In 2004, just a year after Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event, Full Tilt Poker was launched as a poker platform. With brands such as partypoker and PokerStars already well established in the industry, hope, rather than expectations, were high for the site which appealed to the aspirational player who wanted to look cool at the poker table.
On Thursday 25th February, 17 years after it was launched, the name of Full Tilt Poker will be retired, never to return.
What went so wrong for the brand and why won’t it be coming back? Let’s take a trip back through the checkered history of an iconic poker brand and find out.
“Learn, Chat and Play with the Pros.”
There’s no doubt that for a period of perhaps half a decade, Full Tilt Poker was the best place to play poker online. Poker had exploded in the boom that came in 2003, the ‘Moneymaker Effect’, and Full Tilt capitalized on the aspirational hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary players who saw what Moneymaker had achieved and wanted to repeat his success.
Moneymaker, of course, signed to PokerStars after his WSOP Main Event win, and by a twist of fate, recently announced his departure from the number one poker site in the world just a few short weeks before Full Tilt’s demise. Moneymaker was never a Full Tilt player, however. He was the family-friendly face of the most marketable poker brand in the world. He was Homer Simpson at the World Series to many average Joes.
Full Tilt Poker always marketed itself as the best of the best, not a place where dreams came true for hopefuls, but where skill and guile were rewarded by bragging rights as well as major online and live victories in the most prestigious events.
The professionals who represented Full Tilt Poker were evidence of this. There was Phil Ivey, the enigma of poker and a man who has maintained an air of mystique about him well into this decade. There was Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson, a Main Event winner who grinned more like the devil from underneath his cowboy hat. There were fearsome pros, all of whom wanted to be known as the best player in the game, such as Gus Hansen and Patrik Antonius.
Then there was Tom Dwan. Rarely has a poker player ever captured the spirit of both his brand or the game of poker itself at a single point in history better than ‘Durrrr’ did in 2009 when he signed to FTP. Shortly after he did so, this legendary TV spot said everything about how Full Tilt players should see themselves and who they could aspire to play like.
Black Friday Kills the Full Tilt Poker Dream
Two years after Dwan signed, ‘Black Friday’ hit. The Department of Justice investigated complaints against FTP, PokerStars and Absolute Poker and found that four Full Tilt board members – Ray Bitar, Howard Lederer, Rafe Furst and Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson were part of the blamed parties in a scandal surrounding player funds being used as buy-ins by high rolling players who played for the brand.
The U.S. Government shut down online poker overnight, and a decade on, the virtual game is only available to play in five of the 50 U.S. states. Joe Biden may well change that in the next 12 months, but it has taken 10 years and two presidents to get to this point.
Dwan said shortly after the news broke that, while he was the face of Full Tilt Poker, he knew nothing about what had happened. Dwan told ESPN in September 2011 that he thought it was good news about the investigation.
“If I owned a piece, I wouldn’t be saying much.”
“Before Black Friday, I liked all those guys,” he said. “I’m obviously really unhappy with their actions. To the people making decisions at [Full Tilt], it should be very clear to them that they need to get players repaid or they’re going to jail. Obviously, I wish I’d known they didn’t have all the player deposits. I never would have signed with them.”
Dwan’s admission extended to him paying back a million-dollar sponsorship deal to help repay player funds, but the fire had caught dry grass and Full Tilt bought the farm. Dwan’s interview in 2011 was prophetic in the extreme when he said that “If I owned a piece, I wouldn’t be saying much.”
Jesus and The Professor Disappear
The exact situation Dwan predicted played out, although no one did any jail time. Bitar pleaded sickness, claiming to be dying although to date, that hasn’t happened. Howard Lederer simply disappeared, running for the hills only to return in dramatic fashion just a couple of years ago. He reappeared at the World Series to be trolled by abuse at the Rio Hotel & Casino by angry former FTP players who perceived him as having stolen their money.
Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson went missing too, eventually surfacing to put out the oddest apology video in history and was widely criticized across the industry – and in particular by Daniel Negreanu – for revealing precisely nothing about what happened or why.
Full Tilt had dragged online poker down the drain and player funds were frozen, only to be repaid by PokerStars as they bought out the Full Tilt brand and absorbed the site into their own operations, preventing such a chunk of their market share being taken by another poker site. It was a masterstroke and to date, has served PokerStars as well any of their superstar Team Pros.
A (Cool) Legacy of Poker Greatness
Full Tilt Poker may have been officially retired, but it will never be forgotten. There were elements of gameplay on FTP that have been copied ever since, but no imitation has ever had the charm of the original.
From quirky avatars to the best nosebleed cash game action ever seen, Full Tilt was a way of life to players at all levels. Whether watching the action or playing in an FTOPS Main Event, poker fans have always loved Full Tilt Poker and many will mourn its passing as the end of a poker era.
Nowhere else looked or felt like playing poker on Full Tilt and their legacy is one of poker ‘cool’ made real. From the black and white adverts to the moody expressions on the players who wore their patches, Full Tilt knew what it was trying to achieve from the start and despite an inglorious end to their story, has the macabre appeal of a gangster story which people can’t help watching. No-one would want to have lived at the epicenter of the explosion, but as long as it was happening elsewhere, everyone loved to see the drama unfold.
There will never be another Full Tilt Poker and any new poker brand would do well to avoid drawing any comparisons for reasons of notoriety in both senses of the word, but that doesn’t mean that Full Tilt Poker was a bad thing for poker. The industry owes a debt to FTP just as it does to the controversial figures who pioneered the game of poker itself.
Want more? Don’t miss out—stay up to date on the latest poker news.