The world of poker has seen its fair share of scandals over the years. Some have had a huge impact on the game, while others just temporarily grabbed our attention.
While it’s fun to write about the latest big tournament winner or to break down massive cash game pots, nothing beats a good scandal.
The media loves a controversial story. It gets the community going and can create a kind of traction that no story about the Main Event winner ever could (save for Chris Moneymaker, maybe).
It’s worth mentioning that this list of the biggest poker scandals isn’t numbered by magnitude, as depending on how they affectected someone, every player will have an opinion on which is the most significant.
1. Black Friday
Although it’s been covered extensively in countless blogs, articles, and op-eds, you can’t write about major poker scandals without mentioning Black Friday.
In my opinion, this is easily the biggest scandal the poker community has ever witnessed, and it affected countless players all over the globe. Its aftermath also had huge implications on the overall development of the game.
Most of you have probably at least heard the story if not experienced it first hand.
On April 11, 2011, the US Department of Justice unsealed indictments against three of the largest poker sites at the time: PokerStars, Absolute Poker / Ultimate Bet, and Full Tilt.
Accusing them of violating the UIGEA, the DoJ seized the sites’ domains, leaving the entire poker world in a state of shock.
Players were cut off from their funds, and the weeks and months to follow were a very difficult period for many professional players who had their bankrolls stuck on one of these sites.
Robbed of their money and without access to the games, the future looked bleak.
PokerStars was the first and, as it turned out, the only room to actually recover from this blow. The rest of the world players were soon able to access the site and their funds, and it was business as usual.
However, US players had to wait quite some time to get their money back, but PokerStars made everyone whole in the end.
For Full Tilt, once the major brand was backed by some of the biggest names in the industry, this was the end of the road as it turned out the room didn’t actually have money readily available to reimburse players.
The DoJ investigation discovered that the site was operating a kind of Ponzi scheme that came to a sudden halt with Black Friday.
Key people behind the operation, Russ Hamilton, Chris Ferguson, and Howard Lederer, once respected members of the community, became symbols for everything that’s wrong with online poker.
Although all players were eventually repaid when PokerStars purchased the Full Tilt brand, the poker community never forgave the Full Tilt honchos for everything they put them through.
Absolute Poker was a total fiasco.
They never recovered from Black Friday, and players kept waiting for their funds to no avail. Finally, in 2017, the repayment process began using money left over from the Full Tilt repayment fund.
Some lucky players managed to get some of their money but this has been an extremely slow process, and it seems that many of the AP victims will never see the day when their money is paid back.
To this day, Black Friday remains the biggest and most impactful poker scandal of all time.
In addition to all the financial issues, it effectively cut the US from the rest of the world player pool, pushing out three of the biggest rooms.
This has forever changed the online poker landscape, and not much has improved since.
Although some US states have legalized online poker, players from the States are unable to play with anyone outside of the USA borders, or at least they can’t do so legally.
There are some smaller rooms that still cater to the US market, but they can’t compare in size or importance to PokerStars and what used to be Full Tilt Poker.
2. Lock Poker Demise
Although it may not have been nearly as huge as Black Friday, the Lock Poker scandal is pretty much a direct consequence of happenings in 2011.
Once major rooms were forced to leave the US market, many smaller outlets saw their opportunity.
For smaller rooms like Lock Poker, this was worth the risk as it was an excellent way to increase their liquidity by catering to poker-deprived US customers.
To kick things off, they launched a series of great promotions, offering heaps of additional value for the players who decided to take their action there.
With alternatives being scarce and promises sounding too good to refuse, many US players and the rest of the world alike flocked to Lock Poker.
The room managed to keep things together for a few years, but it wasn’t long before problems started to arise.
First, the room started going back on their promotional promises, retroactively adding terms and conditions that effectively prevented players from actually cashing out their extra funds.
Many players tried to get their funds out while they still could, although very few managed to cash out in full.
Then, in April of 2015, the whole thing came to a crushing end.
Players hadn’t been able to get their money out since April of 2014 by this point, and it was only a matter of time before Lock Poker would throw in the towel.
When the site finally shut down, traffic was at its all-time low, with Poker Scout reporting a 7-day average of 10 ring game players.
