Rumors about a increasing divide between Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars bubbled to the surface this week, causing considerable concern in the community before being hurriedly washed away again. The focus of the controversy was PokerStars newly minted North American Poker Tour, a casino-hopping series that has the potential to rival the WPT for the continent’s most popular tour. To back up the promise of success, PokerStars have recently inked a deal with ESPN, poker’s most practiced and powerful TV ally. This sounded like great news for pros everywhere, until stories began to emerge that Full Tilt, the world’s second biggest online poker company, were banning their sponsored players from attending the event.
One company barring its players from participating in another’s competition is not a new phenomenon. PokerStars briefly forbade its players from appearing on the FT backed Poker After Dark and a group of pros, including many Full Tilt members, refused to play on the World Poker Tour due to a conflict over image rights. The most recent example of this kind of exclusion garnered Full Tilt plenty of criticism and appears to have sparked the NAPT rumors. Full Tilt’s Red Pros were barred from playing in the Trash Talk Championships, organized by Victory Poker. This was a celebrity-laden charity tournament, which would likely have attracted many of Full Tilt’s high rollers.
Not long after this, online poker forums and news sites began to report rumors that Full Tilt head office had begun instructing their players not to attend the NAPT. The issue came to a head when respected ESPN journalist Gary Wise published an article claiming confirmation of the boycott. He cited a move away from a united front, blaming encroaching divisions on a new corporate culture in poker. “FTP is playing a dangerous game with the one industry entity that can outspend them,” commented Wise, warning that “Once FTP has poked the bear, does the bear really have a reason to not start poking back?” He also rightly noted that this move was likely to unsettle much of the Full Tilt roster as it severely limited opportunities for lucrative TV exposure.
With seemingly official confirmation of the veto, the web was awash with comment and fevered speculation. That was until Poker New Daily’s Dan Cypra published an article of his own, claiming to have word from a Full Tilt source that their players would be permitted to participate in the NAPT. This freedom was not limited to just PokerStars events, Cypra’s source quoted as saying, “Any Full Tilt pro, Red or member of Team Full Tilt, can play in any competitor’s open event.” Dan then went on to note the range of Full Tilt pros who have had high profile successes in recent events hosted by other sites. Among the examples was Robert Romanello’s ongoing success at the PokerStars European Poker Tour in Copenhagen and John Juanda’s victory at the 2008 WSOPE, sponsored by Betfair.
Gary Wise had written in support of his criticisms that, “You also won’t be seeing any of the big FTP stars on Party Poker’s Premier League when it eventually broadcasts overseas.” Dan Cypra directly contradicts his ESPN contemporary by stating that David Benyamine, a noted high stakes cash game player and signed-up Full Tilt pro, won the Premier League just a few days ago. A quick glance at some of the promotional photos for PartyPoker’s marquee event shows Benyamine at the tables with a Full Tilt patch clearly on display.
The first stop event of the PokerStars North American Poker Tour begins at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in just 8 hours. The $5,000 NLHE tournament will undoubtedly feature most of the PokerStars sponsored roster, but all of the attention will be on whether any Full Tilt players elect to buy-in. Those FT pros who decide not to play have an easy out in the form of the WPT Celebrity Invitational. This popular charity tournament marks the end of the Los Angeles Poker Classic and will definitely feature Full Tilt players such as Howard Lederer, Andy Bloch, Erik Seidel, and Allen Cunningham. The WPT event clashes directly with the NAPT, making it impossible for players to compete in both tournaments.
Whether or not the rumors of exclusion are a sign of things to come or a simple case of miscommunication is as yet unknown, but a full blown war between online poker’s two biggest players could result in radical change across the entire industry.