Many online poker rooms have operated in a legal grey area at one time or another. Not surprisingly, some of these same operations have proven to be completely scandalous.
Luckily, more regulated internet poker sites are available today. Sites operating in the UK, Denmark, France, Italy, and certain US states, for example, are generally reputable.
But during the game’s Wild West days, some sites got away with fraud, cheating, and theft. Below, you can see the worst of the worst among poker sites.
1 – UB Poker
Launched in 2001, UB Poker quickly established itself as the premier spot for high-stakes play. Some of poker’s biggest names competed against each other at UB.
Patrik Antonius, Brad Booth, Freddy Deeb, Prahlad Friedman, Phil Hellmuth, and Mike Matusow were some of the biggest names who played here. UB-sponsored players Hellmuth and Annie Duke also heavily promoted the site.
UB Poker seemingly had the world in front of them due to online poker’s newness and their popularity. However, investor Russ Hamilton quickly undid their reputation. Hamilton used a superuser account, a program that let him see opponents’ whole hands, to win an estimated $22.1 million from opponents.
He made most of his profits against the aforementioned high-stakes players. Friedman alone lost around $3 million to Hamilton.
The poker community eventually uncovered the cheating. The Kahnawake Gaming Commission, which licensed UB, later fined the site $1.5 million and forced them to repay most affected victims.
Hamilton walked away unscathed. UB Poker eventually sold to Absolute Poker (discussed later) and became part of the Cereus Network.
2 – Absolute Poker
In 2003, a group of University of Montana fraternity brothers launched Absolute Poker. Scott Tom was at the forefront of this effort.
The site opened at the right time thanks to the poker boom. Absolute made big profits during its first few years of operation. But just like UB, Absolute Poker suffered a massive superuser scandal. An in-office account named “POTRIPPER” won at least $1.6 million from the site’s customers.
Once again, a poker community effort uncovered the cheating. Players noted the improbability that POTRIPPER would win at such a high rate and always make correct plays.
Absolute Poker finally admitted that a “high-ranking trusted consultant” created a superuser account. Also licensed by the KGC, they were forced to refund $1.6 million to affected players.
They later purchased UB Poker in 2008 and rebranded the operation as the Cereus Network. Supposedly, both sites were now being run by different management. The ploy worked as numerous players trusted and deposited at both Absolute and UB again. In actuality, Tom and his frat brothers were still behind the operation.
Black Friday forced the Cereus Network out of the US market. The site shut down in May 2012 due to insolvency and failed to repay $50 million worth of customer funds.
The US Attorney’s Office in Southern New York, which served the Black Friday indictments, eventually made sure that most Cereus players were repaid.
As for Tom, he received an indictment during Black Friday and fled to Antigua. He later settled with the US Department of Justice for $300,000.
3 – Full Tilt Poker (Under Old Management)
Launched in 2004, Full Tilt Poker grabbed players attention through the slogan: “Learn, Chat, and Play with the Pros.”
Many casual players rushed to the site to railbird famed pros like Antonius, Jennifer Harman, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, and Phil Ivy.
Aside from their large roster of pros, Full Tilt also had the best software at the time. Their tables featured crisp graphics and many customizable features. This site also featured a corporate-style board. Ray Bitar, Ferguson, Lederer, and Rafe Furst made many of the decisions as board members.
Life was good for Full Tilt’s management until the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006. This law forced Full Tilt and many other poker sites to stop using American banks and payment processors. They resorted to shady processors to work around the UIGEA.
Intabill, in particular, stole or lost millions of dollars in Full Tilt funds. David Tzvetkoff, Intabill’s founder, later turned state’s witness and helped US Attorneys prosecute Full Tilt during Black Friday.
The US Attorney’s Office in Southern New York indicted all four board members. Bitar, Ferguson, Lederer, and Furst were accused of taking players’ funds and paying themselves $444 million.
The latter three settled with the US DoJ out of court. Bitar, who was facing serious prison time, avoided jail only because he needed a heart transplant.
PokerStars, which was also caught up in the Black Friday mess, made a deal with the US DoJ. They paid $731 million to buy Full Tilt and avoid admitting any wrongdoing in violating the UIGEA. The $731 million fine helped repay many ex-Full Tilt players.
4 – CardSpike
After opening in 2008, CardSpike was plagued by troubles from the beginning. Just months into operation, they had trouble processing withdrawal requests. Another warning sign came when they quit paying affiliates. Not surprisingly, the site stopped paying players as well.
The site shut down altogether in 2009, just one year after launching. Management only repaid a small portion of customers. This operation featured red flags from the beginning. Players began complaining that they couldn’t find a parent company behind CardSpike.