It’s unclear just how much money disappeared together with Lock Poker, but the estimate seems to be around $15 million.
Unlike the Black Friday scandal, though, where a majority of players got paid in full or at least partially in the end, this $15 million disappeared into thin air.
Those who had funds on the site have had no luck in getting any of it back, and with so much time passed by already, this is unlikely to change.
3. Absolute Poker And Ultimate Bet Super-User Scandals
Another poker scandal that shook the very core of the community took place a few years before Black Friday and, not surprisingly, it involved two rooms that were first to hit the muck after April 11, 2011.
Of course, the rooms in question are Absolute Poker (AP) and Ultimate Bet (UB).
In September of 2007, accusations from players started to emerge that someone playing on Absolute Poker had access to a super-user account and could see other players’ hole cards.
Not long after, in January of 2008, similar accusations were made concerning Ultimate Bet.
In the AP incident, players performed a detailed analysis of the hands of the player going under the now-infamous “POTRIPPER” alias.
After reviewing hand histories, it became very clear that “POTRIPPER” could somehow see “through” the cards as his decisions in many spots just didn’t seem normal or natural.
He always knew when to bluff, when to throw away a hand, and when to bet big when their opponents had strong but second-best holdings.
In the end, Absolute Poker admitted the existence of super-user accounts and ended up repaying players $1.6 million.
It was a big amount to be sure but nothing compared to what surfaced a little while later.
At the start of 2008, players raised similar red flags for a player playing as “NioNio” – this time over at Ultimate Bet.
The amount of evidence was sufficient to trigger an investigation by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, and their discovery was quite shocking.
The Commission concluded that there was indeed cheating going on, and it was going on for quite some time – since January of 2005.
It was also determined that the man behind the whole super-user scheme at UB was Russ Hamilton, and the damage done through these activities was estimated to be over $20 million.
Later on, a recording of a phone conversation emerged, in which Hamilton admitted that he was the one behind the whole scheme.
This pretty much marked the end of his career in the poker world and he never made any attempt to repay any of the money that was stolen from the players.
The AP and UB scandals created a big uproar in the community and seriously shook player faith in online poker.
If it was that easy for someone to steal so much money from the tables and almost get away with it, how could you ever be sure you’re playing in a fair online game?
What happened on AP and UB was definitely a big setback for online poker.
4. Epic Poker League Fiasco
The Epic Poker League was envisioned as the ultimate competition for the best of the best and was created by Annie Duke, Howard Lederer’s sister, and Jeffrey Pollack.
The league was set to be a mix of paid events culminating in a $1 million freeroll.
At the time the Epic League was born early in 2011, this seemed like a feasible idea, but then Black Friday struck.
In the end, only three of the four scheduled events took place, and the promised $1 million freeroll never happened.
The organization filed for bankruptcy in February of 2012, and it was pretty much the end of the road for the Epic League. At the time of the filing, the EPL had an outstanding debt of over $5 million, so things clearly didn’t go as planned.
Many in the community blamed Pollack and Duke for this turn of events, although it must be admitted they were victims of circumstances at least to some degree.
Prior to Black Friday, televised poker was going strong, with many companies interested in sponsoring TV shows with poker themes.
Once the US market was pretty much cut off, the interest suddenly disappeared, so finding sponsors must have been a real challenge.
In the end, it was a nice idea, but it came at the wrong time, and instead of being epic, it turned into one of the bigger and better-known poker scandals.
Although players didn’t lose any of their own money in the process, many felt scammed because they never got a chance to play for the share of the promised $1 million prize pool.
5. Jamie Gold Backing Scandal
There is hardly a poker fan out there who doesn’t know who Jamie Gold is.
Loud, confident, and sometimes annoying, Gold managed to find his way to the WSOP Main Event gold bracelet in 2006, winning $12 million.
It was a huge amount of money, but as it turned out, not all of it was Jamie’s to keep.
After the tournament was over, it came to light that he had an agreement with Crispin Leyser, who actually put him in the event.
In exchange for this, Gold promised half of his winnings to Leyser, probably not even dreaming that the half would turn out to be $6 million.
When he refused to pay, Leyser took things to court and was able to block Gold from receiving $6 million.
