In Other’s Words: The Rise and Fall of Ray Bitar

Who is Ray Bitar? We attempt to find out.

Editor’s Note: The following feature is an accumulation of interviews–told in an “oral history” format–by people who know Full Tilt Poker CEO Ray Bitar. While we had to conceal the identities of the individuals in this story in order to get them to agree to talk, these are their real stories, and are transcribed from their own words.

Wicked Chops Insider does not intend for this to be a “slam” piece on Ray. We attempted on several occasions to reach individuals who had overall positive impressions of Ray. Those individuals either refused to be interviewed or ignored our requests.

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Prologue
For years, Ray Bitar was in charge of Full Tilt Poker, at one time the second largest online poker room in the world. He helped lead Full Tilt to almost a billion dollars in annual revenue. He’s also one of the central figures in the U.S. government indictments known as Black Friday.

Yet very few people outside of the company know anything about him.

The interviews we conducted for this feature gave us a glimpse of who Ray is. It was clear from the people we spoke with that Full Tilt Poker was Ray’s life. In that sense, this is also somewhat a story of the rise and fall of Full Tilt.

According to the people we spoke with, Ray is a very, very private person. A loner with few friends. No wife or girlfriend. However, you could say that maybe Full Tilt Poker was his baby.

In the end, loyalty — more than anything — matters to him.

And his loyalty was always to Full Tilt Poker.

When Ray Met Chris Ferguson

‘Peter’ Ex-Full Tilt Pro
I’m not sure how [Ray Bitar and Chris Ferguson] met. I think it was through Bob Bright’s trading firm. Ray worked for Bob.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
Ray started trading [stocks] in high school.

“Rick” Senior Poker Media
I’ve talked to many people over the years about the Full Tilt story–where it began and how everyone came together. And yes, legend, and sources, say Ray met Chris at the [Bicycle Casino] in LA in the late ‘90’s. Ray was immediately infatuated with a guy who was one of his poker heroes. There’s another story going around that one day Chris just walked into [Bob Bright’s] trading firm and wanted to invest, befriending Ray there. But the most prominent story is they knew each from poker, from before Chris even won the Main Event.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
Ray and Chris met before the 2000 Main Event. As I understand it, he and Chris had met playing poker. Chris wanted to learn day trading and Ray wanted to learn poker. So they worked out a deal that Ray would give Chris trading lessons and Chris would give Ray poker lessons. I think that’s how that relationship developed.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
Ray actually had 30% of Chris when he won the 2000 [WSOP] Main Event.

The Start of Something Big

As poker blew up in 2003-04, a group of poker players, led by Chris Ferguson, invested money into the company that would eventually become Full Tilt Poker. Chris brought two of his closest associates–his lawyer Ian Imrich and stockbroker and friend Ray Bitar — in on the deal. Ray would quickly be tabbed as the CEO.The early days of Full Tilt had a Wild West, dot-com, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of feel. However, under the direction of Ray and Howard Lederer, the company grew — fast.

“Rick” Senior Poker Media
This was like late 2003 I believe. Chris was getting offers from every online site around. They all wanted him to wear their logo and be their ambassador. At the time, he was one of the top five or six recognizable faces so it made sense. [Chris] wanted to see business plans. From what I’ve been told by numerous sources, he talked to all the sites about some type of sponsorship deal, and after getting the plans, he decided to just do it himself along the way. While I don’t know how, or if, Ray was involved in this specific process, Chris, Ray, and Ian Imrich were as thick as thieves, no pun intended, so I’d assume Ray was part of what became the Tilt “team” very early on.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
The first time I met Ray was probably early 2004. I got an interview with a company that had started an online poker site and I knew that Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer were involved. A friend of mine had gotten a job there. He called me in because he knew I played poker and he said, “I’m in way over my head.”

[Ray] wasn’t actually CEO from the beginning–because originally Full Tilt Poker was JetSet Poker. So he’s actually the second CEO of the company and the money but not the technology, if that makes sense. There was JetSet Poker and a different CEO who was more crooked. And the company and the money separated. Chris Ferguson took the company and the money one way and finally brought in Ray to be CEO. He said, “Hey, what do you guys think of my friend Ray?”

I go in and have an interview and I meet Ray. He’s a short, fat, Persian guy. He’s got sausage fingers. I remember shaking his hand and thinking, “This guy can’t wear a ring.” So we talk a bit. He asks me about my experience. They bring in another guy who asks me about poker stuff. Ray asks me a little about poker stuff. They ask me how to play hands, this this and this. Very little technical stuff. And he finally says, “Well I might be able to give you two months of work, at $14 an hour, but after that I can’t really commit to anything.”

I said, “OK. I’m kinda between jobs right now. Just let me know. I’m going out of town this weekend. I’ll be back on Monday. Just let me know.” I never heard back from him.

Finally I call the office. The person that answered the phone at the office was Ray. That’s how small the company was. I said, “Hey we interviewed the other day. Just wondering if you want me to come work for you.” He’s like, “Yeah, can you start tomorrow?” So I got hired and didn’t have a day off for almost three years. It might have been four years.

I took the job. $14 an hour. After the first month I’d worked so much overtime and double time and triple time that they put me on a $50,000 salary. And after that the salary went up, and up.

Ray Bitar at the 2005 WSOP

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
Ray Bitar was not an especially impressive executive.  When Howard Lederer was president of Tiltware, it was hard to tell that Ray was CEO [for early hires like myself] as most people assumed that Howard was in charge and Ray took his orders from Howard.  At the very least Ray seemed careful not to make any decision, no matter how trivial, without getting Howard’s input and buy-in.  Part of this is that Howard was far more technically oriented than Ray, and in a company that is primarily a software development company, Howard was able to better understand the technology.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
[In early 2004] there was only 12 or 13 people in the company. It was as big as this kitchen we’re standing in. And everyone had their little hutch where they were working on their stuff. But definitely Ray and I hit it off. We had kind of similar interests.

