From June 2009 until April 2011, Phil Ivey borrowed money from Full Tilt Poker at least eighteen times, totalling at least $10,715,000, repaid loaned money to the poker site at least five times, totalling at least $5 million, and was paid at least $1.2 million by the site in various marketing payments and perks. Over a non-contiguous eighteen-month period from 2008, 2010, and 2011, David Benyamine earned at least $800,000 from the poker site in salary, wages, and marketing payments and made at least $750,000 in loan payments to FTP. These numbers only include transactions that were noted on Ivey’s and Benyamine’s Full Tilt Poker account, so they likely do not tell the whole story.
Subject: Poker has obtained access to Ivey’s and Benyamine’s account history on Full Tilt’s internal systems. Because of the way that this data is organized and because of problems that we had accessing additional data as a result of the effective shut down of Full Tilt Poker on June 29th, we do not have as much data as we’d like. For example, we do not have data on most player-to-player transfers or other transactions that are done in the system without notes,1 we do not have much data for Ivey before June of 2009, we have two very small gaps in our coverage for Ivey, and we have a large gap in our coverage for Benyamine.2 Most importantly, we have no information at all about any transactions that may have happened through any medium other than their FTP accounts, so any transactions that occurred by bank wire or cash, for example, are not included.
However, the data that we have obtained provides a rare glimpse into how Full Tilt conducted business.
Phil Ivey was regularly taking large loans from Full Tilt Poker, typically either for $500,000 or $1 million, for as far back as we have data. (The earliest loan that we know of is a late 2008 loan for $1 million. However, our coverage before June of 2009 is very incomplete.) This may be what Tiltware refered to as “a large sum of money he owes the site” that the company alleged Ivey had declined to repay during their heated public dispute related to Mr. Ivey’s (now withdrawn) June 1st lawsuit against the company. The loans are each marked as an “advance” and many are marked as having been approved by Rich Bitar, Ray Bitar’s brother who handles some of the company’s interactions with its sponsored pros.3
Early in the data, Phil Ivey’s account was frequently debited directly for some, though not all, of the money that he was loaned there. For example, Ivey borrowed $3 million in six $500,000 installments spread throughout July and August 2009. He then repaid $1 million on October 29th, borrowed another $500,000 on November 13th, and then made two separate $1 million repayments on November 20th and 22nd respectively.4 Ivey’s results on the datamining site HighstakesDB suggest that he earned approximately $5 million in cash games on Full Tilt Poker in October and November of 2009, so this success may be the reason that he repaid. (Ivey went on to borrow $1 million on November 29th.)
However, this pattern stops. The last repayment in our data (for $1 million) happened in the spring of 2010, but after this date, Ivey received eight additional loans, ending in January 2011 and totalling $3,215,000, bringing the total difference between loans and repayments in our data to $6,215,000.5 It is of course possible that Ivey repaid some or all of this debt off of the site, but Tiltware’s reference to a “large sum that he owes the site” and Ivey’s historical pattern of repaying through his account suggest that he did indeed owe the site money as recently as June 1st.
Though some of these loans were made after significant losses in Full Tilt’s cash games and some of the repayments after significant wins, there appears to be no obvious connection. However, many of the loans and repayments occurred during periods of increased high stakes activity in general on Full Tilt. For example, the series of loans and repayments in November 2009 appear to correlate well with the high stakes cash games that ran frequently during that time period, mostly involving Isildur1. So, it is possible that these loans were used to finance the high stakes play of other players.6
Benyamine’s Debt in 2008
In 2008, David Benyamine apparently owed Full Tilt Poker money, and at least some of this debt was being repaid directly from his salary, wages, and bonuses. This is quite clear from the notes on his FTP account. He received many payments from Full Tilt during this time period directly into his account, and almost all of them were taken out of the account on the same day with the note “for a loan collection.”7
In 2008, Benyamine received directly to his account a $15,000 per month base salary, roughly $12,000 more per month on average from rakeback and hourly wages, roughly $4,000 per month in logo bonuses and other marketing bonuses, and roughly $10,000 per month in other payments. So, assuming that our sample is typical, his annual earnings sent directly to his FTP account were roughly $500,000 at the time. (It is of course likely that he received money off of the site as well.) However, it appears that almost all of this was going directly back to the site to repay Benyamine’s debt.