One of the key pieces of evidence was a voicemail sent to Leyser on the final day of the Main Event, in which he promised him his half of the winnings.
Failing to lift the restraining order on the second half of his winnings, the 2006 WSOP champion decided the best way to resolve the matter was to settle with Leyser privately.
The settlement happened in 2007, but there were no details pertaining to just how much Gold had to give up in the end.
Once the whole thing was resolved, Jamie Gold came out stating it was all a big misunderstanding and that he had never intended to go back on his word.
6. Poker “Prodigy” Busted As A Cheater
The poker world has seen its fair share of prodigies.
Players like Tom Dwan, Isildur1, or Annette Obrestad seem to pop out of nowhere and wreak havoc on the tables, leaving their opponents scratching their heads.
So, when another such prodigy emerged in 2010, the poker world was intrigued but hardly shocked.
However, for the young Portuguese player Jose “Girah” Macedo, the poker fame was of short breath.
Macedo’s initial fame was largely due to the fact Dan “Jungleman” Cates, a well-known high-stakes pro, had endorsed him and took him under his wing as one of his students.
Cates was convinced that “Girah” was an actual poker prodigy, and the two had seemingly built a very close personal relationship.
Macedo’s rise to poker fame started in 2010, and he quickly progressed through the limits. He started playing while he was still underage, so his identity was kept secret for a while.
Eventually, though, when he finally turned 18, the young Portuguese came out with his story, and it was an impressive one.
However, it wasn’t long before the first murky details surrounding Macedo started to surface.
The young prodigy was a member of several strategy groups and had built relationships with members of the high stakes community over time.
This was quite normal and common until Macedo started to convince other players in these groups to sit down and play someone going under the alias “sauron1989”, and “Girah” insisted on sweating players via Skype, which allowed him to see their whole cards.
At first, no one was suspicious as high stakes players sweat each other all the time.
However, as time progressed, more and more eyebrows started to rise. The “fish” seemed to play perfect poker all the time and ended up winning against everyone Macedo sent their way.
Players started their investigation into the matter, and they quickly recognized certain unusual patterns with regards to “Girah” and “sauron1989” who would always log on and off their Skype accounts at the same time.
With the evidence against him building up, Macedo decided to pull the plug and came out clean in a blog post published in 2011 in which he confessed he was colluding with “sauron1989,” giving him the information about hole cards of the players he was sweating.
With this kind of information, even a fish could easily beat the best in the world.
Many were perplexed as to why Macedo would do such a thing as his career was going the right way, and the amount in question wasn’t all that big at the end (around $30,000).
His only explanation was that he introduced this friend to poker, and he was really terrible at it and kept losing money, so he felt guilty and wanted to make up for it.
Was this the whole truth? Who knows!
Shortly after, Macedo disappeared from the poker world, and the announced “prodigy” was gone. Why did he decide to throw away a promising career in poker just like that?
There is a veil of mystery surrounding everything around Jose “Girah” Macedo, but it doesn’t seem likely that the community will get any further answers or clarifications.
7. Chris Ferguson Returns To WSOP
Black Friday and its aftermath left many players in an unenviable situation.
Without access to their funds and not knowing what tomorrow might bring, those who put their trust and money with Full Tilt Poker felt betrayed, disappointed, and angry.
All the while, those responsible, including once-loved Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, were nowhere to be seen.
Although Ferguson may not have been privy to everything that was going on, he had to know at least some of it.
The community expected at least an apology or an expression of regrets of some sort, but it never came. Chris disappeared from the public eye, and no one heard from him in the years to come.
Then, out of the blue, Ferguson made an appearance for the 2016 World Series of Poker as if nothing had happened.
He simply came to play just like other thousands of players in Las Vegas.
The reaction from the poker community was anything but positive. While there were clearly some players who didn’t care, many of those who were affected by the events of Black Friday, including some well-known names, were outraged.
They were calling for the WSOP officials to do something and stop Ferguson from playing as they felt he had no place at the WSOP.
However, people running the Series felt that whatever “Jesus” did or didn’t do had nothing to do with the WSOP, at least from the legal perspective.
The outrage that ensued on Twitter didn’t seem to bother Ferguson, as he entered many events that year and had quite a few solid results.