He was the first cashier of the company too. Once we went live for money he was the first cashier. He would process all the transactions. Hand-process all the transactions between Neteller, Firepay and [Full Tilt]. He was answering emails too — and he’s about as illiterate as you can get.

He got the job at Full Tilt at probably 31 or 32. He just traded that entire time from when he was 17. That was all he had done that entire time. He had no management experience, for sure. I had to do some of that. I had to fire people when they didn’t want to do it, because I had done some of that previously. “You’ve done a good job, or you’ve sucked, but you have to go home.” Ray couldn’t do that [at first]. It took him a while.

Before things got big and he changed, he was a numbers guy. He knows how to do banks.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
I came in for my first day [as an employee]. The company was in LA and there were about 50 employees. We were on two floors in this building on Wilshire in Westwood. Ray’s office and most of the staff were on the 7th floor. Marketing people were down on the 3rd floor.

I’m in for an hour and we get called into this Promotions meeting, what turned into a five-hour meeting in Ray’s office. There had to be 15 or 20 people in there including Ray; Howard; I don’t remember if Chris was there; Rafe [Furst]; and [Chief Product Officer] Henry [Wasserman]. [Marketing & Advertising Executive] Bob Wolf was in and out. Pretty much all of the marketing people and high-ranking people. So they’re talking through general marketing stuff and they get to the World Series [of Poker]. This was the first World Series after we started real-money. So 2005.

Main Event Mania” was the name of the promotion. It was a huge, encompassing promotion. The basic [premise] was if you won your seat on Full Tilt Poker, you won a $12,000 prize package. And then having won your seat into the Main Event on Full Tilt Poker, you were eligible for Main Event Mania. If you made the final table, you’d get $100,000. I think if you made final three it was a million, but I don’t remember if that was correct. But if you won, you got $10 million from Full Tilt Poker. And it wasn’t going to be a lump sum. It was going to be a million a year for 10 years and you had to be exclusive. That was the basic promotion.

They’re talking about it. “OK, what are we going to do.” Somebody threw out the idea that if a player wins the Main Event, give them $100,000. That sat in the room for about 10 seconds. Then Howard said, “No. Not enough. A million. A million is a nice round, number. It’s big enough.” That kind of sat in the room for another 10 or 15 seconds. And then Rafe came up with, “What about 10 million?” That sat in the room for about 15 seconds. And then they said, “Yeah. 10 million.”

That was the whole genesis of the $10 million. Within a minute they went from $100,000 to $10 million. And this was my first day! I’m sitting there thinking, “These guys play with live bullets.” It was the most ridiculous conversation I’d ever heard.

Editor’s Note: There is another version of the story where Howard came up with the $10M number.

Then they started talking about whether they would insure it. And they decided, “No, we won’t insure it. If somebody wins we’ll pay it.” They decided they would pay it, $1 million a year. For some reason they thought insuring it would dilute the promotion. It was a point of conversation in the development of the promotion.

At that time Full Tilt was really still small. It wasn’t even a Top 10 site yet I don’t think. We hadn’t even had 10,000 consecutive players on the site. It was a chunk of money at that point, at least for the first year. But I think they decided that if anybody inquired or looked into it, they wanted to be able to say that they could afford a million a year. It was very much driven by ego.

From that meeting, [the promotion was] implemented within a week. Ray, Howard and a few people went off and discussed the fine points of the $10 million – how we’re going to pay it out, what we’re going to do. The marketing people had to put together all the web pages and build everything. Within five days it went from inception to launch. It started advertising for two or three weeks before the tournaments started running. And it was a massive success. I think we sent 1100 players that first year. It was certainly one of the promotions that put Tilt on the map.

Many said early Tilt had a dot-com feel.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
Coming from the dot-com world myself, I used to describe Full Tilt to my friends as “It’s a dot-com except they’re making money hand over fist.”  That’s what the daily catered lunch and the t-shirts, and jackets, and hats, and passes to shows all seemed like to me.  There was a complete lack of respect for money.  Howard was a gambler.  Ray basically did whatever Howard did so he liked to act like a baller and big gambler.  They just threw cash around.  There were always rumors about things like a $50K dinner tab for taking the board out to dinner in Vegas, stuff like that.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
[By the end of 2005], Tilt is doing fucking ridiculous. Every day it was like, “How much exponentially bigger can we get?” I remember the first day there were a couple hundred real-money players and rake was at X. Then two weeks later it would be double that or triple that. It grew exponentially. It grew so fast. Remember when PartyPoker started getting big it would crash all the time because they couldn’t handle the number of people? We had to deal with stuff like that. If the site crashed, and you brought it back up, more people would come onto the site after it had crashed and was down.

It was amazing.

Don’t Ever Take Sides Against the Family
While Ray undeniably helped launch and grow the company, Full Tilt Poker was setting up to be a multi-million dollar enterprise. Internally, some people began to question whether Ray had the pedigree to manage and handle such a business.

But Ray had the ears of the people with the most influence at Full Tilt. Those who spoke ill of the capabilities of Ray and the inner circle were invariably out-casted.

Simply put, it was never a good idea to break your loyalty to Ray Bitar and the Tilt management team.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
Ray definitely did some good stuff. He got the company started up, got it going, got it moving forward. But I don’t think he knew how to handle the growth either, from a CEO standpoint, because he’d never had that job. There were a lot of mistakes made, obviously.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
I really feel Ray was a very poor choice as CEO.  He doesn’t possess much of a leadership aura.  In many ways, you could sense that his need to be a big baller-type was part of some sort of psychological demon he’d probably been dealing with his whole life.

