Full Tilt Was Not a Ponzi Scheme

written by I. Nelson Rose

#2011-12 © Copyright 2012, I. Nelson Rose, Encino, California.  All rights reserved worldwide.  Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I. Nelson Rose, www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com.

Gambling and the Law®:

“Ponzi Scheme – A form of fraud in which belief in the success of a nonexistent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors”

Google Dictionary

Even though it looks like the Full Tilt fiasco is drawing to a close, it is worth remember some of the outrageous behavior from both sides to this fight.

For example, the Department of Justice alleged that Full Tilt, “was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme… Full Tilt also cheated and abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

You would think that saying that the owners of Full Tilt committed fraud would be enough.  That is all that the charges, brought in an amendment to the civil suit filed April 15, actually allege.  But saying that something is a Ponzi scheme is guaranteed to get worldwide attention, since that phrase has been so much in the news in recent years.

Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme, also called a pyramid game or scheme.  But his name has been linked with the idea of using the money of new investors to pay off old ones, ever since the near-riot his plan created in 1920.

Ponzi started by talking some friends into giving him $1,250; 90 days later he gave them $750 in interest.  He claimed he was buying international postal orders.  Friends told friends, and soon Ponzi was taking in an average of $200,000 a day, and paying out 40% profits.

When the Boston Globe revealed that no underlying business in postal orders, and that the cash paid to early investors had come from late-comers, thousands stormed Ponzi’s office, demanding their money back.  But, for them, it was too late.

According to the DoJ, Full Tilt was worried about the U.S. Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.  So, it used money from players in other countries to pay off U.S. winners.

Even if true, this has nothing to do with a pyramid scheme.  Winners were only credited for what they won and losers debited for what they lost at real poker games.  The company ran a real business and made its profits by raking the pots.

FullTilt’s insiders were greedy and stupid.  While the company was losing players, they continued to pay themselves tens of millions of dollars, including, allegedly, funds they had promised players would not be used for operating expenses.  Insiders, including the poker-pro Howard “The Professor” Lederer, allegedly took out $443 million in the last 4 years – Lederer alone took $42 million.  The company had only $60 million left, and owes players $390 million.  If Lederer had taken only $10 million, and the other insiders had done likewise, there would have been more than enough to pay back all the players.

Greedy and stupid, but not necessarily a crime.  The Alderney laws governing the company apparently allowed it to co-mingle funds.  The Full Tilt terms and conditions appear to have warned players that their deposits would not always be kept in separate accounts.  Of course, it was never the insiders’ money:  They should not have touched it.

But, not every company that loses customers’ money through incompetence is guilty of a crime.  The situation is so common that the federal government created deposit insurance for bank accounts.

I don’t know why Full Tilt’s lawyers approved this plan.  The laws of conspiracy and aiding and abetting easily see through accounting tricks.

More importantly, it was unnecessary.  The UIGEA does not care where winning players’ money comes from.  The only crime created by the UIGEA is receiving payments from American players; it is not a crime, under the UIGEA, to send payments to the U.S.

There is also the question of whether the DoJ itself violated the law.  Prosecutors seized Full Tilt’s dot.com name around the world, including in countries where online poker is 100% legal.  The DoJ wrongfully scared away foreign customers and prevented Full Tilt from earning money in countries where its activities were perfectly legal.


© 2012, I. Nelson Rose.  Prof. Rose is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on gambling law, and is a consultant and expert witness for governments, industry and players.  His latest books, Internet Gaming Law (1st and 2nd editions), Blackjack and the Law and Gaming Law: Cases and Materials, are available through his website, www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com.

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