This is something of a guilty confession, but playing online poker is a hobby of mine. I know it’s a waste of time and sometimes I end up losing money at it so it’s something I try not to indulge in too often. Online poker is something that underwent a massive boom several years ago and it still continues to be big. However, there are big legal and moral battles over online gambling. Coming across this new non-fiction book Alligator Blood by James Leighton I was fascinated to get more of an inside scoop to the industry. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but given that it’s the festive season I’m feeling a bit more indulgent with the books I’m choosing. This book is an account of Australian Daniel Tzvetkoff who started a payment processing company which became the popular choice for many of the top poker sites in the world. Earning these top contracts gave a meteoric rise to Daniel’s fortunes turning him from a man working in Pizza Hut to one of the richest and most promising businessmen in the world - practically overnight! However, online gaming is an extremely volatile and risky industry. His rise in power and massive fortune all came crashing down a few short years later when he found himself hounded by the US government, placed under a witness protection program and made into a death-threat target by the poker community.
The tale isn’t quite so simple and Leighton goes to great lengths and has done a large amount of research to disentangle the complex story which led both to Daniel’s downfall and the twists in online gaming's history. Tzvetkoff was no innocent in his business dealings and did collaborate with authorities after his arrest, but he became a kind of scapegoat for narking on gambling websites which led to thousands of players being frozen out of their accounts and losing their money. Of course, this book isn’t just to do with poker. It’s also a tale which is very emblematic of our time. Fantastic fortunes can be obtained through savvy online business enterprises although hitting gold in this way is extremely rare. Daniel’s story is a high-octane example of how accumulating a fast fortune can sometimes lead to only more greed and grasping for power. Parallel to his journalistic investigations of the present day Leighton uses a novelistic approach to narrate the key events of Daniel’s rise and fall from success. At times he takes liberties getting inside Daniel’s mind to guess at his probable emotional state. Unsurprisingly, when his fortunes fail it’s friends and family who truly love him that count.
Alongside recounting the dramatic story of Daniel Tzvetkoff, Leighton makes an argument for possible ways in going forward with online gambling. He quite rightly identifies that (like prohibition) outlawing this risky recreational activity will only fuel the desire to participate in it through more illicit and pernicious means. If the industry is properly regulated then it can lead to a much safer online gambling experience (with safety checks in place to identify and provide help for possible gambling addicts) as well as generating a substantial amount of tax revenue. Of course, those who don’t like poker will no doubt see things quite differently. I would only add that rather than outlawing it completely the US government might consider playing a more active role in running and overseeing the industry with the understanding that the profits will go to charitable causes in a way that is analogous to the way the National Lottery is run in the UK.
Alligator Blood is a very entertaining and somewhat chilling read which sheds light on an extremely lucrative hidden industry.