“Bryan” Ex-FTP Pro
I first met Ray around [2006] I think. I thought he was a self-centered asshole, with an unjustified ego the size of the stratosphere.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
Perry Friedman is one of the Tilt Boys. Very close friends with Rafe Furst and Phil Gordon. I don’t know if he was involved with JetSet Poker, which is where Tilt spun off of. I think he was involved in that but I’m not 100% sure. He came in very early on in the development of Tilt.

He was the one of the senior programmers. He did a lot of the actual site development and back-end database development. He had a piece of the company because he came in so early, as part of the Tilt Boys. He was involved as early as 2003.

By 2006, when the site was booming, Perry was still doing day-to-day programming. He was certainly influential on the engineering side. He was one of the most senior developers there and had a lot of say into software development. He certainly had some influence.

Obviously Phil Gordon and Ray never had a good relationship. And that Perry-Rafe-Phil troika were a strong group.

Perry started suggesting that Ray should be replaced as CEO somewhere in 2006. Perry started raising flags that things were getting too big and complex.

Perry was very loyal to the company, obviously. He had serious financial reason to be. I believe he talked to other [alleged] Board members like Rafe and Phil. But from the general staff he kept things fairly quiet.

Editor’s Note: We’ve confirmed that Phil Gordon was never on the Board of Directors.

At the end-of-year meeting in 2006, December 2006, he brought up that he thought it was time to start looking for a new CEO. I’m not sure if he was sitting on the Board or if he was at the meeting as an owner. At that point when they had the end-of-year meeting almost everybody showed up. You would see all the people you’d never see in the office: Erick Lindgren; Phil Ivey; Erik Seidel. It was very much an investors’ meeting.

At that meeting Perry brought up that the company might be outgrowing Ray and that they should start thinking about hiring someone with real business experience who understood how to take this company to the next level. He was voted down. There were murmurings in the room but Ray got the majority of the Board to say, “No we’re happy with where we are.” Perry made his declaration and Ray quelled it quickly in the room.

From that meeting on, Perry’s responsibilities were slowly taken away. It was very clear that he was slowly being ostracized within the company. I don’t know what they said to him but it was very obvious, very quickly, that he was out of favor. First he stopped coming in daily. Then he decided it was time to go. Within four months he had left. It wasn’t kick him out the door immediately but it was standard Tilt. Once you’ve crossed them, they’re going to put you in a position where your best option is to leave.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
The reason that Perry Friedman got pushed out of the company was because he said that Ray should be replaced.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
The most admired quality [at Full Tilt] was loyalty.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
I went to Phil Gordon’s 4th of July party [in 2009]. It was obvious that Full Tilt had put some money into it. That was the party where JDN [Jason Newitt] got asked to leave. I walked in with three other former Tilt employees who were in from LA. I had seen Ray a few days before at the Rio and spent 5 minutes talking to him. “Hi, how you doin’.” We walked into this party and he looked at us like we were shit on the bottom of his shoes, these former employees. How dare you show up. You left the company, the family. How dare you show up.

With Jason, it was the height of his lawsuit [against Full Tilt]. But he had been invited to the party by Phil. Ray walked in, saw Jason, and called Ian. Ian called Phil five or ten minutes later and told Phil he had to kick Jason out. It wasn’t an “official” Tilt event, but all the same they kicked Jason out.

“Stacey” Ex-Full Tilt Business Associate

The owners all wanted a say in the beginning. John Juanda had a conversation with Ray and Howard once about how awful the customer service was. John asked why Tilt couldn’t fix it. They shouted back at him, “John you can’t tell us how to run this company. You are an owner and nothing else. You don’t run the company so just fuck off.” Of course Juanda’s points were 100% legitimate.

A few times after that when Ray and Howard would have a drink, they’d toast, “Fuck Juanda.”

Fuck Juanda.

Double Standards
While loyalty seemed to matter most to Ray Bitar, he also set different standards and rules for dealing with people. This caused many issues with staff and endorsed pros. Despite the undeniable success of the company, a culture of distrust permeated throughout the company.

Perhaps because of this, many in the company felt more loyal to Howard Lederer than Ray Bitar.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
There were two developers who built the original Tilt software.  They sold their rights to it to Tilt for cash and equity in [the company].  But in order to keep Ray and Howard on a leash they refused to let anyone see too much of the code.  They only allowed other developers to see the small bit they were working on.  One developer went through and commented the code to make it easier to read and work with.  The original developers stripped out all of his comments and made up some silly excuse about it making things messy.

Ray and Howard let these two get away with anything they wanted.  One of them walked out of a meeting saying he had to go to the bathroom and went to dinner. The entire meeting, with Ray and Howard, was called specifically to discuss issues with the developer and he walked out and left a room full of people waiting.  After a half hour passed they called him on his mobile phone and he said he was eating dinner and would come back when he was done.  Howard almost jumped out of his skin in rage and Ray just shrugged his shoulders and said, “What can you do?”

The truth was, nothing.  And nothing did happen to the developer.  Because they couldn’t fire either of the two original developers because they had made it impossible to run the business without them.

This was a huge drain on morale for everyone else in the company who was burning themselves out while these two seemed to get away with whatever they wanted and had Ray and Howard’s ear.

