THE STORY OF POKERSTARS AND ITS HOT 50 STARS
The Stars Group is the Hot 50’s most honoured company and former Stars Group chief executive officer Rafi Ashkenazi is one of only two people to feature in it four times. Ashkenazi, his chief operating officer Guy Templer and other Hot 50 alumni walk us through Stars’ incredible journey
The story of PokerStars, Amaya, the Stars Group and, ultimately, Flutter Entertainment can be told through its entrants in The Gaming Intelligence Hot 50.
It is a story of pioneering entrepreneurialism and global conquest. It is a story of legal battles and PR wars. It is a story of jealousy and greed. It is also a story about money – of billions of dollars spent and billions of dollars accumulated. But most of all it is a story about people – of brilliant people, testing and sometimes breaking boundaries; of visionaries, chancers, great minds and smooth operators.
The Stars Group is the Hot 50’s most honored company. Thirty individuals have been celebrated in its pages. They have worked for the company in many guises – from the Rational Group to Amaya to The Stars Group. For brands ranging from PokerStars and Full Tilt to FoxBet and Sky Betting & Gaming. If you add in the 20 from Flutter/Paddy Power/Betfair/FanDuel, that makes a sparkling 50 Hot 50 honours.
The next most honoured companies are Playtech with 29 and GVC Holdings with 25, if you include the acquired honourees from the likes of bwin.party (4), Gala Coral (2), Ladbrokes (4) and LadbrokesCoral (3) .
Gaming Intelligence speaks to The Stars Group’s last chief executive officer three months after he left the company in the hands of Flutter CEO Peter Jackson, who brought the Stars story to an end and won a place in the most recent Hot 50, when Flutter acquired The Stars Group earlier this year.
“I had a vision for Stars. I still do. But that is in Flutter’s hands now,” says Rafi Ashkenazi, who stepped down from the Flutter board just three weeks ago, having previously turned his back on Jackson’s plan for the Stars CEO to become Flutter’s chief operating officer.
Stars’ last COO Guy Templer was made Flutter Group chief transformation officer after the acquisition. He is the longest serving member of the executive team and is now responsible for the integration of The Stars Group and Flutter.
“Each bit of the Flutter Group has its own unique history and its own unique story,” says Templer. “One never wants to move to the lowest common denominator. You want to retain those things that made each company unique. For Stars, it is that connection with poker players and with this incredible game that has been around for so long.”
The Stars story predates Ashkenazi and Templer, of course. It was founded by Isai Scheinberg and his son Mark Scheinberg in 2001. It skyrocketed to prominence in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker won a PokerStars satellite event and qualified for the World Series of Poker Main Event, which he would win and pocket US$2.5m.
We take up the story when the first Hot 50 was published in February 2012. Less than a year earlier on Friday April 15th 2011, PokerStars’ .com site was out of action – emblazoned with the US Department of Justice’s insignia and a notice that began: “This domain name has been seized by the FBI.” It was the day that soon became known by poker players as Black Friday.
Lawyer Jeff Ifrah of Ifrah Law, who also featured in that very first Hot 50, was the first person on the phone to general counsel Paul Telford. Ifrah was in Paris and couldn’t spare long but had the time to break the terrible news of the FBI’s action to Stars’ most senior lawyer. Scheinberg had been indicted, along with payments chief Paul Tate, plus Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick of Full Tilt Poker, and Scott Tom and Brent Beckley of Absolute Poker.
The New York US Attorney’s Office also filed a civil money laundering suit against the poker companies, their assets, and the assets of several payment processors. Restraining orders were issued against 76 bank accounts in 14 countries, which were used by the poker companies and their payment processors. The DoJ wanted at least $3 billion in civil money laundering penalties and forfeiture from PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker.
Telford shelved plans for a holiday and started putting together a legal team that would try and get PokerStars out of the very hot water it was in danger of drowning in.
The first issue was what to do about Isai? He was in London with his son Mark. There was no messing around. Stars’ law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman instructed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, the acknowledged expert on extradition law. Would Isai be safe from the long arm of the DoJ if he flew back to the Isle of Man?
Meanwhile, chief financial officer Michael Hazel set about keeping PokerStars afloat. Suppliers started to demand payments immediately – as did thousands of players. It was like a run on the bank and could easily have sunk a less well-managed company.
US players and suppliers would have to wait as the DoJ had closed down all payment routes into the US, but European suppliers and other suppliers around the world were made good to show the market that PokerStars was not going down.
