In late 2005, when Rodney "Rocket" Morris first heard about the International Pool Tour, he was, like many other professional pool players, skeptical of the hype: real pool. real rules. real money. "Everybody who said they were going to do something for pool, it never panned out," says Morris. Slick promoters have always been a staple of the game, and Kevin Trudeau, the founder of the IPT, was as slick as any of them.
Morris knew that Trudeau, an infomercial giant with a history of engaging in questionable multi-level-marketing practices, had already staged a glitzy TV exhibition match between Hall of Famers Loree Jon Jones and Mike "the Mouth" Sigel. "Sigel was the poster boy of the IPT," says Frank Alvarez, a representative of the United States Professional Pool Players Association. "He legitimized it." So did the money. Although the players were mismatched and past their prime, the event paid $75,000 to Jones and $150,000 to Sigel, the winner.
That was reason enough for Morris, 36, to give it a try. His wife was pregnant, and they were just getting by. Besides, Morris was no sucker. He'd been playing pool for a living for nearly 20 years, and had been schooled by the legendary hustler "Hawaiian Brian" Hashimoto and a pool-savvy amputee named Tony Catucci, who sometimes kept his bankroll hidden in his prosthetic leg. Morris had risen all the way from playing for twenties in Honolulu to winning the 1996 U.S. Open championship, earning the nickname "Rocket" for the speed with which he bounced from shot to shot. He'd taken third place and $20,000 in the 2005 World Pool Championship, and second place and $10,000 in the World Pool Masters. More often, Morris, who lives in Spring Hill, Florida, played at regional tournaments, where he sometimes pocketed as little as $150.
So he signed up for the IPT. "I thought, Get as much money as you can, 'cause it's not gonna last forever," he says.
That November, Morris arrived at the IPT King of the Hill Invitational Shootout, in Orlando, and saw Kevin Trudeau in person for the first time. The fresh-faced Trudeau, 43, strode in front of 40 or so of the world's top pool players and announced, "If you want to make money, find somebody who's rich!" and then implied that he owned a Rolls-Royce.
With that, Trudeau launched into a half-hour presentation, complete with handouts, that outlined the future of the IPT, with prime-time television, a worldwide tournament strategy, and dazzling guaranteed payouts. "In '06—next year—we're committed to pay $8 million minimum. In '07 I'm paying out $18 million. In '08 I'm paying out $26 million.
"But wait," Trudeau said, "there's more!"
Anyone could see the pitchman in Trudeau, a onetime used-car salesman, but Morris found the guy hard to dislike.
Trudeau was first drawn to billiards when he worked in a bowling alley that had pool tables while growing up in Boston's northern suburbs. His fascination with the sport deepened when he befriended Sigel, a former world champion who consulted on The Color of Money—and who ultimately provided Trudeau with the inspiration for the IPT. "I saw that Mike Sigel and other top players have incredible skills. They weren't given the opportunity to show those to the world and make a good living," Trudeau says. "I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to do something that would allow my friends to prosper. And it was a very good business opportunity."
Trudeau doesn't hide the fact he served 21 months in federal prison for credit-card fraud and that the state of Illinois sued him for allegedly running a pyramid scheme. "That really made a difference in my perspective," he explains. "Making money is not bad, but making money at the expense of others is." Trudeau had no doubt players would see past his record. As he has said: "It's like, as a boxer, why would you go with Don King? He's a convicted murderer. The reason is that he's probably the best promoter in the business."
The IPT had already announced it had signed with the William Morris Agency. And that day in Orlando, Trudeau went on about licensing, branding, profit-sharing, and sponsorships, and likened the IPT to the wildly successful World Series of Poker. "We're committed to this," Trudeau said in closing. "We're gonna have a lot of fun, and we're gonna throw around a lot of money. And if it's a big bust for me, well, then I just had a very expensive party. And as long as we have fun, it's okay!"
