Friday, April 21, 2017

Absolute Anticlimax

There was an item of news in the poker world last week, the sort of thing about which I might have written several blog posts had it occurred five or six years ago. After all, it was about an online poker site -- two sites, actually -- and cheating and scandal and illegality and all sorts of things your humble scribbler used to spend lots of time and energy opining about back in the day.

It has taken me a whole week even to acknowledge the story, though. Probably because it doesn’t affect me directly at all, and for those it does affect it has come so late as to make it seem we are in a place almost entirely distinct from where we all were when the story began.

It’s like one of those way, way, way late sequels. Or when a band who after shining brightly when young get back together many years later to try to reignite things with new material.

One of my faves, Robyn Hitchcock, actually has a new album out today (and the tracks I’ve heard are terrific). His old band, the Soft Boys, did one of those reunion records in the early 2000s about two decades after they’d split, and in an interview once he referred to it as “a bit of reactivating the undead by bringing back” and reanimating the band for that one-off.

That’s kind of how it feels writing about Absolute Poker and UltimateBet again, this time to report that almost six years after “Black Friday” -- the anniversary for which just passed -- players who had funds on Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and never were able to withdraw them are finally getting a chance to get that money back.

This has to be the slowest of any slow play in poker history.

For those keeping score, there were three sites named in the indictment and civil complaint unsealed on April 15, 2011 by the Department of Justice -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker -- with a fourth site, UltimateBet, then part of the “Cereus Network” along with Absolute, similarly affected by the DOJ’s action.

All four sites were subsequently prohibited from allowing players from the United States to continue playing on them. PokerStars shut us off right away. It took Full Tilt Poker an extra couple of days, but soon we got the stop-you-can’t-go-any-further pop-ups over there, too.

Both of those sites also made agreements with the feds right away to get back their domains (after they were momentarily seized). Those agreements involved ensuring funds went to the Americans, something PokerStars did immediately, but Full Tilt Poker never did, having shamefully squandered everyone’s money.

Eventually that led to the DOJ amending the civil complaint in September 2011 with further charges against Full Tilt Poker and new names added, and branding the site a “ponzi scheme” in an accompanying presser.

It took AP and UB a couple of extra weeks to make a similar agreement with the DOJ. Meanwhile, the sites blithely continued to allow U.S. players to play more than a month later (without their having any means of withdrawing). Finally both sites totally shut down -- not just to U.S. players, but the “ROW”-ers, too (rest of world) -- and as was the case with FTP no one was able to cash out a cent.

During the summer of 2012 PokerStars managed another deal with the DOJ, paying a big settlement that included acquiring Full Tilt Poker’s assets and making available outstanding FTP balances to U.S. players. Stars then reopened Full Tilt in November 2012 (outside the U.S., natch). Last year the two sites’ player pools were merged as one.

The reimbursement process was lengthy. I took part in it, finally getting my Full Tilt Poker funds in June 2014, more than three years after being shut out of the site.

(Incidentally, I’m convinced that by going through the withdrawal process which required me to submit bank account information to the DOJ in order to receive my funds, Fifth Third bank chose to close my account without warning and with zero explanation, very likely encouraged to do so by a DOJ initiative called “Operation Choke Point.”)

Anyhow, to get back to those rogue Cereus sites, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, up until last week it appeared as though anyone with funds on those two sites at the time they went offline were never going to see that money again. Suddenly, though, came an announcement that a process similar to the one by which Full Tilt Poker players were able to recover their funds had begun for those who had money in accounts when Absolute Poker and UltimateBet closed up their respective scam-sites.

Am glad for those affected, although truthfully I can’t say I’ve had a lot of empathy for them during their six-year-long plight. That’s because not only did I not have any money on either AP or UB, I’d withdrawn from both at the first whiff of the insider cheating scandal on one of them (Absolute) in October 2007.

For those coming to all of this well after the fact, you can search this blog for “Absolute Poker” or “UltimateBet” and find plenty. This post from February 2008 links to a lot of other articles about the Absolute scandal, while this one from May 2008 is an early one among many relating details of the even bigger scandal that erupted on UB.

Also, if all of this is only vaguely familiar to you or if you aren’t up at all on the story of “Black Friday” and its aftermath, I wrote an article a year ago for PokerNews describing a lot of it in detail: “Black Friday: Reliving Poker’s Darkest Day Five Years Later.”

Just prior to Black Friday, UltimateBet in particular had somehow crept its way back into the limelight by signing a lot of “team pros” some of whom did work to rehabilitate the site’s post-scandal image. As it soon turned out, whatever the spokespersons’ intentions might have been at the time, it was all incredibly damaging to the poker community and, truthfully, to the subsequently dim prospects for online poker in the U.S.

This news regarding Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and the unveiling of the website where claims can be made by players (through June 9, 2017) took many by surprise, and I noticed a couple of articles describing it having come from “out of nowhere.”

I also saw some attempts to connect the DOJ’s decision to start the process with Preet Bharara’s headline-grabbing dismissal along with a number of other U.S. Attorneys by the Trump administration last month. Bharara, for those who don’t know, was the one who brought the charges against the founders of the implicated sites (and others) that were unsealed on Black Friday. He was also the one who called Full Tilt Poker a “ponzi scheme.”

Truthfully, it seems more likely that the news is more directly connected to Absolute Poker founder Scott Tom -- one of those named in the indictment and civil complaint -- having finally returned to the U.S. in February to face the charges against him. (Tom pleaded not guilty.)

Whatever prompted it, I’m sure the players are glad about it. To me it’s all the faintest hint of a whisper of an echo of a story finally lumbering, zombie-like, toward a much-belated anticlimax. And like Robyn Hitchcock was saying, it feels a bit like reactivating the undead to write about it.

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