Back then we praised Scheinberg’s “uncompromising stance” with the DoJ and Telford’s handling of the situation. The fallout from Black Friday and the company’s determination to re-enter the US would sorely test its ingenuity for much of the next decade.
Future Hot 50 honourees Templer (chief business development officer and later chief operating officer) and Eric Hollreiser (VP for corporate communications and now founder and CEO of ACE Hollreiser) joined the company on the Monday after Black Friday.
As an American, Hollreiser had some concerns about the legal situation in his homeland but
seeing the actions of the founders and executive management team up close at that moment of crisis gave him a tremendous amount of reassurance about the ethics and professionalism of the company he had just joined.
The timing of the recruitment of the company’s first communications professional was opportune. In the wake of Black Friday, every action the company made would have repercussions on the company’s reputation.
“Once it became clear that we were going to survive and that we were dealing with it in a very responsible way, the appreciation of the company began to grow,” says Hollreiser. In fact, PokerStars did not just survive after Black Friday, it thrived.
“The company was far less reliant on the US financially than most people realised at the time,” says Templer. “My immediate priority was to fly around Europe meeting the few existing regulators to make the case for continuing operating. After that, the mantra of the management team quickly became ‘to be licensed wherever it was possible to be licensed’. We were the first company licensed in Belgium. We got a licence in Estonia. We took licenses everywhere we possibly could.”
The manner in which PokerStars was dealing with Black Friday must have impressed the Department of Justice. Just because the authorities had seized the PokerStars website, it did not need to close down. All of its players could have continued playing on the client they had installed on their computers.
However, Stars immediately closed down its US operations and entered into negotiations with the DoJ about how it could pay players their balances. Once that was achieved, the DoJ would have known it was dealing with a responsible company. The contrast with Full Tilt Poker, which could not pay back players because it had not kept players’ funds in a segregated account and had spent their money, was stark.
It is easy to forget, nearly 10 years down the line, that Full Tilt was almost PokerStars’ equal. The two companies were twin behemoths of online poker. Both would host as many as 30,000 players on their poker tables each and every day. Before Black Friday there were questions over the legality of both but that did not bother poker players. After the DoJ struck and Full Tilt could not pay back its players, faith in the online poker industry was rocked. While the DoJ labelled Full Tilt a “global ponzi scheme”, PokerStars was doing its best to save the industry’s reputation.
If Full Tilt was to survive it needed a buyer. Executives from Microgaming, Playtech, Wynn Resorts and Zynga all visited Full Tilt’s headquarters in Ireland to enquire about the distressed operator. However, it was French company Groupe Bernard Tapie that came closest to buying Full Tilt.
Bernard Tapie was a French politician and businessman, who owned Marseille Football Club when it spectacularly triumphed in the UEFA Champions League in 1993 before being stripped of its title following match-fixing allegations. He would go on to spend time in prison for corruption and witness tampering. Tapie’s son Laurent fronted the Full Tilt deal and despite his father’s reputation, the DoJ signed off on his plan to acquire the company for just $80m.
The Scheinbergs watched all this unfold. They had approached Full Tilt owner Ray Bitar early on but he was loathed to sell to his biggest rival. However, when the details of the Tapie deal became clear, Isai could no longer sit on the sidelines.
Fundamentally, Tapie did not have enough money. The deal he agreed with the DoJ would see 94.9 per cent of non-US players paid immediately. This only applied to players with balances of less than $100. Those with a higher balance than $100 accounted for 90 per cent of the debt. They would be paid back over a much longer period and many doubted they would ever get paid.
This was not acceptable to Isai, particularly. Thousands of poker players relied on online poker for their livelihoods. If the US government negotiated and endorsed a deal that left thousands out of pocket, it would have huge reputational damage for the online poker industry. Why would anyone trust online poker again?
“There was a feeling from our perspective that a failure of something as big as Full Tilt would be a failure of poker as an industry,” says a former Stars executive. “It was almost seen as a rescue bid for the reputation of online poker, as opposed to a vulture opportunity for a distressed competitor.”
PokerStars agreed a $731m deal in July 2012 to acquire Full Tilt Poker. The deal also paid back all of Full Tilt’s players and gave Stars a clean slate with the US authorities, expressly granting it permission to apply for a US licence when regulations allowed.
Manoeuvres in New Jersey
If 2011 and 2012 were tumultuous years for the company, 2013 and 2014 would not be much different. In 2013, the Hot 50 would feature Mark Scheinberg, who had assumed the role of chairman and shunted the company’s first chief executive, Gabi Campos, out the door. The recruitment of Campos in 2011 was the Scheinbergs’ first attempt to install professional executive management in the company they had helmed throughout the first decade of its existence. But Campos was the wrong man for the job. It was to be Ashkenazi who would eventually prove to be the right man.
