April 15, 2011 was the day the lights went off for online poker in America. PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Ultimate Bet were all shut down by the US Department of Justice, player funds were seized and, suddenly, poker’s biggest market was locked out of playing the game they loved. Black Friday, as it has been dubbed, was a day that changed the poker industry forever.
But whose fault was it? And could it have been stopped? In his new book Alligator Blood, James Leighton set out to find the truth – and it led him to a young Australian entrepreneur called Daniel Tzvetkoff, who made millions of dollars processing payments for online poker companies before losing it all and ending up in jail for violating US online gambling laws. PokerPlayer365.com spoke with Leighton to find out how he got the idea for the book in the first place, what his dealings were like with this young millionaires and whether he thinks Daniel Tzvetkoff really was the man who brought down online poker in the USA…
PokerPlayer: Where did the concept for this book come from?
James Leighton: When I was at university from 1999-2002 I played a lot of poker and we all used to watch Late Night Poker on Channel 4, but in recent years I haven’t had the time to play much so I wasn’t particularly well versed on Black Friday and what was going on in the States.
After I finished my last book I was looking for a new project with an international flavour – I picked up a newspaper and there was a story about Daniel Tvetzkoff being blamed for Black Friday in the Daily Mail. I started looking at the story a bit more and it had all the ingredients to make for a really fascinating book. I got it commissioned by my publishers and I was on my way.
How much did your finished version differ from the initial Daily Mail story?
It’s completely different. Daniel was being solely blamed for bringing about Black Friday – no other names were involved and he was accused of stealing money and so on. I thought I was going off to research a story on this thief, and also I thought Full Tilt Poker would have a huge part to play in the story. But I was surprised that Full Tilt, for all their faults, actually didn’t have a whole lot to do with this. Instead of stealing the money, Daniel had perhaps got in over his head with business partners and made a few bad decisions. There had also been a few people who were FBI informants [on online poker] before him so he was wrongly maligned.
I’m sure you were learning along with the reader of the story. How hard was getting access to the main contributors?
It was an absolute nightmare. I was perhaps a little naïve. As soon as I got commissioned to write the book I thought it would be simple – send a few emails to get some interviews, dig into the newspapers and everyone would be happy to speak to you. But this was such a volatile subject, a lot of the court cases were still ongoing, people were in witness protection, or jail or in hiding! Just trying to contact anyone was a nightmare. Sending emails barely made a dent. I had to travel to all of these places and actually hunt everyone down.
It was very stressful trying to contact people and getting them to trust you but thankfully after I had made all that effort to travel to Australia and the US people started to trust me and that’s when I got hours and hours of one-on-one interviews. I saw thousands of documents too, a huge amount of information that I had to dig through but it helped me learn what had actually gone on. A lot of the key characters in the story had different opinions and viewpoints on the same events but it was only when you could see the emails and contracts that you could get a good idea of what actually happened.
Did you manage to get much access with Daniel Tvetzkoff himself?
I can’t go into details because I have agreed to keep them confidential for obvious reasons. I did speak to a lot of people close to Daniel and I got a lot of information that hadn’t been known before. It really helps give a more rounded view to him. This wasn’t a guy that meant to cause Black Friday, it was all just a horrendous sequence, a perfect storm of events, and this young guy was caught in the middle of it. The book shows that he was certainly reckless at times and got carried away with spending money and the lifestyle out there, but he didn’t mean to cause this and there are other people who are equally as culpable and have escaped the media spotlight.
Tvetzkoff even becomes a bit of a sympathetic character to the reader by the end of the book.
When I started out I didn’t think that would be the ending that we would have. it was only after speaking to a lot of people that I got this impression of Daniel as a very kind, warm, generous character. After all this went down he was broken by it in a way and he’s determined to come out of this a better person and focus on his family. The court documents that were recently submitted in New York – because Daniel is up for sentencing [Editor note: Tzvetkoff was sentenced to time already served and forfeiture of $13m in a June 2014 hearing] – echo the same sentiments from his parents and fiance’s parents.
Do you think it was a happy coincidence that films like The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street have many of the same elements of a young hotshot on the rise and fall?
People have always loved stories like that. You can look back to films like The Firm with Tom Cruise in the early 1990s. People like the narrative of the young hotshot who then suffers a tremendous fall but learns to find themselves along the way. I’ve always been fascinated by it and it’s proven to be a hit with Hollywood as well.
Were you surprised this book has reached a non-poker audience?
