The following is a collective oral history told by people in the poker industry about the events of April 15th, 2011–otherwise known as Black FridayTM.
The mood in the industry was optimistic leading up to April 15th. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) almost pushed through online poker legislation in December 2010. The online sites were in an arms race to outdo each other–dumping barrels of money into new TV properties and tours (NAPT, ONYX Cup, and more). Just a month before April 15th, BLUFF Magazine even put a known online operator site owner–Howard Lederer–front and center on its cover, as he ranked #1 on their annual Power 20. The industry was confident. But it was a false sense of confidence. The world as we knew it was about to change.
When It All Broke
Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com
My day started out as routinely as possible. Early in the morning, I spoke to someone who used to work for PartTimePoker about his separation from the company. We spoke about how the industry was really thriving and PTP could become a larger player in the game, especially when legalization hit. We joked about the industry’s potential and how he was thrilled with the way it was all progressing.
I was sitting at my desk a few hours later and actually felt pretty good that I was going on vacation. I was planning on disconnecting entirely, something that I rarely do because I unfortunately have an addiction to my blackberry and work email. I was planning on cutting my day short and heading out a little early to pack before my flight on Saturday. That clearly didn’t happen. I was on Twitter and saw someone say UB.com had something on its site from the DOJ. I was sure it was a hack job just based on the simple design of the notice, but it immediately became more serious.
Lance Bradley, Editor-In-Cheif, BLUFF Magazine
It was in the early morning and I saw something on Twitter, something innocuous like “Hey check out UB.com, LOL” and when I saw it I honestly figured it was somebody who had wanted revenge on UB for being an overall pretty scummy business. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, the jpeg image that was on the front page of UB looked like something that a seventh grader designed in MS Paint. It didn’t look like something the U.S. Government would use.
Anyways, I hopped on Skype and asked Kathryn Farrell, one of UB’s PR team who was based in Costa Rica if the “domain takeover notice was legit.” She had to ask Paul Leggett for comment – meaning, they weren’t entirely sure either.
Chops, Wicked Chops Insider
I was in my home office, wrapping up, and getting ready to head into my office office. I think it was a little after 11am. Phone rings. It’s BLUFF Editor-in-Chief Lance Bradley. He says something like, “You see this? Is this for real?” I had not seen it. I did not know.
Lance: “Go to ub.com”
I go to ub.com.
Me: “Holy shit.”
Lance: “Do you think the site got hacked or is this for real?”
Me: “I’ll make some calls.”
I called WSOP VP Ty Stewart.
Ty picked up on the first ring, which made me think that ub.com was a hack-job, cause surely his phone would be blowing up otherwise. Then he said something that instantly changed my mind, before even saying hello, just launching into a, “Hey man this is for real. It’s D-Day. We just got a fax a few minutes ago. I gotta go.”
The literal second I hang up the phone, Poker Royalty founder Brian Balsbaugh calls. “Have you seen the indictments?”
“No not yet. I’ll call you back I’m going to get them right now.”
The literal second I hang up the phone, HPT co-founder Todd Anderson calls. “Is this really happening?”
Me: “Yes. It’s D-Day.”
My next call was to our office in Atlanta. I called Jeff Markley, he’s our VP of Online Operations, I told him to go to UB.com – at this point we still didn’t know about Full Tilt or Stars OR the DOJ action. The Reuters story hadn’t broken yet.
While we were on the phone, that’s when I saw the Tweet from Reuters.
@Reuters: FLASH: Three largest U.S. online poker companies have been charged with fraud and illegal gambling: CNBC
I think the call went like this “Umm, Jeff. Shit just got real. It’s legit and they got Stars and Tilt too.”
From the moment that it was confirmed that the indictments were real, my easy day before my vacation became extremely hectic. I put together an email to send to our internal poker team, stating simply that we needed all hands on deck. I called Gary Wise and asked him to get on a story about this immediately. I knew that immediately wasn’t good enough and I got started on a column of my own.
From that point the day went by in one helluva blur. Trying to keep track of exactly what was happening, at the pace things were happening made an hour go by in what felt like minutes. For BLUFF, covering a story like that wasn’t something we’d done before, so we were making up the rules as we went. We decided to go with one story and constantly be providing updates and links to other outlets throughout the day. It made the most sense and gave our readers the best chance to stay informed.
Player Not Gonna Play
As news was moving fast and furious, many poker pros were caught off-guard. They wouldn’t hear about the indictments from the online operators, but from friends and social media as well.
