department of Justice amended the original civil lawsuit filings against the company, and the AGCC terminated Full Tilt's license permanently.

Pyramid Scheme

The revised court papers[16] revealed that the new allegations against Full Tilt were not really related to the UIGEA or other gambling violations but rather to defrauding customers. Although a few keen observers had raised questions about the poker room's business dealings before, few suspected the extent of the shenanigans that had been going on at Full Tilt for years.

Plainly put, Full Tilt had been hovering on the verge of insolvency for a while. This wasn't chiefly a consequence of the disorder caused by Black Friday itself, the seizures of various FT bank accounts over the years, or dishonesty on the part of payment processors. It was instead the result of the sheer greed of the higher-ups at the company. Specifically named in the amended complaint were founder Ray Bitar along with prominent players and part-owners Howard Lederer, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Rafael Furst.

Ray Bitar Full Tilt Poker CEO and Part-Owner Ray Bitar

Despite assurances given frequently to users that player balances were segregated and kept separate from operating funds, in reality, all the money was commingled into common accounts containing both normal corporate balances as well as player funds. The government strongly emphasized the discrepancy between FTP's public statements on this point and the reality of the situation, even referring to a thread on 2+2 wherein “FTPDoug” sought to reassure players that their funds were safe[17]. Making things worse were the frequent disbursements of “profit” shares to the four mentioned execs as well as the other owners. In total, more than $440 million was handed out in this manner from 2007 to April 2011.

Starting in 2010, Full Tilt had trouble finding processors to handle echeck deposits from U.S. players: a problem it shared with many others in the online gaming sector. However, unlike more responsible enterprises, Full Tilt opted to go ahead and credit echeck depositors' Full Tilt accounts with these funds – despite having no capacity to actually collect this money from the bank accounts in question! In total, more than $130 million of these “phantom funds” were added to the Full Tilt ecosystem.

All of these questionable monetary tactics meant that according to the U.S. government, Full Tilt owed about $390 million to users but had less than $60 million in its various bank accounts around the world. Making matters worse, it appeared that the financial reports filed by Full Tilt with the Aldernay Gambling Control Commission were fraudulent. These documents gave the impression that the firm had more than enough cash on hand to pay out its obligations to players.

This was far from the case, and when the house of cards began to topple, management followed a strategy of using incoming deposits to pay for backlogged withdrawals – the hallmark of a pyramid scheme[18].

Fake Ad for Full Tilt Poker

Rumors of Bailouts From New Investors

Almost from the moment it became clear that Full Tilt was basically bankrupt, rumors began to abound of outside investors who would come riding in from the horizon and save the day. This was perhaps a manifestation of wishful thinking on the part of both the players, who wanted eagerly to be paid their balances, and management who maybe sought to escape the opprobrium and penalties that they might face for pretty much absconding with customers' money.

Full Tilt revealed in a statement dated Aug. 22 that it had been negotiating with several possible investors. On Aug. 30, the company declared that six different groups of investors, comprising “hedge funds, operators of other internet businesses and individual investors” had visited Full Tilt's headquarters in Ireland[19] to take a look at the operations.

In September, French investment concern Groupe Bernard Tapie reached an agreement with the poker room to buy it for $80 million. This was contingent on several events happening, including the forfeiture of FT assets to the Department of Justice, the purchase of those assets from the government by Groupe Bernand Tapie, and an agreement that the new owners would be responsible for paying out the money owed to international customers while the DoJ would take care of American players through a remissions process.

In November, word came out that the Department of Justice was on board with this arrangement, and Full Tilt's assets were turned over to the government. This was followed by approval of the deal by a two-thirds vote of Full Tilt shareholders in December.

The acquisition of Full Tilt Poker by Groupe Bernard Tapie seemed to be basically a fait accompli with just a few details remaining to iron out. However, talks between the interested parties dragged on for months.

Finally, on April 24, 2012, poker media starting reporting that Groupe Bernard Tapie was unable to reach an agreement with the DoJ. The feds demanded that GBP pay out all non-U.S. players in full within 90 days. The investment group, on the other hand, was thinking more along the lines of restoring user balances on the relaunched site with this money becoming available for withdrawal over time depending on how much those customers played. Negotiators were not able to bridge this gap, and the deal fell apart.

