Blair Hinkle finally gets his payday
At the peak of his online success, Blair Hinkle won more than $1 million in a single FTOPS event in February of 2011. He already had a World Series of Poker bracelet to his credit, but this was the first seven-figure cash of Hinkle’s career and things were looking up.
It was just two months later that Hinkle suddenly found himself as one of the players with the most to lose when the United States Department of Justice seized the domains and all funds related to Full Tilt and PokerStars. What followed was a three-year odyssey during which the bulk of Hinkle’s bankroll and net worth were tied up in an uncertain state of flux.
The man who would eventually have seven figures locked up on Full Tilt started his poker career in a similar fashion to many young men of his generation. Basement $5 and $10 games in Kansas City and Party Poker freerolls fueled Hinkle’s interest late in his high school years and into his days at the College of Missouri.
Hinkle might have ended up getting fully hooked by the poker bug on his own, but he ended up living with a roommate in college who was about to have a breakout of his own.
“I was fortunate enough to get roomed up with James Mackey,” said Hinkle. “He was starting to play online seriously,” said Hinkle, “He won the $10 rebuy one night on PokerStars and sent me and a couple of friends on the same floor $30 each to start our bankrolls.”
It wasn’t the first time Hinkle had a starter bankroll online, but none of his $50 deposits panned out to much. The money he got from Mackey, who earned his stripes as one of the top online tournament players in the world under the moniker “mig.com,” was what jump-started Hinkle’s early success.
His path to tournament poker greatness hit its first peak in December of 2006, when a win in Event 3 of the UBOC earned Hinkle $56,724, the biggest cash of his career, and the confidence to commit to poker fully. He and Mackey each continued to thrive in 2007, with Mackey winning a WSOP bracelet and a WCOOP title worth $580,000, while Hinkle won the $750,000 Guaranteed on Full Tilt to continue his upward climb.
“After that win, I decided I was going to drop out of school,” said Hinkle. “That was a big shock for my parents. Obviously they didn’t realize that poker could be as profitable as it is.”
The success that Hinkle put together made him a strong candidate to cross over into bigger buy-in live events. Mackey’s own tremendous string of success allowed him to stake Hinkle in a deal that would work out well for both parties.
Hinkle knocked on the door right away at the 2008 LAPC, where he made a deep run and finished 11th, and followed that up at Bay 101 by finishing 24th. His brother Grant kicked off the 2008 WSOP by winning a bracelet in the first No Limit Hold’em event of the summer, and Blair ended up making history with a bracelet of his own less than two weeks later.
The next few years of Hinkle’s career saw several moderate results, including two six-figure cashes at the Bellagio and a WSOP Circuit Main Event win at Horseshoe Council Bluffs. Hinkle continued to post consistent, if not spectacular, results online over the next three years, too.
While the winds of the poker industry were quickly shifting unbeknownst to the majority of the people in it, Hinkle was preparing to take a seemingly overdue “next step” in his career as the calendar flipped over to 2011.
“I never played as much as I should have online,” said Hinkle. “For me, it’s still kind of the same way — I don’t play as much as I should. I had had a good run for a couple of months leading up to that [point]. I had taken a while off and then I decided I really needed to get back into poker.”
After a three-way chop in the $50K Turbo and a fourth-place finish in the Sunday Mulligan that January, Hinkle went 0-for-the-series in February’s FTOPS leading up to the Main Event. A marathon session would eventually lead to one of the biggest moments of Hinkle’s career.
“I had been playing for 15 or 16 hours, because that tournament wasn’t one that they did a two-day type thing — you just kept playing,” said Hinkle. “I think it was 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning by the time we finally chopped. It was crazy; it was a big adrenaline rush.”
The chop, which was made three-handed, left Hinkle with $1,162,949, the biggest prize by some margin even though he’d eventually end up taking second. The sun had set and risen again by the time Hinkle finally closed out the final window on his Full Tilt browser.
“It was cool, I knew my parents and relatives would be awake so I made calls after I finished,” said Hinkle. “My grandparents were super excited and my mom and dad were very happy. That was cool, to win the tournament and immediately be able to tell everybody the great news.”
The logistics of cashing out a sum that large are a bit staggering, but few knew just how unlikely it would be to get that much out of Full Tilt in early 2011. With deposits into the site getting interrupted, and large sums pocketed by the highest ranking members of Full Tilt, they were less than two months away from the most catastrophic ending imaginable.
“I had just taken a few small chunks off, and then eventually I was going to take out about $800,000, only they wouldn’t allow me to,” said Hinkle. “They said there was a problem with my verification. I was traveling for live poker and I didn’t keep up on it as I should have.”
“My limit was $8,000 or something like that,” said Hinkle. “Which I could do three times a week. I took off a couple of chunks, but at the time, nobody was really worried about the money not being there or anything happening. I just had it sitting there.”
