Words With Ferguson

After busting Flight A of the Crazy 8s WSOP event on Friday yesterday, I took another shot at Flight C yesterday. I ended up with a shallow cash and there were one or two moderately interesting hands, but I’ll cut to the chase: about halfway through the day, Chris Ferguson arrived at my table.

My Personal History with Full Tilt Poker

I had more than $60,000 on Full Tilt Poker on Black Friday, and although I eventually (after more than two years) got it all back, for a long time I had no idea what was going to happen to it. And I was one of the lucky ones: there were people with a lot more than that jammed up, and there were people with less who needed it more. Although I would have rather had that money earning interest somewhere, neither my life nor my bankroll were badly affected by not having access to it.

That’s absolutely not to say that it wasn’t a lot of money to me. It was and is a significant chunk of my net worth. As many of you know, though, I try to live well within my means (#nitcast), so it wasn’t money that I needed to pay my rent nor even to be adequately bankrolled for the games I wanted to play.

What upset me most was the gall of the whole thing, how they stonewalled and lied to us after Black Friday, even as it slowly became clear that Full Tilt did not have our money, and that the reason they did not have our money was that they had mismanaged it, making reckless loans and paying out huge disbursements to shareholders. As far as I’m concerned, getting my money back after two years didn’t make any of that go away, and it didn’t make us square. I’m holding my breath for any further compensation, but I’m not eager to welcome Ferguson and Lederer back into the good graces of the poker world, either.

I’ll admit that I don’t know Ferguson’s exact role in what went wrong before and after Black Friday. That’s not willful ignorance: there’s just not a lot of hard information available. According to Mike Sexton, whom I do consider to be a broadly reliable source, Ferguson actually did more than any of the other principals at FTP to help protect and restore player balances.

That’s to his credit, but it doesn’t change my opinion that he played a role in screwing me and took home millions of dollars in the process. As a member of the Board of Directors, he had an obligation to ensure the safety of player deposits, and he didn’t do it, and although he may have lost or given back some of it, I believe that there is to this day there’s money in his bank account that isn’t rightfully his.

I’d more or less put all of this behind me, until Lederer and Ferguson summoned up a new batch of gall and decided to start making noise in the poker world again. Lederer recently claimed “full responsibility” for Full Tilt’s failure, though that doesn’t seem to entail any monetary sacrifice on his part.

Ferguson Arrives

As far as I know, Ferguson has never made any kind of public statement about Full Tilt and certainly hasn’t offered a public apology. I knew that he would be been around the Rio, and I even passed him in the men’s room once, but it never occurred to me that he would land at my table. I assumed he only planned to play a few of the higher buy-in events. What he was doing in an $888 tournament is beyond me.

When he arrived at the table, it was a shock. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I had no idea what to do. No real good could come from confronting him: what did I think, that he was going to cut me a check on the spot? That he was going to break down in tears and confess to everything? I knew that it would only upset me and distract me from the game. Besides, was I just going to attack him out of nowhere? How do you start that conversation?

Still, it irked me that he was able to pony up to the table like it was no big deal, like bygones were bygones, like he was just another poker player. I’d been vocal on the internet about how Full Tilt players were never made whole – was I just going to sit there quietly when I finally had the chance to confront one of the owners directly?

My hands were shaking and my mind was spinning. I could hardly pay attention to what else was going on at the table. Thankfully, my stack was short enough that all of my decisions were binary and didn’t require much thought.

I remembered some wisdom I picked up from Tommy Angelo, though I’m sure it’s not unique to him: forgiveness isn’t something you do for the person you’ve forgiving, it’s something you do for yourself, because anger and bitterness are poison and you shouldn’t keep them inside of you.

What did I really know about Ferguson’s side of the story? I was rushing to a judgment that, though I had a high degree of confidence in it, was not 100%. Maybe he really was some hero operating behind the scenes. It wasn’t likely, but it was possible.

The nice way to put it would be that I decided to take the high road. Maybe I just chickened out. But I decided not to say anything to him and just focus on playing cards.

That peace lasted for a few minutes, until another player at our table was eliminated. After gathering his things, the young man reached out to shake Ferguson’s hand. “It’s an honor”,  he said. “Glad to have you back.”

That was the final straw, but it was also the icebreaker I needed. “I don’t agree with that, for what it’s worth,” I declared to the table at large. “Anyone else here have money on Full Tilt Poker?”

