Revisiting Poker’s Darkest Day Through the Tweets of Black Friday

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Five years ago the online poker world changed forever. In the early afternoon of April 15, 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against executives from the three largest online poker operators in the world, PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker/UB, and some of the payment processors that served them. Within minutes of the indictments being unsealed the poker world learned the news as DOJ seizure notices appeared on all three websites.

Word spread quickly throughout the poker community on Twitter. Today, on the fifth anniversary of Black Friday, PocketFives looks back at some of the tweets from that day.

Just one week before April 15, Howard Lederer, one of the top Full Tilt Poker executives, was getting ready to head overseas to spend time with U.S. troops. He was on that trip when news broke about the indictments.

Nobody had any reason to suspect anything dramatic was about to happen. The day felt like any other really, except maybe to Brandon Cantu who had a life-changing event of a different type, just hours before the indictments became public.

It was just before 2 pm ET when word broke. No shock at all at who was one of the first to get the word out on Twitter.

The DOJ takeover notice on PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and UB/AbsolutePoker didn’t seem authentic at first.

The website takeovers left some wondering if it was all the work of hackers. Even those with direction connections to the companies doubted the authenticity of what everybody was seeing. Joe Sebok was one of those wondering if the story was legit.

It was quickly determined to be a legitimate takeover. PokerNews’ Matthew Parvis signaled what would be the beginning of a very busy day for those who cover poker.

While most people were caught off guard by the indictments, there had been some smoke signals in the 12 months leading up to Black Friday. But nobody knew what to make of them at the time.

While the seriousness of what had just occurred was still settling in, some were thinking of some of the broader implications of what would turn out to be the effective shutdown of online poker in its largest market.

The impact on the World Series of Poker, and the Main Event in particular, others were thinking about the online poker market in the United States which, at the time, appeared headed towards some sort of regulatory promise land. Both Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars had recently entered into working relationships with Las Vegas-based brick and mortar casino companies.

In the days leading up to Black Friday, most of the poker world had been focused on the North American Poker Tour at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT. The event was historic in that Vanessa Selbst and Jason Mercier both defended their titles in the NAPT Mohegan Sun Main Event and High Roller respectively. Some of the media covering the events were headed back home on Black Friday.

Poker media giant PokerNews was one of many outlets who started covering the rapidly changing story. They published their first story around 2:40 pm.

While PokerNews was quick to jump on the story, so was mainstream media. The Associated Press and Wall Street Journal were able to access all of the previously sealed documents relatively quickly and began piecing together their coverage.

After previously doubting the authenticity of the site takeovers, Joe Sebok changed his tune rather quickly.

While professional online poker players were facing a real uncertainty as to their livelihood, the poker media was also facing uncertainty. For some, it didn’t seem real at all.

Tim Fiorvanti had just finished covering the NAPT event and was still in Uncasville, following the happenings online. He didn’t leave his hotel room for 24 hours.

While “Rome is burning” was a popular sentiment, there were those who were hopeful the events of the day were leading to something positive on the regulation front.

The Latin American Poker Tour was just getting under way in Lima, Peru. While most of the players in attendance weren’t American, the overwhelming fear that online poker was facing some real difficulties was hitting home.

As the day wore on, conversation turned to the political side of the discussion. One pro, Bryan Devonshire, was hopeful that the events of the day would lead to people re-assessing the two controlling parties in power.

Optimism was seemingly in short supply, but if you searched hard enough for it, it was there.

As various federal bills were being drafted just months before, one such bill included a lengthy “blackout period” for any online poker operator that took U.S. players after the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006. Many players were concerned that PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker wouldn’t be allowed to compete once the bill was passed. Black Friday changed all of that, in a hurry.

There were moments of levity as well. One of the highest stakes regulars on Full Tilt, Phil Galfond, even brought some gallows humor to the party, joking about an addition he’d recently had made to his Manhattan condo.

Galfond eventually sold his New York City condo – complete with slide – in 2012 and now splits his time between Vancouver, BC, where he can play online, or Las Vegas, NV, where he plays in the highest stakes live games.

The timing of the indictments being unsealed wasn’t lost on anybody. April 15, 2011 also happened to be the day that federal income taxes were due.

