Friday, January 4, 2013

How I almost went to jail as a terrorist

January, 2004
After many months of wrangling, in early October of 2003 I finally managed to get the World Poker Tour to agree to film and broadcast a live PokerStars event. This is a story in itself - the final negotiations took place during my brother's wedding - but I'll save that for another story.

The only problem with this success was that the WPT was experiencing a huge boom - the poker explosion had just started, with Chris Moneymaker's WSOP win having been broadcast only months before - and they had exactly one week available: January 18-25, 2004. Some quick math tells you that we had 3.5 months to create a live event, attract hundreds of players, get them to the venue and run the tournament.

The next two weeks were nonstop panic. We knew we couldn't get a venue in the United States to run a live poker event for an online poker site, as there were many questions about the legality of online poker even back then. The WPT didn't want us to do an event in Europe, as they already had two European venues and it presented some massive logistical problems for them. So I focused my search on the Caribbean and Central America, and quickly discovered something really surprising - there is only one resort in either area that could handle 700+ people: the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and they had no interest whatsoever in talking to us. (This changed the following year.)

After dozens of phone calls, I was left with two choices: the Maho Beach Resort in St. Martin (which could barely handle 700) or a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas. We settled on the cruise, even though our biggest competitor at the time (PartyPoker) also ran a cruise as their WPT event. Had I been able to see just a little bit into the future, I would have run screaming from a cruise venue, but alas, hindsight and all that.

We started running satellite tournaments on the site in late October and they were an immediate hit. I contracted with a travel agency in Canada that specialized in cruises, which appeared to be a lifesaver - they would handle all of our players' travel arrangements, cruise reservations and details other than the tournament itself. This allowed my right-hand guy and overall miracle worker, Rich Korbin, and me to focus on getting the event details right. These details included building a poker room on a cruise ship, having tables built and shipped, designing and producing our own chip sets (for both tournaments and cash games), even buying and shipping safes that we could use to store chips and cash. I couldn't imagine the logistics involved in transporting 250 players, their guests, our staff, the WPT staff and 25,000 pounds of equipment. I soon learned that "couldn't imagine" hardly covered it.

One detail that seemed innocuous at the time would prove to nearly be our downfall. We knew that players were going to want to get cash from their PokerStars accounts while on board, and we also wanted to pay at least part of their tournament winnings (the rest would go into their PokerStars accounts). So we arranged to wire $500,000 to the cruise line a few weeks before the cruise. I asked the head of the casino to bring these funds on board in cash and deposit them in a cage account that we could draw from. Bookmark this; I'll get back to it in a minute.

I'll spare you some of the goriest details, but - 16 days before the event, I had to fire our travel agent for gross incompetence and fraud. We discovered that she had made less than 25% of the reservations, and most of those were wrong. For the next 16 days, I literally (and I don't use that word loosely) worked 20 hours a day, along with 5 other PokerStars staffers, to repair the damage. Someday I'll commit more of that debacle to writing, but for now it's sufficient that you know we were in a complete panic.

Fast forward to the night of January 17, 2004. The ship was sailing in less than 24 hours, and by miracle and sweat it was pretty clear that we were going to make it. Players were arriving in Florida, equipment was ready for loading when the ship arrived, chips and cards arrived. By 5:00am on the morning of January 18, I felt good enough about where we were to risk getting a few hours' sleep.

When my cellphone rang at 9:00am, I was pretty sure it wasn't good news. The display read "Mark Scheinberg." Mark was the COO of PokerStars and one of my two bosses (his father, Isai, was Chairman and the other boss). 

"Get in a cab and get down to the pier. Right now." Not much room for doubt about urgency there.

I threw on clothes and bolted. I arrived at the pier, about a mile away, less than 15 minutes after the call woke me. I met Mark in the cruise ship terminal. He pointed at a door and said "There are some people in there that need to talk to you. Just answer their questions."

I opened the door and found myself in a conference room with nine people. Well, not people, exactly. Agents. Armed agents from Homeland Security. A woman approached, offered her hand and said "Hi, I'm Stacy Hunt. We have a few questions for you." (Side note: by bizarre coincidence this happens to be my niece's name. No relation.)

Stacy Hunt: You're Dan Goldman, is that correct?

Me: Yes, that's right. 

SH: You work for PokerStars?

Me: Yes.

SH: Do you own the company?

Me: No.

SH: Who owns the company?

I was already pretty alarmed about this conversation when it started, but now it really started to look bad. One detail that I haven't mentioned yet - RCCL required that we indemnify them in case something bad happened regarding the cruise. This means that we agreed to make them whole for the entire cruise if something we did caused the cruise to be canceled. We're talking $6.5 million here, considerably more than I could afford to have taken out of my paycheck.

Me: Can you tell me what this is about, please?

SH: No. Who owns the company?

Me: A group of investors. It's a privately held company.

I really expected her to pursue this, but she didn't.

SH: What equipment are you bringing on board?

I flipped through some papers in my briefcase and produced the manifest, which ran about 20 pages.

SH: I see you have two safes listed here. What's in them?

Me: Nothing. They should be open - RCCL told us they might be inspected by Customs.

SH: They weren't open. We got the combinations and opened them. Care to explain the $500,000 we found in the second one?

This should have made me even more horrified, but oddly it didn't. I had already reached 100 on the "I'm fucked" scale. I explained that we had wired these funds to the cruise line, and that they were supposed to have included them in the casino bank. This caused a huddle. Ms. Hunt picked up a phone and made several calls. One of the other agents asked me if I wanted some coffee. I didn't think consuming any liquids would be wise.

SH (holding up an official-looking one page form): You see this?

Me: Yes.

SH: This is US Customs Form 4790. Any time you take more than $10,000 out of the US, you need to file one of these. If you had filed this form, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Right, and I wouldn't be desperately trying not to pee myself.

SH (smiling for the first time): We're not going to take any action at this time. Please note that you need to file when you return, declaring any cash you bring back over $10,000.

Some of the air seemed to return to the room. Most of the agents were smiling now. I suspected that they knew at the outset what had happened, but used this opportunity to scare the crap out of whoever they could find. It worked.

Me: Can I go now?

SH: There's one more thing.


SH: Can you get me Phil Hellmuth's autograph?

I kid you not.