Rodney Morris didn't play well at King of the Hill. "I was so excited, I couldn't concentrate on the tournament," he says. It was unlike any other event he'd entered: There was the TV coverage, the jumbo screens and rock-star lighting, and an unprecedented purse of more than $1 million. Efren "the Magician" Reyes from the Philippines won the event and $200,000; Morris left with a check for $6,200. He also left with a free copy of Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About. The book was promoted everywhere, as was Trudeau's website, NaturalCures.com, whose logo was placed to appear in nearly every TV shot.
Trudeau had self-published the book in 2004 and marketed it with a barrage of infomercials. It became a surprise hit, and even rose to No. 1 on the New York Times list of best-selling advice books. The surprising part of its success is that Trudeau has no medical training. And instead of offering many natural cures, the book directs readers to the website, where they can sign up for a $9.95 monthly newsletter or a $999 lifetime membership.
What the book does reveal is Trudeau, self-described "consumer advocate," playing David to the Food and Drug Administration's, the Federal Trade Commission's, and the pharmaceutical industry's evil Goliath. The book also states that Trudeau "built a $2 billion global empire that marketed and sold products that he personally used and believed in 100 percent." These included Trudeau's Mega Memory System, Dr. Callahan's Addiction Breaking System, and Coral Calcium Supreme, a purported cure for cancer. Trudeau's marketing tactics resulted in FTC charges of false and unsubstantiated claims and deceptive marketing practices. In 2004, without admitting wrongdoing, Trudeau agreed to pay the FTC $2 million and accepted a lifetime ban on infomercials for all products except publications—the first of its kind issued by the agency.
Rodney Morris had no problem with Trudeau or his past troubles. "It showed a human side to him," says Morris. And what Trudeau was doing now inspired him: "He made me love the game like I loved it back in '86 and '87. He just made it exciting again. All of a sudden I'm working out, eating right, running every day to get in shape because of the grueling schedule he set up."
In one way or another, everyone in the pool world was gearing up for the IPT. Diamond Billiard Products agreed to supply, ship, and set up the pool tables at each tournament at no cost to the IPT. And even though Trudeau refused to follow the rules normally required by pool's governing bodies, in particular the policy that all prize money be held in escrow, both the Women's Professional Billiards Association and the U.S. Professional Pool Players Association allowed their players to join the IPT.
It wasn't that everybody wanted to get in, it was that nobody wanted to be left out. The top 150 players, including Morris, had earned their spots on the tour, but most players entered IPT qualifier tournaments held everywhere from Kalamazoo to Shanghai. Hoping to clinch one of the 50 open spots in the upcoming IPT tournaments, more than 1,000 entrants ponied up $1,000 and later $2,000—a stiff entry fee for tournaments that offered no prize money. But the North American Open 8-Ball Championship would pay out $2 million, $350,000 of it for first place. And the top 100 players on the 2006 IPT money list would earn a guaranteed tour salary of $100,000 in 2007.
In the midst of a gold rush, who sweats the price of a shovel and a pick?
In July 2006, Morris arrived at the North American Open 8-Ball Championship at the Venetian Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas. He was among 200 top players from all over the world, almost all of them dressed in suits, in accordance with the strict IPT dress code.
At the players' meeting, Trudeau was greeted with a standing ovation. "This tour is not just one event, it's not just one season," Trudeau said. "It's gonna go on and on and on.
"It's all working spectacularly well," Trudeau added. There were a number of reasons for the IPT's success, especially its TV coverage on Versus. "King of the Hill is now the No. 1-rated show on the network," he said.
What Morris heard about next was even better: security. Trudeau said he was working on a pension and retirement plan, full health insurance, and access to emergency loans.
The IPT, Trudeau said, was "profitable so far." To keep it that way, Trudeau urged players to get friends and family to buy IPT-licensed balls, racks, chalk—and to get people to visit the IPT website and become members: $25 to sign up, and only $5.95 a month. The IPT website explained how members could recoup their fees by referring other members. "Refer just two people only and cover your own annual membership fee!" "No limit to the amount of extra cash one can earn!"
