Everybody remembers the story of Chris Moneymaker parlaying a $39 PokerStars satellite into World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event glory back in 2003.
That miraculous win in poker’s World Championship sparked the game’s famous “boom” era when grade schoolers and their grandparents alike dreamed of bluffing top pros and dragging monster pots.
Visit any college dorm or suburban living room back then, and chances are good you’d find folks huddled around the computer grinding out hands on their favorite online poker room.
But what if I told you that during the fateful poker boom days — which spanned 2003 through 2006 — most Americans hit the virtual felt at PokerStars’ chief rival, Full Tilt Poker?
Launched in 2004 by a cadre of accomplished card sharps, Full Tilt Poker immediately staked its name as the online poker room of choice.
Boasting colorful animated avatars, flashy onscreen graphics, and a powerful poker software engine created by Chris “Jesus” Ferguson — the 2000 WSOP Main Event champ with a Ph.D. in computer science — Full Tilt Poker had it all.
Almost overnight, the nascent website attracted a deep stable of sponsored pros, many of whom were brought in as pseudo-investors thanks to small-percentage equity stakes. Anyone who played poker back then will likely feel a funny sense of nostalgia looking at this iconic photograph, which features Team Full Tilt in all its glory.
Shot in black and white along Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, the promo pic showcases a who’s who of poker talent at the peak of their powers. Ferguson and his signature black cowboy hat strides purposefully toward the camera, flanked by legendary figures like Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer, Erik Seidel, John Juanda, and Jennifer Harman.
Between them, Team Full Tilt owned dozens of WSOP gold bracelets, tens of millions of dollars in tournament earnings, and untold adulation from the rank and file of poker’s rapidly expanding fan base.
Before long, the crew could be found appearing regularly on hit TV shows like High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark. In a typical scene shown here in this Poker After Dark highlight, members of Team Full Tilt usually found themselves enjoying the endgame of a heated match after dispatching pros representing rival sites.
For a long time, it appeared as though Full Tilt Poker and its world-famous representatives could do no wrong.
Young guns like Viktor Blom and Tom Dwan transformed the site’s high-stakes cash games into poker’s most prestigious arena, with “railbirds” logging on just to sweat the six-figure pots whizzing to and fro as pixels on the screen.
And thanks to tournament series like the Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS), the site gave rise to modern-day Moneymaker tales when satellite entrants like Jerry Yang and Peter Eastgate claimed the WSOP Main Event title.
The law made operating an online gambling business a federal crime, and almost immediately, rival site PartyPoker picked up stakes and withdrew from the American market altogether.
Full Tilt Poker’s gravy train was too rich to give up that easily, though, and like chief rival PokerStars, the company decided to test the feds by staying stateside and serving American players in spite of the law.
That decision seemed like a good idea for the next five years or so, as Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars established a dual monopoly over the American online poker marketplace. In the years to come, anybody in the US playing online poker likely had an account on one, if not both, of these opposing titans.
But the house of cards came crumbling down on April 15 of 2011, a date known today as “Black Friday” amongst poker people. On that day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seized the domain names for Full Tilt Poker, Pokerstars, and Ultimate Bet, while issuing indictments for the sites’ corporate leaders.
Just like that, the lights went out for America’s online poker industry, leaving thousands of players and hundreds of millions of dollars in the proverbial lurch.
You can read about the details behind Black Friday in an in-depth profile by PokerNews, but suffice it to say, April 15, 2011, marked the end of the road for Full Tilt Poker.
That might have been the end of the road for the site itself, but as it turned out, Full Tilt Poker had far more serious scandals to come.
While its main competitor PokerStars set to work paying back player accounts almost immediately and settling up with anybody who had a balance on the site when it was seized, Full Tilt Poker found itself unable to make good.
As it turned out, the site’s higher-ups — many of whom were the very same players proudly repping the site’s famous patch during the glory days – had made a disastrous gamble of their own.
Rather than segregating player funds in a separate bank account — thus ensuring every dollar deposited by players remained easily accessible for withdrawal purposes — Full Tilt Poker essentially used that money as a slush fund of sorts.
Top pros like Ferguson and Ivey received regular “dividend” payments topping seven figures for their sponsorship duties, but the dough came from player deposits instead of the site’s operating funds.
The feds declared Full Tilt Poker to be a Ponzi scheme, with executives using player deposits to line their pockets, all while knowing full well they couldn’t pay back every user if a “run on the bank” ever occurred.
What followed was one of the most disappointing and distasteful episodes in poker history, with players worldwide waiting several years to receive their hard-earned money via a lengthy restitution process.
That process was finally completed in 2016, thanks to intervention by PokerStars which saw the site purchase Full Tilt Poker’s assets and repay players.
From there, Full Tilt Poker has been consigned to history’s scrapheap, nothing more than a monument to the greed and hubris of a few avaricious pros.