PokerStars to the Rescue

Hopes that had been sadly dashed were revived when it was revealed on July 31, 2012, that PokerStars agreed to buy Full Tilt in exchange for $731 million. $547 million was a fine to the DoJ with the other $184 million set aside to reimburse FT's non-American users within 90 days. Players in the United States would be refunded their Full Tilt balances by the Department of Justice at a later date.

PokerStars fulfilled to the letter all its promises to the DoJ. Consequently, the civil lawsuit against the firm was dropped with the stipulation that founder Isai Scheinberg would depart the company within 45 days, which duly occurred. Therefore, PokerStars was able to clear its name in the eyes of the federal government without having to admit any corporate wrongdoing. The criminal case against Scheinberg remained active though.

In November 2012, PokerStars debuted the new Full Tilt, using the old software that it had acquired as part of the purchase and a player pool separate from that at PokerStars. This state of affairs continued until May 2016 when the traffic at both sites was combined and the old Full Tilt poker client was retired. Full Tilt still exists in the present day, but it is just a skin of the main PokerStars room with all the same games, software, et cetera.

Full Tilt Remissions

As provided for in the PokerStars/DoJ agreement, it became the DoJ's responsibility to pay out U.S.-based customers of Full Tilt the money that was owed to them. This did happen although the government (of course) took its sweet time about it.

Almost a year after the settlement was made with PokerStars, the federal authorities selected the Garden City Group as the claims administrator[20] to restore FTP balances to their rightful owners. Then in September 2013, former Full Tilt players received emails giving instructions as to where and how to file their claims online.

GCG Email to Full Tilt Customers The Garden City Group Emailed Former Full Tilt Users With Instructions on How to Claim Their Account Balances

The payouts were made in nine separate waves beginning February 2014 and ending November 2016. 44,320 claims from Full Tilt players were approved, and an amount greater than $118 million was returned back to them.

Absolute Poker/UltimateBet

Absolute Poker and UltimateBet had each been implicated a few years before Black Friday in serious “superuser” cheating scandals, and then they combined their nefarious forces to form the Cereus Poker Network. Knowledgeable onlookers therefore didn't expect the highest level of ethical behavior from the sites in dealing with the Black Friday crisis. Subsequent events proved to fully bear out this view of Cereus as a shady, dishonest operation.

Scott TomScott Tom, Founder of Absolute Poker

While the government fairly rapidly entered agreements with PokerStars and Full Tilt permitting them to regain their seized domains if they pledged to ban American players, the same didn't happen right away with Absolute and UltimateBet despite the government indicating that it was ready to offer them the same deal. Absolute Poker, for its part, announced that it would have to check with its lawyers before signing any such agreement.

Meanwhile, the two rooms continued to allow U.S. customers to access their games. These users were basically contending for play money prizes, though, as Cereus paid out only a handful of withdrawal requests post-Black Friday, leaving the bulk of its customers empty-handed.

On May 10, Absolute/UB did finally sign the paperwork presented to it by the DoJ to facilitate the return of funds to players, but this was just smoke and mirrors. Customers reported being unable to connect to gaming servers just two days later, and this functionality was never restored, effectively spelling the end of these two mismanaged rooms.

Surprise Reimbursement

Six years after the failure of Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, the Department of Justice made a surprise announcement of a compensation program for “Absolute Poker Victim Players.” [21] It turns out that after the Full Tilt Poker remissions process was completed (see above), there was still money remaining in the fund, and the DoJ therefore decided to use the extra money to reimburse those Absolute and UltimateBet players who had funds stuck with the now-defunct organizations.

The Garden City Group, which was in charge of Full Tilt remissions, was retained to serve in the same capacity. Beginning April 10, 2017, users were able to file online to receive a reimbursement of their funds. In late August 2017, the first round of payments were received by customers, and three subsequent sets of players got paid between then and September 2020.

Website for Absolute Poker Claims The Garden City Group Set up a Website to Handle Absolute Poker and UltimateBet Claims

Nearly 13,000 users got more than $38.4 million of their Absolute and UltimateBet balances restored to them.