“Bryan” Ex-Full Tilt Pro
A majority of pros felt Ray was an idiot and were dumbfounded that he was in charge of Full Tilt Poker. I think basically everyone would talk to Howard long before Ray.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
Howard, to me, was always the conscience of the company. Someone would present an idea and Ray would say, “How do we make the most of this?” And Howard would often be the one who stepped in and said, “There’s evil and there’s what’s doable. We can’t completely screw our players. You can screw them a little bit but you can’t blatantly fuck them over.” I always felt like he saw Ray as being a little too eager, a little too greedy. But in public they generally put on a good face.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
None of the owners liked Ray. They all had issues with him. Phil Gordon hated him. Phil was invited to play NBC  Heads-Up Poker Championship one year. He was a little short of cash because he had sunk all his money into Expert Insight. Phil asked if he could borrow $25,000. He had invested $300,000 or $400,000 into the company. They said no. They wouldn’t do him a favor that’s going to do well for the company, despite the fact that he was an investor. That’s fucked up. If they would have taken care of him right there, he would have done whatever they wanted for Tilt. But they never understood that.

Phil Gordon has run companies! He’s arrogant but he probably knows how to run companies better than any of them. And they just wouldn’t listen to him. It was all ego.

Working for Ray Bitar
By the end of 2006, with Ray fully entrenched as CEO, Full Tilt Poker had become one of the largest revenue-generating poker sites in the world. The company’s rise to the top of the market was hastened by its decision not to pull out of the U.S. after the UIGEA was enacted.

Privately held enterprises like PokerStars and Full Tilt stayed in the U.S. almost out of necessity. Their shareholders had not yet experienced IPO financial windfalls, unlike investors in PartyPoker and other sites that had gone public. The only way to compete effectively and to make money for their investors was by plowing forward in the lucrative U.S. market.

Additionally, Full Tilt’s management strongly believed that online poker was not illegal in the U.S. Poker was a game of skill–they could argue–and not a game of chance like other casino games.

Primarily because of that decision (and coupled with their superior platform and marketing), Full Tilt rapidly became the second largest site in the world. As Full Tilt grew, so did Ray’s confidence. But Ray also began to grow apart from people. He was all-consumed by Full Tilt Poker. He worked endlessly to make Tilt into what it was. If you were an employee under him, the expectation was that you’d do the same.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
Ray didn’t really understand the concept of burnout or if he did he didn’t care if he burned people out.  The only thing that mattered was Full Tilt.  But to be fair, Howard was the same way.  I’ve seen people break down crying because of the stressful environment at Full Tilt.  I remember one developer who didn’t leave the office for several straight days and slept on a couch in the office.  He had a wife and kids but in order to make a completely arbitrary deadline set by Ray and Howard he basically ran himself into the ground.

People were expendable and Ray and Howard treated everyone like they were for sale.  When people would near the breaking point Ray and Howard would pull out a wad of cash and ask “How much?” for them to keep going.  And once people left the company they were dead as far as Ray and Howard were concerned.  Very few people keep in touch with Ray or Howard after they leave because they don’t answer your emails or phone calls.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
[Ray] couldn’t confront somebody about something. He had a hard time with that. Say you’re his employee and you fuck up. He’s either not going to say anything or just completely blow up. He’s not going to pull you aside and say, “Hey this is what you’re doing wrong. Can you recognize this. Can you fix this. Can you do better at this.” He had no middle ground on that kind of stuff.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
Ray did listen to input from a few people but generally it was “Tell me what you think and then we’ll do what I want.” Ray would involve himself in decisions so small… They wanted to hire Katie Lindsay to do some interviews for Tilt at the World Series. Someone came up with a price of $100 an interview. We ended up doing it because at that price, the most it would cost would be $2,000. Ray called, pissed that nobody ran it by him. Really? For $100 an interview? He said, “Well we probably could have gotten it for $75.” Ray would get involved in that level of decision.

That was the culture of the company, this micromanaging culture. It was true of Henry [Wasserman]. It was true of [former CTO] Michael Chow. Bob Wolf wasn’t that bad on the micromanaging level. And I think one of the few people Ray really respected was Bob Wolf. Bob was significantly older, about 30 years older, and had an amazingly proven track record. I think Bob was one of the few people Ray listened to closely.

“Rick” Senior Poker Media
If you remember, Bodog used to have this big marketing conference at the WSOP. Or they did in 2005, and the one in 2006 I believe got canceled. Anyway, a lot of us poker media types would attend it, and remember hearing about [Wicked Chops] for the first time at it. I met Ray at that 2005 conference. He came across as pretty insecure. I remember watching another online operator CEO come into a room a bunch of us had gathered and he wasn’t at all comfortable with being challenged for who was most powerful or important. He wasn’t the Alpha Dog. Over the years though, he evolved into that role. “Flexing his muscles” was something I heard a lot.

“Tim” Poker Industry Business Development
Ray was competent negotiating deals. But you didn’t leave the meeting thinking…well, there are certain guys that are very charismatic. Or even if they’re not charismatic you meet with them. Like the first time I met with Isai [Scheinberg], you leave the meeting and think, “That’s one smart motherfucker.” Just the way he challenges you intellectually and in negotiations and even in general conversation. He’s very smart. When you meet Ray in a meeting, you think he’s a nice guy but kind of a regular Joe.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
He was quick with the cash and often took the staff out to dinner or to the movies to show his appreciation for the hard work they put in.

“Tim” Poker Industry Business Development
In my view, a lot of times they ran the company like a fraternity. Freewheeling and without any corporate structures in place.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
We had to hire to deal with the increased traffic. We had to find marketing people. We had to find cashiers. We had to find customer support. For seven or eight months [after launch] there was only one customer support person. He would answer 400 emails a day. That’s how fast the company grew. We had no idea, no knowledge of how to prepare for that kind of growth. There was no infrastructure.

