A group of seven professional poker players last week filed an antitrust lawsuit against WPT Enterprises (WPTE), the operator of the World Poker Tour.
The lawsuit alleges that WPT Enterprises:
”¡ conspires with host casinos to boycott all non-WPT televised tournaments, thus eliminating competition for the poker players’ services;
”¡ requires tournament players to sign a "release" agreement in which players are forced to give up their likenesses, services and intellectual property rights for no compensation;
”¡ forces casinos to boycott players who don’t agree to WPTE’s terms.
The seven poker players (the plaintiffs) include Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Andy Bloch, Annie Duke, Phil Gordon, Joseph Hachem, Howard Lederer and Greg Raymer.
"WPTE has stacked the deck against all poker players who wish to compete in its tournaments," Chris Ferguson said. "They are using our names and images to sell their products without our prior consent and without compensation. We cannot let these wrongful actions stand."
Ferguson said that, in his case, his licensing deal with Activision (which manufacturers a poker video game) precludes him from signing the WPTE release.
"Because I can’t sign the release, I’m not allowed to earn my living," he said. "It’s sad it had to come to this."
Annie Duke added that the issue of the filming release was ongoing for years, but reached a head last November.
"The release became so onerous that we thought we couldn’t play in their tournaments," Duke said. "We tried to work with the WPT to make it work, but they wouldn’t work with us and we felt we had no recourse. That’s when we contacted Jeffery."
"Jeffrey" is Los Angeles attorney Jeffrey Kessler, the lead counsel for Dewey Ballantine LLP, which filed the lawsuit.
Kessler has successfully represented NFL, NBA and other players in similar antitrust suits.
He said that professional poker players are similar to professional athletes in that they need a "level playing field" on which to compete.
"Professional poker players are entitled to a free market for their services, which will also benefit consumers since the result will be more and higher quality poker tournaments," Kessler said. "The WPT needs to learn the way professional sports has learned."
Most televised events require the signing of some kind of filming release. The World Series of Poker, currently ongoing at the Rio in Las Vegas, has a player’s release form that must be signed or the player is disqualified from the event.
In the WSOP release, the player consents to giving up his name, voice, likeness, image, etc. for no compensation and no recourse, as long as it is used in programs about the WSOP event or the "advertising, promotion and marketing" of the WSOP event or the host site.
The lawsuit alleges that the WPTE release goes a step further by requiring players consent to their intellectual property (name, image, photo, etc.) being used for "any and all derivative, allied, subsidiary and/or ancillary uses," which could include video games, online poker sites and a variety of products.
"Until the WPT changes its release, we will fight," said Phil Gordon. "This is not going to continue any more. WPT better come to their senses because we’re not going to go away."
The lawsuit seeks treble damages and other relief against the WPTE, but "that’s not the primary objective," Kessler said.
"These seven players are standing up without a union, trying to change the system and create a precedent that everyone can benefit from," Kessler said.
A day after the suit was filed, WPT Enterprises issued a brief statement that said, in part, "The asserted antitrust and other claims severely distort the facts and misrepresent the current state of competition in the poker industry."
WPTE’s General Counsel Adam Pliska stated: "We believe the claims alleged in this suit are without merit and plan to vigorously defend our position while pursuing all available legal avenues necessary to end this unfounded attack."
The Los Angeles law firm of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher LLP will represent the WPTE.
"We are proud of our contribution to the growth of the poker industry and are happy many players have benefited from it," said Steve Lipscomb, founder and CEO of the WPT. "Therefore, we find it disappointing that a handful of players, of the many thousands who play in WPT events each year, have decided to make these claims even as the sport continues."