NEW YORK, NY – A class action lawsuit brought against American fantasy sports gambling company, Draft Kings, in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) was dismissed earlier this year after a federal judge found that allegations the sports book had placed investor funds at risk by its acquisition of Bulgaria-based trading technology platform SBTech lacked evidence.
Based on the research of forensic financial investigator, Nate Anderson, the plaintiffs sought redress for violations of federal securities laws. Specifically, they claimed that Draft Kings made “materially false and misleading statements” in order to secure funding for the SPAC merger-acquisition of SBTech and “exposed the Company to dealings in black-market gaming”.
Founded in 2007 by Israeli national Shalom MecKenzie, SBTech was a sports betting technology provider, which had built its customer base in South East Asia where gambling is largely illegal, as well as China and Iran. According to Anderson, MecKenzie targeted these illicit markets in an effort to gain an edge over its more established competition, like Draft Kings’ original gambling tech provider, Kambi.
Operating out of Bulgaria, SBTech’s proximity to the country’s SOE mafia networks no doubt facilitated its less than transparent operations, which Anderson claims was responsible for nearly 25% of Draft Kings’ total revenue at the time of the SPAC-led $21 billion IPO, providing the Boston fantasy sports firm sufficient capital to execute the deal.
But, Draft Kings already had a certain familiarity with Bulgaria’s SOE underworld through its own technology platform provider. In 2017, Malta-based Kambi signed a deal to run the same services for an outfit called the Bulgarian National Lottery. Despite the name, the lottery was actually a private business owned by Vasil Bojkov, a.k.a. ‘Cherepa’ (‘The Skull’), one of Bulgaria’s most notorious SOE mob figures and widely considered the richest man in the country.
Bojkov, who had been running illegal gambling operations since before the fall of communism, was a known quantity to U.S. intelligence and profiled as early as 2005 in a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, where his activities are described as “money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, and extortion and racketeering” by American Ambassador, James Pardew.
A math major, Bojkov was also long-time chairman of the Bulgarian Chess Federation and regarded as a seminal figure in the development of the “national sport”. Chess has recently emerged as one of online gaming’s most promising sectorsas well, with chess influencers like the Romanian Botez sisters and other chess “streamers” driving the e-sport category’s surge in popularity. Kambi’s parent company, Unibet, sponsors five-time World Chess Champion and top chess streaming personality, Magnus Carlsen.
Kambi’s relationship with The Skull came to an abrupt end in February, 2020, when then newly-installed Bulgarian chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, issued a warrant for Bojkov’s arrest and his extradition from the UAE following the nationalization of his lottery business. Forced to divest itself from any further (public) business ties with the Bulgarian gambling tycoon, Kambi issued a statement to this effect a month later.
Draft Kings, Kambi and SBTech had all begun working together immediately following the pivotal repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) by Trump’s Supreme Court, which removed most remaining barriers to professional sports betting in America and unleashed the mainstream gambling industry in the United States.
Expectations that PASPA would be overturned were high as a result of Donald Trump’s election and his projected remaking of the judiciary, motivating Draft Kings to try to jump the gun by seeking approval to merge its operations with Flutter Entertainment’s Fan Duel as early as the summer of 2017. The FTC, however, rejected the deal that would have created a worldwide fantasy sports book monopoly.
Instead, Draft Kings turned to Kambi and SBTech. The latter had already started making its own moves to take advantage of PASPA’s repeal by spinning off at least two companies, according to Anderson. One of these entities was described as a “new blockchain and gambling venture” called BTi, first created to satisfy the demands of SBTech’s black market operators, who had requested cryptocurrency options, according to a primary source cited by Anderson.
Draft Kings’ partnership with Kambi had been going strong for a year by the time details for the SPAC were hashed out in Israel during the first meeting between MecKenzie and Draft Kings CEO Jason Robins in 2019. Shortly afterwards, BTi was renamed CoreTech and also function “as DraftKings’ undisclosed illegal gaming division”, according to Anderson.