Ray was the first cashier. He was also answering support emails as the CEO. Answering the phones! It took us a while to get a receptionist. It was the Wild West. We didn’t know what to do. There was no blueprint to create a company like that. We had to figure out how do we do this? How do we develop a support team for poker when nobody knows how to play poker?

[For a time] Ray was leading all the technology-driven stuff. “These are the new features we need.” “Player transfers. We need player transfers.” Well you should have thought of that before we started the fucking company. But ok we need player transfers. We need another payment processor besides Neteller and Firepay. All that stuff. That was Ray.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
In terms of good and bad decisions, I think [Ray] was exceptional about hiring.  They really hired some of the brightest people I’ve met in the entire industry. FTPDoug is a brilliant guy. FTPDoug’s boss was literally on a genius level.  Ray and Howard were good on selling people on drinking the Kool-Aid and knew how to pick really solid people.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
Henry [Wasserman] was one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, and with proper mentorship he could have been an incredible, dynamic leader. But he was not. He was always the smartest man in the room because he’s that smart. But he’s also a bully and he uses that talent to intimidate. He needed mentorship. In another business, somebody would have said, “You have to take it down a notch. What you’re doing isn’t management.” If he hadn’t been reporting directly to Ray he would have been a different manager, without question. He would have had a better life. He channeled Ray in a lot of ways, because Ray is kind of a bully too.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
I never thought of him as a bully but I can see how other people would. Maybe that’s because I was dealing with him when he was a rookie, more or less, so I had no problems dealing with him. If he wanted to get out of line and push me around I had no problems standing up to him.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
He wouldn’t surround himself with people smarter than he is. Look at who his CFO was [Gil Coronado], maybe the single most important position in that company. Or look at their legal counsel [Ian Imrich]. He was somebody you could sit with and say, “This guy is a fucking idiot.” I’ve sat in a room with a lot of lawyers and I’ve rarely said, “This guy is an idiot.” Sleazy? Stealing from me? Pedantic? Sure. But I’ve never sat in a room with a lawyer like Ian Imrich, who I thought was truly stupid. And I’m not alone in that opinion. Yet he was doing almost all of the legal work for a long time for a company with more complex legal issues than most.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
Some of Ray’s worst decisions were hiring related.  He hired his brother who was completely unqualified for much of anything.  He hired his sister as the office manager and he put her in charge of the FTP store.  He allowed Mike Chow [CTO who quit the weekend Congress passed the UIGEA and left his team in Dublin] to basically drive the entire tech team into the ground.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
The nepotism was ridiculous. Raymonda [Bitar]. She’s the oldest child of the three, maybe three or five years older than him. Raymonda is a very sweet woman who was bullied by her younger brother [Ray]. It was almost like an abusive husband kind of thing.

She got hired, after Ray became CEO, as the office manager for a 13- or 14-person office. Her initial salary was $90,000 a year. And that almost got Ray booted out as CEO. That was a close call he had to dodge.

Ray then proceeded to try to hire his brother Rich [Bitar] as a cashier. As a cashier you had to be able to understand math. You have to be able to read emails and understand what they’re saying. You have to be able to write emails with punctuation. And you have to be able to complete the process that that email has started.

Rich lasted one day.

Rich Bitar

But he comes back to help manage the pros, on-site marketing, making deals with pros. His only positive attribute in that role was that he could carry a lot of stuff. You couldn’t have him talk to people. You had to be careful about having him come into casinos because he always had weed on him. He’s a fucking moron. He doesn’t check his emails. He doesn’t answer phone calls. But he can carry stuff. That’s his calling in life.

Even Raymonda shouldn’t have had the job she had. She had no qualifications. But Ray made sure his family was taken care of. And by that point the Board of Directors… well in 2006 nobody was getting paid. Ray was probably on the edge as CEO because people were pissed that they weren’t getting paid. People were trying to borrow against their piece of the company. Everyone was told no. The company was making $500,000 a day and nobody could get any money for the ownership they had. That was a big issue.

But once they started getting paid then nobody cared. Including the Board. And Ray and Howard were on the Board, so no major decision would ever be made or changed because they were on the Board.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
Ray’s sister Raymonda had an assistant named Katrina. Raymonda treated Katrina like dirt. Eventually Katrina finds a new job in a bank, which was what she wanted to do. She wanted to be in banking. Raymonda reads her the riot act. Then Ray calls her and reads her the riot act. Tries to talk her out of it and that she should stay. She had asked for a raise and they turned her down. That’s why she was looking for work. Rather than thanking Katrina and wishing this 25-year-old well in her endeavors, they made her life hell for her last week at work.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
He liked to surround himself with people he felt were uber-loyal.  And whatever those people told him was the only truth.  If they told him the sky was red nobody outside of his inner group could convince him otherwise.  This resulted in some really, really bad decisions being made and an atmosphere of politics and backstabbing to get into Ray’s and Howard’s inner circle.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
The year that Gavin Smith became WPT Player of the Year, there were discussions about making him a Red Pro. Howard said, “That makes some sense. Let’s start negotiations.” Ray’s response was, “Fuck that guy, I think he’s an asshole.” And that’s when WPT was huge. Gavin got a great contract but that was the kind of stuff that the company had to deal with with Ray.

His personal dealings with people got in the way of what was best for the business.

Hirin’ in Ireland
By the second half of 2006, Full Tilt Poker was preparing to move from its headquarters in Los Angeles to Dublin, Ireland. Not for legal reasons; the move was put into motion long before the UIGEA was enacted. Regardless, major stakeholders like Howard Lederer never believed that Full Tilt was breaking any laws in the U.S.

