Lots of people aren’t aware of the full Full Tilt story, knowing some bits and pieces about what’s happened, as well as perhaps rumours they’ve heard passed around. We decided to put together this piece to explain how Full Tilt begun, its meteoric rise to the huge online poker room it once was, its sudden demise on Black Friday, and what’s happened since.
In 2004, poker pros Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson had an idea, a poker room developed by poker players for poker players. Other pros quickly jumped on board and work began on creating one of the largest online poker rooms ever. The original lineup of players who were officially part owners of Full Tilt included: Chris Ferguson, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer, Erik Lindgren, Phil Gordon, Andy Bloch, Eric Seidel, John Juanda and Clonie Gowan. Each original owner was promised a share of Full Tilt revenues, with Phil Ivey holding the biggest piece at 5%. This would later cause legal issues down the line which will be discussed later.
In June of 2004 a $5 million budget was started by software and licensing company, Tiltware, LLC. Tiltware, LLC became the Los Angeles based parent company that owned Full Tilt . It may come as a surprise, but Full Tilt was actually founded and initially opened its doors to the public on American soil.
With beta testing starting in June of 2004, Tiltware, LLC and the original founders of Full Tilt began to tweak the software. The goal in mind was to create a user friendly site with superior graphics and a vastly better user interface. The end result was one of the greatest poker rooms ever. The software was clean and original, with its most popular feature being the avatars. These avatars could be made to show different emotions with the click of a mouse. It was a niche feature but proved to be one of the lasting impressions of Full Tilt Poker.
Once the site was officially launched and open to the public, a massive marketing campaign came into effect. The main aspect behind this campaign is the slogan, “Come play with the pros.” This slogan would change wording over time but the original theme remained the same. Full Tilt was offering everyone the chance to play and chat with professional poker players. At this time, poker was at its peak in popularity. Everyone knew who Phil Ivey and Howard Lederer were. Every pro involved with Full Tilt was a recognizable face. Even your grandmother probably saw one of these players on television at some point. This popularity was seized by Full Tilt and exploited the world over.
You couldn’t watch ESPN or any other sports channel without seeing an ad for Full Tilt. Their commercials were trendy and cutting edge, at least for a poker commercial. They were one of the first online sites, not just poker sites, to start relying heavily on television exposure for its revenue. If you watch WSOP coverage now and compare it to 2004-2010, you will see a huge difference. These shows mainly survived because Full Tilt and Poker Stars were the biggest contributors.
Once the WPT started airing all you saw were players with gaudy Full Tilt cowboy hats and huge over bearing lapels that touted the famous Full Tilt logo. This would ultimately become Full Tilts greatest asset, and later their biggest downfall.
Full Tilt had relatively small success compared to after 2006. I was actually one of the first registered users of Full Tilt and remember very little traffic. After a few weeks I never logged back on until 2006. In 2006, the US government enacted the UIGEA (unlawful internet gaming enforcement act). This law didn’t make online poker illegal, it was designed to make it illegal for financial institutions to send and receive funds from online gaming sites. Many poker rooms were fined by the government and forced to leave the US market. Along with poker sites, many of the online banking options such as Neteller and Firepay were forced to stop serving Americans. This made getting money online difficult, at least for a little while.
At this time a few poker rooms were operating in the states, including Full Tilt. Wisely, they decided to pack up shop and move overseas. Many of the sites Americans could play on were no longer available and it was unclear what was to remain. This next decision became Full Tilt’s most profitable business move ever. To fill the void in one of the biggest markets, Full Tilt decided to remain open to the US public. Along with Poker Stars and a few other sites, this void was now filled. Prior to the UIGEA, most players were on Poker stars or Party Poker. After UIGEA, Poker Stars and Full Tilt were the big boys. Not just for the American market, but worldwide. With such a large player base that the Americans provided, players in other countries began making Full Tilt their new home.
This influx of players caused Full Tilt to undergo a facelift. No major changes were made, but the software was updated and better games were being offered. This is when the full brunt of the Full Tilt marketing campaign took effect. With a continuously growing base of “pros”, players were given even more opportunity to chat and play with the pros.
