Chris Ferguson, the star poker player and gifted programmer who devised the means and structure for Full Tilt Poker and was one of its principal owners, and whom I wrote about for The New Yorker two years ago, has been charged, along with others, with appropriating, between 2001 and 2011, some four hundred and forty million dollars that poker players had been using to gamble on Full Tilt. As of March, the company owed three hundred and ninety million dollars to players around the world who thought their money was safely in accounts under their names. If the accusation is accurate, Ferguson had possession of twenty-five million dollars of this money and had been promised sixty million more. Another owner, Howard Lederer, who was known as the Professor for his math skills, is said to have been given forty-two million. The prosecutor, Preet Bharara, described the case as a Ponzi scheme. “Full Tilt insiders lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company,” Bharara says. Ferguson has at least fourteen days to frame a response, according to the Department of Justice, and hasn’t said anything yet. Full tilt poker.
Ferguson, when I wrote about him, already appeared to be wealthy from Full Tilt—it did nearly a billion dollars of business a year—but he lived in his girlfriend’s house in Las Vegas. The house was new and small, in a neighborhood of similar houses some distance from the strip. He had a room with a computer where he spent a lot of time going through poker hands and trying to commit to memory the likelihood of their appearing. Real-estate agents courted him with photographs of houses—the houses had cathedral ceilings and theatres and pools looking out on the desert—but he didn’t seem in any hurry to buy one. I stood in front of a casino with him one night waiting for his car, and when the valet pulled up in an old Jeep I was surprised when Ferguson stepped forward. He had deeply embraced game theory, somewhat before it became fashionable among card players, and appeared to care only about the math of poker and the means of winning at it. He would sit out lucky streaks by opponents by relying on the belief that over time his brainy, measured tactics would prevail.
I have a policy against too much sympathy for multi-millionaires. Money solves most problems. Even so, I liked Ferguson and enjoyed his company and am dismayed at the trouble he now finds himself in. As we walked around Las Vegas, where he was revered by weekend card players, he was often asked to sign something or to pose for a photograph. He talked to everyone who stopped him and never seemed anxious to get away. Solitary is what he was, I supposed; a type of shut in, who, although he looked a little forbidding, actually had the manners of a gentleman.
Even when I wrote about him, all sorts of legal difficulties were involved in running a gambling site. Ferguson had gone to elaborate means, such as moving the company to Ireland, to distance himself from consequences. I expected that the government would call his name sooner or later. The Justice Department people I spoke to were clearly burned at not being able to shut sites such as Full Tilt down. I just would not have predicted that the door they claim to be available to them would be this one.
Ferguson (left). Photograph by Martin Schoeller.