He joined Rational Group as chief operating officer in the same week the 2013 Hot 50 was published. When Ashkenazi joined Rational Group it was integrating Full Tilt and was deep in the process of attempting to acquire the Atlantic Club Casino in New Jersey.
“PokerStars had an ambition to get back into the US and they were willing to go far to do it,” says Ashkenazi.
Rational Group had been deep in partnership talks with another New Jersey casino Revel, which later went bankrupt and years later reopened as the Ocean Resort. After that setback Mark and Isai came up with the somewhat leftfield idea to forget about partnership and buy the Atlantic Club Casino.
Then head of business development Templerwas deeply involved in the deal, which would have seen Rational Group acquiring the casino for just $15m and entering the New Jersey online poker market under its licence.
“There was huge sentiment against PokerStars in the US at the time,” says Templer. “There were only eight or nine casinos we could work with and here was an opportunity to save a struggling casino and around 2,500 jobs. There was an opportunity to invest in Atlantic City and create a nexus and a connection with the US for Stars and its owners at the time.”
The deal would eventually collapse after a series of bitter rows with incumbents and shareholders. Under pressure from Caesars, the American Gaming Association (AGA) took the unprecedented step of publicly opposing PokerStars’ licensing attempt in what could be the most unedifying episode in its history.
The Atlantic Club’s owner Colony Capital pulled out of the deal, despite Rational Group keeping the casino in business throughout the previous winter. It was a spectacular own goal, which resulted in the casino’s bankruptcy and hundreds of people losing their jobs.
“We were all disappointed when they pulled back from the deal – even though the deal was extremely good for them,” says Ashkenazi. “There were too many complications and it was too early and there were also a lot of people who were against PokerStars at the time.”
Ashkenazi would feature in the Hot 50 the following year. By which time, PokerStars had acquired Full Tilt. He was COO of the Rational Group with full P&L responsibility for PokerStars and Full Tilt. However, with no clear leader in charge of Full Tilt and no clear vision about where it was going to go, Ashkenazi assumed responsibility as interim CEO of Full Tilt. It was an early sign of the hands-on style that Ashkenazi would assume – sometimes to his own detriment.
“My COO role at Rational Group was very very extensive. It was almost like a deputy CEO role,” says Ashkenazi. He took charge of everything apart from legal, finance and business development.
“With New Jersey casting some doubt on the future of the Scheinbergs, Ashkenazi could find himself even more influential in the future,” Gaming Intelligence wrote prophetically in the 2014 Hot 50.
Less than six months later, David Baazov’s Amaya gave the Scheinbergs a $4.9bn escape route. Baazov had featured in the very first Hot 50 two years previously. We characterised Baazov as “one of the most charismatic CEOs you could hope to meet…a dealmaker extraordinaire cannily building Amaya by acquisition…Amaya and its enterprising CEO are definitely ones to watch.”
Baazov’s timing was right. The founders Mark and Isai lived through (and had an enormous influence on) the era when gaming moved from a Wild West scenario towards a regulated industry. Their travails in the US were just a taster of things to come as markets regulated one by one and operating became harder and harder. They had also made more money than they would have ever dreamed possible. When Baazov first approached them, he was laughed out of the building but when he returned with written backing from The Blackstone Group and others, they were willing to listen.
The Amaya years
The rollercoaster ride would not end during the Amaya years. For Ashkenazi initially, there was disappointment as Hazel was appointed CEO and he was shunted to the position of chief strategy officer in Amaya’s Montreal HQ. He was tasked with scoping out opportunities in daily fantasy sports, advertising technology and media relationships – all things that would come in handy further down the line with Sky and FoxBet – but were not what he joined the company for.
“I left Playtech [for Stars] because I wanted to lead a company. I wanted to execute my vision. Ralph Topping tried very hard to get me to come to William Hill but Rational Group was my first choice because I had a vision. I knew what this company could become,” says Ashkenazi.
When he joined Rational Group it had one product – online poker on desktop computers. Both Ashkenazi and Templer were brought in to change that. And while Black Friday and the US fallout dominated the first few years of their employment, they would soon turn their minds back to the original aim.
“In order to survive we needed to work on diversification. The Scheinbergs saw that – to an extent, not to the full extent. I think one of the reasons they brought me in was this vision I had, and my ability to diversify the business.”
