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Full Tilt Poker Leaves Montreal Open Winners Empty Handed

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The far reaching effects of Black Friday have recently crossed the border into Canada where Full Tilt Poker’s disappearance has created drama regarding the Montreal Open, a charity poker tournament formerly sponsored by the online poker site. The tournament was created to raise money for the Miriam Foundation, a charity that “improves the quality of life for children with learning disabilities and their familiars through innovative and comprehensive programs.”

Now, it seems, the winners of the 2011 event may be out of luck in collecting their prizes, which were supposed to be paid out by FTP. Meanwhile, some event organizers, namely Morden C. Lazarus (know as Cookie), along with DV Sterling Enterprises Inc. and David Sachs, have developed another charity event with a new sponsor, much to the consternation of the Miriam Foundation.

The new charity event, branded the Montreal PartyPoker Classic, is sponsored by PartyPoker and will help raise money for the Jodi Lazarus Fund for Hereditary Breast Cancer, despite preliminary reports indicating the new event would use the Montreal Open name. Event organizers have denied those reports but were nonetheless served a Provisional and Interlocutory Injunction and Introductory Motion for a Permanent Injunction by the Miriam Foundation, which opted to seek legal recourse to prevent the use of the Montreal Open name.

Cookie is contesting Miriam’s right to the Montreal Open name in the Province of Quebec District of Montreal Superior Court, as well as seeking monetary relief for unpaid players, claiming that the charity was unjustly enriched and has an obligation to ensure that players receive their prizes because the foundation was entrusted with the prize pool. He also alleges that it was never his intention to use the Montreal Open name for the new charity event and that the injunction was granted while he was out of the country and unable to deal with the matter, thus tarnishing his reputation.

The whole situation is complicated and has become a “he-said/she-said” affair between Cookie and the Miriam Foundation. Although both parties claim responsibility for the creation of the Montreal Open name, the real issue seems to be whether or not the Miriam Foundation has a legal and ethical responsibility to pay players after FTP was ruined.

The Montreal Open

The Montreal Open has been held every year since 2005, and the tournament awards the top 30 finishers a trip to Las Vegas to compete for 10 seats to the World Series of Poker Main Event, a prize pool worth more than $250,000. From March 27 through 30, 2011, the most recent event drew approximately 1,500 players, bringing in around $700,000, and eventually determined the top 30 winners:

Vik Artinian, Francis Bisson O'Bomsawin, Marc Boulerice, Adam Cader, Michael Crabbe, Guy Cruickshanks, Mario Defoy, Bobby Delaronde, Jamilee Fitzpatrick, Jean Gauthier, Dorothy Hector, Terry Hobbs, Ludovic Lachance, Daniel Legare, Izhak Levy, Anthony Mahoney, Philippe Morin, Maxime Nault, David Ngo, Dan Nicholis, Dov Ohana, Philippe Pion, Thunder Rice, Michael Saragossi, Terry Sellers, Jason Smith, Arman Soltani, Daniel Stewart, Robert Turcotte, and S. Nicholas Van Zant

From that list, 10 players eventually won WSOP Main Event packages, which included airfare and accommodation in Las Vegas. All players in the event had bought in for $275, though $125 rebuys and a $125 add-on were available, and all of that money was paid directly to the Miriam Foundation, though the prizes were to be paid out via FTP. Unfortunately, Black Friday and the subsequent closure of FTP has prevented the winners from receiving any prizes. Now some players are seeking relief from the Miriam Foundation with the support of Cookie, the man who originally brought in FTP as a sponsor.

Legal Recourse

While the 2011 Montreal Open winners waited patiently for word regarding their prizes, documents allege that the Miriam Foundation remained mum, inspiring some players to turn to Cookie for answers. By then, the relationship between Cookie and the Miriam Foundation had soured, as explained in court documents.

The Motion for a Provisional and Interlocutory Injunction and Introductory Motion for a Permanent Injunction was filed in December by the Miriam Foundation against Cookie, DV Sterling Enterprises Inc., and Sachs seeking to prevent the defendants from using the name “The Montreal Open” in conjunction with “poker events or any other fund raising activity for the purpose of charity.”

In response, Cookie filed a Contestation to the Motion on Jan. 19, denying Miriam’s claim to the Montreal Open name and that they never intended to poach the title. In addition, he claimed the foundation had become “unjustly enriched” given they were originally entrusted with the money and FTP was unable to pay out the prize pool, thus allowing them to keep the approximately $250,000 that was supposed to be distributed to players.

The two separate court documents agree on a few details but vary drastically in regard to others dating back to the event's creation. According to the injunction motion, Warren Greenstone, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, became the lead staff member on a poker committee to establish a charity poker tournament in 2005 to raise money for the foundation. The committee then consulted with Cookie, who was able to use his ties in the poker industry to secure sponsorship by FTP. The motion states, “the Poker Committee came up with the name ‘The Montreal Open’ and registered a domain name.”

