Full Tilt, the poker site that was central to the game’s dizzying rise in the 20-Aughts, and also its breathtaking fall on Black Friday some 10 years ago, will retire on February 25th.
Once a strong rival to Full Tilt, PokerStars now owns the Full Tilt brand. And while PokerStars emerged unscathed from the online poker shutdown bombshell on April 15, 2011 – even after hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to the US Department of Justice – Full Tilt became pariah with its prominent lineup of founders and featured players .
As many poker players remember, Poker Stars was able to pay all of its customers after the DOJ shutdown, while Full Tilt infamously could not. Amazingly, Full Tilt had committed the mortal sin of shuffling its customers’ deposits on their own funds and had missed millions and millions of dollars by the time financial settlement day came. The federal prosecutor’s office colorfully compared Full Tilt operations to a Ponzi program.
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So it was left to Poker Stars not only to pay their fines to the federal government and of course pay their own US customers money that was rightly owed, but to go much further – put on a white hat and make amends Cash Full Tilt was unable to repay its players. All along, it’s been a tense time for former Full Tilt players who had to wait more than a year for their money and wondered if they’d ever get it.
PokerStars then acquired its old nemesis and revived it as a real money skin for non-US players. But now PokerStars decided it was time to turn off the lights on Full Tilt. The announcement was made in a simple manner via an FAQ page on the PokerStars website: “On February 25, 2021, Full Tilt desktop and mobile applications will no longer be available. However, all of your account information, settings and funds will remain available in the PokerStars software. “
Meeting with ‘The Professor’
Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to meet with a key Full Tilt director just as the site was launched in 2004. I had agreed to interview Howard “The Professor” Lederer, one of these celebrity founders, during this year’s World Series of Poker Main event in Las Vegas.
It was the last year the tournament was played entirely at Binion’s on Fremont Street, and I met Lederer for a few hours in a bar across the street at the Golden Nugget. Lederer had a promotional package for his new website that I should have, and he mixed up a pitch for his new business between answering my more general poker queries.
I stayed in touch with Lederer by phone for the next several years, primarily to discuss efforts to legalize online poker at the federal level. We met again in person in 2010 (strangely, almost a year before Black Friday) at a charity poker tournament in Washington, DC that was attended by members of Congress, where the real mission was to promote legalized online poker.
It foolishly turned out to be the belief across the poker world that the mess between US Senators and Representatives and poker celebs like Lederer and his sister Annie Duke and visits from Full Tilt Big Timer to Capitol Hill Chris “Jesus” Ferguson were all signs that online poker would continue as usual until new federal laws came to the rescue and cleaned up the legal “gray area” that poker was in.
That was a foolish hope indeed.
Full Tilt & Celebrity Poker Pros
The high level of awareness of Full Tilt was not limited to lobbying for a legalized poker landscape. In its battle for market share, Full Tilt has been a strong funder of poker TV shows that sponsored programs such as Late Night Poker, which was punctuated by its well-known commercials with its stall of Full Tilt poker pros.
The black and white commercials with star players like Ferguson, Lederer, Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Jennifer Harman and Andy Bloch, which were cleverly produced, helped make such players, if not well-known names, at least unmistakable in every poker room in America became famous. Some had fascinating backstories that legitimized their extraordinary game; Ferguson was a Cal-Berkeley geek, Bloch was an MIT and Harvard Law graduate, and a blackjack card counter.
All of this sparked the imagination of casual poker fans, made the game more attractive and encouraged participation in poker. Even Hollywood superstars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have been drawn into the orbit of Full Tilt’s poker celebrities.
“No question. There was a time when you couldn’t turn on the television or see celebrity poker players at the table, ”said John Pappas, now Corridor Consulting in Washington, DC, but previously executive director of the Poker Players Alliance. “Full Tilt made players their brand. And while PokerStars, while it could be said that they had the moneymaker effect (2003 WSOP Main Event champion Chris Moneymaker was a PokerStars player), they focused on the business side and the gaming experience. “
Pappas occasionally brought the Full Tilt players to Washington to help lobby for the legalization of online poker.
“The players were rock stars. These were people lawmakers saw on ESPN and Poker After Dark, ”said Pappas. “And they were intelligent people who could talk to people in Congress about not only their sport and how poker was a game of the intellect, but other topics as well.”
The Full Tilt Collapse
Of course, it all fell apart when the Full Tilt bluff was exposed. The DOJ froze online poker in the US and Full Tilt – with no ability to generate revenue from its US customers – had to return millions and millions of dollars that it just didn’t have. Lederer is viewed badly by many in poker, despite his own Mea Culpa in 2016 and a few others most closely associated with Full Tilt.
Unfortunately for poker as a whole, a similar constellation of poker stars has not emerged as many of the Full Tilt stars have suffered from the scandal of the website collapse and the financial hardship it caused for many of their customers. That’s not to say that newer poker players aren’t that talented. In truth, each generation of poker players is arguably more talented as the game progresses. However, the chemistry just wasn’t there with newer players, or if there is star potential, it doesn’t reach popular audiences.
“I think it can happen again. I think there can be celebrity poker players, ”said Pappas. “But I think it will take some convergence of social media and broadcast media.”
Poker revival isn’t impossible
Resuscitations have taken place in other sports. There was a time when golf was stripped of star power in the twilight of the Palmer-Nicklaus player era. Then came a couple of people named Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
There is a lot of potential magic in a digital poker platform. Internet poker doesn’t have to be all about avatars and alphabet soup like it is now. Poker operators need to think of a strategy in order to cultivate star players.
Operators need to give online gaming a certain technological genius and incorporate it into network quality over-the-top broadcasts. Get married online with brick and mortar promotions in glamorous casinos when the pandemic is over; and then promote men and women with charisma who can play the game with cunning and vigor. After all, they need to encourage everyday gamblers by giving them the legitimate opportunity to be a prominent poker player too.
Sound almost impossible? Well it has happened before.