In this extract from James Leighton’s new book Alligator Blood, the man who brought down online poker in the US has a stressful night in Vegas
April 15, 2011 was the day the lights went off for online poker in America. PokerStars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet were all shut down by the US Department of Justice, player funds were seized and, suddenly, poker’s biggest market was locked out of playing the game they loved. Black Friday, as it has been dubbed, changed the poker industry forever.
But whose fault was it? And could it have been stopped? In his new book Alligator Blood, James Leighton set out to find the truth – and it led him to a young Australian entrepreneur called Daniel Tzvetkoff, who made millions of dollars processing payments for online poker companies, before he lost it all and ended up in jail for violating US online gambling laws. In this exclusive extract, a typical night of excess in Las Vegas for Tzvetkoff suddenly goes very, very wrong…
Las Vegas, USA, April 2010
Just one year after losing close to $500 million Daniel Tzvetkoff was back at the scene of the crime. Las Vegas. Sin City. And this time he was feeling lucky.
In the shadow of the glowing amber tombstone that was the Encore Hotel, the baby-faced twenty-six-year-old sat in a private outdoor cabana in the luxurious XS nightclub. Above him a fan whirred relentlessly, engaged in a fruitless battle against the arid desert heat. On the glass table to his left was a flute of chilled Cristal. His favourite. In his mouth hung a Cuban cigar. And on his wrist, a gold Rolex, whose diamond-encrusted dial told him that it was coming up to midnight. The night was still young.
Picking up his glass of champagne, the stocky Australian briefly left the sanctuary of the cabana to make his way to the edge of the first-floor balcony. Peering below, hoping to catch a glimpse of his party-loving friend, Daniel saw several nubile young girls liberally casting aside their short skirts, high heels and boob tubes to dive into the azure pool. Their boyfriends cast a blind eye.
Returning to the privacy of his lavish VIP cabana, Daniel stood under the fan, trying in vain to cool down. As he did so a soft voice suddenly purred behind him, ‘Got room for one more in here?’
Turning around, Daniel was confronted by Las Vegas perfection. Long, blonde hair extensions, which flowed to the bottom of an impossibly tiny waist. Fake tits, with nipples protruding through a short white dress which was hitched so high it revealed a tantalising glimpse of pert tanned bum cheeks. And inviting pneumatically enhanced lips that looked soft, ripe and moist. But Daniel had been in Vegas too many times not to know one thing: the vision before him was a hooker. And he looked like a lonely young kid with money to burn. In other words, easy pickings.
A tempting offer
By the time Daniel had gathered his thoughts, the blonde had already invited herself inside. Sat on the mauve sofa she slowly crossed her legs and introduced herself. ‘I’m Whitney,’ she said, holding out her manicured hand for Daniel to shake. As Daniel reciprocated, Whitney’s eyes darted to the ice bucket on the table next to her, where a half-drunk bottle of Cristal protruded from the top. ‘It’s hot tonight,’ she smiled, lifting the bottle from the ice. ‘Mind if I have a glass to cool off?’
‘Be my guest,’ Daniel replied, wrapping his lips around his Cuban cigar and blowing a plume of smoke upwards.
Watching on as Whitney poured herself a drink, he remembered the promise he had made to his heavily pregnant fiancée, Nicole, before he had boarded the plane: no girls would be involved, not under any circumstances. This trip was strictly business. That was all. But those words were now in danger of being washed away by a tidal wave of cheap perfume, fake tan and bright cherry-red lipstick.
‘So where are you from sweetheart?’ Whitney enquired, the champagne glass lingering in front of her lips.
Entranced, Daniel leant back against the bar, trying to play it cool. ‘Australia. Brisbane, actually.’
‘And what do you do with yourself in Brisbane?’
‘I own a high-risk payment processing company,’ Daniel proudly announced, not expecting her to have a clue what he was talking about. To be fair, not many did.
But Whitney was a professional. It didn’t matter to her what Daniel did. What mattered was whether or not it was a lucrative profession. ‘Is there a lot of money in that game?’ she enquired in her sultry voice, leaning forward, her breasts in danger of falling out of her dress.
‘Sure,’ Daniel smiled. ‘If you know what you’re doing.’
‘And do you know what you’re doing?’ she asked, her eyes shimmering with a naughty glint.
‘Sure,’ Daniel replied. A turnover of close to $1 billion in just 18 months had been proof of that. As had been the purchase of one of Australia’s most expensive homes, a yacht, private jet, a nightclub and countless luxury cars. If only it wasn’t all gone…
Whitney flashed a smile and broke Daniel’s trailing thoughts. ‘So what are you doing tonight?’
Sipping some of his champagne, Daniel placed the glass down next to him before saying, ‘I’ve been to the ETA conference at the Mandalay Bay.’
‘And what do you want to do for the rest of the night?’ she asked, cutting right to the chase, softly biting her lower lip seductively as she did so.
Ninety-nine per cent of the time, Whitney’s targets would have expressed an interest in spending it with her, whatever the price. Daniel Tzvetkoff’s answer, however, fell in the one per cent bracket. Snapping out of the sexually charged moment, he replied, ‘I’m going to go straight to bed to call my fiancée and my three-year-old son.’
To Whitney’s shock, Daniel strolled out of the cabana and left her where she was sitting without another word being spoken. He had had enough. It was time to cash in. In another life, he had bled Vegas dry: nightclubs, strippers, parties with Mike Tyson. The lot. That was then, this was now. The last 12 months had certainly matured him. He now had no desire to spend the night talking to a hooker when he could return to his room and speak to the most important people in his world: Nicole, and his son, Hugo.
Meandering through the pulsating poolside area, Daniel entered the opulent indoor club to try to find the exit. Trying his best to avoid bumping into the drunkenly swaying partygoers on the dance floor, he looked up at the VIP area where girls danced in their high heels on the marble tables. Sat below them, wannabe playboys drank champagne straight from the bottle. For a night they were the centre of attention, but by Monday they would all be back at work trying to figure out how they were going to pay off their Visa bill. Daniel had been there and done that. They had been great days, but now he realised that nothing beat the feeling of walking along the beach with his fiancée and son. It seemed everything was going to be all right after all.
Slipping the doorman twenty bucks as he lifted the red velvet rope for Daniel to leave the venue, he walked up the extravagantly decorated, cream marble corridor towards the lobby. Clicking the button for the lift, Daniel put his hands in his pockets as he waited impatiently for it to arrive in the lobby. Soon he would be back in his suite on the 53rd floor, overlooking the neon–splattered mayhem of The Strip, enjoying a quiet drink from the minibar while everyone else succumbed to the charms of Sin City down below.
However, as he day-dreamed away, he failed to spot the murky reflection in the gold elevator door of a large, dark-suited man appearing behind him. Suddenly there was a click next to his ear. A feeling of cold metal being placed against his head.
‘Don’t fucking move,’ the New Jersey accent ordered. ‘Stay right where you are.’
Daniel stood frozen to the spot: a gun was being pointed to his head. By whom he didn’t know. But in that moment he knew there were only two organisations it could possibly be – the FBI or The Mob. Either way, as the barrel of the gun continued to bore into his temple, he knew one thing: the comeback was over.
A jail cell or a hole in the desert awaited him. At that moment he wasn’t sure what was worse.
You can buy Alligator Blood from Amazon for just £8.09 – click here to get your copy.