But while the site itself is no more, the men and women who once proudly proclaimed themselves to be Team Full Tilt live on today.
If you clicked buttons on the once-dominant poker platform back in the day, or you’re simply curious as to what happens when stars see their light dimmed, you might be wondering what happened to high-profile pros like Lederer, Ferguson, Ivey, and the rest.
As it turns out, the path from playing poker professionally to running a Ponzi scheme and getting caught up by the government takes many forms. The most infamous Team Full Tilt figures have led wildly different lives since the site’s dissolution, as you’ll learn in our “Where Are They Now?” biographical entries below.
When the Full Tilt Poker craze was at its peak, a mild-mannered math whiz became the face of the franchise.
And for good reason.
After laying claim to the most prestigious title in all of poker — winning the WSOP Main Event in 2000 — the man they call “Jesus” went on to win four more gold bracelets over the next three summers.
As a side gig of sorts to his poker superstar persona, Ferguson also helped to build the software platform later dubbed “TiltWare” while founding Full Tilt Poker.
While his exact role with the company was deemed “Director,” Ferguson essentially oversaw the rapid rise of the site from fledgling online poker room to the most prominent place to play worldwide.
For that reason, when everything came crashing down and the Ponzi scheme was exposed, the majority of poker fans out there laid the blame at Ferguson’s feet. He immediately became persona non grata in the poker world, and after amassing hundreds of live tournament cashes between 1993 and 2010, Ferguson entered a self-imposed exile.
Just like that, a man who made himself a mainstay of the tournament circuit vanished into the ether.
Ferguson eventually reached a financial settlement with the DOJ, without admitting any wrongdoing, but he was basically a ghost between 2010 and 2016.
Howard Lederer, his counterpart on top of the Full Tilt Poker food chain, had previously issued a public apology (more on this below) for the player funds fiasco days before the WSOP began, so this development may have made Ferguson more comfortable.
In any event, the poker masses were none too pleased, especially after Ferguson declined to comment when asked about the situation by members of the poker media.
Instead, he offered a rote answer by repeating,
“I’m just here to play poker.”
And while he may not have cashed in that first $10,000 buy-in Stud event, Ferguson came to play in 2016. By summer’s end, he had compiled ten cashes across the spectrum of buy-ins and variants, including several deep runs and even a final table performance.
All the while, poker players subjected Ferguson to a steady stream of insults, nasty looks, and other signs of their displeasure.
This negativity prompted fellow six-time WSOP bracelet winner Layne Flack to tell PokerNews that Ferguson was getting a bum rap from the public lynch mob.
“Chris Ferguson has done a lot of great things for poker.
He’s a standup guy, and all the decisions made by Full Tilt Poker don’t fall on him. I firmly believe he didn’t take one dime from anybody.
It’s just not in his nature. It’s more in his nature to give everything to everybody, than take anything from anybody, and that’s a fact.”
A great debate ensued, with a small minority of the poker world insisting that Ferguson — never known for being greedy, or even especially interested in the corporate machinations of his company — was in the dark about all those millions in stolen player funds.
But the majority of folks out there demonized “Jesus,” blaming him for their loss of online poker income and years of uncertainty regarding their Full Tilt Poker bankrolls.
He even nabbed another gold bracelet in the € 1,650 Pot-Limit Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better at the WSOP-E.
The run was enough to take home WSOP Player of the Year honors that year, an award which obviously sparked another round of debates about Ferguson’s rightful place in poker.
Just before the 2018 WSOP kicked off, Ferguson finally did what Full Tilt Poker players everywhere desperately wanted, issuing a public apology for everything that went wrong with the site:
“I’d like to take this brief opportunity to address the poker community which I love and have been part of for a long time. I deeply regret not being able to prevent Black Friday from happening. After Black Friday, I worked relentlessly to ensure that all players got paid back, and I sincerely apologize that it took as long as it did.
I also realize it has taken me a long time to make any sort of public statement and I appreciate my fans and the poker community as a whole for the patience and support. One day, the Full Tilt Poker story will be told, and like many of you, I look forward to that day.
I hope to see you all at the World Series of Poker this summer. Thank you and good luck.”
Last year, Ferguson once again proved his poker mettle, cashing 18 times on the WSOP felt while making several final tables.
If Ferguson was the public face of Full Tilt Poker, “The Professor of Poker” was the man behind the curtain.
Lederer ran the shop, serving on the board of directors and devising the dividend payment scheme that ultimately doomed the site. Whether or not he knowingly defrauded players is another matter, but at the very least, Lederer played loose and fast with the finances while believing a “run on the bank” would never occur.
It did, of course, and like his fellow poker legend, Lederer disappeared from public life altogether. After scoring 106 live tournament cashes between 1987 and 2011 — including two WSOP gold bracelets — Lederer wasn’t seen at the poker table whatsoever until 2016.