No, like most business decisions, the move was rooted in financial concerns. Ireland, the “Celtic Tiger”, was wooing tech companies with favorable tax breaks. Almost all of the Full Tilt team in the U.S. was to make the Dublin move.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
I knew the move [to Dublin] was coming. It’s not because of the law. It’s because of the tax breaks. Ray met with the Prime Minister of Ireland. The corporate tax rates were amazing.

In August 2006 they bring everybody in and announce the move to Ireland. They say they’re going to take each and every one of us to Ireland, that’s how much they love us. And I saw several people shit their pants.

“Stacey” Ex-Full Tilt Business Associate
I went over to Dublin a couple of times. I saw the facility and the building they have.

The Irish don’t say “third”. They say “turd.” You go to the “turd floor”. It was a big joke. Every time we’d get in the building: “turd floor”.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
When the law first changed, I realized I’d probably have to move to Dublin. That was the only time I ever broke down. It was the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the worst day of my life. All I thought about was, “I’m not going to be able to see my cat again.”

As it turned out, I didn’t really need to see the cat again. I got over the cat thing.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
Dublin was a dreadful place to work by the end. It was a poisonous environment, a really difficult place to be. They had hires in mid-level management positions who were awful. Good people were gone in a year or less, and there were a number of them. There were reasons for that, but it all comes from the CEO. The CEO sets the culture. I really believe that. The CEO sets the culture of what a place is going to be like, and there was never any respect for the people who worked for a living. We weren’t all working together for a common goal. It was a 1970s style of management, extremely hierarchical. Do what you do, this is what you need to know and that’s all we’ll tell you. There were none of the practices put in place in modern companies, especially modern tech companies.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
I’ve never seen [anyone] despise a department that they relied so much on [as IT]. IT is the department that basically builds your product. I have never seen people not support that major part of a company so much, and treat them like shit. When all they would have to do is say, “You know what? You fucked up. Fix it. Let’s try not to do it again.” Instead of laying into them and telling them how bad they were. And telling them that they’re useless.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
The environment was almost antagonistic between marketing and tech. Which isn’t really conducive in that kind of company. But they had fostered this antagonistic relationship between the senior managers in each department, and that pervaded. I don’t know if Ray become paranoid by the end or insular but that was the culture. It was very stovepiped.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
They had hires in mid-level management positions that were just awful. People who were terrible. Good people were gone in a year or less, and there were a number of them.

The attrition rate was insane. The way they lost people was crazy, especially in those key middle management roles. People just rolled over. One after another after another. That costs money. That’s real money you’re losing. Why isn’t the CEO talking with the head of HR and asking, “Why are we losing people? Why are we spending so much time on this?”

The opportunity costs are enormous. Moreover when you walked around the office it was a bunch of zombies in there.

Ray Bitar: All Work and No Play
As the company moved to Ireland, many people we spoke began noting a change in Ray. He wasn’t particularly a dynamic social force before the move, but he wasn’t terribly unliked either.

In the U.S., Ray had to contend with the likes of Howard Lederer and Bob Wolf for respect. In Ireland, Ray was “the man.” He could “flex his muscles” and grow in his role as head of the company.

And become more and more isolated.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
Despite being a poor choice for CEO, Ray was easy to get along with and I don’t remember people speaking ill of him.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
In [the early days] I thought Ray seemed like a perfectly nice guy. An unassuming guy, not particularly dynamic but just nice. That changed by the end.

“Dave” Ex-TIlt Marketing
Ray probably spent 75% of his time in the office, when he wasn’t traveling to Kahnawake or wherever. Overseeing the operations, the programmers, the graphic designers, all that kind of stuff.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
[Ray is] an epicure and an oenophile. We’d talk about that stuff but I was never part of the inner circle or anything. When they’d do that stuff it was generally with pros. But we’d discuss a Shiraz or two. For the first couple of years when I went to Dublin … he used to be fairly social with some of the staff, Henry in particular.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
He had his inner circle and then there was everyone else.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
He’s not a dumb guy but he has limited social skills. He’s awkward around women.

[For example] in 2006 Ray meets a girl. Her name is Leia. At some point she becomes Antonio Esfandiari’s assistant. She was an English girl and she was mildly attractive only because of her accent. Ray is pretty much head over heels for her. They’re hanging out a lot, kind of flirting a bit. At one point he tries to put the moves on her and she turns away. And basically asks for a job.

He’s the CEO of a company making tons of money. He’s trying to hit on this girl. He’s putting time into it. It’s not like he just meets her and says, “Hey let’s do it.” He puts some time into it. And he goes to kiss her and she says, “I can’t. I really need a job.” Or something like that. And that sends him over the edge.

He becomes depressed. He basically won’t leave his room at the Rio. I try to get him to come down and hang out.  I try to introduce him to [a female poker media member] because I know she’ll fuck him.

He disappears. He goes back to LA. He goes into a depression and decides he needs the gastric bypass surgery. He feels like women only like him for his money or his position. There’s so many other stories behind that but whatever. He gets the gastric bypass.

“Bryan” Ex-FTP Pro
He became more and more full of himself, especially after the weight loss.

“Stacey” Ex-Full Tilt Business Associate
Uh, yeah, I felt uncomfortable around Ray sometimes. That’s putting it mildly. I know things that he’s done to others that were way worse than what he did to me. He just hit on me all the time, which is not that uncommon when you’re a woman in poker. Or business in general. I am not the type of person that is easily offended.

Once in London Ray invited me to dinner. I brought a friend with me — I’m not that stupid. We’re sitting there, with my friend as a buffer, but he was still getting progressively closer during the meal. It was typical. But he did offer for me to come to his hotel and use the spa facilities on him. Which probably meant on the company. I’m sure he did that for other people. I did not take him up on it but I’m sure plenty of other people did. I could have spent 1500 pounds for the day getting spa treatments.

