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What does Black Friday have to do with poker?

In 2011, poker adopted “Black Friday” from the retail sales world. For decades, Black Friday has been a special day of the year across the country — the day after Thanksgiving. Retail stores open early and offer huge discounts, attracting massive and frenzied crowds outside of malls and stores.

So, what does this have to do with the game of poker? And with the once-popular poker pro Howard Lederer and several other poker leaders?

The poker world adopted the designation Black Friday to signify the events of April 15, 2011, when the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the three largest online poker websites, including Full Tilt Poker, charging them with co-mingling player funds with the company’s operating funds, which were used to pay company expenses and salaries, and make profit distributions. Then, when players cashed out their winnings, they were paid with new player deposits — a Ponzi scheme!

Several months later, on Sept. 20, 2011, came the Black Friday aftershock. The DOJ added allegations that Full Tilt Poker and its board members, including Lederer, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Rafe Furst and Ray Bitar had defrauded players, and reiterated that it was a huge Ponzi scheme. The DOJ claimed that Full Tilt Poker owed $390 million to players, including $150 million to U.S. players, while it had only $60 million on hand.

It was shut down by U.S. authorities, and failed to pay back the U.S. players for several years until former competitor PokerStars acquired its assets. 

Bitar’s story is interesting. He was born in California in 1972 and was raised by a single mother who worked three jobs to support the family. From a young age, Bitar developed a love for the game of poker.

Being part of an impoverished family, while still in high school, he got a job as a market maker for the Pacific Stock Exchange. After graduating from high school, he worked for a private stock trading company, eventually becoming its manager. Among his clients was Ferguson, who had just won the World Series of Poker main event. Ferguson helped Bitar improve his poker skills, while Bitar helped Ferguson improve his stock trading skills. They became close friends.

Bitar approached Ferguson with the idea of a website for online poker. That would lead to the formation of Tiltware LLC, the company that would own and operate Full Tilt Poker. About that time, Lederer and Furst were invited to became members of the founding group.

Launched in 2004, the site was unique by offering players the chance to compete against professional poker players. “Play Poker with the Pros” became their slogan. Players like Ferguson, Lederer, Andy Bloch, Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Erick Lindgren and Erik Seidel were endorsed by Full Tilt Poker, and would regularly play on the site.

Full Tilt Poker rapidly grew to become one of the most popular online poker sites in the business. Bitar had successfully built a multi-million-dollar business from the ground up thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit and his love of poker.

Players across the world opened accounts at Full Tilt Poker; it soon became one of the most popular poker online sites on the web, sponsoring tournaments and poker training opportunities. For the rest of the story, look for Part II next week.