Non-Targeted Sites

Despite initial worries that Black Friday was the opening volley in a coordinated artillery strike against the entire offshore poker industry, no additional sites were targeted in the coming months or years. Thus, the list of U.S.A.-friendly poker operators remained basically the same apart from the three that were coerced into abandoning the American market. Poker players located in the United States were still able to log on and play at sites and networks including:

  • Merge Gaming Network (Carbon Poker, Aced.com, Sportsbook.ag, et cetera)
  • Bodog Network (Bovada skin created to serve U.S.A. in December 2011)
  • Cake Poker Network (Cake Poker, Intertops, et cetera [renamed Horizon Poker Network])
  • Everleaf Network (Minted Poker, Poker4Ever, et cetera [now defunct])
  • Yatahay Network (True Poker, Doyles Room, BetCRIS, et cetera) [transformed into Winning Poker Network]

Traffic Declines

Though many former PokerStars, Full Tilt, and Absolute/UB players moved over to other sites serving the United States, it would be far from honest to suggest that everything was all right within the USA online poker environment post-BF. In addition to individuals who shifted to other online poker rooms, there were a lot of Americans who quit internet poker entirely.

The player traffic figures bear out this conclusion. One year after Black Friday, player volume monitoring site GameIntel reported that U.S. online poker liquidity had fallen by 80%. The situation in the rest of the world was not as dire, but global internet poker sites still registered a decline of 32% in ring game player counts.

This has proven to be a permanent phenomenon; player numbers have never regained their pre-Black Friday peak (except during unusual, temporary circumstances like the coronavirus lockdown).

Business Relationships Scuppered

The consequences of Black Friday were felt not only by the largest online poker sites and their players but also by their many and varied business partners. After the feds revealed their strong displeasure with these online gaming halls, many entities that worked with the leading poker brands in the world made the difficult decision to cancel these arrangements.

The poker sites themselves had to reexamine their business relationships also. Investments that made sense when they were able to transact in the United States no longer seemed profitable and so had to be axed.

With the future of online poker in the United States questionable at best, long-term alliances between internet sites and brick-and-mortar casinos ended. Fertitta Interactive, owned by the same people who run Station Casinos, terminated its agreement with Full Tilt. Meanwhile, the alliance between PokerStars and billionaire casino developer Steve Wynn to get online poker legalized was discontinued.

Live Poker Affected

In the days following Black Friday, ESPN cancelled its advertising contract with PokerStars, which was reported to be worth $22 million. The popular television programs “Poker After Dark” and “PokerStars Big Game,” now bereft of sponsors, were halted.

Poker After Dark “Poker After Dark” Was Cancelled in 2011 After Funding From Full Tilt Dried Up

Live MTT tours that were heavily dependent on financing from offshore poker brands also experienced troubles. The North American Poker Tour, backed by PokerStars, ceased running more tournaments after three events in 2011 had already been completed. Full Tilt's ONYX Cup, a series of high-roller tournaments to be broadcast from locations around the world, was terminated before it even started.

Las Vegas live poker rooms, which had until 2011 been doing a brisk business, saw their fortunes take a turn for the worse. Since that year, at least 27 of them have closed down permanently.

Black Friday's Lingering Legacy

A lot has happened from the time of Black Friday until the present day. Still, the aftershocks of this adverse incident continue to affect online poker in the present.

The bifurcation of sites between those that serve the United States and those that don't persists. This had actually been true prior to Black Friday ever since the UIGEA was passed in 2006. However, during 2006 – 2011, the largest sites were those that accepted Americans, a situation reversed by Black Friday.

The April 2011 offshore poker indictments also convinced those sites that remained in the U.S. market that they had to be more cautious and conservative regarding payments. Not only were internet poker deposits rejected more frequently, but withdrawals slowed down quite a bit as operators scrambled to find payment processors that would faithfully deliver funds to U.S. customers without exposing them to needless risks.

Thankfully, these challenging conditions have abated to a large extent especially with the appearance of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. They permit players and sites both to bypass the traditional banking sector with all of its cumbersome regulations and freedom-denying restrictions. BTC deposits are virtually instantaneous while cashouts typically take no more than two or three days.

One thing is almost certain: There will probably be no Black Friday 2.0. The legal case against online poker was very weak, and so the BF prosecutions relied on bank fraud-related charges backed up with specific knowledge provided by industry insider Daniel Tzvetkoff. Now that the sites have developed alternative financing mechanisms, it's very unlikely that this Achilles Heel of the international gaming sector would ever be so exposed in the future.

Today, there are any number of reputable U.S.A.-facing online poker rooms, some of which have been in operation for more than a decade. Thus, Black Friday's intention of destroying this form of recreation can only be classified as a dismal failure. Once again, lovers of freedom have been able to dance rings around the cumbersome and heavy-handed dictates of government.

