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Players File Antitrust Lawsuit Against WPT

Seeks to Open Up Competition and End WPT's Control of Players' Likenesses

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Seven poker players have joined together and filed a lawsuit against World Poker Tour Enterprises today, claiming that the company behind the World Poker Tour has violated antitrust laws by demanding players sign away the rights to their likelinesses before taking part in WPT events.

The lawsuit also claims that WPTE and casinos that host WPT tournaments have unlawfully conspired to eliminate competition and opportunities for the world's top poker players because casinos that host WPT events are not allowed to host other large-scale tournaments for broadcast.

Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, Andy Bloch, Phil Gordon, and past World Series of Poker champions Chris Ferguson, Greg Raymer, and Joe Hachem filed the lawsuit in Federal court in Los Angeles Wednesday, July 19.

"We have seven players here standing up without a union, and they're standing up for all the players," said Jeffrey Kessler, lead lawyer for the players. "It is about setting up a fair system and the players here are prepared to back up this case until a fair system is set up."

Image and Intellect

At the root of the lawsuit is the release form that all players who compete in WPT sponsored events must sign. The form gives WPTE the right to use the likeliness of the players in any way WPTE chooses for free. No matter how WPTE uses players' images, players receive no monetary compensation.

The release gives WPTE the rights to use players' images and likenesses in everything from books to video games, which it has done.

"This is about the control of your own name and likeness and in poker that's all we have," Lederer said. "You could find yourself endorsing products you don't believe in. I should be able to make that decision. I don't want the WPT deciding for me."

All the players involved in this suit have contracts with other companies that already give the companies exclusive rights to their names, images, and intellectual property rights. For example, Ferguson has a contract with Activision to exclusively appear in the "World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions" video game.

He says if he signed the release form to play in a WPT event, it would violate the contract that he has with Activision and all the other companies that he has chosen to work with. All the players involved with this suit believe this.

"I've been trying very hard to get a fair release," Ferguson said. "Sometimes this release conflicts with deals you already have."

Therefore, the seven players have not been participating in WPT events. As people who make their living playing poker, they claim that the release stops them from playing in some of the most lucrative tournaments.

"We all want to play, but we can't play right now because of the nature of the release," Gordon said. "We want to compete in the biggest and best tournaments in the world."

The lawsuit seeks to have this practice stopped, seeks compensation for the players, and asks that all the releases previously signed by the players be voided.

A Question of Fair Competition

The lawsuit notes that at least 11 casinos that host WPT events have signed written agreements not to compete with each other. The contract is set to expire in 2009. Because of this contract, the casinos are prohibited from hosting any non-WPT tournaments. This contract applies to all the properties in a casino chain, as well.

The suit claims that this eliminates competition between the casinos. If the casinos were able to compete with each other, everything from tournament structure and prize pools would naturally change to make it better for the players, the players say.

Because of the popularity of the WPT and the WSOP in recent years, many of the WPT casinos have been approached by outside companies to host other high-stakes poker tournaments.

The suit claims that due to this agreement, tournament poker players have fewer opportunities to ply their trade because, through the exclusive contract, WPTE has artificially restrained the number of televised high-stakes poker tournaments that can enter the marketplace.

The contract - and the nature of WPTE's filming schedule - also affects the quality of poker that's being played and broadcast because WPTE has the final say in how the blind structure of the tournament take place, said Duke.

She pointed to how the blind structure of WPT events are changed once the final table is decided, and then it's changed again once play goes to heads-up.

Before the final table, blinds are 90 minutes, which is standard for most high-stakes poker tournaments. Once the final table is established, blinds go up every hour and once it gets down to two players, blinds go up every hour "when two people might be playing for a $1 million," Duke said. "It takes the skill out of the game just when the money really matters."

Since the lawsuit was only filed today, WPTE has yet to see it and won't comment on the lawsuit until then.