Although the majority of poker players and fans around the world may not know Rational Group Ltd. by name, if they’ve played a hand of online poker during the last 15 years, they’re already well-acquainted with the company.
Beginning as a Costa Rican company known as Rational Enterprises in 2001, under the majority ownership of Israeli-born Canadian business magnate Isai Scheinberg, Rational Group has since grown to become the most influential player in the multibillion-dollar online gaming space.
Scheinberg was the driving force behind the creation of PokerStars, the online poker behemoth which has faithfully served players all across the planet for over a decade. Under his savvy stewardship, Rational Group departed Costa Rica in 2005, crossing the Atlantic for the more favorable tax rates and gaming regulations offered by the Isle of Man, a British Crown dependency.
In addition to the primary PokerStars brand – of which the immensely successful online poker and gaming client by the same name stands as the flagship product – Rational Group also oversaw a collection of iconic poker-based entities and operations. Included among Rational Group’s holdings were the European Poker Tour (EPT), the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT), the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT), and the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA).
Each of these entities was created during the height of the poker boom, which spanned 2003 through 2011 following Chris Moneymaker’s improbable win at the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event. That momentous occasion, viewed by millions by virtue of ESPN’s televised coverage, was also a byproduct of Rational Group’s innovative spirit. Moneymaker parlayed a $27 satellite tournament on PokerStars into the $2.5 million payday – a windfall that compelled an entire generation of Americans to consider poker the new national pastime.
The elder Scheinberg, along with his son Mark, maintained private ownership of Rational Group until June 12th, 2014, when the company was sold to Canadian gaming firm Amaya Inc. The transaction was reported to total $4.9 billion between cash and company shares, transforming both Scheinbergs into billionaires after they cashed in on their initial investment in the online gaming industry.
A statement issued by Mark Scheinberg – who served as CEO of Rational Group at the time –following acquisition announcement, celebrated the company’s undeniable achievements:
“I am incredibly proud of the business Isai and I have built over the last 14 years, creating the world’s biggest poker company and a leader in the iGaming space. Our achievements and this transaction are an affirmation of the hard work, expertise and dedication of our staff, which I am confident will continue to drive the company’s success. The values and integrity which have shaped this company are deeply ingrained in its DNA. (Amaya CEO) David Baazov has a strong vision for the future of the Rational Group which will lead the company to new heights.”
While the purchase by Amaya was undoubtedly motivated by a whole host of varying factors, one influence on the Scheinberg’s decision to sell cannot be understated: the federal criminal case of United States v. Scheinberg 10 Cr. 336 (2011).
When the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed an indictment against PokerStars, along with competing for online poker sites Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, on April 15th, 2011, the date was immediately immortalized by poker players as “Black Friday.” By charging the operators of these sites with violations of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, the DOJ compelled PokerStars to withdraw from the U.S. marketplace, along with Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker.
PokerStars eventually reached a settlement with the federal government, agreeing to repay hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to purchasing former rival Full Tilt Poker. That company’s internal accounting failures and fraudulent activities had resulted in American players being unable to withdraw account funds following the site’s closure. By agreeing to purchase Full Tilt Poker and add the company’s brand to Rational Group’s portfolio, the Scheinbergs helped to restore a semblance of order to the online gaming industry following Black Friday.
Nonetheless, several states still considered the Scheinbergs to be “bad actors,” or among those executives who willfully disregarded the UIGEA while unlawfully serving American customers. The sale of Rational Group to Amaya effectively removed the Scheinbergs influence from PokerStars, helping to smooth the path for poker’s premier product to regain entry into the U.S. marketplace as legalization and regulation of online gaming continues to accelerate on a state-by-state basis.