Full Tilt Poker in the US

by James Carter on February 19th, 2015.

Why did Full Tilt Poker stop accepting Americans?

Full Tilt Poker USAThe DOJ seized the .com domains of Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet on April 15th, 2011. Not only did they stop all Full Tilt US traffic -- Full Tilt Poker was shut down entirely and the company's assets were frozen.

11 individuals were charged for some combinations of money-laundering, bank fraud and online gambling offenses, including individuals from all the mentioned poker sites and some other individuals that helped these companies to process US poker deposits.

But that was not all. As the investigation continued, the US authorities found out that Full Tilt had allegedly used more money than it could afford to; in other words, they had taken customer deposits and spent more money than they made from rake. At the time of the investigation, they were unable to pay customers back. At first, the shortfall was rumoured to be around $60 million but later they discovered that it was much more - around $128 million, in fact.

It seems like the online poker room made money but the founders and stakeholders were greedy. According to reports, their stakeholder star players - namely Chris Ferguson, Howard Lederer and Phil Ivey - had taken home more than $1 billion from the time Full Tilt started until it was shut down.

But they found all of that out after the initial charges had been made, so what brought them around?

Since it's illegal for financial institutions to facitiliate unlawful online gambling transactions (because of the UIGEA), Full Tilt used intermediaries to process player deposits - for example, some of them set-up several retail sites and processed "purchases" as player deposits.

Here's a quote from the actual indictment:

The principals of the Poker Companies... ... deceived or directed others to deceive United States banks and financial institutions into processing billions of dollars in payments for the Poker Companies, by, among other things, arranging for the money received from United States gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants and other non-gambling businesses.

... relied on highly compensated third party payment processors (the "Poker Processors") who lied to United States banks about the nature of the financial transactions they were processing and covered up those lies through the creation of phony corporations and websites to disguise payments to Poker Companies.

There's no clear definition for "unlawful gambling" though. The UIGEA is an enforcement act, which means you have to break some other federal or state law in order to make it a crime, and there's no federal definition for "unlawful gambling" - only state laws that have different ways of defining the term or fail to define it at all.

The DOJ, however, seems convinced that online poker transactions are categorized as "unlawful gambling transactions."

How was the Full Tilt Poker US situation resolved?

Full Tilt Poker (along with PokerStars) entered into a domain-name use agreement where they gained back their control of .com domains after agreeing to restrict their real-money online poker games for USA players (source). As per the agreement, both sites were allowed to continue operating real-money online poker games outside of the USA with no problems.

Full Tilt Poker, however, was still out of money, and couldn't run their poker site because they already owed players about $184 million (and, as mentioned, had a shortfall of about $128 million). How were they ever going to pay back that money when they were unable to make new money from online poker?

Enter PokerStars.

As the biggest online poker room in the world, PokerStars was able to provide the money needed to acquire the assets of Full Tilt Poker from the US government and pay back Full Tilt Poker US players simultaneously. PokerStars now owns both PokerStars and Fulltiltpoker (both which currently operate on .eu domains).

Read more about PokerStars US history.

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