It was early in the morning and I got a call from my agent Brian [Balsbaugh] on my homeline. When I saw his name pop up on the caller ID I knew it was something bad and felt a pit in my stomach. He’d never call me on my homeline in the morning, and sure enough it was bad.
I don’t remember [where I was]. I was somewhere and they said Full Tilt got shut down and I was shocked. I might’ve been golfing. I feel like I was golfing at TPC Summerlin.
David “The Maven” Chicotsky
I was at Panorama Towers in Las Vegas hanging out with my girlfriend Mica, as well as Agent Marco and Zac. I had about 50 texts from people letting me know the shit had hit the fan – online poker in the USA was good game for the unforeseeable future.
I reached out to Howard Lederer around 1pm. He had just been named the most powerful person in the BLUFF Power 20 and was on our cover. We’d had some conversations over the previous two months about a book project I was working on at the time and so we’d developed a bit of a rapport. I felt like, based on the fact he was so willing and helpful to help me on this book, that he trusted me.
He never got back to me. I followed up with a few times, left him a few voicemails over the next week and, like everybody in the industry, I’m still waiting to hear from
That day I made a ton of calls; to my family first, then to various students and friends that I knew had a gazillion dollars locked up. Nobody had many answers – as we were all just in shock and quite frankly, caught off guard. I called my accountant and gave him the news.
The indictments hit as some major events were just wrapping or launching. In Europe, PartyPoker was filming their Big Game. In the U.S., PokerStars just finished the NAPT Mohegan Sun. And in South America, the PokerStars LAPT Lima event was starting, creating a surreal environment for those involved.
Brian Saslavchik, Card Player LA
I was working doing some live coverage of the LAPT Lima along with other media people from Argentina and LATAM when I read somewhere about the home pages of some online poker sites not working. At first I thought it they were hacked but then I saw that many of them were gone. We kept working but our minds where somewhere else.
Change100, Writer (excerpt from here blog post)
I boarded a plane in Hartford, Connecticut wearing a PokerStars sweatshirt, carrying a PokerStars player bag, and having just completed a week of work at the PokerStars.net NAPT Mohegan Sun. I was looking forward to a few days off before beginning one of two weeks-long writing assignments for PokerStars…As I sat down in my cramped seat on the American Eagle CRJ that would fly me through a thunderstorm to Chicago, where I’d have less than half an hour to change planes due to our late departure, I checked my email and Twitter account one last time. The world was ending. The online poker world at least.
Dr. Pauly, Writer (excerpt from his blog post)
I sat in press row at the PokerStars.net LAPT Lima, covering the tournament for PokerStars Blog with Short-Stacked Shamus, one of my personal heroes…Visiting Peru for the first time was an exhilarating experience, especially a side trip to Machu Picchu, one of the Top 5 locations on my bucket list.
As the day passed we started reading more news and opinions about what was happening and what the future held for online poker. We had no idea what was going on and we were on a PokerStars event. Was the tournament going to be cancelled? What was going to happen with all the Stars employees? What about us, media people? Would we lose our jobs given that the online sites were going down and they wouldn’t be able to advertise in our media?
The answer for most of the questions ended up being either “no” or “nothing”. The tournament finished normally, none of us lost our job and poker kept going normally in Latin America except for the few sites that closed. It was alarming at the time but it turned out to be just fine. Sadly, our colleagues from the US can’t say the same.
Shamus noted we should have known that the Lima trip was doomed when we spotted a dead body along Circuito de Playas on our way from the airport to Miraflores. The ocean and beach is separated by a highway with 300-foot cliffs looming overhead. I saw a bunch of military guys in berets and combat boots from a distance who stood on the cliff side of the road, where a huge crowd had gathered. My immediate reaction — workers were on a strike and the military police were there to keep things in order — but as we got closer and the cab slowed down, a film crew and thirty or so pedestrian rubberneckers gathered around a limp body curled up on the ground.
Once I was on the ground in Chicago, a flurry of emails ensued between Pauly and I as I tried to see if he could transfer funds out of my Stars account from Peru…No dice. This isn’t just money I was going to live on. It’s essentially my entire life savings.
After a sprint through O’Hare Airport, I made my connecting flight to Los Angeles. Strangely enough, for the first time in about six months my upgrade cleared at the gate. It seemed like a nod from the universe saying “Here you go sweetie, sorry your life is completely fucked at the moment.”
I took my seat in 5A next to Joe Giron, the best photographer in poker, and we commiserated over a couple of Canadian Club and sodas. After a while, we both had to forget about it and temporarily tune out. Without in-flight wifi, we were completely cut off at 35,000 feet. We ate shrimp cocktails, chicken with pasta, and that ice cream sundae everyone envies from the economy seats. I was acutely aware that this might be the last time I’d do so on a flight paid for by PokerStars. Joe watched The Office, while I zoned out to an episode of Survivor.
