Black Friday Overview

In April 15 2011, a day that is now dubbed as “Black Friday” in the online poker world, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) cracked down on three of the largest online poker sites that were offering real money poker games to players from the United States.

The DoJ seized the websites of the big three: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet. The US players that were playing on these sites could no longer play their usual poker games or access the bankrolls they had on these sites.

PokerStars paid back money to U.S. players in full after an agreement was made with the DoJ just several weeks after Black Friday happened. Unfortunately, players on Full Tilt and the Cereus network were not so lucky. Either they had to wait years to get access to their funds or still haven’t got their money.

Just at the beginning of 2014, Full Tilt Poker began paying back U.S. players, almost three years after the shocking news of Black Friday, and it’s looking like the players on Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet will never see their funds. This online gaming company was essentially crippled from Black Friday, since the majority of its player base was from the United States.

In addition to the seizure of some prominent .com domains associated with the online poker operators that were servicing US players, the CEOs of these companies as well as their payment processors had been charged and were issued with international arrest warrants as a result of the Black Friday indictments. The list of those who were charged included:

  • Isai Scheinberg (Founder of Pokerstars)
  • Raymond Bitar (CEO Full Tilt Poker)
  • John Campos (CEO Sun Trust Bank)
  • Scott Tom
  • Brent Beckley
  • Nelson Burtnick
  • Paul Tate
  • Ryan Lang
  • Bradley Franzen
  • Ira Rubin
  • Chad Elie

Those that were arrested are facing charges of bank fraud, money laundering, and violation of UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act), a gambling bill that was passed in 2006.

Due to the ambiguity of the bill, it was unsure whether online poker was illegal or not. The specifics of the UIGEA bill focused on financial transactions related to online gambling, but it was widely understood that poker, being a game of skill, was not considered gambling like other games of chance. Because of this, many online poker operators were reluctant to leave the US market. In fact, following the UIGEA the online poker industry continued to grow, right up until Black Friday hit.

Poker sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt endorsed poker television broadcasts like Poker After Dark and PokerStars The Big Game. All this exposure helped make online poker and these two sites in particular more and more popular. The game also created many poker celebrities, including the likes of Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Howard Lederer, Phil Hellmuth and many others. So when Black Friday hit, it came as a huge surprise to many people.

What’s happened post-Black Friday?

PokerStars acquired the Full Tilt Poker brand and still offer their poker games to non-US markets. In terms of what’s happened in the United States, there is little doubt that the online poker landscape in the United States had permanently changed.

Black Friday created a lot of fear and anxiety amongst the poker community, as they could no longer play online poker on their favorite poker sites. Some players took matters into their own hands and traveled to other countries to continue to play online poker.

Many poker pros moved to Canada being so close to the United States for lots of players. Another attractive option was the United Kingdom, since UK citizens are not required to pay income tax on gambling profits and poker falls in the category of gambling.

Although there were some US-facing poker rooms that were still accepting American players and really benefited as a result of Black Friday, it just wasn’t the same for many online poker players. These players preferred playing on the major online poker sites. Furthermore, they didn’t know if some of these other US-facing poker sites were next on the U.S. DoJ’s list of poker sites that would get targeted.

When all was said and done, the risk of continuing to play online poker in the US just wasn’t worth it for many people, and they either quit poker altogether or transitioned to live poker. As a result, the US poker market had suffered a significant decline. But at least for the hardcore online poker enthusiasts, they still had a few options in playing poker online, but the less than attractive traffic on these smaller sites has made it difficult to generate much action, especially for the less commonly played poker games.