No one responded. I didn’t know whether the answer was no, or whether I was just speaking so agitatedly that they couldn’t understand me. I locked eyes with the guy who looked most like a former online player. “Did you have money on Full Tilt?”

He removed his headphones. I asked him again. “No,” he told me. I could feel my face reddening. Ferguson still hadn’t said anything, but I certainly had his attention.

“I had $60,000 locked up for over two years,” I said.

“And did you get it back?” Ferguson asked me, as though that would make everything OK.

“That was $60,000 I couldn’t access for two years. No interest.”

“Sorry about that. But you got it back?”

Finally, someone else chimed in. “I had over $9000 in bonuses that I never received,” he said.

“But you got the balance back?” Chris asked.

“No,” I interrupted. “You asked whether we got paid back. The answer is, we got some of what we were owed.”

We just stared at each other for a few seconds after that. There was nothing more to say. I sat back down. My hands were still shaking, and my face was burning, but it was a relief to say something to him.

I’m relieved that I didn’t say anything nasty, and I truly don’t wish him harm or misfortune. But for him just to return to the poker world like nothing happened feels like a denial of all of the harm that Full Tilt did to so many individuals and to our community in general. When I saw him literally being welcomed back, I felt compelled to offer a counterweight to that sentiment.

Ferguson Departs

Ferguson had late registered, so he was playing a short stack. The first time he shoved, it was for about 8BBs in middle position. I was holding A4s in the CO and briefly considered calling him, but I realized my emotions were getting the best of me and folded.

A few orbits later, he jammed 6BBs UTG, and I was in middle position with ATo. This, I decided, was a call. Not a spite call, just a good call. I called.

The Ace came right on the flop, and it was still good on the river. I’d busted Chris Ferguson. He tapped the table, looked me in the eye, and nodded at me. “Good luck.”

I nodded in acknowledgment and quietly stacked my chips.

34 thoughts on “Words With Ferguson

  1. good for you for speaking up! im shocked no one else at the table did. the man stole from us. its as bad as playing with marked cards. he should be outcast. “its an honor” UNBELIEVABLE! that guying was saying in front of your face that it was an honor to play with a man who stole money from you, and from me, and from countless others

  2. You know if I was at the table and you asked me that question it would have been a monologue from me. I had only a tenth of what you had, $6K. But I worked hard for that money. Reading books, watching vids, being a part of a group of a poker crew. We played $5 SN’s at least a 100 a week to try and build a WSOP bankroll. I worked hard for that money. I didnt need it but it was time and sweat spent. I needed some kind of Apologia.
    A friend of mine who is a single parent only had a couple hundred but that money I can tell you was worth more to her than mine. Its not just money its hard work and dreams that was taken from us.
    I just cant wait to meet up with those twits from Lock. If I ever meet up with them I will follow them to the parking lot.

  3. It’s funny but as you get older you certainly tens to forgive more. Unfortunately, while I think this is an admirable trait, I have found some people to take advantage of it.

    What the crooks at Full Tilt did was a classic Ponzi scheme. How it can be anything else is beyond me.

    Clearly, the steep rake wasn’t enough, so let’s use player’s money! In the normal world I come from, that’s fraud, not mismanagement or ‘bad’ business decisions.

    While I only had $463, it was not the amount but the principle. And I feel for people like you who- for months on end- were caught in a limbo of fear.

    Which caused pain. Lots of pain. (And I wouldn’t be surprised pushed people to make even more unwise decisions).

    You are right that the only reason to forgive someone is to get rid of the poison. But it’s just as important to let the other party know that.

    Perhaps then they will actually start thinking about their conscience and self aculization.

    JP in Philly

  4. I see this totally different. Not a PONZI scheme and yes bad mgt of company but without the government getting involved no one would have lost money.They ran the company like an Insurance Co. The premiums are invested or used and the company rarely goes broke unless something horrible happens like a Katrina.Mgt never dreamed the cash flow would be cut off so they could get away with their actions.The government screwed everyone twice as they shut them down and didn’t police the float.I wrote my Senator and he said BooHoo.

    • I agree 100% with Wayne.

      I had money on FT also, and I too had to wait a long time to get it back. But I don’t blame the FT guys. I think it’s total misdirection on the part of the DOJ and the players are buying it. Fact is we live in a ‘free’ country and yet we cant play poker online like the old days and we’re supposed to blame the guys that brought it to us in the first place? I think the anger placed on these guys is totally misapplied. We should be angry, VERY angry, that we cant play poker in our underwear if we really want to, and should be expressing this anger and ridiculous fact by constantly writing to our lawmakers instead of taking the easy way out and blaming poker players who took a shot at bringing the world a great product we all loved.