They also did some pretty hilarious adverts, like this one featuring poker pro Phil Ivey
With this new player base brought new money. This money was used to start producing and sponsoring poker shows. The WSOP was mainly sponsored by Full Tilt and the new show, Poker After Dark began airing on NBC. The show was a huge failure in my opinion and was probably the most boring show ever. But, somehow I would find myself watching it at 3 in the morning, so I guess the marketing idea behind it wasn’t all that bad.
Ground Breaking Poker
With the new players coming in, Full Tilt quickly became the second largest poker room online. Their rival Poker Stars was number one. To try and bridge the gap, Full Tilt started to come up with ways to gain a larger player base. One of the first steps in this process was the popular FTOPS tournament series. This series was made to compete with Poker Stars and their WCOOP events. These became known as the largest poker series online and actually gave the major land based tournaments a run for their money. In terms of value and fields, the FTOPS and WCOOP series could be considered more successful.
This began a war between the two sites to see who could offer bigger and better tournaments and features. Soon Poker Stars came out with the SCOOP events and Full Tilt answered with the mini FTOPS. For years this went on, and it was great for the poker players. With both sites competing and a huge bankroll to do so, the value of playing on both sites was huge. There were no other sites really worth playing on at the time.
Just when we thought no other forms of poker could come out, Full Tilt introduced Rush Poker. This innovative and never before seen variant of poker was to change the poker landscape forever. Rush Poker gave players the chance to play 5 times the hands they could before. The option to fold a hand before it’s your turn and move on to the next was the basic premise behind this idea. With the extra hands per hour, Full tilt was literally raking in the money. This also led to changes to their rake back structure. Most players at Full tilt received 27% rake back based on a dealt method. This meant that every hand you were dealt you got a percentage of the rake back regardless if you played the hand or folded. The smart players exploited this by playing thousands of hands using the new Rush Poker format. Once this was noticed, Full tilt quickly changed it from dealt rake to contributed rake. This was a big deal for the daily grinders but in the end Full tilt were once again the winners.
Along with Rush Poker, the Ftops and other changes, Full tilt began running multi entry tournaments. These were tournaments where a player could enter as many as four times from the start. If one of your entries met at the same table your chips would be consolidated and you would lose one of the entries. When first offered the poker community as a whole was in disagreement with these. Some saw it as legal multi-accounting and gave a very unfair advantage to some players. Others saw this as the beginning of the end for Full Tilt.
Rumors are Swirling
Right around late 2009 when the aforementioned multi entry tournaments were introduced, players started voicing concerns over the stability of Full Tilt. Players who were making deposits were not being charged for said deposits and were basically free rolling with other people’s money. As a law from the gaming commission that Full Tilt was licensed under, all player funds are supposed to be segregated and available at all times. If Full Tilt is not receiving funds from a players’ bank when they make a deposit, then not all funds are technically available. This is when the rumors began and stories were popping up about payment processors being seized.
Let’s back track a bit and explain exactly what a payment processor is and how poker sites used them to get around the US laws and still offer their games to Americans. When a player makes a deposit, it doesn’t actually go through Full Tilt. It will be sent through a third party processor who then collects the money from the bank. Since the UIGEA made it illegal for banks to process funds from a gambling site, these so called payment processors would set up fake businesses. The statement the bank would receive would be from a golf company or in a lot of cases, adult entertainment stores. The same went for withdrawals. You never technically receive any funds from Full Tilt. A payment processor would issue the check under a bogus business name.
Back to the Rumors
Once the US government caught wind of this, the investigations began. This led to many of these fake processors closing up shop and starting under a new name, or Full Tilt would have to find new ones who were willing to do this. Once a processor was shut down, the funds they held were seized by the American government. This is why players’ deposits were not being charged. The processors who held the responsibility of charging the banks were closed by the government. Of course all this was learned after Black Friday, among other shady operating procedures, but people began to question what was going on at the time.
On April 15th 2011 the poker world was yet again rocked with more government crackdowns. In one fell swoop, Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet were shut down by the DOJ (Department of Justice). While players went about their normal grind, the feds were knocking on doors and closing up shop. All play was immediately halted without warning and access to these sites was not permitted. No one had a clue what was going on and people began to panic. I was mid game and got the memorable Full Tilt window with the cards shuffling and the message that says: trying to contact server. Minutes later the IMs and calls came in. Everyone I knew who played poker asked the same question. “Can you log onto Full Tilt?”