What Happened to the People Involved in Black Friday?

Bureaucrats, internet entrepreneurs, informants, criminal defendants: The cast and crew of poker's Black Friday were numerous and diverse. If you're curious to find out what became of them, then look below; for we have compiled a synopsis of the fates of the dramatis personae.

Isai Scheinberg

An Israeli-Canadian with an advanced degree in mathematics, Isai Scheinberg founded PokerStars in 2001, and the company grew to become the largest provider of poker games over the internet by the time of Black Friday. Therefore, it made perfect sense that the government would want to take him down, and charges were duly filed against him in April 2011. Despite the fact that PokerStars settled the civil suit against it with the DoJ, forcing the departure of Isai Scheinberg from the company, this deal did not clear him of any criminal charges.

Scheinberg was not located in the country at the time and could not be arrested by U.S. law enforcement. He wisely chose to remain away from the United States for almost a decade, making him the sole remaining Black Friday defendant to not appear in court.

In 2019, U.S. officials initiated extradition proceedings with their counterparts in Switzerland where Scheinberg was residing. After initially fighting extradition, Isai decided to comply. He boarded a plane for New York and was taken into custody on Jan. 17, 2020.

Initially pleading “not guilty,” Scheinberg was released on bail of $1 million. On March 25, he pleaded guilty to one count of operating an illegal gambling business[22], which carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. His sentencing hearing, on Sept. 23, 2020, saw Isai sentenced to time served, and he had to pay $30,100.

Paul Tate began working at PokerStars in 2006, and by 2008 he was given responsibilities relating to payment processing. This opened him up to the charges that were brought against him on Black Friday.

Tate, a Briton residing on the Isle of Man, could not be extradited for these alleged crimes. Yet, he traveled to the United States of his own volition to face the consequences and pleaded guilty to one count of operating an illegal gambling business in October 2016.

Weighing the maturity Tate showed by voluntarily surrendering himself, the sentencing judge decided not to make him spend any time in prison (the maximum possible sentence was five years)[23]. Instead, Paul Tate had to pay a fine of $119,000.

Ray Bitar

Ray Bitar has earned a considerable amount of notoriety not solely because of the position he occupied as founder and part-owner of Full Tilt Poker, which opened him up to criminal charges on Black Friday. He also was one of the leaders of the fraudulent shell game that saw players' deposited funds vanish into smoke.

Following the revelations of the indictment against him, Bitar elected at first to remain in Ireland where Full Tilt had its headquarters. Bitar eventually went to New York on July 2, 2012 and surrendered to the authorities. Ray faced nine felony charges with a maximum possible sentence of 65 years.

He pled guilty in April 2013 to unlawful internet gambling and conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud[24]. Ray Bitar's attorney advanced the argument that Ray had a serious heart condition, which left him with only a 50% chance to survive one year. The judge indicated that she would have sentenced him to a considerable prison term but for his medical condition, which would have rendered any prison sentence basically “a death sentence,” so he was sentenced to time served, which was only seven days.

Bitar also had to forfeit 40 million dollars' worth of assets, including cash in 18 bank accounts, four real estate properties in California and two in Indiana, and equity stakes in at least nine business ventures that were unrelated to Full Tilt Poker. In December 2017, $25.4 million more of Ray Bitar's ill-gotten money was discovered in a bank account on Guernsey, a channel island near the French coast. According to officials, this money had been illicitly laundered. The U.S. and Guernsey governments divvied up this haul between them[25].

Incidentally, Bitar's heart condition appears to have cleared up by October 2015 when he got married in what was called – by a photographer hired for the occasion – a “million dollar wedding.”

Ray Bitar's Wedding ReceptionRay Bitar Dancing With His Wife at Their Wedding Reception
Nelson Burtnick

As a resident of Ireland, Full Tilt Poker payments director Nelson Burtnick could not be apprehended immediately after Black Friday. Nevertheless, he took a plane to the United States, and upon his arrival on Aug. 1, 2012, he was detained.

In September 2012, Burtnick pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to accept funds for unlawful internet gambling, commit bank fraud, and commit money laundering as well as two counts of accepting funds in connection with unlawful Internet gambling[26]. Burtnick had to forfeit any proceeds from his crimes although the amount involved was not stated. He also had to pay restitution, in an unknown amount.