Every time we had any kind of business dealing there was always a lot of flirting from him and a lot of deflecting from me. But I felt in control of it. He never touched me, he never did anything that… some of the stuff that he said, I’m sure if I were more sensitive I could have sued him for harassment. But why would I? I was getting what I wanted. I’m not going to burn bridges. It’s not like it’s something that I haven’t dealt with.

“Bryan” Ex-Full Tilt Pro
He had a reputation of falling for some girls and making inappropriate advances towards them, at least one of which conveniently [was rumored to have] lost her job with Tilt before anything was ever brought to public.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
One staff member said he made a drunken sexual advance at her at a party.

“Stacey” Ex-Full Tilt Business Associate
They started shooting a lot of TV shows in London. I was told that they couldn’t bring Ray around any more because he was hitting on one of the PAs and the lady was threatening to sue if he came around again.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
Even before he got the lap-band surgery he would approach chicks and say “I’m the CEO of Full Tilt Poker.” And that was a little gray at the time. Several people, including myself, told him, “You shouldn’t be saying that my friend. You can’t use that as a lead-in to vagina. First of all the vagina’s probably not worth it. Second of all we don’t know legally where our company is. And third of all you’re going to get sued if you lead with that.” He’d been told 100 times and he still wouldn’t not do that.

“Bart” Ex-Full Tilt Digital Media
One adjective to describe Ray is “insecure”. He had a very thin skin, especially in interpersonal relationships. He took any perceived slight as a personal insult. I’m not sure he was vindictive but he was certainly driven to prove himself against people who thought that he was less than capable.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
He’s a nose to the grindstone kind of guy.  No wife and no girlfriend, he had nothing else going on.  Work, work, work was the only thing he understood and was quick to get rid of anyone who balked at working 12-hour days on a regular basis.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
After leading the company for two years, Ray [became] aloof but more confident, if that makes sense. Like he’s going to go into a situation, he’s going to come at it wrong but he’s going to come at it strong, try to own it, regardless of how he comes at it.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
An example of how he has become socially: We had been somewhat social. Let’s call it acquaintances. But I’d been in his home.

It was a hell of an apartment.

It was huge for Dublin. It was three bedrooms, which is gigantic for a Dublin apartment. It was down in Dalton, a very high-priced, celebrity-infested part of Dublin. Where Bono, and The Edge, and whoever live. The story was that Elvis Costello used to live in [Ray’s] apartment.

You could go out on the porch. I’d go out there and smoke cigars with him, looking right out onto the ocean. It was 50 feet out the back door to the ocean. He had terrific whiskeys and wonderful, wonderful cigars. A beautiful cigar collection. He loved to discuss them.

[One time] I came over to launch [a big project], it was bug-infested. Henry [Wasserman] was breathing down our necks. We had to get this thing done. And the staff in Dublin was being really difficult. I was having a very difficult time working with them. But Henry wanted the project live. So for three nights consecutively I was there until past 11pm. I was just there in the office.

Ray was working these crazy hours. And I was the only one there. I think I just didn’t go back to the hotel. I was working with some of the staff around the world trying to get things going. So I’m there until 11pm working away. Ray walks through the office, looks at me, and goes, “Oh. Huh.” And just sort of walks by. It was kind of weird.

In earlier days, back in LA, that would happen but Ray would say “Oh, you’re still here? Let’s go down to Pacific Rail Car and grab a steak. Let’s go get a meal somewhere.”

By the end, though, things changed. He didn’t even really acknowledge me.

Arguing with Success
Under Ray’s guidance, the company seemed constantly at odds. On one hand, there were a number of dissatisfied, over-worked employees. On the other hand, Tilt had what many recognized as the best software platform in the industry. They gobbled up pro after pro to fill out their roster. And much of their marketing and advertising was sharp and effective.

However, power was very much concentrated in a small group at the top. And it drove many of the employees crazy.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
Ray was an “absentee micromanager.”

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
“Absentee micromanager” is a pretty good description of Ray.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
Senior managers in the company were powerless. The last year, year and a half there was a big management shake-up and I think that his faith in everybody had been shaken or… I don’t know. I don’t know what it was.

I was reporting to senior management. They reported directly to Ray. These aren’t big steps. We were dealing with people who would seem to have the ability to get things done. But nothing got done. Everything had to be approved by Ray. And senior management’s frustration was palpable. After a while they weren’t shy about voicing their frustration.

Howard and Ray during better times.

“Tim” Poker Industry Business Development
In 2010 I went over to Dublin for a meeting [with senior management]. I didn’t really get much of a chance to spend time with Ray. But the funny story about that meeting was — I took it as a little odd but I don’t know, maybe it’s normal – we’re sitting in the lobby. A massage therapist comes in with a big table. We start chatting and she tells us that Ray had weekly massage appointments in his office.

So now I’m picturing him getting naked in his office, hopping on the table and getting rubbed down in the middle of the workday. Just in his office. Close the door. I found it really odd. If you want a massage go get one. I get it you’re busy. But I would never bring in a massage therapist to the office, people walking by and I’m up on the table. She’s rubbing me down. You get done and you’re all oiled up.

And he’s the CEO! The thought process… If I were CEO I don’t think I would do stuff like that. There’s things like that, they start adding up and you just kind of scratch your head.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
I remember once somebody said, “I don’t need to tell these people that they’re doing a good job. I pay them.” I was like, “Do you realize they’ll stab you right in the back if they get the chance if you do that kind of stuff?” [Ray] never understood how to deal with people.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
He really managed the pro relationships closely and was involved in the big-ticket marketing stuff. But there were 700 people working in Dublin who were, in very important ways, rudder-less. The big-ticket marketing, the TV shows, they happened. And cost a fortune. But the clever online marketing? Not really. Any sort of customer service? No. And that stuff is hard, messy and difficult.