As part of their sponsorship agreement, FTP was to pay the prize pool to the winners of the tournament. From 2005 to 2010, the event went off without a hitch. In March 2011, the tournament ran as scheduled, but soon faced complications as a result of Black Friday.

The motion explained that after Black Friday, the Miriam Foundation reached out to FTP to inquire about payment to the winners of the 2011 Montreal Open. On June 2, 2011, FTP emailed the foundation and explained that all winners had been paid directly into their FTP account, with the exception of one player, though the Foundation later found out that the said funds were unavailable and inaccessible to the players. As the motion states, “The Foundation then concluded that the winners of the Poker Tournament may have been victims of a fraud and that they would never be paid by Full Tilt.”

By this time, some of the winners of the Montreal Open had begun to inquire about their winnings, and requested that the Miriam Foundation provide relief. In an email, Cookie, who had been contacted by many of the players, suggested “the Foundation had a moral if not legal obligation to pay Mac Productions if Full Tilt failed to do so,” as well as the players.

In response, the Miriam Foundation “was taken aback by Cookie’s suggestions as there was no legal obligation for the Foundation to either pay . . . the winning players as they had contracted with Full Tilt.” The Miriam Foundation contends that FTP was solely responsible for distributing the winning prize pool to the players, and since the site was running a “Ponzi scheme,” as stated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the winners were victims of fraud and the foundation had no responsibility to make them whole.

In regard to the Montreal Open, both Cookie and the Miriam Foundation have laid claim to the name, with the former having organized another charity event purported to be using the name but benefiting a different charity; hence, the Miriam Foundation’s motion for an injunction. The motion, filed by Heenan Blaikie, lawyer for Miriam, prohibits the defendants, including their collaborators (i.e. Playground Poker Club and PartyPoker) from using the Montreal Open name, as well as “from posting content or making verbal statements that refer to Miriam Foundation.”

Cookie vehemently denies using the Montreal Open name for the new event, before addressing the topic of players' prizes in his contestation: “[Cookie] further adds that Plaintiff had sole ownership and control of the monies realized from the Poker Tournament and received all of the proceeds generated therefrom, including the ‘entry fees,’ ‘rebuys,’ and ‘sponsorship’ monies, and has as a consequence thereof, the legal and moral obligation to pay the winning players the proceeds of the ‘Prize Pool,’ as advertised and represented by the Foundation.”

He went on to say: “that the Foundation has simply taken the steps to terminate ‘The Montreal Open’ poker events from their agenda and to close their web site and at the same time, they have been asking persons to help them set up a new 2012 Montreal Open . . . without paying the players and/or resolving the current situation.”

What’s Next?

Basically, two issues are being contested. The first is about who has right to the Montreal Open name; the second questions whether or not the Miriam Foundation has responsibility to pay the winners of the 2011 event, though only the first issue is being addressed in court. With that said, the latter remains a hotly contested affair, with rumors circulating that a lawsuit against the Miriam Foundation may be in the works by Cookie and the unpaid players, though all aren’t on board with the idea.

“I'm not interested in suing a foundation that does great things for people,” said Dan Nicholis, one of the winners in 2011. “I've expressed this to the Montreal finalists. They are collectively putting together a lawsuit with Cookie Lazarus, [but] I have declined the option of joining the lawsuit.”

Another winner from last year, Michael Saragossi, didn’t mention the possibility of a lawsuit, but did address not being paid: “I was delighted that I was able to make the top 30 in Vegas for the Montreal Open in 2011. I was more so disappointed that I didn't receive my money as of yet. My money was deposited, but to my knowledge, that was ‘phantom’ money and there was no intention to pay anyone out during the whole FTP and online poker debacle. A true shame that this has tarnished what has become a very successful event for a worthy cause.”

Even though these issues are far from resolved and the Montreal Open seems to be on hiatus, the Montreal PartyPoker Classic will take place from March 25 to 28 at Le Windsor in Montreal. As a good-will gesture, PartyPoker and event organizers have invited the unpaid Montreal Open players to the Montreal Party Poker Classic as VIP guests.

“The most important message is that one charity shouldn't ruin a charity poker [tournament] for a lot of [other] worthy causes in Montreal,” said Dan Vigderhous, producer and co-tournament director of the upcoming Montreal Party Poker Classic. “[Poker] is a great event, and we are moving on from last year's fiasco. We are confident that the event will be even better than any of the previous Montreal charity events, and The Montreal PartyPoker Classic is a new and exciting event for a very worthwhile cause, hereditary breast cancer research.”

It’s also worth noting that the Montreal Party Poker Classic will have their top finalists travel to the Bellagio in Las Vegas and compete for World Poker Tour packages.

Clearly Black Friday has had far-reaching consequences, and the issues surrounding the Montreal Open are far from over. As always, PokerNews will bring you any and all developments as they happen.

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