Then there’s the legal tale of Dennis Blieden, the winner of the World Poker Tour’s 2019 LA World Poker Classic for a cool million dollars. The problem, though no one in the poker world knew it besides Blieden himself, was that the million dollars he won was just a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $23 million he’d already embezzled from his LA employer, a social-media and “influencing” company called StyleHaul.
Blieden was arrested just a few months after his big WPT win, pled guilty to the the eight-figure theft not too long after that, and was originally scheduled to be sentenced to up to 22 years in prison last year. Then COVID got in the way, Blieden’s sentencing was pushed back several times, and it wasn’t until last week that Blieden was indeed sentenced, to six years and seven months.
Blieden was also ordered to pay $22.7 million in restitution — that’s not going to happen — to the owners of StyleHaul, which went out of business just a few months after they discovered that Blieden had stolen and spent all their income.
It was an interesting (but dark) tale then and now, but the new curiosity came just before Blieden was sentenced last week. Cases of this nature frequently feature pre-sentencing submissions from both prosecutors and the defense, with each side making a last-chance argument as to why a convicted person’s sentence should be more or less severe.
Here, however, Blieden himself submitted a 14-page handwritten note to the judge, apologizing for his life of theft, his declaration that he’s a remorseful and changed man, and that he regrets his history of gambling addiction that’s now led to a lengthy stint in a federal pen.
I tend to look at these types of court submissions with a jaundiced eye. I have absolutely no doubt that Blieden was an addicted gambler, but as you’ll see from the submission, which is presented here in full, he did everything possible to not confront that addiction until the world literally rolled over on top of him.
Even when he cashed for the million at the WPT, all Blieden did was to attempt to chase his losses… or rather, all those millions of stolen dollars that turned out to be other peoples’ losses instead. I tend to have more compassion for the real victims rather than those who portray themselves as such, but hey, for Blieden or any other defendant facing years in prison, it’s a legal freeroll.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and that’s a real possibility. Each reader should judge for himself, and there’s certainly a cautionary tale we can all learn from, regardless of anything else. So, anyhow, here’s what a former million-dollar winner on the World Poker Tour had to say about his years of crime and his lifetime of willful gambling addiction. Take from it what you will:
“I am submitting this letter with the intention of giving you background on who I was, who I am, and who I am capable of being. I also want to, to the best of my ability, explain what led to the events of the crime I am being prosecuted for. It is not a full explanation, as I am learning about myself daily, but it is one I have spent the past 18+ months exploring with my rabbi, my counselor, my therapist, my sponsor, and others in the recovery I have the utmost respect for.
“I first would like to give a history of my upbringing, and how it included gambling as a central component to everyday life. I started gambling at an incredibly young age — perhaps even younger than I can remember. At the age of three, my father taught me how to count using the game of blackjack, and my brother and I would spin the dreidel for chocolate gold coins. In middle school, I can recall playing POGS and Pokemon at recess, where the winner would collect the POGS or playing cards. At this time, I am not even sure I was aware I was gambling, but the competitive nature of ‘winning’ in order to receive something, or ‘losing’ and having to give something up, was instilled inside of me.
“Gambling for money started around the age of 13. I would play poker with my brother and father for our allowance money, and I instantly fell in love with the game. Shortly thereafter, as I entered high school, the ‘poker boom’ occurred and I watched poker professionals and ordinary individuals play together on ESPN for millions of dollars. I was obsessed, idolizing these individuals, and declaring that I would one day be like them. Around the same time I started hosting poker games in my basement for friends. After school, three times a week on average, peers would come to my house right when we got out of school to play Texas hold’em. This continued throughout all high school and it became a primary my group of friends and I spent our time together. The money at first was just 50-100 dollars, but quickly increased to $1,000’s as time went on and we all had more access to money. Not everyone would come to every game, but since I was host, I was always there and always playing.
