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Dan Podheiser

Dan  Podheiser

Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

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Top 10 developments and storylines since Black Friday

8 Apr 2016

By Dan Podheiser
Five years ago, American poker players could sit at a table and play any game, for any stakes, at any time of the day that pleased them. It was truly paradise.

But next Friday, April 15, marks the five-year anniversary of "Black Friday," the day the United States Department of Justice invaded that paradise and shut down the major online poker operators in the U.S. Tens of thousands of Americans lost a basic freedom that day – while others lost their livelihoods.

Today, the online poker landscape in the U.S. looks much different than it did five years ago. The goal after the dust settled on Black Friday was to create a regulated online poker industry, but only three states have passed legislation on the matter to date. And for those online poker players living in those states – it's just not the same.

Still, progress has been made in the past half-decade, and there's deserved optimism that in the next five years, more Americans will have access to online poker again.

Here are 10 of the top developments and storylines in online poker, with respect to the U.S., since Black Friday.

10. PokerStars reaches settlement with U.S. Department of Justice, buys Full Tilt (July 2012)

When, unlike several of its top competitors, decided to stick around in the U.S. after Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), the company knew it was playing the long game in the online poker market. Part of that strategy undoubtedly calculated the risk that the federal government would once again crack down on online poker operators.

After Black Friday, PokerStars did the right thing. It reached a settlement with the DOJ that saw the company forfeit $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.

This move, even if hands were forced in the process, allowed PokerStars to instill confidence in the world that it was not like its shady competitors – namely, Full Tilt, Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker. PokerStars had an eye on the future from the beginning, and it paid the necessary price to get there.

9. Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer reach settlements with federal prosecutors (December 2012 and February 2013)

In perhaps the most frustrating and perplexing series of events since Black Friday, two of the men who allegedly stole millions of dollars from Full Tilt players were essentially given a slap on the wrist from the federal government.

First there was Lederer, the most hated of the Full Tilt trust, who 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. Ferguson, meanwhile, forfeited a bank account containing an undisclosed amount of cash, as well as an additional $2.35 million.

Prosecutors have alleged that Lederer and Ferguson collected $44.3 million and $42 million, respectively, from stolen Full Tilt player funds. So, yeah; these settlements were a drop in the bucket. Lederer and Ferguson quite literally made out like bandits.

8. Ultimate Poker launches in Nevada (April 2013)

April 30, 2013, marked the first time that regulated online poker was available to players in the U.S. Ultimate Poker has since folded in both Nevada and New Jersey, but its initial launch was a momentous occasion for online poker advocates.

7. Bet Raise Fold is released (June 2013)

The seminal documentary about the online poker industry, Bet Raise Fold chronicled the lives of three professional players – Tony Dunst, Martin Bradstreet and Danielle Moon-Anderson – whose lives were turned upside down after Black Friday. Casino City's Aaron Todd reviewed the film when it came out three years ago.

Dunst, Bradstreet and Moon-Anderson, like many professional online poker players, had their bankrolls seized by the federal government in 2011, and didn't have access to that money for several years. Oftentimes, these players didn't just have their poker bankrolls held in captivity; they had most of their net worth on PokerStars and Full Tilt. (Not that that was a smart decision, even without hindsight, but it's still sad.)

Bet Raise Fold was an important film, if only because it told a story that most of America would have never otherwise heard. And Moon-Anderson's story, especially – a mother grinding out a living playing poker, only to have her livelihood stolen from her – is one that most people would have never believed to be possible.

6. Full Tilt players start to get their money back (February 2014)

Nothing like a three-year, interest-free $82 million loan to balance the budget in Washington, huh? In practice, that is exactly what the federal government had in its hands as it sorted through the mess of how to repay people who had their Full Tilt bankrolls seized on Black Friday.

It took nearly three years for anyone to get their money back, and it took even longer for some players. But in February 2014, approximately 30,000 players received a total of $82 million from the DOJ. You can bet that poker rooms in casinos across America experienced quite an uptick in traffic that week.

5. Restoration of America's Wire Act introduced into U.S. House and Senate (March 2014)

Backed by billionaire Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, a bill that aimed to ban online gambling in the U.S., even in states where it had already been made legal, was introduced to the Senate by Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and the House by Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). The Restoration of America's Wire Act (RAWA) has so far been the single biggest negative influence on online poker's progress in the U.S., as Adelson and his conservative cronies aim to protect his brick-and-mortar casino interests.

Luckily, the tide seems to be turning. Adelson, perhaps ready to admit defeat, has recently stopped pouring dollars into supporting RAWA. That said, one has to suspect that a new version of the bill, laced with Adelson's fingerprints, is going to surface after the 2016 elections.

4. Amaya Gaming buys PokerStars and Full Tilt (June 2014)

When Montreal-based Amaya Gaming purchased the Rational Group, the parent company of PokerStars and Full Tilt, it was viewed as a move that would finally allow PokerStars to gain re-entry into the U.S. – it just might take a while. Amaya, despite the current predicament facing its CEO, is a reputable Internet gambling supplier that in 2014 already had relationships with several of New Jersey's regulated sites and had gained approval from the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Meanwhile, PokerStars' former owners were viewed as "bad actors" by just about every regulator in the country. The online poker giant made amends after Black Friday, but it still violated UIGEA from 2006 to 2011. Amaya's takeover of PokerStars gave it the legitimacy it needed in the eyes of regulators.

3. Jason Somerville signs deal with PokerStars (March 2015)

I've written several times before about my belief that live streaming via sites like Twitch will be a crucial element to the future of online poker. Jason Somerville is leading the way in that medium, and he really took off when he and his "Run It Up" brand agreed to a partnership with PokerStars last year.

Somerville's Twitch stream hit 10 million views in late March 2015, a number that signifies both the popularity of the medium and the general interest in online poker. Many of Somerville's viewers are new to poker, so his stream serves as a way to attract and educate new players into the ecosystem. This will be crucial as online poker attempts to gain a foothold in the U.S. in the future.

2. World Series of Poker runs online bracelet event (July 2015)

I never thought I'd see the day that the World Series of Poker would host an online event that rewarded a bracelet to the winner, especially since Black Friday. But the WSOP made that a reality last summer with a $1,000 buy-in tournament held on - Nevada, with 905 players vying to get down to the final table of six held live at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

This year, the WSOP is upping the ante with a $1,000 online re-entry event in addition to a "Top Up" turbo event, in which players can qualify for a higher starting stack by playing on in the days leading up to the event. Yes, that is as ridiculous as it sounds, but you have to love the integration of online poker into the world's biggest live poker series.

1. PokerStars launches in New Jersey (March 2016)

The world's largest poker site finally returned to the U.S. last month to much fanfare. PokerStars New Jersey immediately took the lead in online poker traffic in the Garden State, and it doesn't look to be slowing down.

And while we're just talking about one state, PokerStars' surge in New Jersey could have the positive effect of convincing other state regulators of the potential tax revenue to be gained from online poker. And if that speeds up online poker regulations in the U.S., then this story could prove to be the most important development since Black Friday.
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