In addition to these regular payments, Benyamine repaid $125,000 in June 2008 and another $450,000 in September. HighstakesDB shows that these payments happened immediately after a $1.3 million win and a $1 million win respectively. So, he may have decided to make these payments from his Full Tilt account as a result. (He also was successful in live tournaments in June, so that might have contributed to his decision to repay that month or encouraged him to pay off more of his loan offline.)
In October, an alert (a message that appears in red at the top of the screen when a Pocket Kings employee looks at an account) was added to Benyamine’s account: “Notify Rich Bitar of any outgoing transfers over $300k, otherwise he is allowed to transfer in and out.” This note came after a large loss on Full Tilt; Benyamine lost $1.7 million over a few days according to HighstakesDB.
Benyamine’s Transactions in 2010 and 2011
By 2010, the situation had changed fairly significantly. Benyamine was receiving a $41,667 per month base salary ($500,004 per year), a 178% increase from two years earlier. This number does not include the amount that he made from rakeback, his hourly wage, marketing, and various bonuses. He continued to have this salary paid to his FTP account until Black Friday, but it was no longer being collected to repay his debt.
However, he evidently still owed some money. Until April 15th, his rakeback and hourly payments were still being deducted the day that he received them, but he was playing less so these numbers were smaller, averaging only about $1500 per month. He also borrowed the relatively tiny sum of $5,000 on March 11th and repaid it exactly a month later.
On May 2, 2011, seventeen days after most US players lost the ability to withdraw from their Full Tilt accounts, Benyamine, whose account is clearly registered in the United States, withdrew about $5,500 for travel expenses. This withdrawal was labeled differently than other withdrawals: “Seize: $5500. Other – General. WD: $5500 to cash for travel expenses.”8 This choice of a different label may have to do with the fact that this is a post-Black Friday withdrawal.9
In June, multiple sources told Subject: Poker that they overheard Benyamine on his cell phone at the Rio, asking where he should go to collect money for his tournament buy-ins. So, it appears that he was still receiving money from Full Tilt Poker a month ago, and he apparently conducted some of these transactions offline.
Ivey’s Other Payments
Loans were of course not Full Tilt Poker’s only financial relationship with Phil Ivey. Ivey is an important member of Team Full Tilt, and Subject: Poker has confirmed the widespread belief that he is one of the owners of the poker site. Many of the payments that resulted from these two relationships likely did not go through Ivey’s Full Tilt Poker account. However, many did. These provide a rough picture of how Full Tilt Poker paid its sponsored players, how the owners of the poker site paid themselves, and how the company’s behind the poker site handled money in general.
Ivey was paid well for televised appearances. He received $170,000 for wearing a Full Tilt logo during his appearances on Poker After Dark‘s most recent season, which amounted to about 25 hours of poker at the Aria Resort & Casino this past November.10 He received $25,000 “for London Press” and $5,000 “for press at WSOPE” this past September,11 $50,000 for wearing a logo during his second place finish in the 2010 Aussie Millions 100,000 AUD tournament, and a few more similar payments. Given how often Ivey wore Full Tilt’s logo on television during this time period, it is likely that he received many such payments via other methods.
Ivey also received $450,045 “for Aussi [sic] Millions Buy-ins per Rich” in the winter of 2009-2010. However, the buy-ins for the Aussie Millions that year summed to only 150,500 AUD or about $135,450 at the rates from the time period, not including two 1000+50 AUD rebuys. So, presumably this money was for something else as well, possibly for buy-ins to the televised Aussie Millions Cash Game.12 This is the only payment for buy-ins that Ivey received directly to his Full Tilt account during this period.