Germany's Thorsten Hohmann won the tournament, but even players who came in last walked away with $5,000. Players began using their winnings to buy clothes and cars—and they began making plans. Rodney Morris had come home from Vegas with $17,000 and spent the bulk of it on IPT-licensed products. He was sure he'd do even better in Reno.
The World Open 8-Ball Championship was held in September 2006 at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. As it began, Trudeau spoke excitedly about the impending sale of the IPT to 85-year-old Chinese billionaire casino owner Stanley Ho. Ho Interactive was heavily promoted at the event and on the IPT website, though HoCasino.net itself said it was "under construction."
At the players' meeting, Trudeau said TV ratings were soaring and reiterated that the IPT was in the black. This overshadowed the other news: A major IPT tournament in London that was to be held three weeks later had been canceled because of problems with the venue.
The finals featured Morris and Efren Reyes. The two players made an entrance aided by a fog machine, and were forced to square off face-to-face like boxers for the TV cameras.
Morris won the first game of the first-player-to-eight match, and from then on it was a seesaw. When Morris tied the match 6-6, he seemed poised to claim the richest prize in pool history. Then, in the 13th game, he started too aggressively and scratched on the break. Reyes went on to win the next two games, the match, and $500,000.
Rodney Morris had just earned $150,000 in prize money, but his scratch was still on his mind as he posed for the cameras beside Reyes and Kevin Trudeau, who was decked out in a tuxedo. As the audience cheered and the cameras zoomed in, the silver Halliburton briefcase containing the winner's prize was opened. It was filled with fake money.
That night, while Efren Reyes and his friends celebrated in the hotel lounge, a few players began grumbling that they hadn't received their checks. In fact, nobody had. To some this was little more than a technical glitch; tour officials said the checks would be sent out the following week. But to players who needed to pay, for example, their hotel bill, it was a nightmare. And an omen.
The next morning, Danny DiLiberto, a 71-year-old former champion, saw Trudeau's old friend Mike Sigel sitting in the lobby. DiLiberto asked, "Mike, what's happening here?"
"I don't know," Sigel said. "But I'll tell you this. Somebody either goofed with the checks or we're getting stiffed."
Morris and the other players didn't get their checks the next week. In fact, they heard nothing from Trudeau for nearly a month. The online message boards went wild with conflicting information: Sometimes the IPT staff had the checks and was sending them, sometimes the IPT staff knew nothing. And Trudeau was off fishing in Costa Rica.
On October 2, Trudeau sent players an e-mail in which he expressed his "sincere apology for the delay in sending you your tournament winnings checks. This delay has been unavoidable due to a multitude of factors most notably the finalization of the IPT acquisition by Ho Interactive. I want to assure you that your checks will be issued very soon and simultaneously we will be formally announcing the exciting merger/acquisition with Ho Interactive."
Trudeau followed up with another e-mail on October 20 that read, "Pop the champagne!" The Ho merger was evidently a done deal.
But still, no checks. In early November, Trudeau sent an e-mail acknowledging that his last note "may have been a little premature." But, he wrote, "you all will be paid 100 percent of the $3 million prize fund from the World Tournament." The reason for the delay was "totally unforeseen and unfortunate" recent legislation banning online gaming, which had "caused a temporary shortfall in IPT revenues." In fact, it had torpedoed the merger. But even Peter Kjaer, CEO of Ho Gaming Solutions, couldn't explain how a law that wasn't passed until three weeks after the Reno tournament could have kept the players from getting paid immediately. "I can tell you that we were not sponsoring at that time," says Kjaer, who also sits on the board of BioSante Pharmaceuticals. Had the merger gone through, Trudeau would be in business with a leading figure in the industry he's made millions vilifying.
In mid-November, Trudeau sent the players who competed in the World Championship checks for 11 percent of their winnings, and in December mailed another payment of 11 percent. He says he'll pay the balance before the next major IPT tournament.
