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Geek who made $80m in online poker but turned FBI rat and lost it all

by Ernestine Christy (2020-08-02)

Incredible true story of the geek behind online poker in the US who made $80m by age of 25 - then turned FBI rat when his life of cocaine, hookers, private jets and yachts came crashing down

Daniel Tzvetkoff's payment processing program turned online poker into a billion dollar industry almost overnight

Australian wrote the code as a teenager in his parent's basement in Brisbane

As a multimillionaire his 'toys' included a private jet, $7.8million yacht and a $70,000 Lamborghini. His home was worth $28million

Now new book tells how this masked a web of fake internet sites, money laundering and fraud on both sides of the Pacific

Reveals how personal betrayals destroyed Tzvetkoff's business and left him bankrupt and facing jail

And tells how he turned FBI informant, in witness protection over testimony that led to a string of indictments and online poker's 'Black Friday'

By Laura Collins

Published: 14:20 BST, 28 April 2014 | Updated: 15:19 BST, 28 April 2014




It was as much a boast as a challenge, yelled at his friend across the thud of a Las Vegas nightclub.
‘You've got one hour and a one hundred thousand dollar budget to throw us the biggest party in town. What do you say?'

Sixty minutes later Daniel Tzvetkoff and a cohort of high rollers and hangers-on were partying in the Palm Hotel's Playboy Mansion Suite. Tzvetkoff swigged Cristal champagne straight from the bottle and lounged in the infinity pool. Naked girls snorted cocaine off each other's breasts and invited him to do the same. 

Tzvetkoff was 25 years old. He could have anyone he wanted at the click of his fingers.  He flew by private jet, drove Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and more and his property portfolio was worth millions.

Winning: Daniel, right, poses with his business partner, attorney Sam Sciacca, in 2008 on the day he was named in Business Weekly Review's Young Rich List. His online payment processing system saw his personal wealth soar to an estimaged $80million

And on that September night in Vegas, 2008, he had no idea just how close to the sun he was flying or how catastrophically he would crash to earth.

Now, for the first time, a new book tells the story of the spectacular rise and fall of the Australian ‘programming geek' who ‘built' online poker in America…then tore it down.

James Leighton's ‘Alligator Blood' - a title taken from poker slang for a fearless player - tells how, within three years of that night in Las Vegas, Tzvetkoff was living in witness protection in Harlem, New York. Bankrupt, a target of the mob and under threat of imprisonment, he turned FBI informant to become the man behind online poker's Black Friday.





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On 15 April 2011, the Department of Justice raided three of the world's biggest online Poker sites: 75 bank accounts across 14 countries were frozen and billions of winnings, House ‘rakings' and personal fortunes vanished in an instant. Within 48 Tzvetkoff went from high flying prodigy to dead man walking.

The film rights to the book have already been bought by Robert Luketic, the director and writer behind hit moves 21 and Legally Blonde.

Party people: Draped around his fiancee Nicole, far left, Daniel is pictured here at a costume party in Las Vegas hosted by Playboy magazine.

Unstoppable: Daniel poses with his arm round business partner Curtis Pope on a night out with fiancee Nicole, left, and friends in Los Angeles. The men were like brothers until Pope betrayed Daniel in the worst possible way

And certainly the story as Leighton tells it reads like a Hollywood script. Born in Ipswich, Australia, the grandson of refugees from Bulgaria, Daniel Kim Tzvetkoff, now 31, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Camp Hill on Brisbane's south side. He went to the nearby Catholic boys school, Villanova College.

He was quiet and picked on, a computer nerd whose IQ may have been sky-high but whose social skills were low. He retreated into a more comfortable realm of computers and programming. By the time he was 13 he was running his own web design business.

At 16, he was animating cartoons for the New York Times online. And by the time he left school in 2000, he'd come up with a software for processing online payments securely. It was ingenius and brilliantly timed. Internet sales were just taking off.

Morning after the night before: Daniel, right, with friend Joe Mannino. Earlier the men had partied all night in the Palm Hotel's Playboy Mansion Suite after Daniel gave Joe $100,000 and 1 hour to organise the party of their lives

Letting the good times roll: Daniel's fiance, Nicole, dances with a friend on the table of a Las Vegas club

In 2004 Tzvetkoff joined forces with Sam Sciacca, an attorney 12 years his senior who had the business acumen and savvy that Tzvetkoff lacked. The processing business Intabill was born and began doing a healthy trade processing payments for pharmaceutical companies, travel, music and porn.

The business partnership also led to Tzvetkoff meeting Nicole, Sciacca's pretty brunette assistant who would go onto be Tzvetkoff's wife and the mother of his son, now age 4 and daughter, now 2.

In 2006, at a tech fair in New York, Tzvetkoff and his expertise drew the attention of the powerhouses behind online poker. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act had been passed that year. For a high risk processor like Intabill it was the perfect storm. 

The legislation made making or moving money online, for bets or wagers on any ‘sporting event or contest or game of chance,' illegal. Online Poker companies argued that poker was none of these. It was a game of skill. 

Most major processors pulled out, unconvinced of the legality of the business just at the time its earning potential was soaring. 

Life in the fast lane: Curtis Pope poses next to the Ferrari given to him by Daniel. No-one knew that the younger man was siphoning off Intabill funds in the form or personal 'loans' to himself

Life's a beach: Daniel's purchase of a $28million property on Mermaid Beach brought a clamour of publicity that made his more cautious partner, Sam Sciacca, nervous

Tzvetkoff and Sciacca saw their chance and grabbed it. They signed with three major sites - PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. From out of nowhere Intabill was suddenly a major player.

In a matter of months Tzvetkoff was earning $3million a week. He bought a Lamborghini and threw in $80,000 for an advanced driving coast. He splashed out on a $2.5million condo on the Gold Coast and set up home with his girlfriend, Nicole.

In 2007, Tzvetkoff earned an estimated $20million for his services to America's online poker industry and estimated that Intabill's business had grown '10 to 20 per cent' every month since its inception.

He bought one of the most expensive homes in Australia, a $28million beachfront home on Mermaid Beach and a $70,000 golf membership and his own V8 super car race team.

By 2008 he was listed on the Business Review Weekly Young Rich List, with his personal fortune estimated at $80million.

But for somebody making money in what was, at best, a legal grey area, such attention grabbing behavior was breathtakingly reckless. Legal forces in both Australia and the States began to take note.

Liquid assets: Among Daniel's many extravagances was this $7.5million 98ft yacht

High flyers: From left to right, Michael Hui, one of Intabill's money men, Daniel and Curtis Pope stand proudly in front of Daniel's newly acquired private jet

Under increasing scrutiny Tzvetkoff came up with ever more ingenious ways to ensure that money from online poker was clean as far as the banks and Australian and American governments were concerned.

He romped across continents, bouncing between Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, Brisbane and Sydney spending money at an even more alarming rate than he made it.

His behaviour became more and more flamboyant. He opened a nightclub called Zuri (Swahili for beautiful) in Brisbane. He had iron gates sourced from Argentinian banks, crystal chandeliers and cloth supposedly used in the Palace of Versailles. This was Tzvektoff's Bonfire of the Vanities as he burned through millions.

House of cards: Daniel added to his empire by opening the nightclub, Zuri, in Australia. It's interior, jasapkv. join pkv above, was an exercise in opulence and excess

In 2008 he became embroiled with Texan, Curtis Pope, a figure with something of the Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort's brash charm.

Together with Pope, Tzvetkoff's exploits became ever more daring. He joined forces with Pope's company, Trendsact, and another called Impact Payments, run by an associate of Pope, John Scott Clark.

Both processed payday loans and soon billions of dollars of gambling proceeds were running through Trendsact and Impact Payment's books as just that.

Their excess and hedonism was extraordinary and the losses, when they came, jaw dropping.
In August 2008 a bank in Georgia through which Tzvektoff and his cohort filtered funds froze their accounts, seizing $10million of their money. Tzvetkoff demanded to be flown into Tbilisi to front up the manager.

Baller: Daniel's $70,000 Lamborghini with his personal license plate that read BALL R

High-roller: Daniel's Rolls Royce convertible, another treat to himself bought with sombody else's money

Just a little run around: Daniel's fiancee, Nicole stands next to her white Bentley, a gift from Daniel who was nothing if not generous with other people's money

Rumours of a Russian invasion were building pace and growing in credence but Tzvektoff, power-crazed and money-hungry paid no attention. The Intabill private jet was readied and Tzvektoff and a few trusted associates landed on Tbilisi tarmac at 5am.

As the furious Tzvetkoff ‘negotiated' with the bank manager, Russian forces struck. 

Bombs rained down, exploding in the streets outside. For once Tzvetkoff had to admit defeat. After a desperate dash to the airport they had to bribe an official to allow the jet to take off, flying into the sky still peppered with Russian fighter jets.

The man who killed Intabill: Curtis Pope double-crossed Daniel, locking him out of his business and his money and ensuring it went to the wall

If Daniel Tzvektoff had ever had any moral compass it was long gone.

And all the while Tzvektoff was playing an even more dangerous game than his partner, Sam Sciacca knew. In 2009 his poker site clients started complaining that they hadn't been paid though Intabill's books showed everything was up to date.

PokerStars was the first to press for the money which, on paper, Tzvektoff didn't have it.
When Intabill had joined forces with Pope and Scott Clark neither Tzvektoff nor Sciacca had wanted their names on documents signed.

But Tzvektoff assumed his partners would honour the gentleman's agreement they had struck. After all, the funds sitting in Trendsact's account were only there thanks to business that was really generated by Intabill.

But when he asked for funds to be released to meet a schedule of repayment agreed with PokerStars, Tzvektoff learned a very hard lesson in trust and betrayal.

Curtis Pope refused. Instead he went straight to the CEO of PokerStars with the promise of repayment in full. He had ‘flipped' his former friend and business partners.

In one move he cut Tzvektoff and Sciacca out of their own business entirely. He let them twist in the wind, sick in the knowledge that ‘their' money was firmly out of reach.

As James Leighton writes, ‘Curtis had used PokerStars to kill Intabill.'

In a moment of drama that sums up the moral void at the heart of the world he had built, Leighton recounts the moment Tzvektoff realised what his former partner had done.

‘"But why Curtis?" Daniel finally muttered, "Because I could," Curtis smirked in return, suddenly darting his thick neck forward, "Because you f***d this up for everyone and now I'm taking care of business."'

Opportunity: Tzvetkoff signed deals with three major players in the online poker market when other payment companies pulled out, fearful of the legal grey area. They were Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and Poker Stars

Sciacca brought in a forensic accountant and found to his horror that his partner had been siphoning off funds from Intabill's account to his own personal one in the form of 'loans'.

In July 2009, less than 12 months after he had partied in a Las Vegas penthouse suite with hookers and sport stars, DJs and the super-rich, Intabill collapsed with not one cent in its account.

Tzvektoff was back on Australia's, jasajoin Gold Coast dismantling what was left of his business and facing millions of dollars in law suits. Sciacca was suing him for $100million alleging he had falsified accounts and inflated company profits. The poker companies came after him for even more.

Tzvektoff thought things couldn't get any worse. Then he was arrested by the FBI.

Tzvektoff had angered a lot of pretty serious 'associates' who were owed millions. He had effectively acted as a 'firewall' between the gambling authorities and the people making the rackets. By skimming he had got on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the mob.

While he languished back at his parents' home in Australia he had no idea that the FBI was investigating him for money laundering and pursuing the allegations that he had set up a complex chain of fake websites and international bank accounts to conceal the fact that Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker were making money from online gamblers in America.

When he was foolhardy enough to show up in Vegas in April 2010 he was arrested by the FBI and charged him with masterminding a $540million racket over two years.

He personally owed his creditors, including the tax office, $143milion.

Tzvektoff was just relieved it was the feds not the mob pressing the gun to his back and telling him to move. At least he could make a deal with them.

Alligator Blood by James Leighton: The book that tells Tzvetkoff remarkable story

Faced with the prospect of up to 76 years in jail for money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy charges, Tzvektoff became an informant whose testimony led directly to Black Friday - the day online gambling in the US was shut down.

Tzvektoff, his fiancée, Nicole, and their two young children were placed in witness protection in New York's Harlem while awaiting trial.

In the prosecutions that followed most of Tzvektoff's ‘friends' and many of the characters who had joined him on his rooftop party in Vegas faced fines or jail terms. 

He must have taken some satisfaction in the fact that Curtis Pope, the man who had ‘flipped' him, was sentenced to 21 months after pleading guilty to crimes involving money-laundering conspiracies, bank fraud and gambling.

As for where all the money went, that is a question never really answered.

There is no evidence that the money promised to the online companies by Pope and Scott Clark was ever paid out.

And according to Leighton, ‘Rumours persist that Daniel Tzvektoff may have managed to hide away some of the money he earned as neither the Intabill liquidator, nor the Department of Justice have found any evidence of the alleged missing millions.'

A fact that leaves open the tantalising possibility that for all the drama and risk and apparent loss Tzvektoff played a winning game after all.

Alligator Blood by James Leighton, published by Simon & Schuster, 5 June, Price $