The consensus became that Casino Affiliate Programs owned the site. After all, Casino Affiliate Programs moderators began deleting users and posts that bashed CardSpike.
5 – Choice Poker
Choice Poker seemingly opened at the right time in 2004. They entered the game when internet poker was booming.
However, Choice blew this opportunity and featured one of the most incompetent management groups in gaming history. They lasted just one year and were notoriously slow on payouts.
Somehow, this same group thought that it was capable of running a large US-friendly network with multiple skins. They weren’t. Some skins had the foresight to jump ship and join Doyle’s Room (now Americas Cardroom). Others went down with Choice Poker.
The network failed to repay players after it went down. Owners blamed payment processors for the losses. Luckily, Doyle’s Room purchased the company’s remaining assets and bailed out former Choice Poker players.
6 – Everleaf Gaming
Everleaf Gaming opened in 2004 and had trouble competing in the crowded US market. They failed to grab players from giants like Full Tilt, Partypoker, PokerStars, and UB.
This struggling operation started a network and developed software for skins. Their new business model worked better, and they eventually began attracting players.
Everleaf became a bigger name when they continued serving US players following Black Friday. However, they received a cease-and-desist letter from the American government in 2012. Everleaf responded by banning American players.
The network continued generating traffic due to their heavy Italian player base. They also created a loophole that required US players to have an offshore bank account and e-wallet (e.g. Neteller) to get repaid.
Most Americans couldn’t fly to another country just to open a bank account. So, they failed to get their money after the ban. Everleaf eventually ran out of funds and was forced to close down in 2013. Network executives Jean Pavili and Michael Zwi Oros were arrested in Malta for their role in misappropriating player funds and not paying Maltese licensing fees.
7 – Full Flush Poker
No relation to Full Tilt, Full Flush Poker was the flagship site of the Equity Poker Network. This operation, which ran from 2013 to 2016, included other notable skins like 5Dimes and Poker Host.
Full Flush/Equity began an unusual policy of banning winning players. Their goal was to ensure that Full Flush and other skins were recreational-friendly.
They immediately caught bad press for crushing the entire dream of poker—to win profits. Both skins and players exited the network at rapid pace afterward.
Full Flush and Heritage Sports were the only sites on the network by 2016. The former shut down and failed to repay players. Luckily, Heritage Sports did cover its customers’ balances.
8 – Lock Poker
Lock Poker jumped into the gaming industry in 2008. However, they didn’t gain much traction until after Black Friday.
Lock used the void left by Cereus, Full Tilt, and PokerStars to grab a large share of US players. The site aggressively marketed high rakeback deals to draw attention.
The Merge Gaming network gave Lock Poker the boot for violating their rakeback policies. Lock Poker jumped back to the Cake Poker network, where they originally started.
In 2012, the first complaints involving Lock’s slow payouts arose. Some players waited months to get their money at this point. The following year, Lock Poker failed to process cashouts at all. However, they continued advertising big rakeback deals and accepting new deposits.
The site finally shut down in the spring of 2015. They failed to repay an estimated $15 million to their players.
Insider forum posts later revealed that Lock Poker CEO Jen Larson spent too much on marketing. She also lived an extravagant lifestyle that include luxury hotels, fine dining, and expensive bottles of wine.
9 – Pitbull Poker
After launching in 2004, Pitbull Poker quickly became the poster child for terrible online poker software. They offered a Flash-based product that frequently crashed in the middle of hands and tournaments.
Like Absolute and UB, Pitbull also suffered a superuser scandal. Their scandal evaded most of the poker public, though, due to their smaller stature. Pitbull Poker used a $10 no-deposit bonus to attract some players. However, they still failed to draw any measurable amount of traffic.
Most of their tables were filled with prop players, or those who receive a salary to start and keep cash games going.
Pitbull’s final act involved the owners taking computer equipment out of their Costa Rica-based office and leaving for good. Not surprisingly, the site shut down without repaying customer funds.
Real money online poker has unfortunately had too many scandalous sites in its past. The good news, though, is that every failure discussed here is truly in the past.
Full Flush Poker (Equity Network) is the last notable failing poker site to exit without repaying players. They shut down in 2016.
Lock Poker is the last operation with significant traffic to stiff customers. They finally closed in 2015 after overspending on marketing and the CEO’s high lifestyle.
Most of the other failures came shortly after Black Friday. Absolute Poker, Full Tilt, and UB were all casualties of this legal event, although they may have all failed regardless anyways.
Others folded because they were simply terrible sites from the beginning. Pitbull Poker, CardSpike, and Choice Poker were part of this crowd. The latter two operations only lasted a year before shutting down.
These likely won’t be the only poker sites to fail. But with regulated markets emerging, we won’t see too many future online poker scandals.
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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