      Yeah, they didnt know how to run a multi-multi-multi-million dollar company, but they are NOT the reason we cant play poker online today.


  5. I read the “apology” you linked to.

    1. When he says he takes full responsibility, then goes on to say he was really running the company the two years before Black Friday, I’m sorry, but that’s not a real apology. Come on, Howard, just say you’re sorry two or three different ways and let the other crap go.

    2. When you “apologize” because you want to start playing WSOP again, that’s not a real apology — just more self-serving hogwash.

    I don’t know much about Ferguson’s role in this, but I know enough about Lederer’s to know he will get zero respect from me. I don’t feel anger, more like disdain and contempt I think.

  6. Yeah, people don’t know (or remember) that Ray Bitar was actually Ferguson’s day-trader investment buddy. Without Ferguson, there is no Bitar pulling the day-to-day operational strings at Full Tilt.

  7. Great Article/post.

    As someone who isn’t exactly an expert at forgiveness I wonder what Tommy would say forgiveness towards “Full-Tilt” would look like in that moment, offering to buy Chris Ferguson a beer? What about for someone who lost their house? How does one forgive until they at least get back what they lost?

  8. Just getting your money back is not make each player whole. That money is capital. When you couldn’t access it, you couldn’t put it to work earning more money. Or investing it in bonds. Or dividend stocks. Or a start-up business… Sure, you could have lost that $60K during that two years. But it wasn’t Full Tilt’s choice to make what you decided to do with it.

  9. Ferguson and Lederer deserve blame for the forgone interest, lost bonus money, and the sheer inconvenience of the situation, but do they not in some sense deserve credit for all of the money that poker pros made on Full Tilt over the years? Of course they are partly responsible for the incompetent management of the company whether or not they tried to fix things after it was too late, but it’s hard to see poker pros as victims when they also benefited from the unsustainable growth strategy that led to the eventual problems.

    • No Lederer and Ferguson don’t deserve credit for helping pro’s make money, as one commenter suggested.

      First for every dollar win by a pro there was money lost by another player. Moreover their mismanagement and chicanery helped stain poker and helped cause the end and reversal of the poker boom. I’m surprised no one in their board ever did time.

  10. Wow.

    Just reading that guy say “Its an honor” left me steaming. I can only imagine the red you must have been seeing! Very surprising to me that a non Full Tilt player even recognizes him.

    Good for you for keeping your cool throughout the exchange.

    Civilized criticism, from those that can keep their cool, have to resonate with him more than heated rhetoric. If resonating with him is even possible…

  11. You nailed it Andrew, I would have hoped I could have handled as you did.
    As for the couple of people blaming the government: Yes, you can blame the government for contributing to the mess, but that does not absolve Ferguson or Lederer. Everyone’s account should have been kept seperate from FTP’s operating funds.

  12. Something I don’t see mentioned often enough are the actions of FTP AFTER Black Friday. Fir us Americans 4/15/11 was the end of FTP. But they did not stop operating that day. Like Stars they continued offering games to Rest of World players. FTP was made insolvent by the need to cash out Al Americans at once. Near as I can tell they had under $10M on hand and owed $180M.

    FTP continued taking deposits from RoW hoping to use those to slowly pay out Americans but ultimately keep operating. Even if the original problem for FTP was nothing but sheer incompetence (which, lol) then their actions post Black Friday were a deliberate scam attempting to hide that incompetence.

    Chris Ferguson was on the board. There is no way he did not know of this plan. He did not alert RoW that they were setting money in fire by depositing. He did not publicly admonish those that chose this plan.

    Chris Ferguson is a thief, a scammer and a piece of shit who should never be welcome back to the poker world.

  13. Well done Andrew, very classy how you dealt with him. You and Nate do a great job with the podcast. Good luck for the rest of the series.

  14. I didn’t have much money at Full Tilt, but I did at Ultimate Bet. I got nothing back and never a word from Phil Hellmuth, or Annie Duke.

  15. Way to seize the moment Andrew … And sorry guys blaming the gov’t … Your argument is weak. Online poker sites are not banks. They collect rake. They do not rely on reinvesting deposits to make money.

    • Thanks to everyone commenting on this. Just want to say that I’m not real inclined to dig deeply into this debate over whether FTP really did anything wrong, but I broadly agree with this argument about why the comparison to banks are flawed. Even if the US government did some bad/wrong things, that doesn’t automatically absolve FTP of any wrong doing. That’s not even an argument, just sloppy generalization, IMO.