There was a little more writing on the wall for Hinkle, who ran into even more trouble with the Full Tilt cashout process as April 15 quickly approached.
“A bunch of other small transfers that I tried to make out of the account got blocked,” said Hinkle. “This is all leading up to Black Friday, and all of a sudden, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t let me keep withdrawing. That was frustrating, but obviously I didn’t know how crazy things were about to get. “
April 15 started like almost any other day, generally unremarkable except for its status as the deadline for Americans to submit their tax returns. This particular April 15 would end up tying up the money of poker players worldwide, with a fallout that still lingers over the industry to this day.
“I was in Columbia, Missouri, where I was living at the time,” recalls Hinkle. “I was driving to play disc golf, and my friends started calling me — they lived in Vegas. They had freaked out before and basically said, ‘The sky is falling, online is over’ and all that kind of stuff. I was like, ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ Then I tried to log on to PokerStars and got that big Department of Justice seal.”
“I’ve always been a more positive person, and I still was telling my friends ‘It’s no big deal, I know it sucks that we can’t play online but it will be all right.’ I’m thinking we’ll get our money off and we’ll figure something out on how we can keep playing.”
Players got something of a reprieve when PokerStars quickly fell into line and began dealing with the U.S. DOJ. That led to the return of PokerStars balances to players worldwide, and the online giant was back up and running for everyone except those residing in the United States.
Things got ugly when the financial situation at Full Tilt came to light. With the combination of deposits that never reached Full Tilt coffers still being credited to player accounts and the failure to segregate player accounts from operating expenses, it looked bleak.
Hinkle received the entirety of his PokerStars balance and wrote off the little he had left on Ultimate Bet, but the seven-figure sum sitting in his Full Tilt account was obviously of the highest concern.
Among all of the uncertainty and stress in the days immediately following Black Friday, Hinkle also regretted missing out on a chance to get his hands on a chunk of that money just before the shit hit the fan. Another player was in search of a significant sum to play on Full Tilt, and Hinkle was all too ready to oblige.
“He wanted to transfer $150,000,” said Hinkle. “I was going to give him $150,000 on Full Tilt, and he would give me that on Stars. This was unlucky for me, but lucky for him I guess. He ended up having a bad session on PokerStars and decided to send the money back on Full Tilt, which sucked.”
“It would have been a lot easier to make it those three years if I’d already had a bigger chunk of that money cashed out,” continued Hinkle.
The days quickly turned into months and years, and the reality really started to hit for Hinkle. With most of his bankroll locked away, Hinkle tried to make things work by playing live cash games. Wherever he went, the rumors and speculation followed.
“It was a topic of conversation at any poker table I would sit down at,” said Hinkle. “By this point I had moved to Kansas City so I could play cash games — which wasn’t going great — but it wasn’t going poorly either. I’m not nearly as good at cash games as I am at tournaments. It felt like more of a grind, and I was just trying to survive.”
“There was one bad night in particular,” said Hinkle. “I remember I was going to the Harrah’s, and there had been some bad news that day. When I got there one of my friends, a player, was like ‘Hey, sorry, but it sounds like there is pretty much a zero percent chance that you are going to get any of your money.’ I had read something [similar] earlier that day and then it finally sunk in.’”
Full Tilt’s situation was dire, as the company had little cash and few assets left once the U.S. government started digging. As the fates of tens of thousands of poker players and their bankrolls hung in the balance, there was an ever-growing list of potential outcomes for poker players to speculate on.
“I felt my stomach knot up and I felt upset about the fact that, in my mind [at that time], it really did feel like at best I would see maybe 5 percent of my money. Who knew what would happen when they liquidated Full Tilt, if they would still make payouts if they did anything at all.”
Several different parties started sniffing around what remained of Full Tilt, including a contingent from France. Groupe Bernard Tapie proposed an $80 million purchase price that would have gone toward paying non-American Full Tilt players, leaving American players to the DOJ.
“Those negotiations looked pretty bad, for the players at least,” said Hinkle, “Whether we would get our money back, or at least a percentage of it. At the time, we would get a different story every week. Then all of a sudden I saw a random tweet by somebody that said ‘I have good sources, it looks like Poker Stars is going to come in and buy Full Tilt.’”
As the bid by Groupe Bernard Tapie started to fall apart, PokerStars swooped in and started talking to the DOJ about acquiring the assets of their former rival.
“That was good, but at the same time by that point I had learned not to take news one way or the other, get too high or too low,” said Hinkle. “Things were just changing constantly. It wasn’t until the day where it finally got announced that PokerStars was coming in and buying everything that I finally felt a big relief.”
The deal from the Rational Group, the parent company of PokerStars, also sputtered around for several months as it was hammered out, but everything was finalized at the end of July in 2012. More than 15 months after player balances were first frozen, some would see their money returned in a matter of months.