One option that many players were beginning to explore was moving to another country, such as Canada or Mexico. Some aspiring entrepreneurs began to wonder if there was money to be made by helping poker pros.

One company did pop up shortly after Black Friday that assisted in getting poker players situated in a new country. Poker Refugees continues to operate now and has helped endless grinders find housing, internet and banking solutions in Canada, Mexico and parts of Latin America.

Once he was done trying to sell his slide, Galfond quickly pointed out that poker players needed to rally behind the cause, somehow.

As players realized that cashing out their funds immediately was no longer an option, panic began to set in and some players questioned whether they’d ever see their money again. Dwan, one of the highest profile Team Full Tilt pros, was quick to put everybody at ease about Full Tilt being able to pay all players quickly once the matter was settled.

Dwan turned out to be wrong as Full Tilt was quickly proven to be financially insolvent after paying Team Full Tilt members out of player deposits over the years. It would take Full Tilt players almost three years for them to begin seeing payments – and only after PokerStars purchased Full Tilt Poker assets from the U.S. government as part of their Black Friday settlement.

While Dwan was quick to offer his reassurance, Team PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst took to Twitter to tell those that had reached out to her that she had no new info.

David ‘The Maven’ Chicotsky, who had won BLUFF’s Online Poker Player of the Year in 2008 wanted to know what was going to happen to those who had been voted into the 2011 BLUFF Power 20, an annual ranking of the most powerful people in poker. Lederer had been voted #1 for the first time ever just two months earlier.

The deals that PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker had made with Wynn and Station Casinos were one of the earliest victims of Black Friday. Both

Many players were talking about leaving, but Jessica Welman, working for BLUFF at the time, was looking for players who were actually already making plans. She’d eventually write a piece for BLUFF about many of the players who were forced to reconsider their careers after Black Friday.

Even as the highest profile member of Team PokerStars, Daniel Negreanu was left wondering what his options were. Living in Las Vegas, Negreanu was contemplating jumping into some of the high stakes games in town.

Eric Hollreiser, spokesperson for PokerStars, was stunned by the DOJ action and was left wondering if this was the first time the U.S. government had stepped in in the .com era.

Brian Balsbaugh, the most prominent poker agent at the time, was quick to throw out a new estimate on a WSOP Main Event field size.

Ultimately Balsbaugh would be proven to be overly pessimistic. The 2011 WSOP Main Event attracted 6,865 runners – down 9.4% over 2010.

While the official WSOP Twitter account remained silent most of the day, it did jump in to set the record straight in regards to online qualifiers.

One of online poker’s brightest stars, Ari Engel, was hoping people would see the long term implications as net positive.

The poker media was thrown for a loop on Black Friday. One upstart company that made a real name for itself that day was QuadJacks, which jumped into around-the-clock broadcasting with Marco Valerio.

As the day wound down and less and less new information was coming in, the poker media were thankful for a break and hopeful that the optimism some were showing would bear fruit.

Early the next morning, PokerStars became the first of the three sites to communicate with players about their funds.

Even two days later, Dwan was convinced that those scared about their online poker account balances being lost money were unnecessarily worried. So much so that he was willing to bet on it.

Dwan was eventually proven to be wrong as Full Tilt Poker never paid a dime back to its players. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York who handled the charges, called Full Tilt Poker a “ponzi scheme” and the company didn’t have any money to pay back players.

Galfond, Dwan’s good friend and fellow high stakes regular, was also ready to put up his money if Full Tilt Poker didn’t pay out – up to $2,000,000.

Even four days after Black Friday, once a weekend had passed and the realities of the DOJ investigation were coming to light, UB’s Sebok continued to promise that UB was on the up-and-up and players would eventually get paid.

Sebok was ultimately proven to be wrong about UB – on many fronts – and quietly left the poker world later in 2011 and now works in Silicon Valley.

Black Friday changed online poker in the United States forever. The optimism that once ruled the day for federal regulation of the game in the United States is all but gone and players are left hoping that their state regulates the game. So far, only three states have done so; Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. While other states appear to be considering the idea, many hurdles remain. After leaving the U.S. market on April 15, 2011, PokerStars returned to the U.S. – in just New Jersey – on March 21, 2016.

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