Andrew Brokos Has “Words With Ferguson”

Among the many interesting and controversial tales to emerge amid this summer’s ongoing World Series of Poker is the return to the Rio and of an oft-maligned familiar pair of former Full Tilt execs, Howard Lederer and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. Both, as readers may recall, were among the many figures connected to “Black Friday” who quickly became pariahs in the poker world, due to their fraudulent mismanagement of the original Full Tilt Poker, in a way that left tens of thousands of former customers of the site forcibly separated from their bankrolls for several years.

Chris_FergusonLederer, Ferguson and Ray Bitar comprised three-fourths of the board of directors of Full Tilt and were the ones primarily responsible for the internal looting of Full Tilt for a couple of years prior to 2011’s Black Friday, when many tens of millions dollars were distributed to the primary owners of the company, while at the same time an incredible deficit of phantom, never-processed deposits filled up the company’s books, making it appear to a casual, outside observer that all was well with the site.

Except all wasn’t well, and due to the machinations of Lederer, Bitar and Ferguson, the players themselves were left holding the bag. All three men were indicted on civil and criminal charges connected to the Black Friday investigations, though none of them were among the 11 men actually charged on Black Friday. (A fourth board member, Rafe Furst, was also charged, though some evidence exists that suggests that Furst was a captive board member representing minority interests, and though Furst was well enriched by the same distribution-enrichment scheme, he might not have been quite as culpable as the others.)

Despite pleading pauperdom and more – the latter in particular being applicable to Bitar, who found a physician to testify that he was on death’s door, thus to avoid prison time – all of them seem to be doing quite well. All three also seem to have retained a significant amount of their Full Tilt fortunes, despite paying millions of dollars to settle the government’s case against them.

And now, this summer, just more than five years after many statutes of limitation regarding their Full Tilt operations may have expired, Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson have returned to the poker scene, showing up at the WSOP and playing in several of the priciest events. Struggling to get by these men do not appear to be.

Of course, the fact that Lederer and Ferguson showed up at the WSOP this summer is already old news, but what’s been more of ongoing interest is how the poker world has received them upon their return. That’s where Andrew Brokos, veteran online and live pro and author of the “Thinking Poker” blog, comes into the tale.

Brokos, part of the newer generation of poker players, was among the many thousands of people who had funds trapped on Full Tilt for years – in Brokos’s case, some $60,000. But unlike most of the others, Brokos ended up seated against Ferguson in one of the latter WSOP prelims.

As things happen, an ignorant third person ended up pouring gasoline on the glowing coals, in this case another player who busted at the table, then warmly congratulated Ferguson on returning to the poker scene. “It’s an honor”, this player said to Ferguson, according to Brokos. “Glad to have you back.”

It seems the player was cognizant enough of Ferguson’s absence from the poker scene, and thus was likely aware of the reasons why. That really only leaves two clear explanations for being “honored” to meet Ferguson at this stage – either being well and truly a fan boy, with the requisite blinders that entails, or otherwise believing that online poker itself is inherently evil, and that those who participate in it deserved exactly what they got. There are those live-only players who have that attitude, though how exactly that justifies the behavior of Ferguson and the others at FTP is a logic-befuddling think.

Anyhow, Brokos appears to have been simmering all along at Ferguson’s mere presence, and the fanboy worship was too much for him to take. In his own words, here’s the exchange that then took place:

“I don’t agree with that, for what it’s worth,” I declared to the table at large. “Anyone else here have money on Full Tilt Poker?”

No one responded. I didn’t know whether the answer was no, or whether I was just speaking so agitatedly that they couldn’t understand me. I locked eyes with the guy who looked most like a former online player. “Did you have money on Full Tilt?”

He removed his headphones. I asked him again. “No,” he told me. I could feel my face reddening. Ferguson still hadn’t said anything, but I certainly had his attention.

“I had $60,000 locked up for over two years,” I said.

“And did you get it back?” Ferguson asked me, as though that would make everything OK.

“That was $60,000 I couldn’t access for two years. No interest.”

“Sorry about that. But you got it back?”

Finally, someone else chimed in. “I had over $9000 in bonuses that I never received,” he said.

“But you got the balance back?” Chris asked.

“No,” I interrupted. “You asked whether we got paid back. The answer is, we got some of what we were owed.”

The confrontation cooled down after that; no shots were fired, nor punches thrown. However, Brokos was exactly correct in saying that affected players got some of what they owed, even if he underestimated the impact – there are a few hundred former Full Tilters who, for various reasons, won’t ever be refunded from those years.

But it’s the haughty arrogance of Ferguson in that exchange, in my opinion, that simply cannot be forgiven. “And you got it back?” Ferguson asked, in three different ways.

Yes, in most case the players got back most of what they were truly owed, but here’s the catch: They did not get that money back from Ferguson, Lederer, Bitar, or any of the other presumptive grafters, but were instead salvaged when a third party, PokerStars, bought the company as part of its complex settlement with the DOJ.

Stars was the white knight back then, but here’s Ferguson claiming backhanded credit for everything working out. No, what the FTP principals did was to crap all over the online-poker world, run off with the money, and leave a gaping hole for others to fill. And for Ferguson to act the way he does now is arrogant to the highest degree.

For those who might argue that Ferguson was just the programming guru and shouldn’t be blamed for the financial troubles that occurred, remember that Ray Bitar, Full Tilt’s operational boss, was actually Ferguson’s guy. Bitar was a day trader and a market investor who was friends with Ferguson, and that’s how Bitar ended up in the FTP mix. Further, any claims that Ferguson had no knowledge of the secret money chasm developing within Full Tilt are not exactly believable, given his close relationships with Bitar and Lederer and his own reputation as a man careful about monetary exposure.

He made his bed, and he can lie in it now. Many poker people share that basic belief.

Several people have pointed out Ferguson’s duplicity and arrogance, and some have also taken it to the extreme that people such as Ferguson and Lederer – or Russ Hamilton – to name another, should somehow be banned from the poker world. There’s even been talk about forming an “ethics committee” for poker, a gloriously stupid concept which was tried once and before, and deservedly failed.

There’s also been talk that the WSOP should somehow serve as an ethics committee of its own, and that they should somehow ban these Ferguson types from poker’s most prestigious stage. Again, that’s erroneous thinking, [Disclaimer: in the past and present I’ve done a small amount of independent work for and with the WSOP.]

Prominence aside, the WSOP isn’t poker’s nanny. The WSOP is a private entity owned by Caesars, and its own rules apply on its property and at its events, but really, not anywhere else. Ferguson and Lederer and Bitar, for their part, reached settlements with the DOJ some time ago, and if the eyes of the law – if not necessarily th eyes of the poker world – they’ve paid restitution for their sins. With that in mind, it’s just not the responsibility of Caesars or the WSOP to inflict other punishments for something that happened elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean that Ferguson, et. al., shouldn’t do the right thing.  Showing up and playing isn’t the real issue; it’s the attitude while doing so that is.  Humbleness and contrititon is what’s called for, not the arrogance that Ferguson currently displays.

That’s really what seems to irk Brokos and others the most, that Chris Ferguson still receives hero worship when it’s long been undeserved.  Brokos was wholly right to call out Ferguson over the FTP mess, and it’s not even a close decision.

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