Additionally, Nelson Burtnick was scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 19, 2012, but government documents from March 2013 show that he was still awaiting sentencing at that time. And by August 2013, he had secured a position as COO with Inatec Solutions, a German payments company: hardly an opportunity that one would expect to fall into the lap of an individual who might still face the possibility of prison time.

Reading between the lines of the official documents, it appears possible that Burtnick cooperated with law enforcement by giving up information in exchange for not being incarcerated. This would explain why the sentencing hearing did not take place and also how he was able to secure employment even with the prospect of prison time theoretically hanging over his head.

As of September 2020, Burtnick was Senior Vice President at Concardis GmbH, an enterprise that provides merchant services in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Scott Tom

Scott Tom, the brains behind Absolute Poker, had moved to Costa Rica to run his business while retaining his American citizenship. When the indictments against internet poker execs were unsealed on April 15, 2011, Tom was on vacation in Antigua. He opted to remain there, at least for a little while, rather than returning to Costa Rica or voyaging to the United States. Interestingly, Antigua had no extradition treaty with the United States, but Costa Rica did.

Scott Tom did make the trek back to The Land of the Free, and was arrested at an airport on February 23, 2017. On May 31, he made a sweetheart plea deal with prosecutors where he plead guilty to a single misdemeanor offense, accessory after the fact to the transmission of wagering information, and had all felony charges dismissed[27].

At his sentencing hearing on Sept 28, 2017, Scott was seeking to avoid jail time, but the judge disagreed and made him spend a week imprisoned. He also had to pay a fine of $300,000. After paying the fine and serving his time, Scott Tom returned to Antigua where he is supposedly leading an honest life in a field that's not related to online gaming.

Brent Beckley

Brent Beckley, payments director at Absolute Poker and step-brother of site founder Scott Tom, was indicted on Black Friday. He voluntarily returned to the United States from Costa Rica in December 2011, and he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in unlawful internet gambling along with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud.

Beckley was sentenced in July 2012 to 14 months in prison[28]. He also had to forfeit $300,000 and pay a $3,000 fine. After his release, Brent Beckley started a business consulting firm called Beckley&co. based in Utah.

Ryan Lang was a middleman who set up fake corporations to disguise the flow of money to and from poker sites and payment processors. Lang, a Canadian citizen and resident, voluntarily crossed the border into the United States to answer the Black Friday charges against him.

On Feb. 28, 2012, Lang pled guilty to conspiracy to commit tax fraud and money laundering, violation of the UIGEA and accepting funds in connection with internet gambling[29]. His sentencing hearing was supposed to take place in September 2012, but we have been unable to dig up any information regarding the penalties assigned to him.

Ira Rubin

Ira Rubin was accused in Black Friday documents of deceiving banks by miscoding gambling transactions passing through his payment processing company. However, this was not Rubin's first run-in with the law. He had previously been convicted of wire fraud, passing forged checks, and other misdeeds. In 2006, he was implicated in shady telemarketing endeavors and fled from Kansas City to Costa Rica, so Rubin was already a fugitive from justice even before April 2011.

Within two weeks after Black Friday, Rubin was trying to flee from Costa Rica to Thailand, but he was apprehended in Guatemala and transferred to the United States. In January 2018, Rubin pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, conspiracy to violate the UIGEA, and money laundering.

At his sentencing hearing in July, Rubin received a sentence of three years in prison[30] despite prosecutors recommending a sentence of between 18 and 24 months. This three-year sentence was the longest handed out to any Black Friday defendant. The judge decided that Rubin merited additional prison time because he was an “unreformed con man” and upon his release would probably be found “trying to cook up some new scheme that in all likelihood will be illegal.”

Ira Rubin was also ordered to forfeit $5 million although it appeared unlikely that the government would be able to collect the full amount as Rubin had taken steps to move his assets, like handing over gold bars to one of his friends.

Whilst imprisoned, Rubin appealed his sentence several times, arguing, among other things, that his attorney failed to represent his interests, that the government did not honor his plea agreement, and that the original indictment against him was faulty. All of these appeals were rejected.

Bradley Franzen

Payment processor Bradley Franzen was accused of running a Costa Rica-based business that helped poker companies open up bank accounts in the United States using bogus information to mislead financial institutions about the nature of the transactions being processed. He turned himself in pretty quickly after the Black Friday indictments were unsealed, doing so on April 18, 2011 and appearing for his arraignment on April 19. He also became the first to plead guilty to any of these charges, entering a plea deal on May 23, 2011 wherein he pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, accepting money in connection with unlawful gambling over the internet, and conspiracy to money laundering[31].

