For the first time in a long time, the creator of PokerStars spoke to journalists. What is the businessman doing now and what does he think of his legacy and Black Friday?
Date of publication of the first interview since Isaem Sheinberg (Isai Scheinberg) – April 15 – not chosen by chance. This year Black Friday events are 10 years old. It was on that day that US players were unable to enter their favorite Full Tilt or PokerStars lobbies, and their sites posted an announcement that “Domain arrested for violating UIGEA.”
The honor of talking to one of the most respected grandfathers in poker fell to the journalists of the PocketFives portal.
“I have always appreciated privacy, but I have not kept secrets.”
This is how Isaya explained the fact that he never gave interviews to reporters.
I have always valued privacy, but I have not kept secrets. These are two different things.
I worked hard and was always busy with something. Plus, I’m not someone who will do active self-promotion.
What was Isai Sheinberg doing in those years? Any poker enthusiast knows that Scheinberg founded the biggest poker room PokerStars with his son Mark in 2001. In 2006, the United States passed the UIGEA law that prohibited money transfers to online gambling companies. Most of the major holdings immediately ceased operations in the country (888, Party), while Stars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and Ultimate Poker continued to work in a roundabout way through dummies and bribes. It all ended on “Black Friday” – April 15, 2011, when the scheme was “covered” by the FBI.
When on the morning of April 15, lawyers informed Isai that the judge had ordered him to be prosecuted (from English indictment), he had to clarify what this word actually means – he himself is from Lithuania and English was not his native language.
At that time, the head of the company was at the head office of Toronto.
The news hurt me.
I said that the main thing is the payments to the players. We had the money, and we wanted to pay it back. The lawyers then said that I was crazy and it would take more than a year. But in the end, everything happened in less than a week.
But the players weren’t the only ones hit by Black Friday. The roughly 1,000 PokerStars employees in offices around the world could be unemployed. Like the players, Isai reassured his colleagues:
All employees received a message that no one would be fired.
Those who supported the work of PokerStars in the United States were given the opportunity to reassign to another position to continue their work at the company.
About buying Full Tilt and paying off their debts
Seeing that PokerStars was the only one of the four poker rooms to pay people all their bankrolls, Isai Sheinberg wanted to bail out Full Tilt users. At that time, the US government was already in negotiations with other people, and Sheinberg’s advisers called the idea crazy.
The people who wanted to buy out FTP were not going to fully compensate the players for the lost money. And the government was under strong pressure from the players, because it was about hundreds of millions of dollars
Sheinberg subsequently bought Full Tilt, paid off nearly $ 300 million in arrears, and relaunched the room.
On running from the secret services
For a long time, it was believed that after the events of Black Friday, Isai was hiding from the US intelligence services. Allegedly, he even negotiated with the Ministry of State from protected locations.
I was very upset when people called me a fugitive. I have never been a US citizen or resident and have not been in the country since 1999. I did not run from there and did not hide from anyone.
Moreover, Scheinberg traveled freely to Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Israel and the Isle of Man – all of these countries have agreements on extradition of criminals, and local authorities have always been aware of Isai’s movements.
In June 2019, the founder of PokerStars was detained by Swiss law enforcement. The US Attorney’s Office demanded his extradition in order to deliver a verdict in the Black Friday case. At that time, the charges of fraud and money laundering were dropped, only charges of illegal activities in the field of gambling remained.
In January 2020, Scheinberg flew to New York and appeared in court a couple of months later. He pleaded guilty and, with a range of extenuating circumstances, managed to get off with a $ 30,000 fine. Learn about the fate of the other ten defendants in the Black Friday case in a separate article.
Black Friday case closed: Isai Sheinberg to pay $ 30,000 fine
Now Isai sees solid pluses that the case has finally been closed:
While the charges were hanging on me, many banks refused to open an account for me. Because it seemed to them that since the case was not closed, then who knows what could happen there?
“Chess makes me happy”
It turned out that Isai moved away from poker towards chess. He invests a lot of time to become better, but at the same time he has to some extent a predisposition to the strategy game – in the early 30s his father defended the honor of Lithuania at the Chess Olympiad. Sheinberg has a whole book where all his father’s games are recorded along the moves with analytics from the grandmasters.
But the founder of PokerStars isn’t just interested in playing chess. Now the man is a key investor in the largest chess project Chess.com. Sheinberg made the decision to invest in this business not because of some advanced technology.
We invested and joined the Chess.com team because they have great guys. They conduct business with integrity and treat their customers well.
Sheinberg associates the increased interest of the general public in chess with the success of the Queen’s Gambit series. The hero of the material involuntarily draws a parallel with the events at the 2003 WSOP, when Chris Moneymaker won.
About selling PokerStars
For a long time, even when Black Friday charges were still hanging on Isai, he and his son tried to bring PokerStars back to the United States. There were several attempts to cooperate with various Las Vegas casinos (in order to obtain a license to provide an online service through them), but they all failed due to the fact that the formal owner of PokerStars was Mark Sheinberg (Isai’s son).
And then we said “what the hell” and solved the problem once and for all. For the sake of the company, and in order for US residents to play at PokerStars, the owner had to change.
The Scheinbergs sold PokerStars to Amaya for $ 4.9 billion. According to the staff of the poker room with many years of experience, the owners did not take the entire amount for themselves – they were very generous with the employees after the sale. So they expressed their gratitude for helping build PokerStars.
All the way we ran the company in this way. Of course, it was important to preserve the dignity. We didn’t fire anyone after Black Friday and the employees themselves played a big role in this success.
It is obvious that employees are a huge part of any business, but in our company it was felt that their role was much greater.
What is left after him
Seven years after the sale of PokerStars, Scheinberg believes he has left a mark on the poker industry. He believes that his principles, by which he ran the company, will continue to determine its future.
We have created a lot of things that have helped poker grow and become more prestigious and interesting. I’m glad I left such a mark
About buying a Rio casino
Once I was offered to buy a Rio, but then the reaction was like “Why do you need it?” – now I understand that it was a mistake. If we bought Rio, then we would have transferred the rights to the WSOP and we would have made it better. Our plan was to make the series friendlier and host the Main Event with a $ 100M guarantee. Then, in March 2011, I spoke to Steve Wynn (owner of the Wynn chain) – he liked the idea, so we could move the WSOP to a nicer place.
The purchase, as you understand, did not take place. And the relationship between PokerStars and the WSOP was more of a rivalry, especially when the World Series was taken over by Harrah Entertainment.
About life today
Looking back, Isaiah regrets nothing and is proud of his life’s work. Now he has the opportunity to spend a lot of time with three generations of his family – and he already plays tennis with his 17-year-old granddaughter.
Now is the best part of my happy family life. I am happily married, we have been together for 53 years. I am proud of my son’s achievements. I have three grandchildren and I love what I do