It was on Ashkenazi’s watch that PokerStars first launched casino games via the Full Tilt client. Sam Hobcraft won a place in the 2014 Hot 50 for his role in the casino launch, while Steven Fisk and Ian Marmion were honoured during the next two years as Stars diversified into sports betting.
Ashkenazi and the Schienbergs agreed that diversification was the goal but the COO wanted them to move faster towards that goal. He says he wanted to acquire bwin.party way before it fell into GVC’s hands but the PokerStars owners preferred organic growth. The Full Tilt and Amaya deals changed all that.
PokerStars was changing quickly. Firstly, it was now a public company with investors demanding results every quarter.
“The alleged wisdom of the Amaya acquisition was that it would pave the way for an easy entry into the US market,” says Hollreiser.
That was predicated on a few things. Firstly, that the US market for online poker would open up quickly, which never happened. Secondly, Amaya (and its big money backers) would be seen as the white knight bringing great legitimacy and confidence to online poker. But less than six months after the Amaya acquisition closed, the Canadian authorities were investigating it for insider trading.
It soon became the biggest insider trading scandal in Canadian history and would dog Amaya for the next two years. When Baazov eventually quit in March 2016, Ashkenazi was made chief executive officer of Amaya Group.
Baazov might have quit as CEO but he was not giving up on Amaya and launched a bid to take the company private. Ashkenazi’s first priority was to handle a strategic review, which he and chairman Dave Ghadia handled alone so the management team could continue to focus on operations.
“There were a lot of companies that were looking at us then and turned down the opportunity to acquire us,” says Ashkenazi. “I think they made a mistake but I was quite happy that they did because it allowed me to execute my vision.”
After a close brush with William Hill, the strategic review was terminated at the end of 2016 and Ashkenazi would begin the process that would lead to the rebranding of the company as The Stars Group.
A new executive team was formed with Bryan Kyle as CFO, Marlon Goldstein as chief legal officer, Templer was promoted to COO, Becs Cubbon as chief people officer and Robin Chhabra as chief corporate development officer. Stars under Amaya had lost something and Ashkenazi was determined to claw it back.
“Towards the end of 2016, as the business continued to perform better and better, I became more comfortable. We were able to service our debt and pay the $400m we owed to the Scheinbergs. That was a massive, massive milestone,” says Ashkenazi.
Having missed out on being consolidated, Stars became the consolidator and Chhabra’s role was crucial in implementing the strategy that would result in the acquisition of CrownBet, William Hill Australia and Sky Betting & Gaming.
“Amazingly, through a combination of being very professional, having a high degree of conviction, plus being very lucky we managed to acquire all three companies we had identified,” says Ashkenazi.
The creation of FoxBet would follow – with Chhabra again to the fore, taking over as FoxBet CEO – before Stars succumbed to Flutter’s embrace.
For lawyer Ifrah, there is a great irony in FanDuel’s parent Flutter acquiring PokerStars. The UIGEA carve-out that led to the creation of DraftKings and FanDuel came into effect in 2007. By 2010 the DFS companies were starting out and after Black Friday they received a massive boost. Some poker players became daily fantasy customers, while many of those who worked for the poker operators went to work for the DFS companies.
“Here we are, 10 years later, where those two small businesses that started in the shadow of the huge poker operators are now number one and number two sports betting operators and part of publicly listed companies that have billion-dollar valuations,” observes Ifrah.
Meanwhile, Isai Scheinberg, the trailblazer, the poker evangelist, the internationalist, the man who believed in a regulated US online gaming market and spent countless millions lobbying for it, sits in a lodge in Northern California awaiting his sentence after finally pleading guilty to running an illegal poker business in a New York court in March 2020.
“Isai was the person who put online poker on the map. He continued to pursue ways to legalise online poker in the US,” says Ifrah. “Even when he tried to find legal ways to bank and to process payments, there was an unwillingness to adopt the federal legislation that would enable it to happen.”
Ifrah continues: “The only reason that sports betting got to the Supreme Court was because of online poker. Senator Ray Lesniak realised that you had to take baby steps. New Jersey legalised poker first and that was purposely and intentionally done,” says Ifrah. “I was very fortunate in 2010 to be representing Full Tilt and PokerStars at the height of US poker and that was the beginning of the story that led to the legalisation of sports betting in 2018.”
PokerStars has been, perhaps, the leading player in that story – sometimes it has been the protagonist, sometimes it has been the victim. Ultimately, it was the victor. But for Stars and all its Hot 50 honorees, it has been one hell of a ride.