He avoided the media and their questions, refusing to speak about the situation from 2011 and focused on the grind.
Ferguson returned for the 2017 WSOP as well and actually proceeded to seize the Player of the Year title, which further infuriated a part of the community, but there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.
Whatever anyone might think of “Jesus” as a person, he’s always been a pretty good player and it seemed he was back at it.
In 2018, Ferguson did upload a short apology video directed at the community, which was received with mixed reactions. Many saw it as too little, too late.
But in that video, “Jesus” did say that the full story of Full Tilt will be told one day, and he was looking forward to it.
So who knows?
8. Pitbull Poker Controversy
Those new to online poker have probably never heard of Pitbull Poker. This was an online room that was operational from 2004 to 2009 and offered an instant-play site.
While very unusual for the time, it helped the room get some traction.
Pitbull was never a big brand name in the industry, but they had some nice bonuses and the instant-play platform in an environment where the whole online poker thing was pretty new in general.
So, many players didn’t know what to look for or expect and were more willing to experiment than they are today.
It was probably because of this that the room could get away with what they were doing for so long.
Namely, when the scheme was finally discovered, it turned out there was “pot shaving” happening at cash tables.
What this means is that the room collected the usual rake from the pots and then an arbitrary amount on top of it.
Late in 2009, when the scandal got out and players became massively aware of the sham, Pitbull poker simply disappeared.
It happened pretty much overnight. Even the employees at their office in Costa Rica had no idea what was going on. They were sent home one day under false pretenses and came back the next day to an empty space.
No one knows for sure how much money the room stole from the players over the years, but whoever was behind the operation clearly got away with it.
Something like this could hardly happen today, but it was a different time back then as players didn’t have access to so much information, and the regulation was nothing like today’s levels.
9. WCOOP Winner Stripped Of Their Title
In online poker, the WCOOP Main Event is pretty much the equivalent of the WSOP Main Event.
Winning is a pretty big deal, and the winners don’t get to fly under the radar, which is probably what got Mark Teltscher in trouble back in 2007.
Namely, in that 2007 WCOOP Main Event, a player going under an alias “TheVOid” went on to defeat the field of almost 3,000 players, claiming the prestigious title and just shy of $1.4 million in prize money.
Then it turned out that the player behind this alias was Natalie Teltscher, Mark’s sister, which raised a huge red flag.
PokerStars launched an investigation and their conclusions were pretty damning.
It turned out Teltscher had several accounts registered under different names. Multi-accounting is a big no-no in online poker, and when PokerStars gathered enough evidence to be sure of their conclusion, they decided to disqualify him completely.
This was great news for the rest of the final table as everybody got to move up a spot, significantly increasing their payday.
10. The Postlegate
The last on this list of poker scandals actually took place relatively recently, in 2019, and it was easily the biggest poker story of the year (albeit for all the wrong reasons).
The whole thing took place in a relatively unknown Stones Gambling Hall, which had got with the times and started streaming their games live.
In the group of many different players who participated in the games at the Stones, one name stood out – Mike Postle.
No matter the setup, Postle was seemingly always the best player at the table, making incredible reads, crazy (but successful) plays, and winning pretty much all the time.
Had all of this not been streamed live and covered with commentary, perhaps the whole story would have never surfaced. But, it was there for all to see, and one day things started to unravel.
It was Veronica Brill, a frequent guest on the Stones’ podcast, that came out first with her suspicions.
After her, several other community members got involved, and they started going through dozens of hours of live footage, dissecting Postle’s hands.
The more they did it, the more apparent it became that something wasn’t adding up.
Postle was playing like a super-human who almost always knew exactly where he was in hand regardless of the way the action went.
Players accused Postle of cheating, and the working theory was that someone on the inside sent the information about hole cards to his phone.
Since the cards are revealed on stream with delay, someone higher up could have potentially sent the information to Postle in real-time.
Since the Stones and Postle negated all the accusations, the entire matter ended up in court.
The Postlegate affair, as it came to be known, went on for a couple of years before Postle beat a $30 million civil lawsuit after nearly 90 fellow players accused him of cheating.
He then sued his accusers before withdrawing the defamation suit in 2021.