That was always one of the things I wanted to do with this. I wanted to get the truth about Black Friday to the poker community but it was also a story that had gone under the mainstream radar. When you tell people in the US about it they really cant believe it.
Is that because of how complex the situation was?
It is very complex. A lot of people hear the words ‘payment processing’ and they switch off. It’s only when you start reading the book and delve deeper that you realise what a fascinating, underground industry it is. I’ve been thrilled when people who know nothing at all about poker have read it and been fascinated by it. It’s caused some people to take up the game once again and others to look into how to play poker. The book isn’t just about Daniel, it’s also about the key points in online poker history over the past few years, such as the Brian Hastings vs Isildur match-up.
There are vast sums of money made and spent in this book within a short period of time. How did your interviewees reflect on that period now?
It was like the Wild West and it won’t happen again. It was the perfect storm of things coming together that for this brief period of time allowed people with literally no qualifications, and no regulations being allowed to control vast sums of people’s money.
What was your personal take on the main protagonists?
I always try to remember the phrase, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ On the surface a lot of this display of wealth and the amount of money that was spent, especially in Las Vegas, and while it may seem exciting it’s actually quite repulsive. It’s not their money, it’s poker players’ money. But then at the same time you try to imagine being young in Las Vegas and all of a sudden you’re earning $3m a week! It’s very, very difficult to keep your head. People complain about footballers keeping their head on £100k a week so goodness knows how you do it in Vegas on $3m a week!
You can’t condone some of the behaviour but I hope after reading the book you will be able to understand why some of the people did what they did.
Was there an aura of invincibility around most of the main characters where they felt these glory days would never end?
I think so. It was obviously very clever what they were doing in starting the payday loans and there had never been any sniff that they were going to get in any sort of trouble. All that money in a place like Vegas makes you feel invincible. But the FBI were onto it early on and that caused their downfalls.
Alligator Blood gives an insight into the [previous] owners of PokerStars and Full Tilt that you don’t see much elsewhere.
I think it’s important that people, especially after all that went on at Full Tilt, that people should know who runs the companies they place their money and be confident that they are legitimate businessmen. Customers need to know their money is safe.
Ultimately, the book shows that PokerStars is a reputable company that has looked after their customers and that their customers’ money is safe. It was only after Black Friday that we found out a company like Full Tilt was being run in the way it was. It was quite frightening that a company that size was being run so recklessly.
Do you think the full details revealed in the book of how online poker payments were being processed leaves a negative or positive light on the industry?
I would hope it will make people a lot more cautious when they deposit money on websites and they do a bit of research into how that money is being handled, particularly in the US at the moment. I also hope that now this has all come to light that when online poker gets properly up and running in the US that the payment processing situation will be dealt with professionally and legally with all the proper procedures.
Do you think there has to be much more transparency?
Much more. I think the banks need to be on board as well and people will then have a lot more confidence in the market. I hope it’s moving in the right direction now. Black Friday was a wake-up call for the industry.
Do you think we will hear more from Daniel Tvetzkoff in the future?
Yes, I don’t have a doubt about that. Every single person that I have spoken to – even people that absolutely despise him – have all said that he was a genius, phenomenally intelligent and always coming up with new concepts that nobody else would think up. He’s back in Australia with his family and already back in business, and I believe he’s been quite a success already. He’s only just turned 30 and I believe we will hear from him again in the future.
What has the response to the book been like from the poker industry?
I’ve been thrilled at the response so far. I have been contacted by poker players who said they thought they knew a lot about Black Friday but that the book was a real eye-opener. The book was not only entertaining but also educational.
I saw the article on the Daily Mail website. Were you happy with that story?
The journalist was in touch with me to let me know they were doing an article and I was just thrilled to be honest that a mainstream newspaper like the Daily Mail – which is one of the most popular websites in the world – was wanting to run a story on the book. They presented it as an exciting ride so I was thrilled.
What can you tell us about a potential Hollywood film version of the book?
We had a number of offers for the movie rights straight away. One of those was from Robert Luketic, the director of 21. Rob made an offer for the movie rights that was accepted and currently the script is being written, the contract is with the lawyers and we are hoping to sign it soon.
You can buy a copy of James Leighton’s book Alligator Blood on Amazon for £10.49 by clicking here. An exclusive extract from the book will be in the next issue of PokerPlayer magazine where you can also win three signed copies in our competition. The magazine will be out on July 31.
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