Full Tilt, the poker website that was central to the game’s giddy ascendancy in the 20-aughts and also its breathtaking fall starting on Black Friday about 10 years ago, will be put to rest on Feb. 25.
PokerStars, once a fierce rival to Full Tilt, now owns the Full Tilt brand. And while PokerStars eventually emerged intact from the bombshell of the shutdown of online poker on April 15, 2011 — even after paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. Justice Department — Full Tilt, with its celebrity lineup of founders and featured players, became a pariah.
As many poker players recall, Poker Stars was able to pay all its customers after the DOJ’s shutdown while Full Tilt infamously could not. Stunningly, Full Tilt had committed the mortal sin of co-mingling its customers’ money on deposit with its own funds and came up millions and millions of dollars short when the day of financial reckoning arrived. Federal prosecutors colorfully likened Full Tilt operations to a Ponzi scheme.
So, it was left for Poker Stars to not only pay its fines to the federal government and, of course, pay its own U.S. customers money that was rightfully owed but to go much further — put on a white hat, and make good on the cash Full Tilt couldn’t pay back to its players. All along, it was a tense time for former Full Tilt players who had to wait more than a year for their money wondering if they’d ever get it.
Subsequently, PokerStars acquired its old nemesis and revived it as a real-money skin for non-U.S. players. But now, PokerStars decided it was time to turn off the lights on Full Tilt. The announcement was made as part of a FAQ page on PokerStars’ website in straightforward fashion: “On February 25, 2021, the Full Tilt desktop and mobile applications will no longer be available. However, all your account information, preferences and balances will remain available on the PokerStars software.”
Meeting with ‘The Professor’
Coincidentally, I had the occasion to meet with a key Full Tilt principal just as the website was being introduced in 2004. I had arranged to interview Howard “The Professor” Lederer, one of those celebrity founders, during that year’s World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas.
It was the last year that the tournament was played entirely at Binion’s on Fremont Street and I met with Lederer for a couple of hours in a bar across the street at the Golden Nugget. Lederer was clutching a publicity package of his new website he wanted me to have, and he mixed in a pitch for his new business between answering my own more general poker inquiries.
Over the next few years, I stayed in touch with Lederer by phone, mostly to chat about efforts to legalize online poker at the federal level. We met in person again in 2010 (weirdly, almost one year to the day before Black Friday) at a charity poker tournament in Washington D.C., attended by members of Congress where the real mission was lobbying for legalized online poker.
Foolishly, it turned out, there was a belief in the poker world at-large that the hob-knobbing between U.S. senators and representatives and poker celebs like Lederer and his sister, Annie Duke, and visits to Capitol Hill by Full Tilt big-timer Chris “Jesus” Ferguson were all signs that online poker would continue business-as-usual until new federal legislation rode to the rescue and sanitized the legal “gray” area in which poker resided.
That was a foolish hope, indeed.
Full Tilt & Celebrity Poker Pros
However, Full Tilt’s high profile wasn’t confined to lobbying for a legalized landscape for poker. In its battle for market share, Full Tilt was a heavy spender on poker TV shows sponsoring programming such as “Late Night Poker” that was punctuated with its familiar commercials starring its stable of Full Tilt poker pros.
Slickly produced, the black-and-white commercials with star players such as Ferguson, Lederer, Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman and Andy Bloch helped make such players, if not household names, at least unmistakably famous in every poker room in America. Some had intriguing back stories that legitimized their extraordinary play; Ferguson was a computer whiz from Cal-Berkeley, Bloch was an MIT and Harvard Law grad plus a blackjack card counter.
It all stirred the imaginations of casual poker fans, heightened the game’s appeal and drove poker participation. Even Hollywood superstars, such as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, were drawn into the orbit of Full Tilt’s poker celebrities.
“There’s no question about it. There was a time when you couldn’t turn on the TV and not see celebrity poker players at the table,” said John Pappas, now of Washington, D.C.-based Corridor Consulting but previously the executive director of the Poker Players Alliance. “Full Tilt made the players their brand. And while PokerStars, although you could say they had the Moneymaker Effect (2003 WSOP Main Event champion Chris Moneymaker was a PokerStars player), they concentrated on the business side and the playing experience.”
Pappas occasionally brought the Full Tilt players to Washington to help in the lobbying effort to legalize online poker.
“The players were rock stars. These were people who the legislators saw on ESPN and Poker After Dark,” Pappas said. “And they were intelligent guys who could speak to people in Congress, not just about their sport and how poker was a game of intellect, but about other issues as well.”
The Full Tilt Collapse
Of course, it all came apart when the bluff Full Tilt was running was exposed. The DOJ froze online poker in the U.S., and Full Tilt — absent of the ability to bring in revenue from its U.S. customers — had to return millions and millions of dollars that it just didn’t have. Lederer, despite his own mea culpa in 2016, and a few others most closely associated with Full Tilt are viewed dimly by many in poker.
Unfortunately for poker at-large, a similar constellation of poker stars has not emerged since many of the Full Tilt stars were tarred with the scandal of the website’s collapse and the financial distress it caused for many of its customers. That’s not to say that more recent poker players aren’t as talented. In truth, every generation of poker players is arguably more talented as the game evolves. However, the chemistry just hasn’t been there among more recent players, or if there is star potential it’s not reaching popular audiences.
“I think it can happen again. I think there can be celebrity poker players,” Pappas said. “But I think it will take some convergence of social media and broadcast media.”
Poker Revival Isn’t Impossible
Revivals have happened in other sports. There was a time when golf, in the fading twilight of the Palmer-Nicklaus-Player era, was bereft of star power. Then along came a couple of guys named Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
There’s a lot of potential magic in a digital poker platform. Internet poker doesn’t have to be all avatars and alphabet-soup online handles, the way it is now. Poker operators need to think about a strategy to cultivate star players.
Operators need to apply some technological genius to the online game, integrating it with network-quality over-the-top broadcasts; marry online with brick-and-mortar action in glamorous casinos when the pandemic is over; and then promote men and women with charisma who can play the game with guile and panache. Finally, they need to encourage everyday players by offering them the legitimate possibility that they, too, can be a celebrity poker player.
Sound almost impossible? Well, it did happen before.