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Poker championship winners accuse Tampa Bay Downs of running Ponzi scheme

in Local Courts by
John Ott

John Ott, a Tampa resident and district sales manager at Performance Foodservice, is also a professional poker player. Tampa Bay Downs, which began as a horse track for gamblers, now offers poker in its Silks Poker Room.

Ott considers Silks as his “home” club.

For years, Silks was one of the clubs across the U.S. holding tournaments for the Player’s Poker Championship, a Pompano Beach-based poker tour. The Silks competition was intended to be a “feeder” event, leading to the PPC Poker Tour finals in Aruba.

In November 2016, a group of players – Ott; Stephen Deutsch of Baltimore; James Beadnell of Ohio; Michael Lerner of Maryland; and Joan Sandoval from Wisconsin — won five of the top six prizes at the 2016 PPC Main Event finals, an amount well over $300,000.

Ott finished in sixth place at the event, held at the Hilton Aruba Resort Casino & Spa, for $32,085.

Instead of paying out full cash awards, however, Ott and the others say PPC gave them each $10,000, promising a share of future cash until for the rest. They refused, and now are claiming they are owed just under $300,000.

Ott says he is still owed $32,085.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 17 in Hillsborough County, the plaintiffs say Tampa Bay Downs joined PPC to promote what they claim is a fraudulent Ponzi scheme where future payoffs are used to pay past winners.

They are asking Tampa Bay Downs, whose president is Stella Thayer, to make them whole.

Thayer, who has been with Tampa Bay Downs for more than 50 years, was named one of 2016’s most influential women in Tampa Bay area sports. Her brother, Howell Ferguson, serves as vice president.

The suit argues that the PPC Main Event in Aruba is “largely operated by” Tampa Bay Downs, sending poker dealers, a floor supervisor, and Silks director Patrick Murphy to work the annual championship event. Murphy, it continues, is alleged to be a co-owner of the poker room used for the tournament.

The Hillsborough County action is intended to be a companion to a similar suit filed Jan. 3 in Maryland against PPC and its principals, Bryan Oulton and Thomas “Sandy” Swartzbaugh. Plaintiffs decided on a Florida suit because Tampa Bay Downs does no business in Maryland.


Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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