Franzen's sentencing hearing was scheduled for August 2012, but we were unable to find any confirmation that this actually took place. It's possible that Bradley Franzen cut a deal with the authorities wherein he agreed to help prosecutors with their cases against other defendants in exchange for being let go.

Chad Elie

Chad Elie was suspected of being a payment processor who attempted to identify small, faltering banks and offer to invest in them as long as they were willing to process transactions for online poker. He was arrested exactly on Black Friday itself – April 15, 2011 – in Las Vegas where he lived. Unusually, the day after he posted bail, he wasted no time in marrying a Playboy playmate.

Destiny DavisOn April 16, 2011, Chad Elie Married Destiny Davis, Playmate of the Month January 2005

Initially vowing to fight the government in court because poker was a skill game and therefore not covered by any of the federal anti-gambling laws, Elie received a court date of April 9, 2012 when the trial could begin. However, after revelations that Black Friday informant Daniel Tzvetkoff would be testifying against him, Chad changed his tune and made a plea agreement. He pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and to operate illegal gambling businesses.

In November 2012, Chad Elie was given a prison sentence of five months and two years of supervised release. Furthermore, he had to forfeit $500,000 to the government as well as disclaim all interest in 25 bank accounts linked to him that had been seized.

While serving his sentence, Elie sued his lawyer, Jeff Ifrah, claiming that the attorney withheld pertinent documents from him and hypothesizing that Ifrah was really working with the government to help them prosecute offshore poker sites. Elie was released from custody in June 2013, and his lawsuit against Ifrah was dismissed in February 2014[32].

John Campos

John Campos, the Vice Chairman and part-owner of Utah's SunFirst Bank, knowingly processed $200 million in transactions for online poker firms. Arrested on April 15, 2011, Campos initially sought to fight the charges against him with a trial set to begin in April 2012.

However, he was convinced in March 2012 to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor: one count of causing a federally insured bank to accept money in connection with illegal gambling. Many have speculated that the reason for his change of heart was that government informant and payment processing guru Daniel Tzvetkoff was prepared to testify against him.

John Campos' sentence, announced in June 2012, was three months of imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release[33]. Also, Campos was banned from ever working in the banking industry in future.

Daniel Tzvetkoff

Daniel Tzvetkoff, an Australian, was the founder of Intabill, one of the most prominent payment processing companies involved in handling internet poker transactions. He was arrested in April 2010 during a trip to Las Vegas[34], and rather than face the possibility of jail time, he decided to cooperate with law enforcement and was released after a few months in custody.

The information Tzvetkoff provided was critical in the Black Friday prosecutions because he had worked with each of the three sites named in the indictments. Two defendants in particular, payment processor Chad Elie and bank executive John Campos, were persuaded to enter plea agreements after it became clear that Tzvetkoff was ready to give testimony against them.

Daniel Tzvetkoff has been the CTO of Stacked Farm in Queensland, Australia since March 2017. This is a vertical farm that produces fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs all year round.

Preet Bharara

Preet Bharara was the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York who engineered the whole Black Friday mess in the first place. He remained in his position until March 2017, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions requested that all United States Attorneys who had been appointed by President Obama, including Preet Bharara, tender letters of resignation. Bharara declined to do so and was promptly fired.

Since then, Bharara has joined the faculty of New York University School of Law. He also authored a book in 2019 entitled “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law.”

Janice Fedarcyk

Janice Fedarcyk was the FBI Assistant Director in charge of the New York Office at the time of the Black Friday investigations and indictments. She retired in August 2012 and launched Fedarcyk Consulting, which helps public and private organizations assess security risks and mitigate them.

Howard Lederer

Howard “The Professor” Lederer was one of the most famous players who represented the Full Tilt Poker brand. After the site's failure, it was revealed that he had made tens of millions of dollars from the room, and in September 2011, the Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against him and other Full Tilt principals for defrauding customers.

In December 2012, Lederer reached a settlement with the DoJ although he admitted no wrongdoing. The Justice Department originally sought $42.5 million from him, but he wound up having to forfeit just $2.5 million in assets, including $1.25 million in cash, several real estate properties, and a 1965 Shelby Cobra Roadster.