“Bryan” Ex-Full Tilt Pro
He truly believed he was the reason for Full Tilt Poker’s success.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
From the end of the WSOP last year until Black Friday it was getting harder to get anything done. That’s for fucking sure.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
At its core it’s a good company with great software and some amazing marketing. All the other poker sites had to catch up to Full Tilt. But it was the worst management I’ve ever seen. And I’ve worked in a Pizza Hut.

From Day 1 it’s horrible management. They don’t know how to deal with people. They don’t know how to instill loyalty in their employees.

Was It All for Nothing?
It’s hard to feel sorry for Ray Bitar. Really hard. But imagine this: you absolutely dedicate your entire existence to building a company. You employ hundreds of people at that company and enrich them with bloated salaries, free meals, and extravagant lifestyles. Your management style may be grating, and you have your flaws, but who doesn’t?

And it works. You create vast wealth for your investors, including yourself. You help oversee the development of the best software platform in the industry. You greenlight some of the sharpest advertising, marketing, and television programming out there. You make sure to take care of your most public faces, loaning them millions of dollars.

And after sacrificing your entire life for almost ten years to do all of this, what’s your payback?

Everyone hates you.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
One thing I heard Ray say was that he hated the business. He hated the poker business. Everybody’s trying to screw you.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
Other than his family he didn’t seem to have a life outside of Full Tilt.

“Tim” Poker Industry Business Development
The guy used to be a stockbroker in a strip mall. When you pull a stockbroker out of a strip mall and put him in charge of something like this, he had no experience.

They got so big so fast it was too good for them.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
They could have fired Ray and nobody would have batted an eyelid as long as Howard was still there.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
The thing about the person he has become… I don’t know how he comported himself later. I don’t know if it was his impression of what a CEO or the pressures of everything else but there really was not any social aspect to it I saw.

“Peter” Ex-Full Tilt Pro
I’ve known Ray a long time. I’ll just say that Ray is not a thief, he was just in way over his head.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
I don’t think it’s in Ray’s character to admit that he might have been in over his head. Ray is not capable of admitting that there’s something beyond his control.

“Tim” Poker Industry Business Development
To me, segregation of the player accounts is a pretty basic concept, and that has to fall on Ray’s shoulders. I don’t understand how you run a lemonade stand or any company… You have your escrow accounts and your operating accounts. That’s basic. To not segregate the accounts… I don’t see how the CEO doesn’t take that responsibility. Does Howard take that responsibility? Yes. He wasn’t the CEO on paper but [everyone thought of him as] co-CEO. Howard and Ray were two peas in a pod.

“James” Ex-Full Tilt Technology
The [alleged] fraud only surprises in the sense that what they did was so monumentally stupid.  Ethically, I think Ray was the sort of person who didn’t let little things like laws or common sense get in the way if he was pressured.

“Stacey” Ex-Full Tilt Business Associate
As an outsider, it seemed like every decision was made out of ego. They didn’t make sound business decisions looking towards the future. They just made a decision based on… whatever. Ray is the type of person that can never be wrong. He’ll never admit that he made a mistake. They didn’t have any infrastructure and didn’t build one once the company grew.

There were no expense reports. There were no receipts. They often didn’t do written contracts for player deals. They would only email saying, “Yes we agree on the deal points.” They just did not run the company the way you would expect a company to be run. At all.

“Bryan” Ex-FTP Pro
Ray is a complete loser scumbag in my opinion.

“Albert” Ex-Full Tilt Management
I think Ray is somebody who would have been very happy being a trader who made $150,000 a year. Something where he was really comfortable and could do what he wanted to do. He’s not… he’s kind of a loner. There aren’t women in his life. And I don’t think he’s a fancy guy.

Circumstances got him where he is. I don’t think he was somebody who ever had the ambition to be where he was or saw himself in that position as a leader of people. And there he was.

“Dave” Ex-Full Tilt Marketing
In the end I’m very disappointed in myself that I called him my friend once. I think he’s the lowest form of human being I’ve ever met.

Epilogue
With the pending sale of the company to Groupe Bernard Tapie, Ray Bitar will no longer be the man in charge at Full Tilt Poker. He’s off to the next chapter of his life–which is mostly fighting legal battles and trying to avoid spending his remaining years in Federal prison.

Based on our interviews, it seems that the Full Tilt that Ray created didn’t value the personal contributions of its employees. Mismanagement from the top down burned out talented, intelligent people, and even Full Tilt investors appeared to hold Ray in low esteem. As evidenced in these interviews, his stewardship of Full Tilt created a culture of resentment from everyone involved, where the only loyalty was to the income that the company provided. Ultimately, Ray’s inability to see the big picture — including his own inadequacies as chief executive — left Full Tilt Poker without a chair when the music stopped on Black Friday.

The old saying is that you reap what you sow. With the equity of all the existing owners now worthless, and most of the employees (the ones not previously driven away from the company) “made redundant” in recent weeks, we wouldn’t expect many people to stand by Ray’s side in the coming months and years as he battles the DoJ.

Full Tilt Poker under Ray’s leadership will likely stand as a cautionary tale of how not to run a business.

But what a business it was.
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About author
Used to be a NYC corporate lawyer. Became a poker writer. Now work on the industry side of poker.
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Great stuff Ftrain! And I loved the podcast with Chops, too… I don’t have a “F*&K Ray Bitar T-Shirt” but I do have one of these: http://twitpic.com/6b597v

    Keep up the great work!

  2. I want my money? Can we do a shirt in Spanish….Donde esta Ray Bitar?

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