“The first signs that I showed for problem gambling was when I was introduced to online poker. It was around the age of 17, and you needed credit cards to deposit. I, without permission, took my parents’ credit cards and deposited money. I inevitably lost, then did it again. It created a lot of animosity with my parents, and they canceled the cards and hid the new ones. So I had to find other ways. I found prepaid Visa debit cards that you could load cash onto at gas stations and used this to fund my online gambling. Even when I would win, I would only raise the stakes I played, and in time end up losing it all. My last two years in high school were spent with endless hours playing these online games — losing thousands upon thousands of dollar that I worked hard as a busboy to earn.
“In college, things started to get out of hand with the gambling, but also with amphetamine use. I was introduced to the drug Adderall, and instantly became dependent. I would take it daily, to assist with studying for class but also to stay up all night gambling. I had my own credit cards and maxed them all out the first few quarters of my freshman year. I would then pay them off using my student loan money, and gamble further. Instead of going out and meeting new people, I spent my time gambling online. I would win, but like in high school I could not maintain a balance in my account — I would always play until it was eventually gone.
“I graduated from Ohio State with bachelor degrees in accounting and finance, and decided to move out to Los Angeles with three of my best friends from school. I graduated about $70,000 in debt, about double what I should have for tuition, room and board alone. My gambling was heavier than ever, but I did not have student loan money to fund it any longer. Within the first year into moving to LA, and getting my first job making (about) $35K annually, I went into extreme debt with a bookie. I owed him around $40,000, and had nothing.
“My parents agreed to cover the debt, but I had to seek gambling treatment. I agreed, but I was far from ready to admit I had a gambling problem or stop gambling. I rationalized, I was just ‘unlucky’, I was getting better at poker — I would be fine. I proceeded to see a therapist for free through UCLA’s gambling program, but after seeing him once I stopped going and lied to my parents about going for a full year. This is a testament to the person I was, I was selfish, egotistical, arrogant and thought I always knew best. These character defects would continue to be a theme throughout my 20’s.
“Over the next 18 months, I continued to gamble, while also moving up in jobs. By September of 2013, I got a job making (about) $65K annually for StyleHaul. Within my first year of so there, “I was spending most of my paychecks gambling, plus taking out high-interest payday loans. These loans ended up totaling around $50,000 but I knew I could not ask my parents for help again. Instead, a friend of mine and co-worker at StyleHaul lent me the money when I confessed to him I lost it gambling. We set up a payment plan, and I would make payments to him out of each paycheck, but I continued to gamble. I just could not stop.
“Things started to change for me financially and socially around 2016. Although I was gambling heavy, I made a large amount of money in crypto-currency and was able to fund the gambling without going into additional debt. This was also when I was able to make friends in the high-stakes poker community — not for my skill set playing cards, but for my knowledge and success in the crypto space. I joined multiple online groups with some of the best players in the game, and for the first time in my life felt I was on the way to fulfilling a childhood dream (being accepted and being a part of poker’s elite). My desire to belong with these guys would inevitably be one of my biggest vices, as I would go to any end to continue to climb and show them I belong. I had finally tasted success, and I was so scared to let my peers, family and friends see me otherwise. To me then, appearing to be successful and elite was more meaningful than being either. If I could define a mantra that would explain this period and the years to follow, it would be ‘Never Enough’.
“In late 2016, as I lost my own savings, I took loans in the 10’s of thousands to trade crypto, but ending up using most of them to gamble. As I lost, I would borrow more, and a vicious cycle emerged. All loans would go to paying previous lenders, then gambling to try to make back enough to pay everyone. The hole became insurmountable. Being so deep in debt with no way to pay, I felt I just needed a larger bankroll and I could make everything right. This was when my crime at StyleHaul really began.
“My plan was to take some money, gamble, pay off my loans, then put back the original amounts I took from StyleHaul back without ever being detected. I irrationally believed this could actually work. It quickly unraveled, as I became millions in the hole to StyleHaul on top of owing loans. I was in utter desperation, and in my mind had no way out except to keep gambling. The amounts I stole increased exponentially, and the speed in which I stole increased. By the end of 2017, I had stolen about $2.2 million from StyleHaul.
