The World Series of Poker expects record participation this year, despite a "boycott" from one of the world's best players and legal troubles of three online poker websites.
Phil Ivey, one of the world's best poker players, announced he is suing his sponsor for $150 million and is staying away from this year's World Series of Poker (WSOP), which began May 31. The annual tournament takes place in Las Vegas and will culminate with championship events in early July.
But Seth Palansky, communications director for WSOP, said participation is up 11 percent from this period last year with 20,443 registering for the 20 events out of the total 58 that are scheduled to take place. The total money given out so far this year is $37 million.
"If this continues it will be the biggest attendance numbers in World Series history," he said.
Palansky said the legal tangles of the major U.S. online poker sites have not interfered with the tournament, which is not directly affiliated but gathers interest from big names from the online game. Ivey is among about a dozen poker players who are members of Team Full Tilt, sponsored by Full Tilt Poker.
In April, the Justice Department filed a complaint alleging money laundering, fraud and violating the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act against 11 individuals who run the websites PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker.
Four individuals, third party payment processors for all the sites, have been arrested. One of the individuals pled guilty while the other three have pled not guilty.
Full Tilt released a statement on April 15 saying it believes online poker is legal and supports its two executives who were indicted. Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick have not been arrested in part because they live outside of the U.S.
"Full Tilt Poker is, and has always been committed to preserving the integrity of the game and abiding by the law," the company said in a statement.
On April 20, the Justice Department allowed PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker to use their domain names to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. players' funds held in accounts with the companies.
Under the deal, the sites agreed that "they would not allow for, facilitate, or provide the ability for players located in the United States to engage in playing online poker for 'real money' or any other thing of value." Absolute Poker reached a similar agreement in May.
PokerStars released a statement on April 27 that it is "taking all steps necessary to robustly defend itself" and started processing cash-outs to players. On May 13 the company said it returned more than $100 million.
Ivey filed a suit against Tiltware LLC, the software provider of FullTiltPoker.com, earlier this month for "irreparably" damaging his reputation, demanding $150 million in damages.
Because Full Tilt used "fraudulent methods" to avoid banking restrictions and has not returned players' funds after the Justice Department shut down its website in April, Ivey said the company breached its agreement to provide him "software and related support for the conduct of legal online poker."
Ivey has won eight World Series of Poker bracelets, given to the winner of each event at the tournament.
"I am deeply disappointed and embarrassed that Full Tilt players have not been paid money they are owed. I am equally embarrassed that as a result many players cannot compete in tournaments and have suffered economic harm," Ivey said in a statement.
According to Ivey's suit, filed in Nevada's Clark County district court, Full Tilt owes about $150 million to U.S. players. Ivey alleges that Full Tilt failed to maintain a sufficient reserve account to repay players.
Because Full Tilt has not yet returned players' money, he said he will not play in this year's WSOP tournament in solidarity with other players.
"I am not playing in the World Series of Poker as I do not believe it is fair that I compete when others cannot. I am doing everything I can to seek a solution to the problem as quickly as possible," Ivey said in the statement.
Ivey is fifth place in the list of bracelet winners. The leader with the most bracelets, Phil Hellmuth, has 11.
Ivey's prize winnings from previous WSOP tournaments total $5.3 million, which ranks him at 13th on the "all-time" list, according to Palansky.
Ivey has endorsed Full Tilt poker and had a "non-competition covenant" with the company since February 2004 which prevents him from engaging or investing in activity in competition with the brand.
Full Tilt fired back at Ivey less than one day after he filed the suit.
"Contrary to his sanctimonious public statements, Phil Ivey's meritless lawsuit is about helping just one player – himself," Full Tilt said in statement on according to CardPlayer.com. "In an effort to further enrich himself at the expense of others, Mr. Ivey appears to have timed his lawsuit to thwart pending deals with several parties that would put money back in players' pockets."
"In fact, Mr. Ivey has been invited — and has declined — to take actions that could assist the company in these efforts, including paying back a large sum of money he owes the site," Full Tilt said.
Full Tilt Poker did not return requests for additional comments.
Other top poker players have criticized and praised Ivey's suit.
"I admire that he's willing to give up something like the WSOP, that I know is so important to him, for what he thinks is principally right," Daniel Negreanu, a Canadian professional poker player with four WSOP bracelets, said according to Pokerlistings.com.
But Andrew Robl, a high-stakes poker player who is competing to earn his first bracelet in this year's tournament, wrote in a blog post that Ivey's suit was "self-serving."
"Phil Ivey is one of the primary equity holders of Full Tilt and has profited off their business more than almost anyone," Robl wrote. "If he really cared about the players he would pledge to return every cent of the MILLIONS of dollars he's made from Full Tilt to the players as Tom Dwan (who is not a owner) has done."
Tom Dwan is a member of Team Full Tilt, along with Ivey. Dwan said he would use his earnings from Full Tilt to distribute money to other players if the company did not return their money, according to Poker News Daily.