  16. What do you think investing in the stock market and when investment bankers lie and rip you off are? What do you think saving your money in the bank and they pull scams on their clients called. When you go to a doctor and get misdiagnosed and plied with loads of prescribed medicine to fill their drug backed coffers? Con artists, scammers, etc should be outed no matter what field. Your self righteousness is the only joke.

  17. If you bought Bear Sterns stock and Alan Schwartz sat down would you feel the same way? A lot of businesses screw each other, their customers, or themselves over and still make a decent amount of money.

    I think the worst thing Howard and Chris did is help set back US players from playing online for years … which is bad, but it also might have happened anyway and we knew it was a grey area.

    I wouldn’t thank him, or shake his hand, but I don’t think I’d feel as emotional as you did just because he wanted to play a game (and not that well from the sound of it, although maybe that was the point).

    tl;dr Tommy Angelo is right.

    • Comparing CF to a Bear Stearns exec isn’t going to score him any points in my book. I know it’s an uphill, probably impossible, battle, but I do feel the need to push back strongly against this mentality of “scamming people is just how business works, get over it”. That’s not a world I want to accept as a given.

  18. Of course I was not referring to you in my post, Andrew. But to those who don’t think that Ferguson isn’t complicit in the scamming of players of their money while they got fat.

  19. Well handled Andrew. You’d think that Ferguson fronting up publicly to play at this year’s WSOP would necessitate him either apologising publicly in print / explaining in full his role. Not to do so seems very unwise.

  20. You handled that like a true pro. Many of us would have not been so gracious. He should be blackballed from every poker room in the world.

    The damage to the individuals is one side of the story. The damage to the game itself is at least as bad.

    Mismanagement is a ridiculous defense. If the casino decided to pay itself with the money I bought in for and then refuse to honor its chips, could they claim mismanagement? No. There has to be enough money to cover the deposits and that’s plain old common sense a 3 year old could follow.

    This is another example of how the criminal justice system protects the white collar criminals.

  21. I think you handled this well. In your shoes, I think I would have done something more dramatic and ended up embarrassing myself. Do you get a one-round penalty if you stand up and demand that Jesus is crucified?

  22. Well done Andrew! I am one of the silent type listener fan of the podcast, but your story motivates me to share my story of dealing with Ferguson at the wsop. I returned to the Rio for day 2 of the 3k six max. and seating there to my right is ferguson. this was my big chance!! I had fanaticized
    all flight out to vegas on how, if given the chance, I would stand up and tell him or howard what thieves they where and how disgusted I was that they would show up at the wsop. I did not lose a lot of money on FT but that doesn’t matter, these guys plain and simple didn’t segregate player funds from operating funds. that’s fucking fraud people!! they should be in jail not at the wsop!!!!! So I take my seat and im going on tilt before playing even one hand! Doug polk sits down on my left. shit! willam givens sits down.yeks! two more pros sit down. I have to decide, say something to Ferguson and risk going on full tilt, or focus on this amazing opportunity to play poker against some of the best. Of course, I chicken out. I cannt even look at the son of a bitch, but I really want to focus on playing poker. Finally he gets knocked out(I did not have the pleasure) and leaves the table. I had not said one word to any one for the 3+ hours I sat there. But when he finally left, the quiet old guy spoke to the rest of the table, I let them all know that the wsop might not be able to keep him out, but if they accept him and make nice with him, like they did, it hurts the reputation of the poker community as a whole and is bad for the game. One shot, off my chest, and quietly went on playing my game.

  23. I don’t really want to be an apologist for Ferguson, but it is truly amazing that so many players received most or all of their money balances back at all. When companies go under, there are always losers, and usually those folks get pennies on the dollar through restructuring or liquidation. Certainly Ferguson and others could have done more, and one might argue were morally obligated to do more. But we should recognize that asking Ferguson to go beyond what is legally required to provide additional compensation to folks that were compensated far more than anyone could have expected.

    Ferguson may not be Jesus, but he isn’t the devil either.

  24. As far as I understand FT reimbursements were paid by pokerstars, right?
    Meaning that they came from the poker community’s rake money?

    Reminds me of the Wall Street bailout when our tax $ was used to “save the economy”.
    This introduces another layer of smug and gall: that he feels entitled to an exoneration when others, including his victims, were bailed out of the trouble he caused.

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