Within about an hour or so, Full Tilt and Poker Stars were back open but only for non American players. Americans could access their accounts but could not do anything else. The main URLs of the sites had a big message from the FBI stating this site has been seized by the FBI. All sites quickly changed domains to .eu or other foreign names. This allowed them to still operate outside the jurisdiction of the American government.
For weeks players were left wondering what was going to happen. Some thought this would blow over and we would go back to playing again. Others thought the worst and were pessimistic about getting their money back. Poker Stars being the stand up site they are, announced that all players could make withdrawals due to a deal they made with the DOJ. American players soon recovered all funds. The main reason for this is because Poker Stars had the money segregated like they were supposed to.
Full Tilt on the other hand, was not so fortunate. The continuous processor shut downs lead to a serious cash flow problem for them. They did not have the funds to cover everyone’s withdrawals. Granted a large portion was seized by the DOJ, but this didn’t cover half of what was owed and is still owed to this day to players.
This is when all the facts started coming out. Full Tilt was not operating with all players funds in hand. It was also believed, but still unconfirmed that their huge marketing campaign was being funded with players’ money. Other allegations included selling of rake back accounts that earned 100% rake back. The staking of high stakes players using players’ funds was a highly debated topic on the forums. Both allegations are unconfirmed but the facts that were presented are damning.
Where Does Full Tilt Stand Today
Owners, Ray Bitar and Nelson Burtnick are being accused of money laundering, fraud and bribery among other charges. It turned out some of the higher ups were bribing a fledgling bank to process some of the deposits and withdrawals for the site. These are serious charges, but no one has yet to stand trial.The processors for the sites were the first ones to get charged and some immediately turned on their former partners. Some gave up emails and financial documents to save themselves.
Some of the original “Pros” of Full Tilt who helped start the company began to file their own lawsuits. Clonie Gowan claimed she was owed a substantial amount of money for her initial investment. Phil Ivey also sued Full Tilt for money owed, but this was seen as more of a ploy to draw the attention away from him. He was being targeted as one of the people responsible for this mess. Since he was the largest shareholder in the company people looked to him for the blame.
After months went by with no answers or no communication from Full Tilt, everyone gave up on getting any money back. Some players who had money on the site decided to file lawsuits, but these did little to nothing except give false hope. Then steps in the French investment firm, GBT. The saviors of Full Tilt have ridden in on their white horse and were to save every ones money and re-open one of the world’s best poker room. The optimism was short lived however. Over a year went by with little information of where the deal stood and whether or not it was actually going to happen. Once again we were left heartbroken.
It wasn’t until about a month ago, news started coming in that GBT was close to finalizing the deal. The main hang up was who is going to pay the players back. This was the roadblock the entire time. The deal was being made with the DOJ, not so much Full Tilt. GBT started to file for gaming licenses and things were looking good. However, the funds needed to pay the players back were just too steep and GBT had to back out.
All this time, lurking in the shadows is the great Poker Stars. Once again they step up to the plate and swiftly begin striking a deal with the DOJ to takeover Full Tilt and pay every last dime to players who had money on the site. Confirmations have been made that they are in talks but no details have yet to be released. This is the best sign ever that players will get their funds back. And it’s also being told that Full Tilt could begin operating again within a month. This is a bit optimistic for me, but who knows.
As of today, no one has received a dime back from Full Tilt. No lawsuit has been ruled on and the infamous Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson have been MIA since this went down. People still want judgement or at least answers to what happened. It is still a bit unclear as to what exactly happened and some allegations are left unanswered. The fact remains that Full Tilt was not operating in a legit manner and people are owed money. Whether or not this deal with Poker Stars happens is yet to be decided, but it’s the best news we’ve heard in a long time and the most promising of any deal yet. My guess is people will get their funds back and Full Tilt will once again be open to the public. The timeframe is up for debate but if the past is any sign, Poker Stars usually gets things done and will settle matters soon. We’re still hoping that players worldwide get the hundreds of millions of dollars back, that Full Tilt rightfully owes.