In March 2016, after several years with little public communication from Lederer, he issued an apology to the poker community in which he stated “I take full responsibility for Full Tilt’s failure to protect player deposits leading up to Black Friday.” [35] However, this was viewed as a transparent ploy to deflect heat away from himself especially since he turned up at the World Series of Poker a few months later. After the 2016 WSOP, Howard Lederer has kept a low profile, seemingly wishing not to attract any criticism from his former customers.

Chris Ferguson

Chris “Jesus” Ferguson was one of the higher-ups at Full Tilt Poker who was accused of running a Ponzi scheme in a civil complaint brought by the Department of Justice in September 2011. He allegedly profited from his involvement in the site to the tune of more than $42 million, which the DoJ was looking to recover.

In a February 2013 settlement, Ferguson agreed to pay $2.35 million and to turn over to the government a bank account with an undisclosed balance. He also agreed to waive any claim to the $14 million in dividends that he said Full Tilt owed him.

Chris Ferguson irritated many former fans of his by remaining silent on the Full Tilt debacle and his role in it. This probably was why he avoided live poker tournaments from 2011 to 2016.

There was still a lot of anger in the player community against Ferguson in 2016, but he returned to playing World Series of Poker tournaments that year anyway. He cashed 10 times in the series. The following year, he did even better, making the money in 17 MTTs and receiving the Player of the Year award.

In May 2018, Ferguson finally apologized in a 42-second video[36] that he recorded. Needless to say, such a brief message was very short on details, and it left many players unsatisfied. Nevertheless, Chris has remained a fixture on the live tournament circuit, apparently unbothered by the dirty looks that he no doubt frequently receives.

Rafe Furst

Although not among the more prominent of the faces behind Full Tilt Poker, Rafael “Rafe” Furst was referred to as an “FTP Insider” in a civil suit filed by the Department of Justice in September 2011. Perhaps because of his relatively low profile, the settlement he entered into with the government had the smallest penalty of any of the Full Tilt defendants.

In November 2012, Furst agreed to forfeit the funds in a designated Swiss bank account and also pay an additional $150,000. Officials had previously wanted him to pay more than $11 million.

Perhaps the fact that Rafe Furst was not really part of the Full Tilt clique that called all the shots enabled him to put the troubled site behind him sooner than most of his colleagues. He has invested in numerous startup companies, like Crowdfunder and Skillshare, and has devoted a lot of time and effort to fighting against cancer.

Black Friday Frequently Asked Questions

As a manifestation of the interplay between state laws, federal statutes, bureaucratic policies, corporate strategy, and many other factors, poker's Black Friday was a complex and unwieldy phenomenon. If you still have questions about this complicated topic then look below where we have gathered a selection of questions and answers about Black Friday.

Black Friday was the crackdown against online poker launched in April 2011 by the U.S. government against the three leading internet poker sites at the time: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet. Prosecutors lodged criminal indictments against 11 people involved with online poker in United States v. Scheinberg as well as a civil suit, United States v. PokerStars, et al.

The events of Black Friday took place on Friday, April 15, 2011.

All three of the enterprises targeted by Black Friday had to close their doors to American users. Absolute Poker/UltimateBet and Full Tilt Poker were found to be practically insolvent and had to cease doing business entirely shortly thereafter. PokerStars was a better-managed organization and was able to survive Black Friday, transacting in other countries besides the United States. PokerStars even made a return to the U.S.A. in March 2016 with the debut of its New Jersey-licensed online cardroom. It now does business in Pennsylvania also, but customers physically located in one of these two states are the only Americans who can play on its platform for real money.

No, probably not. While we cannot predict the future with 100% accuracy, it's clear that many of the circumstances that led to Black Friday are unlikely to happen again.

The federal government chose to focus on the ways internet gaming corporations interfaced with the banking system and got information about this aspect of their operations from Daniel Tzvetkoff who was accused of similar crimes but became an informant to save his own skin. Modern online poker rooms have nowhere near as much exposure to banks and other traditional financial institutions and therefore are not at as much risk as the sites in 2011 were.

The gambling laws that the Department of Justice invoked on Black Friday were not drafted to apply specifically to poker, and there's considerable doubt as to whether or not the game is actually covered by them. Barring some unforeseen development in this area, it's unlikely that prosecutors would attempt to pursue this legal course a second time against offshore poker brands.