There is also a whole category of payments that Subject: Poker is unable to explain. Every month, Ivey received some amount, usually between about $15,000 and $25,000, which was typically labeled either “Player Pool Payment,” “Marketing Pool Payment,” or something similar. The payments average about $17,500 per month (or about $200,000 per year), but they vary quite a bit, from $9300 for March 2009 to $25,690 for October 2010. Here’s a typical example, dated December 22, 2010: “Cash Deposited initiated RE: Marketing or Promotion. Admin Comments: DEP: Nov2010 Marketing Player Pool Payment of $25326.” Note that the payment for November 2010 (and all other months) was made at the end of the following month. This is similar to how rakeback was paid and suggests that the amount depends on the events of the month. (In contrast, Benyamine’s salary was always paid at the beginning of the month mentioned in the note.) Subject: Poker chose to include this information in the hopes that one of our readers might be able to explain it and that this information might be helpful to the readers.
If these transactions were exceptional, then they would not represent a significant cost to Full Tilt Poker. However, Team Full Tilt has fourteen members, including Ivey, and there are 159 Full Tilt Pros, including Benyamine, plus a number of sponsored players with other titles. So, if these relationships are typical or even exist for a relatively small number of sponsored pros, these loans and payments could have represented a very significant cost to the site. Many of the Team Full Tilt members are widely believed to be owners of the site, and many of Full Tilt’s sponsored players are friends of the owners and/or their gambling partners. So, there was a risk of a conflict of interests when Full Tilt management chose how to compensate sponsored players.
However, it is not clear to us if these types of relationships between Full Tilt Poker and it’s sponsored pros are common. We looked into Ivey’s and Benyamine’s accounts first because Full Tilt accused Ivey of owing the site money and Benyamine was accused by Nick Rainey of the same on the Quad Jacks broadcast. So, there’s at least some reason to think that these relationships are unique. Subject: Poker was unfortunately unable to gather more information to determine definitively how common this was, but we will keep looking.
I, Noah Stephens-Davidowitz, recognize that this article contains personal information about real people who live real lives, and I sincerely regret any harm that my choice to publish this article may do to their personal lives. It was not my intention to hurt Mr. Ivey or Mr. Benyamine.
I chose to publish this article in spite of this negative because I feel that Full Tilt Poker’s financial interactions with its sponsored pros are relevant to those who are currently owed money by the site. I feel that these facts are particularly relevant to those who are owed money by the site because many of Full Tilt’s sponsored pros were owners of the site, friends of owners of the site, and/or gambling partners of owners of the site. Suffice it to say that I did not come to this decision lightly, and it was a topic of much thought and debate–a month’s worth.
My initial intention was to collect a large amount of data and to use this to print general facts, such as how common loans were and for what amounts, how much Full Tilt Pros were typically paid, and how much an episode of Poker After Dark typically cost the site. In this way, I could convey better information to our readers without having to use any names or reveal any personal detatils. However, Full Tilt’s internal servers went down on June 29th along with many of their user-facing servers, and to my knowledge, they are still down to this date. I waited a month for the servers to come back online so that I could gather further information, but I finally decided that waiting any longer would be a disservice to Subject: Poker’s readership.
I chose to name Ivey and Benyamine rather than leave them anonymous because I felt that their stories were sufficiently unique to make their names necessary to tell the story properly. Many of our readers would have guessed who they were from the descriptions, and leaving their names out would not provided our readers with proper context.
It was my decision alone to publish this article, and any criticism for doing so should be directed to me.
Subject: Poker’s readers should continue to expect us to follow the story of Full Tilt’s financial situation, but I hope to be able to tell that story without including more personal information in the future.
Edited on 7/29/2011 3:41 PM EDT: Fixed improper wording in the sentence about total Aussie Millions buy-ins.
Edited on 7/29/2011 5:13 PM EDT: Fixed a typo and clarified that Benyamine’s base salary in 2010-2011 was not his only source of income from Full Tilt.
Edited on 7/29/2011 10:16 PM EDT: Fixed a typo.