In 2012, however, it was Lederer who broke the proverbial ice, coming out of hiding to give a now-infamous interview with PokerNews titled “The Lederer Files.” As you can see in this clip, a sweaty, nervous Lederer remained evasive and unrepentant, essentially blaming CEO Ray Bitar for any misdeeds that happened to occur.
The fallout from that disastrous interview was so severe that Lederer retreated back into exile, only reappearing in 2016 after PokerStars rescued Full Tilt Poker by purchasing the site and repaying players.
That summer, Lederer submitted a written apology to the poker world, absolving himself of responsibility nonetheless:
“I am writing to apologize to everyone in the poker community, especially to all the players who had money on Full Tilt Poker on April 15, 2011. When Full Tilt Poker closed in 2011, there was a shortfall in funds, a distressed sale to recover those funds, and a long delay in repaying players.
Throughout this period, there was little explanation for the delay, and no apology. Players felt lied to. They trusted the site, and they trusted me, and I didn’t live up to that trust.
I take full responsibility for Full Tilt’s failure to protect player deposits leading up to Black Friday. The shortfall in player deposits should never have happened. I should have provided better oversight or made sure that responsible others provided that oversight.”
Lederer then jumped into the $10,000 Deuce-to-Seven Single Draw World Championship event at the WSOP, all while 2012 Main Event winner Greg Merson used Twitter to urge fellow players to “slow-roll” their nemesis at every available turn.
Lederer failed to cash in that event, and despite sporadic appearances at the WSOP in intervening years, he has yet to register a live cash since Full Tilt Poker collapsed.
As Lederer’s sister, Duke was officially signed to a sponsorship deal with Ultimate Bet, another online poker room which fell apart over a “Super User” cheating scandal.
But while she wasn’t an official employee of Full Tilt Poker, Duke played a significant role in legitimizing the site via interviews and public appearances.
Once thought of as the most accomplished woman in the game — thanks to a WSOP gold bracelet win in 2004 and a subsequent “Tournament of Champions” victory — Duke also withdrew from the tournament circuit in 2011.
But her exit from poker had its beginnings even before that, as Duke appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. Competing against the likes of Dennis Rodman and Khloé Kardashian, Duke wound up finishing second to Joan Rivers in the reality show competition.
By 2012, with the Full Tilt Poker and Ultimate Bet scandals still lingering, Duke attempted to launch a live tournament series called the Epic Poker League (EPL).
Serving as the commissioner, Duke oversaw the EPL’s operations, giving interviews and appearing at tournaments to drum up interest for the “pro’s only” league.
After only three EPL events, however, the league’s parent company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Fittingly, Duke’s demise vis a vis the EPL involved wanton misuse of company funds, fraudulent claims to players about incentives and prizes, and rampant unpaid debts.
By 2013, with her reputation already in shambles, a series of leaked audiotapes appeared to show that Duke was one of the so-called “Super Users” who had access to opponents’ hole cards while playing on Ultimate Bet.
At the time, Duke issued public denial of those claims, contending that her access to other players’ hole cards was strictly a technical matter and not one she exploited for personal gain:
“The release of this audio has spurred accusations and I want to make it clear that I have never used a tool on a delay or otherwise that gave me or anyone else access to hole cards for use during real money play nor was I aware that such a tool existed until the scandal broke.”
Despite the denials, Duke was no longer welcome among the poker populace, so she made an abrupt career change by becoming a “life coach.”
Touring the public speaking circuit, Duke used her previous experience as a poker champion to offer members of the corporate class advice on reading people, making sound decisions, and managing risk.
Last year, Duke released a book entitled “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” (2018), which includes vapid pablum of the following sort:
“How that ended up turning out that one time shouldn’t actually have any effect on whether the decision is good or not. The decision is good in absence of whether it gets caught or whether it doesn’t
This is the problem of resulting: what happens is that now we take this bad outcome, we think it’s a signal for the decision quality, and then we’re going to actually change the way that we make decisions in the future, based on this one outcome.
There’s too much luck in life to do that.”
Whether you believe the men and women behind Full Tilt Poker were criminal masterminds bent on stealing from players or simply poker pros in over their head while running a global corporation is a matter of personal preference.
Obviously, the folks who had their hard-earned bankrolls frozen for several years based on financial malfeasance will lean toward the former.
But even if Ferguson, Lederer, and Duke had no idea what the accountants were doing with player funds, the buck stops with them as public ambassadors and founders of the company.
Knowing that both Lederer and Duke are essentially non-entities in the poker world circa 2019 should provide some comfort, but Ferguson’s return to the WSOP bracelet winner’s stage still stings.
Hopefully, one day, the full truth about who knew what, and when they knew it, will be exposed for the world to see.
Until that day comes, however, poker players everywhere are left to wonder exactly what happened behind the scenes at one of online poker’s signature sites.
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