All 11 of the Black Friday defendants entered guilty pleas and received very light sentences. The longest period of imprisonment meted out was just three years although several of the accused had to pay substantial fines.

None of the Black Friday indictments resulted in a criminal trial. This evidences a determination on the part of the government to not risk the vicissitudes that a jury trial might entail, including probable “not guilty” verdicts. Prosecutors preferred to threaten the defendants with multiple decades in prison so as to convince them to make plea deals, which all 11 of them did in order to see the other charges against them dropped.

References

  1. https://www.scribd.com/doc/53107904/Online-Poker-Indictment-Largest-U-S-Internet-Poker-cite-operators-charged
  2. https://www.scribd.com/document/53170382/3bb-Civil-Complaint-DOJ-vs-PokerStars-Full-Tilt-UB-AP-et-al
  3. https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid%3AUSC-prelim-title31-chapter53-subchapter4&edition=prelim
  4. https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/bcreg20081112b.htm
  5. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/April10/tzvetkoffdanielarrestpr.pdf
  6. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/PEN/225.05
  7. https://codes.findlaw.com/ny/penal-law/pen-sect-225-00.html
  8. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1955
  9. https://www.investopedia.com/ach-transfers-what-are-they-and-how-do-they-work-4590120
  10. https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2011/manhattan-u.s.-attorney-charges-principals-of-three-largest-internet-poker-companies-with-bank-fraud-illegal-gambling-offenses-and-laundering-billions-in-illegal-gambling-proceeds
  11. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/pleabargaining/
  12. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/April11/pokerdomainnameuseagreementspr.pdf
  13. https://pokerfuse.com/news/poker-room-news/pokerstars-settles-fpps-us-players/
  14. https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/new-york/nysdce/1:2011cv02564/377900/241
  15. https://www.gamblingcontrol.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Website-Statement-FTP-suspension-290611.pdf
  16. https://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/FullTiltAmendSuit_Sept20_2011.pdf
  17. https://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/29/news-views-gossip/fulltilt-management-failing-253333/index3.html
  18. http://www.consumerfraudreporting.org/pyramidschemes_howtheywork.htm
  19. http://www.subjectpoker.com/2011/08/ftps-830-statement/
  20. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/manhattan-us-attorney-announces-appointment-garden-city-group-claims-administrator
  21. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/acting-manhattan-us-attorney-announces-compensation-program-absolute-poker-victim
  22. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/pokerstars-founder-pleads-guilty
  23. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pokerstars-court-tate/ex-pokerstars-employee-avoids-prison-in-u-s-online-gambling-case-idUSKBN13N2DO
  24. https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2013/former-full-tilt-poker-ceo-pleads-guilty-and-is-sentenced-in-manhattan-federal-court
  25. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-guernsey-42284441
  26. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/September12/BurtnickNelsonPleaPR.html
  27. https://calvinayre.com/2017/06/06/business/absolute-poker-scott-tom-pleads-guilty-misdemeanor/
  28. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/July12/beckleybrentandirarubinsentencings.html
  29. https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2012/payment-processor-for-internet-poker-companies-pleads-guilty-in-manhattan-federal-court-to-bank-fraud-money-laundering-and-gambling-offenses
  30. https://pokerfuse.com/news/law-and-regulation/black-friday-payment-processor-ira-rubin-receives-extended-3-year-sentence/
  31. https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2011/payment-processing-intermediary-for-online-poker-companies-pleads-guilty-in-manhattan-federal-court-to-bank-fraud-money-laundering-and-gambling-offenses
  32. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14158420925882483138
  33. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/June12/camposjohnsentencing.html
  34. https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/nys/pressreleases/April10/tzvetkoffdanielarrestpr.pdf
  35. https://danielnegreanu.com/statement-howard-lederer/
  36. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcPgiKPQ394

Comments

The article did not really mention that the Republicans were the main culprit in the UIGEA, and the UIGEA led to Black Friday. Almost all of that bill's sponsors were Republicans. Today, anti-online poker efforts are still led by Republicans—especially Sheldon Adelson. This is hypocritical of Republicans because they supposedly stand for individual freedoms and minimal government interference.

Hello Scott,

We agree. The Republicans had a lot to do with UIGEA. The Democrats are not much help either. We encourage our readers from the USA to vote for smaller government intrusion in their lives, not only for the sake of online poker, but for the sake of humanity.

The Libertarian party might be worth looking into USA'ers!

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