The European Effect
The online poker business was regulated and in some respects, more mature in Europe. For some, Black Friday was almost welcome news. They felt their companies had been doing business “the right way” by staying out of the states. While the sting of the news was definitely felt, many in Europe felt like their Black Friday was actually the UIGEA.
Barry Carter, Writer
If you want to hear about run bad, Black Friday was the day Jared Tendler and I released our book “The Mental Game of Poker”. We had some really good early sales that day, but as soon as the FBI warnings hit, we didn’t sell another copy for two days (sales have actually been decent since).
Anyway, the place I actually was when it happened was the poker club Dusk Till Dawn in Nottingham, where I was working on the PartyPoker Big Game TV show. The club was full and slowly and steadily we all started hearing whispers, which suddenly became lots of people rushing up to each other saying, “Have you heard?! Have you heard?!”
A good friend of mine, and a U.S. PokerStars Pro, Dusty Schmidt was doing the show commentary and he was late (as usual), and I had to go find him because it was a live show. I ran up to him and unfortunately had to say “You are needed in the green room right now, and by the way, PokerStars has just been seized by the DOJ” – it was very weird having to hurry someone up and at the same time, tell them probably the single most devastating news to their career imaginable.
Kim Lund, Consultant, Infinite Edge Gaming
As I sat in the back of my car half asleep I contemplated my next move. I’d spent the previous six months updating my poker industry blog with opinions, thoughts and insights into the current the state of the poker industry.
I was getting a lot of positive feedback and I felt my views were gaining traction. But the European poker sites, with a few exceptions, were in decline and suffered from huge legacy issues. There was little room for a consultant who preferred to stay on the safe side of the law and didn’t want to just turn a knob here and there. So while my consulting business did support me, I didn’t find myself in the frontlines where I could Change ShitTM.
People seemed to listen, but nothing substantial happened. And nobody called to offer me the power to make it happen. So as I and my girlfriend drove home from good friends who works for the same casino we used to work for (that’s how I got into poker), the thought that I needed to let poker go tightened its grip on me. We’d spent the evening joking that I could always go back to the casino and deal some cards. That’s when I saw the text message. Since it was Friday night (the one night of the week when I try to avoid checking my phone every five minutes) I hadn’t noticed it earlier. The message was from my bud Todd from the old days of PokerRoom.com.
I can’t remember what it said, but the context was clear. Justice had been served. The fuckers had been done in.
I was in a unique vantage point, I was at the place where the people who stood to gain the most from Black Friday, PartyPoker, all were. I must say, they were not cheering, popping champagne corks, or grave dancing at all – I think everyone appreciated it was bad for the industry overall.
Kara Scott for example, who was very closely aligned with Party, was very upset because she has so many friends in the industry who might suffer, and Tony G, not one to pull punches, was equally restrained.
Several FTP pros were there including Mike Matusow, I saw him talking to fellow FTP pro Andrew Feldman from a distance and neither of them looked happy at all, in fact they looked like they were both in the loneliest place in the world at that moment.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have/had close friends working for both FTP and Pokerstars. I wish them no harm. And I have a ton of respect for what people in those companies have achieved. But those companies stole my mojo during my Black Friday which occurred on October 13, 2006 when UIGEA was signed.
Some companies lost more of their business that day than the affected Black Friday companies lost a year ago. The one I worked for was one of them. Ideas shattered. Dreams broken. Financial reward for being part of building a solid business evaporated. When some decided to ignore UIGEA they didn’t just get a huge upper hand in the markets we could still be in, more importantly, they likely stalled the legislative procedure that would allow us get back in where we wanted to be. The PPA anyone? So screw them. I’m sure I laughed out loud a bit as the Stockholm skyline appeared ahead of us.
It was a weekend long show, and probably the most noticeable thing about the whole event was how desperate people were for answers right there and then. All weekend we had players coming and asking us what we thought, when it would be sorted, and if their money was safe. One guy even asked me quite simply “tell me what to think about this” – which was hands down the most desperate thing I had heard the entire weekend.
For me Black Friday was a good thing. A re-buy of sorts. The playing field changed, the paralysis was broken. Black Friday cleared the path for proper regulation of the US market and it set things in motion in the US, and in Europe, that was exactly what I had been looking for.
Its such a shame that we released a book on hands down the single worst day in the history of poker to release a book, and its equally a shame because the Big Game was the most fun show I have ever worked on, but I’ll never forget it because it was such a unique place to be in that moment in history.
