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Poker’s Black Friday: A decade later

14 Apr 2021

By Dan Ippolito
Ferguson was near the top at Full Tilt Poker and was accused of collecting millions from his involvement.

Ferguson was near the top at Full Tilt Poker and was accused of collecting millions from his involvement.

Thursday, 15 April marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the darkest days in online poker history. Known as Black Friday, 15 April 2011 saw three major poker sites get suddenly indicted and shut down, leaving tens of thousands of players and their accounts in limbo.

Here, review what took place, the fallout and where we stand today, a full decade later.

The “Big 3” of online poker — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker — were open to players in the U.S. but taken down by the U.S. Department of Justice on 15 April 2011. The three immediately took action and suspended real-money play on their sites and players who visited the sites were met by a seizure notice.

This Black Friday incident was and still is one of the worst occurrences to happen to online poker since The Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act was passed in 2006.

One of the most pressing issues involved with this case was the money in the player accounts. The money in these accounts on the suspended sites were basically left in limbo and could not be collected at first, and there was no real answer as to when players could access and take out their money. In fact, in some cases it took several years before the majority of players in the U.S. were paid. Full Tilt players didn’t start getting money back until 2014.

Ryan Lang, who the Department of Justice accused of obtaining accounts at U. S. banks for the poker sites, lying about the nature of the financial transactions, and covering up the lies by creating “phony” corporations and websites, was considered a minor player in the federal crackdown on U.S. Internet poker. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to money laundering, fraud, and gambling offenses in federal court in New York. Lang worked directly with senior executives from PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, and faced 30 years in prison in connection with a scheme to deceive banks into processing hundreds of millions of dollars in Internet gambling transactions.

Lang was one of 11 individuals named in nine-count federal indictment unsealed in April 2011 in New York that shut down U.S. operations for the three online poker sites. The founders and executives from the three companies were charged with bank fraud, money laundering and operating illegal gaming businesses. Federal prosecutors also filed a civil lawsuit seeking $3 billion in money-laundering penalties from the websites and their operators.

After Black Friday, PokerStars decided to do the right thing in July 2012. It reached a settlement with the DOJ where it forfeited $731 million to the U.S. government, some of which was used to repay players who had their bankrolls frozen on Full Tilt. PokerStars also acquired Full Tilt in the process.

In addition to the resulting lawsuits, fines and jail time that was dished out, Black Friday also severely damaged the reputation of some of the more popular poker players in the game. In 2000, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson captured the World Series of Poker Main Event title and $1.5 million to skyrocket his popularity in the poker world. Fast forward to 2011, his name was still all over headlines but for the wrong reason.

Ferguson was near the top at Full-Tilt Poker and was accused of collecting over $40 million from his involvement in the site due to a Ponzi scheme. In 2013, Ferguson forfeited a bank account containing an undisclosed amount of cash, as well as an additional $2.35 million after reaching a settlement with federal prosecutors.
With 21 poker titles to his name, Ferguson went into hiding, but returned to the live circuit in 2016. His last victory came at the 2017 World Series of Poker Europe when he captured his sixth-career World Series of Poker bracelet, emerging victorious in the €1,650 Pot-Limit Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better, helping him take home the 2017 WSOP Player of the Year Award. With a Main Event title and a WSOP POY award to his name, Ferguson, who ranks third all-time in WSOP cashes with 161, most certainly has the credentials of a sure-fire Poker Hall of Famer, but, while he has routinely been nominated, “Jesus” has been snubbed by the Hall of Fame year after year.

Another famous player, Howard “The Professor” Lederer also made tens of millions of dollars from Full Tilt after the site’s failure. However, despite saying he didn’t do anything wrong, he still decided to reach a settlement like Ferguson. Lederer faced a $42.5 million civil lawsuit from the DOJ, but only had to give up $2.5 million in cash and assets in a settlement.

Both Lederer and Ferguson were said to have made all of this money from stolen player funds. Unlike Ferguson, Lederer isn’t involved in as many events as his “accomplice” and hasn’t won an event since before Black Friday occurred. Some may see that as justice in itself.

It wasn’t until 2016, and 2018 for Ferguson, that signs of regret and official statements were made by the two poker icons.

With it, Black Friday brought some concerns about the future of the online poker industry, but today those doubts can be put aside now as online poker is very much alive and thriving.
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