Pocket Kings Ltd. / Full Tilt Poker


(now Rational FT Services?)
Block AD, Cherrywood Science & Technology Park, Loughlinstown, Dublin 18, Ireland
April 18, 2011 to August 25, 2011 (5 months)
Senior Mobile Developer

Full Tilt Poker

Other than double taxation, this was a great experience to work abroad and Dublin was an ideal base from which to explore the rest of Europe with my family.

The Backstory

The night before I was due to board an Air France flight from Salt Lake City to Paris to Dublin to start my new gig with Pocket Kings, my girlfriend got a call from her sister urging me not to get on the plane.

She’s an attorney, you see, with friends at the United States Department of Justice. She had just heard through the grapevine that the executives at Full Tilt Poker (and their parent company, Pocket Kings) had just been indicted under the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) for various felonies, along with their competitors over at PokerStars.

So I called up the head of HR in Dublin and asked whether I should get on this plane. “Did I still have a job?” It was 2 AM their time and the answer was a resounding, “Yes, you have nothing to worry about and we’re looking forward to your arrival.” I was assured this little legal dispute would be settled in due time, and my position would not be affected. And that was all I wanted to hear, because I knew a great adventure was about to unfold. I later wondered why the head of HR was up taking phone calls in the middle of the night if there was nothing to worry about.

I had packed gifts of huckleberry jam but when I landed in Paris, my suspicious gelatinous cargo was promptly confiscated. I was directed to the nearest concession stand where I could purchase proper French jams. Welcome to post-9/11 Europe, I guess.

When I got to Dublin I had been armed with a letter stating that I was just working temporarily in Ireland. This was either a lie or prophetic. But I still got stopped outside of customs by a Garda agent who wanted to know why I had six suitcases with me, some full of electronics.

I next took my first €100 cab ride to Pocket Kings’  corporate apartment, which looked okay but it sounded something like a refugee camp. Lots of little kids shrieking in foreign languages—just what I needed. I was exhausted after traveling for 16 hours, and then learned that my apartment wasn’t going to be ready until that evening. Nice.

So I arranged to leave my bags and took a cab to a poker club across town called the The Fitzwilliam Casino & Card Club. I got an Irish coffee and some stew around the corner and then I bought myself into a €100 Hold ’em tournament. The game was full of salty regulars but I found myself heads-up with Nick Abou Risk, and wound up finishing second in the money. Little did I know that Nick was the lead server engineer for Full Tilt Poker, so we had plenty of trash talking to share on my first day at work.

Pocket Kings was a strange place to work. Apparently my project was hush-hush. So they locked me in a cramped office with a profanely funny Croatian who railed non-stop about how much he hated Serbians. There were a lot of Eastern European types milling around smelling like ashtrays, and I occasionally overheard them comparing notes on how to skim credit card numbers from ATM machines and petrol pumps.

The company was practically minting its own money, so they spared no expense on salaries. They kept professional chefs on staff, who served gourmet meals to some 400 employees twice a day. I probably had filet mignon once a week. Good stuff.

One night, a couple of the staff poker pros dropped in to see a demo of our projects. It was Andy Bloch and Phil Gordon. Andy was a Dubliner and a former member of the MIT Blackjack Team, immortalized in the movie 21. Phil was everyone’s favorite poker announcer, fresh off the making of the poker comedy The Grand. They bought beer and we played poker that night with two full tables. It was great fun. I wound up knocking Andy out in Omaha Hi-Low, 8 or Better, while Phil seemed more interested in making side bets on Rock-Paper-Scissors than playing cards with a bunch of engineers.

Other celebrities would come around Pocket Kings unannounced. Poker royalty like Howard “The Professor” Lederer, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Phil “don’t call me Tiger Woods” Ivey and of course Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. Like Andy Block, Chris had a masters degree and he was a co-founder.

One evening I watched as two silhouettes smoked Cuban cigars on the executive balcony. Ferguson’s famous cowboy hat was unmistakable. The other fat cat was international fugitive Ray Bitar. I could imagine them discussing how they were going to keep laundering $150M per year with the USDOJ watching every move. They were surely going to run out of front companies again soon, selling golf balls for $1M each I’m sure.

I only met Ray Bitar once, and it was during my second interview. He swooped in and asked only one question, “Are you fast?” And without missing a beat I answered with, “I’m prolific.”

Not once in five months did I see any type of meeting led by Bitar or any of the Pocket Kings execs. Facing possible extradition, Ray was effectively in hiding inside his own company. In fact, the only meetings between engineers seemed to be impromptu smoke breaks. So if you didn’t smoke (like me), you were effectively out of the loop and living on secondhand intel about company direction.

Full Tilt Poker’s reputation was spiraling out of control. The USDOJ had frozen their accounts. And unlike PokerStars, Bitar was under fire for co-mingling Full Tilt’s player deposits with general funds. The company was refusing to cash out its players, and refusing to cooperate with the Feds. They seemed more concerned with selling the company to someone dumb enough to leave them in charge of the money.

One day the shit hit the fan. Someone in Finance quit and went public with some shocking news: Pocket Kings had just transferred a huge amount of cash to Phil Ivey, out of accounts that were supposedly frozen. Whether this was a legitimate loan, salary, or some kind of settlement, it outraged employees and poker players worldwide.

Upon hearing this news, people began quitting in droves despite assurances from HR that payroll would be met while they continue to negotiate a settlement with the USDOJ. Pocket Kings lost half of its staff within a month or two. I resigned with a letter citing the fact that any employment contract was voidable if either party was involved in illegal activity. After all, these were not the conditions under which I accepted employment and even HR knew that. While my position was still deemed strategic in the event of a fire sale, I simply didn’t want to be associated with that scene anymore. After all, I had some friends back home whose accounts were still still frozen. And it bothered me that at least one pro could get cashed out, but no one else could.

And so I resigned quietly from Pocket Kings on August 25, 2011. On September 20, 2011, the USDOJ amended their civil complaint, claiming that four directors at Full Tilt Poker were running a Ponzi scheme that paid out $444 million of customer money to themselves and the firm’s owners. Ray Bitar would eventually surrender to the FBI at JFK Airport in July 2012.