“In March of 2018 I won the World Poker Tour for $1,000,000. This, looking back, had a huge impact on me mentally and was no doubt an accelerant in my gambling. I was now outwardly validated within the poker community and from my peers as being a professional gambler, so I did everything I could to keep that reputation alive. My desire to belong was so strong and misguided that I believed playing in the largest possible buy-in games would make me be more accepted. I was being invited to new private games, where millions of dollars were on the table at a time, and my bet sizing for online gambling increased to at least hundreds of thousands per bet on average. I was chasing my debt, but also attempting to keep up with a lifestyle that was built on a lie. Throughout 2018, the amount stolen got so large that I told myself if I was ever going to be caught, I would take my own life. This was how I rationalized and justified continuing to take StyleHaul’s money. It reached a point where being in action (gambling) was the only time I was not thinking about the dire situation my crime had created for myself and many others if it came to light. Gambling had truly become my escape from reality.
“All this time, I was working 60-80 hours a week, in a serious relationship, and gambling full-time. I was staying awake 4-5 days at a time by ingesting 100+ mg of Adderall each day. I was completely lost, and the only time I would feel normal was when in action. I almost always had some sort of wager, whether a sports game, online slots in the background while driving or at work, or playing poker (online or at the casino). I neglected everyone and everything in my life in some way to support my habit. In November of 2018, after winning $2 million in an online slot machine and then losing it back in a (roughly) 48-hour period, I almost took my life. I was at my childhood home in Cincinnati, and knew where my father’s guns were. I came painfully close, but I chose life. Reflecting that this was a true turning point for me — as even though I continued to steal to gamble for a few more months, I had decided I was going to face these decisions.
“In March of 2019 I confessed to my crime, but continued to gamble due o owing $800K to a loan shark and having much less remaining. Due to this debt, my life, my family’s life, and my then-girlfriend/her family were being threatened. I was scared to death, anxiety at an all-time high, not knowing whether I would be arrested by the FBI or harmed for my debts on any given day. I was able to work out a deal using my comps on an online gambling site to pay back my debts and not be in harm’s way, but using gambling as an escape from reality continued. I did not know how to stop.
“When the FBI subpoenaed my girlfriend in April 2019, it was more than our fragile relationship could make it through. She stayed in the house, and I continued to use gambling to avoid and suppress my emotions. I went to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker and stay in hotels, using free play and hotel comps to gamble. This was the end of my ability to avoid reality, as I was arrested from my Vegas hotel room by the FBI. During my few months in prison, I was still out of control, playing poker every day, and even using meth for the first time. In an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation, I resorted to my comfort zone. I was still avoiding the reality of where my life was at, the extent to what I had done, and that I needed serious help.
“My first day in prison, I met a man that was inside for fraud. He was serving a multi-year sentence, and was in Nevada transferring to Taft Prison from a prison in Oregon. He was exceedingly kind to me, helped me acclimate to prison, and he also told me about a treatment facility called Beit t’Shuvah (BTS). We only crossed over together for a few days in Nevada before both transferring to separate prisons. Looking back, I consider meeting him a true ‘God Shot’ moment in my life.
When I got out on bond, on house arrest at my parents’ home in Ohio, I was extremely depressed. I had reached the largest weight of my life, and spent all day and night in bed feeling sorry for myself. I was ashamed and hopeless. It was not until my 30th birthday at the end of September 2019, that I went to my first ever Gamblers Anonymous meeting. This was a life-changing day for me. For the first time ever, I felt that I had people who understood my story of despair and did not judge me. Yet they instead were there for me. Complete strangers!
“The stories of pain, destruction, and emotional trauma these individuals had endured as a result of their gambling habits, followed by many stories of where they are now after years of recovery, gave me hope for the future. This was extremely different from the individual therapy treatment I had in 2013, as these were peers who had gone through similar journeys. I immediately dove in, attending 4+ meetings a week.
