Simon Young, owner of Smashing Life and a former head of content at PokerStars, bids farewell to Full Tilt poker as it packs away its virtual tables for the last time.
Back in the day, choosing your Full Tilt poker avatar was a big deal. Were you the shark? Perhaps a penguin? The online poker boom was in full swing, and these things mattered. The way you could change your chosen avatar’s facial expression was a simple pleasure; certainly, it was preferable to the horrendous abuse thrown around in the chatbox. “Hope you die in a grease fire” was a regular taunt by drunken idiots aggrieved by a perceived bad beat.
I was an early player on Full Tilt and loved that so many professionals played on the site regularly. You could find which tables they were on and, if you had the roll, play against them. No sharks or penguins for them, they had their own personal avatars, like Gus Hansen.
The software was exceptional. Some might say that even back in 2005, it was better than many modern online poker rooms. Even so, at that time, I played on PokerStars more often than not. When I joined PokerStars, initially as a blogger at live events like the European Poker Tour, I could no longer play on the site, so Full Tilt became my new home, where I merrily donked off a small fortune. But I had a lot of fun doing so.
The advent of Rush Poker, the first fast-fold cash game variant, in 2010 was a big boost to Full Tilt and to online players who may, at that time, have become jaded with online poker. Indeed, many people were not firing up Full Tilt to play but were doing so to rail some of the nosebleed cash game action.
Some of the game’s biggest names – Hansen, Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Brian Townsend and Patrik Antonius to name but a few – would regularly beat the crap out of each other, so to speak, at the table.
And the emergence of a mysterious young dude known only as Isildur1 in late 2009 brought the railbirds drooling to watch as he soared through the highest staked games, seemingly without fear, winning and losing vast amounts in remarkable swings.
Then it all went badly wrong.
With Black Friday, where the United States governments seized online gaming sites like Full Tilt and PokerStars, the Full Tilt business model unravelled. It emerged the company had acted like a Ponzi scheme, with the funds for players accounts missing. When the site was forced shut by the Feds, there was no cash to pay back the players. Meanwhile, PokerStars had played with a straight bat and was able to keep player funds to one side.
PokerStars to the rescue
By now, I was head of content at PokerStars, running industry-leading sites like PokerStars Blog. Up until then, Full Tilt had been a chief rival. Every World Series of Poker showcase in Las Vegas was, for example, a race to sponsor the most promising players as the tournament unfolded. A few years earlier, with Main Event numbers hitting more than 8,000, both sites sent seemingly thousands of online qualifiers, all of whom proudly wore their PokerStars of Full Tilt branded shirts.
It was a remarkable thing that happened. In 2012 we were told that PokerStars was not only buying Full Tilt poker, but we would also pay back all the money owed to every one of its players. It was an extraordinary gesture from then-owners Isai Scheinberg and his son, Mark. But both of these guys were extraordinary people. One day, someone will write the definitive book about PokerStars, and it will make compelling reading to the business world at large (and poker fans, of course).
With the PokerStars buyout, Full Tilt tables began chirping again. Many former players just seized their bankrolls and ran, but some came back to play. The game had moved on, and players were getting better (today, you can get the best-in-class poker study courses from Upswing Poker).
But Full Tilt site was unable to reclaim its glorious past. Perhaps that’s not surprising – PokerStars management was never going to deflect its attention from its own prized asset. That generosity of spirit, incidentally, was repeated in July 2017 when PokerStars purchased the assets of PKR – and repaid hundreds of thousands of players there.
The final Full Tilt decline
From 2016 onwards, Full Tilt was rapidly approaching its own final table. PokerStars was investing heavily in its own software, and it made little sense to spend time and good money trying to keep Full Tilt up to speed.
In 2020, EU players were no longer able to play on the brand, and this week, Stars Group, now part of Flutter, announced that, from Thursday, .com players would also be unable to play. The site would close for good.
And so an iconic brand in an often chaotic but adrenaline-fuelled industry is no more.
Of course, PokerStars itself is still going strong. Nearly three years ago, I left the company, setting up my own editorial agency, running sites like the one you are reading now. Three months after I left, I was allowed to play on PokerStars once more. For the first time in ten years. It remains the best in class – and if you have not done so already, you really should sign up to PokerStars today. If you do have a PokerStars account but fancy somewhere new to play, try William Hill Poker or 888 Poker.
For now, though, I shall mourn the passing of Full Tilt. It’s fair to say that there really was never a dull moment, for better or for worse.