“Rest of World” Full Tilt players enjoyed a much shorter timeframe than their American counterparts, who still weren’t completely in the clear with the DOJ stepping up to handle that portion of the refunds.
“The only thing that was [frustrating] after that was everybody else in the world got paid within 60 days, and we still had to wait here in the United States for about another year and a half,” said Hinkle. “A lot of people were freaking out and they were still saying ‘You’re not going to get all the money. One thing that made sense to me, logically, when they got that big check from PokerStars — I knew they were going to have more than enough money to pay everybody back.”
Blair Hinkle waited for almost three full years before his $1 million balance on Full Tilt was returned to him. His poker career continued for those three years, but it didn’t play out as well as it could have for Hinkle because he was missing such a huge part of his bankroll.
“For one thing, I lost backing at the same time [after Black Friday],” said Hinkle. “I ended up getting dropped right before the 2011 World Series. I had to find different investors and sell off a big chunk of myself, 60 percent or so, to be able to play World Series events and feel comfortable. I basically did the same thing in 2012, too.”
Hinkle’s post-Black Friday tournament career started with some promise before April of 2011 even ended, with an eighth-place finish at the Seminole Hard Rock Showdown — at a venue that would come back into play in a big way a few years later.
Those who bought Hinkle’s action had a pretty good time of things in 2012 and 2013, as he earned two fourth-place finishes at the WSOP and won his second WSOPC Council Bluffs Main Event.
“I had some good success in early 2013, which helped a lot because I didn’t have to sell as much of myself,” said Hinkle. “That was the biggest thing that was holding me back. While I had a lot of success I also had investors, which I was extremely happy about as they were willing to invest in me and had faith in my abilities. The only thing about that was if I didn’t have to do that, then obviously I would have gotten more of that money through the whole process.”
Details about the Full Tilt repayment process moved at a snail’s pace for months, with the DOJ finally announcing the Garden City Group as the company in charge of getting American players their balances back.
While things were looking far better than they had at several points during the three-year stretch between Black Friday and repayment, there was growing concern over the length of the process.
Hinkle continued to wait it out for his $1 million trapped online, but in the interim he managed to set a new high water mark for his career. A record-setting field that eventually reached 2,384 in the 2013 Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open crushed the guarantee and pushed the prizepool to almost $12 million.
When all was done and dusted, Hinkle was the lone survivor, besting his FTOPS payday by some margin as he collected $1,745,245 for the win. It would still take more than six months before Hinkle would receive a long overdue email message.
Once 2014 hit, the Garden City Group seemingly kicked things into high gear. On the morning of February 24, a confirmation email three years in the making started to hit poker players’ inboxes one by one. Hinkle was, appropriately enough, back to playing in his home game in Kansas City — albeit one that now featured four bracelet winners (Mackey, both Hinkle brothers and Jeff Tebben).
“I was playing in a home game here in Kansas City, a $40 rebuy tournament,” said Hinkle during a recent appearance on “The Rundown.” “All of a sudden, people started yelling out ‘Hey, I got my Full Tilt email!’ and they’re all getting excited. I checked my email account over and over again all day and still hadn’t gotten anything.”
“For a second there I started to think, ‘Well, did I fill out the form correctly? Did I do everything right?’” recalled Hinkle. “I started to second-guess whether I did everything right with my petition. I was getting really nervous, but then I got it and announced it [publicly], and everybody was pumped.”
Few people could be expected to handle this situation as well as Hinkle did, and he credits his family for helping him to keep his head on straight.
“My mom is super positive and my dad is very stable emotionally,” said Hinkle. “I think both of those made me the person I am today, and they’ve also made it a lot easier for me to keep going while the million dollars was just sitting in limbo, not knowing if we’d see any of it. I give a lot of credit to them, for helping me though the whole process.”
Hinkle’s relationship with his fiancée Angela helped keep things together too, despite the stresses of having so much money out of their control.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my fiancée for helping me during the really rough times,” said Hinkle. “We had been looking for a house and the whole time basically saying, well this money is coming, hopefully. But it really held us back. I owe all the credit to Angela, because like I said, there were some really rough nights where you think too much about what you could do if you had the money you’re owed. She was always there to support me and keep me positive.”
With his $1.7 million win in Florida and the return of his Full Tilt balance, things are certainly looking up for Blair Hinkle. The recovery still seems like a slow one, though, as a player who had one of the largest outstanding balances looks to recover and move on from one of the most stressful periods of his life.
“We actually still live in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Hinkle. “We finally got a house, but it’s being worked on, we are renovating it. I wouldn’t say it was all worth it, but now that it’s finally over it feels like it might be a little bit OK that we had to wait so long for all the money to finally get paid out.”