“In November of 2019, I came out to Los Angeles to sign my plea deal and have it entered in your court room. I was staying with childhood friends in Mid City, and upon arrival I looked up the newest GA meeting to their house. It happened to be at Beit t’Shuvah, which was a name I knew I recognized, but could not immediately figure out from where. It was not until arriving at the meeting and hearing residents in the meeting speak about rehab, that I made the full connection this was the place the gentleman in prison had told me about. I stayed after the meeting to talk to residents and members of BTS, and was able to get an appointment set up to interview for the gambling program the next day. I was accepted, and after court approval, moved into BTS as a resident on January 6, 2020.
“I had no idea the life-changing impact both programs would end up having on my life, let alone the lifelong friends and mentors I would meet along the way. When I first entered treatment, I thought my sole goal was to stop gambling. If I stopped gambling, I would become a better person. I could not have been more wrong. Through recovery,I learned that stopping my addictive behaviors was only the tip of the iceberg. I had a life problem, not just a gambling problem. I came to realize that instead, if I became a better person, that gambling will not be something I even consider. I’ve had to, and continue to, work to change who I am at my core — diving deep into what was the root of why I gambled. I’ve had to get vulnerable and honest. Most importantly, I had to admit I was truly powerless and could not do this alone.
Working the 12 steps of Gamblers Anonymous have really helped me come to terms with how severe the crime I committed was, and how many people I hurt. As I write out my amends letters, I am fully aware of the impact my decision making had on so many, both directly and indirectly. Reading Melanie Kirk’s testimony in my pre-trial service report was especially gut-wrenching, knowing that she trusted me, and I betrayed her, leaving her with emotional distress she may never get over. I may never be able to make a true amends to her, along with many or these individuals, nor will all of them accept my apology as genuine. This is so hard for me — because I am so remorseful and not that same man as I write this today.
I am fully aware that some of the decisions I made are unforgivable. I take full responsibility for the crimes I committed. I absolutely do not blame or try to excuse my actions with my addiction, or believe my addiction alone warrants a downward departure in my sentencing. The only way I will be able to show those that I have hurt that I have changed is time — time spent in recovery, time spent continuing to grow, and time spent taking the next right action every single day.
“I am in full acceptance of whatever prison sentence I am given, and I vow to make the best of my time inside to continue to fill the ‘basket’ of recovery I have started to weave. I know I am armed with a toolbox and blueprint on how to live my life in recovery, and I will not let incarceration change that. I also know I am blessed to have a family that loves me, friends that believe in me, and an entire extended support network from BTS and Gamblers Anonymous that I plan on staying connected to through email and phone calls inside. I refuse to allow prison to be a breaking point for me and know that I must maintain recovery inside in order to obtain a life that aligns with my value system upon getting out (including starting a family and giving back in the recovery community).
“I plan to find a career helping others as a drug and addiction counselor, maybe even at BTS, but if not know I can give back and in turn help my own recovery through sponsoring and speaking at meetings. Hearing my peers tell me I am an inspiration to them in recovery, and that I have helped them in their own individual journeys means so much to me. None of this is possible, though, without continuing to build on the work I have already started. I am so motivated to be this version of myself — and feels so much more rewarding than the facade of a ‘successful’ life I once tried to portray.
“Even given what I am facing, I am more hopeful and optimistic for my future than I have ever been. I know this may sound hard to believe, but I no longer am living a lie and bound by my addiction. Ironically, I feel free. Recovery has been a slow, upward-climbing progression, and will continue to be a lifelong journey. When I am gambling and using, my life is utter chaos and cannot end with anywhere except eventual desperation. My hope and optimism stem from a belief in the man I know I am when living my life in recovery.
“In writing this letter to you, I have done my best to be as transparent as possible. I have not tried to mislead, deflect, or sugarcoat any piece of my journey.
“I am aware you did not know the person I was then, and do not know the man I am today, but are judging me based on the crimes I committed. I am hopeful this letter was able to give you background on all three of those things. I am a work in progress, and know I always will be for the rest of my life.
“Thank you for your time.