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Shari Geller Reviews the Year in Poker: 2013

by Shari Geller

As 2013 draws to a close it is time for our annual reflection on the stories that made news, whether for good or bad, in the world of poker over the past twelve months. From a new WSOP locale to the continued scrambling over the future of online poker, the return of some notorious names and the introduction of some new ones, 2013 was another eventful year.

The return of online poker in the US was both the biggest story of 2013 as well as the source of great disappointment to poker players. By year’s end, three states have managed to get regulated online poker sites operating to serve their residents, leaving 47 states where poker players cannot enjoy their favorite game in the privacy of their own homes.

 Nevada became the first state to license and regulate online poker and had sites up and running by mid-year. Two sites, UltimatePoker. com and WSOP.com, are servicing local Nevada players, but the number of participants is a mere fraction of what Pre-Black Friday websites handled. Delaware followed Nevada as the second state in the country with statewide real-money online poker. Delaware had a soft launch on Halloween and by November, players physically located within the state were able to log on to one of three state-sanctioned sites; Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. New Jersey governor Chris Christie made a few friends for his expected future presidential run by finally signing legislation allowing New Jersey to allow online poker, and New Jersey has now outpaced Nevada and Delaware in the number of players who have signed up. But while those states overcame the many hurdles to bringing online poker to their residences, other states do not seem to be in any hurry to join them.

 Cheating has hung like a dark cloud over the world of poker since way before Russ Hamilton ever looked at a deck of cards, but this year it came back to cast a pall over the game. New audio was leaked to remind us about the Ultimate Bet scandal and how the biggest concern of those guilty was how to cut their losses. Then, French pros Jean- Paul Pasqualini and Cedric Rossi were suspended by the Global Poker Index when evidence of cheating during the final table of the 2009 Partouche Poker Tour came to light. Both the cheating accusation, and the fact that it took so many years to be discovered, was an unwelcome reminder that not everyone in poker plays by the rules.

 After just short of an eternity, US players owed money from Full Tilt Poker were finally given the opportunity to submit their claims for the money frozen following Black Friday. FTP hired the Garden City Group to act as claims administrator to assist in the return of funds and they set a November 16th deadline for players to submit petitions for remissions (later submissions will be allowed, although no repayment for those is guaranteed). Over one million emails went out to potentially affected players but thus far fewer than 50,000 submissions have been received. And still not one penny has been returned.

Names associated with Black Friday continued to make news in 2013. Ray Bitar struck a plea bargain with the Department of Justice for the bank fraud, money laundering, and Ponzi-scheme charges brought against him and others in 2011. Citing serious health concerns, including the need for a heart transplant, Bitar was able to avoid additional jail time as part of the deal, but did agree to forfeit $40 million and additional assets. Chris Ferguson similarly negotiated for a deal that spared him jail time in exchange for the forfeiture of significant assets ($2.5 million plus “all funds in the Ferguson account.” In addition, while last year Howard Lederer agreed in his plea deal with the Feds not to become involved in any further online gambling activities in the future, “Jesus” struck a better deal, agreeing only to forgo engaging in any unlawful online gambling. Bitcoins, a form of digital currency, were attractive to poker players immediately as a way of handling the sticky issue of the transfer of online poker funds in the post-Black Friday age. The use of Bitcoins was hailed by some as paving the way for online poker in the US as it would allow gambling without the need for traditional payment processors.

But a recent seizure by the US government of Bitcoin funds leaves no doubt that the government believes it has jurisdiction over this currency and will not allow its use to circumvent the UIGEA. And China’s recent ban on its financial companies using Bitcoins paints a less then rosy future for this money alternative.

There was a resurgence of interest in poker in the mainstream media, with the release of the movie Runner Runner, a poorly-reviewed, though star-packed thriller about unregulated online poker and the dodgy underworld figures who prey in that sketchy environment.

More successful was the documentary Bet Raise Fold which earned four stars on IMDB for its unsparing look at the origins and evolution of online poker. Another documentary on the world of online poker, Drawing Dead, was broadcast on DirectTV and earned high marks for its fair portrayal of the varying experiences of poker players.

While the lack of advertisers following the pull out of FTP and PokerStars from the US market caused many favorite poker TV shows to fall off the airwaves, some shows returned in 2013.

NBC’s Heads-Up Poker Championship returned with a bang as Mike “The Mouth” Matusow outlasted a star-studded, invitation only crop of 64 to take down the title and $750,000 prize money. He beat his friend Phil Hellmuth in the final heads-up clash of blustering titans. A new breed of poker-themed shows including “Poker Night on Wall Street,” a game of Wall Street businessmen who play high stakes poker, and “Queens Are Wild,” a reality show about the “jet-setting poker lifestyle” round out a possible next wave of poker on TV.

Finally, the World Series of Poker continued to expand its reach with the addition of the WSOP Asia Pacific in 2013. Held this past April at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, the WSOP APAC consisted of five bracelets events. Some of the biggest names in poker walked off with the prestigious gold jewelry including Phil Ivey, who won his ninth in the Aus $2,200 Mixed Event, and that event’s fourth-place finisher Daniel Negreanu, who finally ended his bracelet drought with a win in Aus $10,000 Main Event. In November, a new WSOP Main Event champ was crowned. Ryan Riess beat a strong final table packed with talented pros, including JC Tran, to win the $8,361,570 first place prize money. Before the final table two former champs – Tom McEvoy and Scotty Nguyen – were inducted into the poker Hall of Fame.

Negreanu ended up WSOP Player of the Year for 2013. With that, we close the books on the tenth anniversary of the Moneymaker effect. 2013 saw poker fighting for its comeback. Poker is on TV, in the movie theaters, and starting to come back to a computer near you. Maybe 2014 will be the year its return is complete.

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