- Most player-to-player transfers and typical player withdrawals and deposits are done automatically with no notes from personnel and therefore do not show up in our data. Very large deposits and withdrawals are done manually and large withdrawals do show up in our data. Mr. Ivey also made some small withdrawals that were done manually and therefore also appear. ↩
- In order to protect our sources, we are being deliberately vague about some details and some facts have been changed slightly. We do not feel that anything we’ve done for this purpose should cause confusion. ↩
- A typical loan was labeled “$500,000.00 Cash Deposit initiated RE: Loan Collection. Admin Comments: DEP: 500k advance per Rich Bitar.” The rather confusing label of “Loan Collection” was chosen from a drop-down menu and likely represents the closest-to-correct choice for a loan. (At least one loan was labeled instead as simply “initiated RE: Other,” and Benyamine’s loan collections are confusingly labeled “Requested by Customer.” In general, employees appear to have been quite lax with these records. Labels given to some different transactions include “Requested by Customer,” “Logowear,” and “Marketing or Promotion.”) The system marks almost all transactions as either “DEP” or “W/D”, where “DEP” was simply used to represent anything that increases the account balance and “W/D” the opposite. The part after this, e.g. “500k advance per Rich Bitar,” was written manually and varied in syntax and detail. ↩
- The remaining $500,000 balance from this series of transactions is not accounted for elsewhere in our data, so it is possible that the balance still remains, that it was repaid off of FTP’s servers, or that it was taken out of other transactions. It is also possible that Mr. Ivey already owed Full Tilt money before this series of transactions began. ↩
- This number includes data that is not mentioned elsewhere in our article. ↩
- Subject: Poker was unable to obtain information about player-to-player transfers from this time period. ↩
- For example, on June 3rd, 2008, the following notes appear: “$19,412.54 Cash Deposit initiated RE:Rakeback. Admin Comments: DEP: MAY08 Pro Rake/Hourly Payment of $19,412.54″ followed by “$19,412.54 Cash Withdrawal initiated RE: Requested by Customer. Admin Comments: W/D: $19,412.54 to CASH for a loan collection of Rake/Hourly payment.” This is quite typical. The labels “RE:Rakeback” and “Re:Requested by Customer” were chosen from a drop-down menu. The choice of “Requested by Customer” is strange because there is an option for “Loan Collection,” and the fact that these transactions happened quite often and always on the same day as the initial payment suggests that Benyamine was probably not personally requesting all of these transactions. However, the labels from the drop-down menu appear to not have been chosen carefully in general, so this likely just represents carelessness. In the admin comments, the system marked almost all transactions as either “DEP” or “W/D”, where “DEP” was simply used to represent anything that increases the account balance and “W/D” the opposite. The part after this, e.g. “$19,412.54 to CASH for a loan collection of Rake/Hourly payment,” was written manually and varied in syntax and detail. ↩
- We changed the amount slightly here to protect our sources. ↩
- This is the only time in the documents that the label “Seize” was used. The same employee who processed this transaction processed other similar transactions with a different label. The “Seize” label was usually used when money was taken from a player’s account without his consent. For example, it was used when a player was caught cheating, a deposit failed, or rakeback was overpaid. ↩
- Ivey appeared in three different events in the most recent season: a $100,000 freezeout that aired in five hour-long episodes and in which Ivey placed second, a Pot-limit Omaha cash game that aired in ten hour-long episodes, and a No Limit Holdem cash game that also aired in ten hour-long episodes. The payment for his wearing a Full Tilt Poker logo during these appearances came in two parts: a $100,000 payment on November 7th marked “for Poker After Dark Logo Bonus” and a $70,000 payment on November 11th marked “logo bonus for Poker After Dark.” ↩
- Subject: Poker was unable to find any particularly unique interviews with Mr. Ivey that match these descriptions from the time period, but we found a few brief interviews, such as this one. ↩
- Subject: Poker was unable to find how much Ivey had won or lost in this game. If anyone has this data, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment. ↩