Nuclear Winter After the Bomb
Back in the U.S., as the day progressed, people were still searching for answers and information. People on the media side of the industry tried to focus on disseminating that information as best they could.
Agent Marco, QuadJacks
I was scheduled to interview NoahSD that day, back when he was mostly known for modding and some auditing. I had been recording some Skype interviews at the time – Blitz, Sketchy1 – and NoahSD seemed like a cool, offbeat guest, especially since Victory Poker’s weirdness had been dominating 2+2 during that period.
But Noah didn’t end up being a guest that day. We postponed the interview when it became obvious how serious shit was.
QJ Radio was only born later that night, almost by accident. Donkdown had ruled most of the afternoon with the emergency broadcast. I was on it at one point. We were scratching our heads about how QJ could possibly be relevant in all of this – hard to do, since we had scant resources and hardly any actual sources. I was actually a little sad about that. We decided a late-night “reflective” podcast would have been the right thing to do. Fuck, we had to do something, right?
My day progressed and I spoke to basically everyone that I work with on a poker level. Chops, Lance and I spent hours on the phone. I didn’t sleep that night and I was stuck to my BlackBerry reading hundreds of emails and stories about the indictments. Nothing I read satisfied my hunger to learn more about what the heck happened and while some calls were getting returned, perhaps the more important ones were not. They still haven’t been to this day.
My phone, Skype, email didn’t stop blowing up for hours. I tried to get a hold of some Tilt shareholders, but they didn’t know anything. Management was completely caught off guard there. I reached out to some friends at PokerStars, and they were in full hunker down mode. Unlike Tilt, Stars had an “emergency break glass” plan for just this scenario. Hours after the indictments Stars was implementing their plan. That’s why everyone with bankrolls stuck on Stars got paid so fast. Tilt was ill-prepared.
Would just have to say, [I’ll always remember] hearing stories of players buying and selling FTP money at fifty cents on the dollar, on day one. Not knowing what was going to happen and just insta-cashing out. Similar to a surrender in blackjack.
I had met with Howard [Lederer] fairly regularly over the years. I liked him. We talked about the state-of-the-state in the industry, share info. I remember he was always very confidently saying that Tilt wasn’t doing anything wrong–he very much believed that and I assume he does to this day–and that the Feds were only targeting payment processors. The online sites were safe. I kept wondering what was going through his mind that day. He was wrong.
I began to analyze the indictment and write an article that would become my most-read poker item over the past seven years. That article took me hours to write. It wasn’t that I had writers block, but I remember physically shaking knowing that what I’m writing is the most life-altering event I had been part of. The words eventually came out and after it getting numerous reads by our editorial staff here, it was posted on the ESPN.com frontpage headlines. Before Black Friday, that didn’t happen.
We barely covered the story that day. I was too focused on figuring out where to make money in the U.S. poker industry.
One particular deal that we had in the works I was sweating all day. Worked on it for almost six months. Is this deal gonna hold? It could’ve still worked post Black Friday, but who knows if the company would still go through with it given the sudden toxicity of online poker. Around 4:15pm PT I got an email with the subject, “This isn’t good.” There was my answer. That deal, which had been signed off on just days earlier, was dead.
[Later that night] we thought we may as well do the “first” live episode. It was Zac who suggested we try doing it live. I spent about half an hour researching how we could possibly do this, and could not believe it when I actually figured it out. So we went live at about 10pm PST I think. And stayed liked that for a week.
Later in the day, I received an email from my friend at PTP stating simply how quick everything had changed.
The phone never stopped ringing…for at least the next week. My vacation really wasn’t a vacation at all and life really hasn’t gotten back to normal. Black Friday changed everything from the industry on a global level to my job and the jobs of many that I know on an individual level. It was a devastating day and a year later, it’s incredible to take a look back and think about where the industry could be if things continued on the path upwards.
A year later and the industry is teeming with activity. Especially behind the scenes. Not much consolation for all you U.S. players out there, I know. I feel your pain. But the industry needed to be purged. And from the vacuum created, things are rising that will blow new life into the game of poker on both sides of the pond.
I look at the industry a year later–and while I’m hopeful we’ll see regulation in the U.S. sooner than later, I by no means consider it a lock. I’m less optimistic today that something will happen soon than I was a year ago, that’s for sure.
However, U.S. regulation WILL happen. And when it does, watch out. The industry will massively change again. It will look different than it did a year ago. And different than it does today. There will be a new rush of players. New money. New energy. For those who stuck around to see it happen, or decide to come back into the fold, it’ll be an exciting time.