There's just one problem: All the major IPT tournaments have been canceled. The IPT website uses the term "rescheduled," though, Trudeau concedes, "no tournaments are scheduled as of now."
Trudeau considers himself "an absolute hero to pool," and brushes off any scrutiny of his claims—including questions about William Morris' denial of a relationship with the IPT and Versus' statement that the IPT never had the top-rated program on the network. When asked about the fact that the Grand Sierra Resort, as of mid-December, was still waiting for the IPT to pay its bill, Trudeau says, "Everybody gets paid unless we file bankruptcy."
If it comes to that, he seems unlikely to suffer much personal anguish. "Donald Trump filed for bankruptcy twice and fucked his creditors," Trudeau says. "Businesses do fail."
Yet the IPT continues to accept memberships and sell balls, tables, cloth, and DVDs, and it continues to hold qualifying tournaments all over the world, charging $2,000 for the chance to earn a spot on a tour that's on indefinite hiatus and in arrears to its players.
"Even if we stopped paying the players right now, they'd make more money than they ever have before," says Trudeau. As for the money still owed, "the real question is how much did players lose?" he says. "When a player says, 'I'm going to play in this tournament and I hope it pays,' and it doesn't—well, those things happen." The guaranteed tour earnings? "We're going to have to look at that once we get the financing in place," Trudeau says.
IPT players express a sort of cheerless hope that the IPT will go on and that Trudeau will come through. Morris and other players have sought legal advice and are waiting to see if Trudeau delivers on his latest promises.
The prospect of lawsuits makes Trudeau defensive, though not frightened: "It's not like I took the money and ran—I'm out the money. There's no fraud or misrepresentation in that." He may well prove to be untouchable, but litigation could be in the offing. The FTC won't comment on whether it is investigating Trudeau's involvement with the IPT. "Look at every businessman," Trudeau says. "Bill Gates has a record of breaking international laws. The way I look at it is, everybody who does anything makes mistakes."
In mid-November, as IPT players were trying to sort through the events of the past few months, a number of them gathered for the Viking Cup Tour National Championship at the Pool Room Sports Bar & Grille, in Duluth, Georgia. The purse was $25,000, with $5,000 going to the winner—better than the pot at many events Morris used to enter. He was scheduled to compete and was seen as a favorite. But as it approached, he wavered.
After his Reno prize money failed to arrive, Morris had descended into a funk. "All these rumors flying, and I can't make a ball. Even if I wanted to block it out and concentrate, I couldn't—nobody was letting me," he says. "The bills don't stop coming when you don't get paid." In the end, Morris didn't show.
If the dream is dead, it may only be for the players. Trudeau's aggressive good cheer returns when he talks about the IPT's future, which may involve a reorganization under bankruptcy protection and even a stock offering. "I'm really bullish about the business," he says, "and I feel really good about it."
Players like Morris, who've heard Trudeau's enthusiasm before, are left wondering. Could the IPT have been an honest business? Was it just a tax write-off for Trudeau or a promotional ploy? Or maybe a grander scheme that got tripped up before it could take flight?
The last scenario may be the most likely, as Trudeau now claims his business model from the start "was to have pool matches online where people could wager between one another. And also allow wagering on the events amongst players." Although Trudeau never revealed this plan ("It's not wise for a new business to show the world their playbook"), the IPT was to be an online-gambling site.
"People say, 'Oh, the players are getting screwed,'" Trudeau says. "No, Kevin Trudeau gets screwed! I'm the sucker." He claims to have invested $10 million and lost $2 million of his own money, but don't expect him to offer proof anytime soon: He mentions that his holding companies are in constant motion and that he's given much of his fortune to various foundations, but says, "What I do with my money I keep completely private." And he is even more adamant when it comes to keeping the IPT's finances and even the names of its board members secret. "It's a privately held corporation," Trudeau says. "You know the great thing about being privately owned? I don't have to tell you."