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Emily D. Swoboda

Poker Pros Sue WPT

24 July 2006

Seven of the world's most notable poker professionals have filed an antitrust lawsuit against World Poker Tour Enterprises (WPTE) over the use of their likeness and their freedom to play in various televised WPT tournaments.

Andy Bloch, Annie Duke, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Phil Gordon, Joseph Hachem, Howard Lederer and Greg Raymer filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleging that WPTE made them waive lucrative rights to use their images and names to promote products and video games before they could enter WPT tournaments.

A team of lawyers from the Los Angeles firm Dewey Ballantine is representing the pros. Lead counsel Jeffrey Kessler has successfully fought similar antitrust lawsuits for players in the NFL and NBA.

"This is the anti-trust equivalent of identity theft," Kessler said.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a WPT rule stating that the players claim is preventing them from playing in major WPT competitions, thus preventing them from earning potential income. To play in WPT games, explained David Greenspan and Alexander Kayne, two of the plaintiffs' lawyers, players are required to sign releases permitting WPTE to use their names and/or images in whatever manner they choose, and the players have no recourse.

"I don't want the WPT making my decisions for me. I want to make those decisions on my own," Lederer said.

The release also violates other endorsement agreements the players may have in place, such as in Duke's case.

Video game producer Crave Entertainment carries exclusive image licensing agreements with Duke, Lederer and Raymer for its World Championship Poker video game. It, too, is suing WPTE over the use of Duke's image in a WPT-branded video game.

"We had tried very hard to avoid a lawsuit," Duke said. "We attempted to negotiate an (alternative) release prior to the WPT Championship in April (without success). . . . We feel the lawsuit is our last resort."

She added that her entertainment lawyer had attempted to negotiate with WPTE since last November, when WPTE changed its player release to include the use of players' images and likenesses in derivative media products.

The players also allege that WPTE instructs its member casinos, such as Foxwoods in Connecticut, the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Aviation Club de France in Paris, to prevent players from entering tournaments unless they sign the releases.

Kessler said the rules have been around since the tour's start, but his clients decided to take the company to court as the popularity of televised poker grew--and WPT Enterprises' terms became more restrictive.

The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief to change the language of the WPT release so that future players' rights are not violated, and they are looking to void the releases they previously signed.

They are also seeking three times the amount of as yet unnamed punitive damages for past uses of the players' likenesses in WPT products, promotional materials, publications and the WPT's online gaming site.

WPTE's general counsel, Adam Pliska, said on Friday, "We believe the claims alleged in this suit are without merit and plan to vigorously defend our position while pursuing all available legal avenues necessary to end this unfounded attack."

WPTE Founder and CEO Steve Lipscomb also added, "We are proud of our contribution to the growth of the poker industry and are happy many players have benefited from it," he said. "Therefore, we find it disappointing that a handful of players, of the many thousands who play in WPT events each year, have decided to make these claims even as the sport continues to grow."

The Los Angeles-based law firm of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher LLP is representing WPTE.

Poker Pros Sue WPT is republished from
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda