Online Poker Giants Indicted – Principal Owners May Go to the Slammer

How ironic: our last post talked about the bright future for online poker after Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts Ltd.) and the Fertitta Brothers (Station Casinos) formed strategic partnerships with PokerStars.com and FullTiltPoker.com, respectively. Now, days later, indictments against the heads of these poker companies plus AbsolutePoker.com and UltimateBet.com Poker have been unsealed, charging principal owners with illegal online gambling, money laundering, and wire fraud. Likewise, each company’s payment processors have similar charges against them.

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Those indictees currently in the USA have been arrested, while the FBI is coordinating with Interpol to arrest others in foreign countries. Bank accounts of these online poker giants have been frozen. Payment processing for USA customers has ground to a halt. The FBI has also contacted ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to block all USA access to each poker site. Anyone from the USA who tries to visit these websites is greeted with a warning and brief explanation of the indictment, courtesy of the FBI.

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This unexpected turn of events comes as a surprise to many would-be USA poker players, while industry insiders agree that this type of legal action was inevitable: it was only a matter of time before major offshore gambling sites were going to be taken down. The “too good to be true” quiet period following the infamous BetOnSports.com case has now passed, and once again, the USA government is in high gear against online gambling.

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How did all this come about? At current time, details of the exact nature of the investigation and indictment process are still unclear. One interesting scenario has surfaced. A major payment processor, Daniel Tzvetkoff of Australia, who was initially charged with the same crimes as these poker companies months ago, may have gone state’s evidence, trading jail time for a tell-all story about some of the world’s largest online gambling companies.

In some respects, this was a bright move by Tzvetkoff. His original Las Vegas arrest obviously struck a chord (See: Poker Indictments: Daniel Tzvetkoff May Have Given Up The Online Poker Industry To The Feds). After a “secret meeting” with his case’s prosecutors, charges were put aside in exchange for his in depth knowledge of online poker payment processing, bank account locations, and individuals responsible for collecting payments from USA customers. He also knew how to trace transactions to the offshore poker companies, making him a valuable asset to taking down targets larger than himself.

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The only non-poker related indictee was a Utah banker who took a bribe in exchange for processing payments from USA players. Utah doesn’t allow any form of gambling, and he must of thought this would have kept his operation under the radar. Unfortunately, FBI research, combined with Tzvetkoff’s testimony, unearthed his scheme, ultimately adding him to the indictment as an accessory to illegal offshore gambling, money laundering, bribery, and fraud.

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The government seeks billions in restitution, and at this point it’s questionable whether or not individual poker players will be able to safely withdraw funds from their accounts. It will be interesting to see whether or not prosecutors give precedence to recovering all the laundered cash, or let players cash-out first and then take what’s leftover.

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The bottomline: after considering Tzvetkoff’s selfish actions, it’s clear there is STILL no honor among thieves. Recent events have turned the offshore gambling world upside-down, prompting Bonne Chance, the parent company of many Rival Gaming casinos, to no longer accept USA players. Most importantly, there’s no telling if more indictments are on the way.

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While the USA has never been closer to legalized and regulated online gambling – the result of bills proposed at both the federal and state levels – it seems the government is still hell bent on getting rid of offshore gaming, in what might be considered an overture to eventual legal USA online gambling. Keep your ear to the rail: this story is far from finished.

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Online Poker: Wynn is In, Fertitta Brothers Go Full Tilt

In 2009, Steve Wynn, owner and operator of Wynn Resorts Ltd, one of the largest and most successful casino operations in the world, stated he was “strongly opposed to internet gambling”. Now, two years later, it seems he’s changed his mind, not to mention a couple other Las Vegas gaming moguls. Last week, Wynn Resorts announced its official partnership with PokerStars.com, with the new website to be PokerStarsWynn.com. Meanwhile, the Fertitta brothers, owners of Station Casinos, announced they have formed a “strategic partnership” with FullTiltPoker.com.

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It’s no surprise many of Las Vegas’ most prominent gaming companies are suddenly turning to the internet. Revenues from brick and mortar casino operations have experienced a steep decline, creating financial difficulties for many casinos. These companies have been forced to layoff scores of employees, creating the highest rate of unemployment in the nation: almost 15.0 %. Tourism in Las Vegas hasn’t been the same since the 2008 financial crisis, which continues to cripple the USA economy, especially for leisure activities. Why fly out to Las Vegas when you can play a hand of poker at your laptop? It’s this realization that is driving Las Vegas’ newfound interest in online gaming.

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To be clear, these recent partnerships are purely for profit, not for show. A CBS “60 Minutes” report revealed that Steve Wynn’s personal wealth decreased from $3.9 Billion in 2008 to $1.9 Billion in 2011. Wynn definitely wants his money back, and he’s willing to take a gamble with online poker in order to reestablish his footing in the gaming world. Likewise, the Fertitta brothers see a future with online gambling, and believe partnering with one of the leading online poker operations will help their bottom line.

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Do these land-based casino giants stand a chance? That really depends on which Washington lawmaker you talk to. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, recently co-sponsored a new bill to create “the framework of internet gambling” in the United States. The bill, HR 1174, has been sent to committee for approval before formal debate on the House floor. Frank’s last effort to legalize online gambling fell flat with the results of the 2010 elections, when he was essentially ousted from his chairmanship of the House Banking Committee. It’s important to note, however, that his former bill, HR 2267, passed the Banking Committee with bipartisan approval. Chances are, 1174 will move forward as well; and with Las Vegas casino lobbyists no doubt knocking on the doors of Congresspeople, it’s conceivable HR 1174 could be up for debate very soon.

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Before you rush over to PokerStarsWynn.com, don’t forget that the US Justice Department still considers online gambling illegal. It wasn’t so long ago that the Feds arrested many key figures in the offshore gaming community, including Bet On Sports CEO David Carruthers and Neteller.com founding executives.

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Regardless of what partnerships Wynn, the Fertitta brothers, or any other casino giant want with poker, they’ll have to tread lightly until it is 100% legal to start offering any sort of internet gambling. There is, however, one important point in their favor: poker seems to have the most favorable chances of being legalized, in part because of strong lobbying efforts of many pro-online gambling groups, including iMEGA (Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association). Public opinion also seems to favor poker over casino games and sports betting.

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We’re definitely living in interesting times. In all likelihood, legalization of online poker will set off a domino effect, with casino games and potentially some form of bookmaking falling in line. Finally, the seedy offshore operations that give online gaming a bad name might disappear, giving way to a regulated, taxed, and licensed USA gambling industry with trustworthy, well established Las Vegas brands.

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