BTi/CoreTech’s staff was extracted from SBTech’s employee pool in Sofia, Bulgaria, where Meckenzie’s backend operations were based. Several of the most senior developer positions would also lend their expertise to build another cryptocurrency company just then making its debut, Nexo.
Nexo’s Team and the Revolution
Among SBTech’s veteran developers who found themselves at both platforms were Spas Vutov, Nexo’s Engineering Director for Blockchain, a former senior developer at SBTech, who did a year-long stint as Coca-Cola’s principle software developer in Bulgaria before joining the embattled cryptolender. Others include Nexo frontend developer Zdravko Netov, who also spent a good part of his career at SBTech and Jordan Genchev, Nexo’s Senior Blockchain QA Engineer, who served in the same capacity for CoreTech.
CoreTech itself was led by Amir Vaknin, the former Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of a software platform provider called SpotOption, which had come under investigation by the FBI and Israeli Police just weeks after Donald Trump had been sworn in as president over allegations of a massive, decade-long financial fraud known as ‘binary options‘.
The fraud consisted of fleecing stakeholders through Internet marketing schemes promising rich returns on short term futures contracts – mainly bogus forex trades, which invariably ended with investors losing all of their money. Enticed by “earn money from home” ads and similar click-bait campaigns, most of the victims lived in the United States, although plenty of dupes were also targeted in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, itself.
SpotOption not only controlled up to 70% of the market share for the fraudulent industry’s trading technology, but it had invented the duplicitous binary options trading concept in the first place and used its prime position to drive the market. Founded by a convicted money launderer Pini Peter, the SpotOption executive would eventually be indicted by the SEC in a District Court of Nevada.
Vaknin, meanwhile, was busy hailing the potential of cryptocurrency to “revolutionize online trading” as late as November, 2017, calling SpotOption a leader “in the eternal battle to create a secure trading platform for clients” even as the platform he was in charge of was conning countless people out of tens of millions of dollars.
Just months after the FBI had started looking into the company, SpotOption unveiled a smart contract product. Released in tandem the new version of its trading platform, complete with the “Spot Algotrader” feature, SpotOption was poised to expand the binary options-style fraud to the nascent world of cryptocurrency finance.
Vaknin, who no longer lists SpotOption on his LinkedIn profile, would wash his hands of the online trading software company and begin a new role as CEO of BTi/CoreTech in 2018, by then part of Draft Kings. Almost simultaneously, cryptocurrency lender Nexo was officially coming online in April of that year, though preparations for the launch extended as far back as late 2017, according to then Credissimo chief marketing officer (later Nexo’s CMO), Bilyana Hristova.
Clues about the cozy relationship behind the scenes between Draft Kings, SBTech and Nexo can be gleaned through staff members like Zdravko Netov, who came to occupy his current position at the cryptolender from Draft Kings, where he had worked as a senior frontend developer for two and a half years, and in turn recruited directly out of SBTech. But these are mere intimations about a web of interests that stretches far beyond Bulgaria and is linked to a vast network of international capital that moves under the cover of darkness, vice and peddlers of false hope.
Oregon State Troopers arrived in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in the spring of 2019 to meet with SBTech executives. The contingent of American police officers was sent on behalf of the state lottery officials to “scope out” the company, which had been selected to become the vendor for its mobile technology platform.
Questions about the Malta-domiciled company’s black market activities had surfaced during the vetting process, including suspicions of SBTech’s illegal operations in China through an online betting platform called 10Bet. According to Anderson’s research, multiple Chinese-facing 10bet websites show demonstrable backend development by SBTech.
Nevertheless, Oregon seemed satisfied with MecKenzie’s answers and awarded the contract to SBTech, citing the prior approval of New Jersey, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania, where the company has been cleared to do business, even though officials had clear evidence and direct knowledge about SBTech’s illicit operations in Iran, as well.
Lurking in the background of these negotiations was Oregon’s lawmakers’ proposal to fund the state’s $27 billion unfunded public pension liability through mobile gambling revenues, harkening back to Bulgaria’s own post-communist pension crisis after the emergence of the non-banking finance sector upon the collapse of the country’s social safety nets covered in by Silicon Icarus in the previous installment of this series.
The end of PASPA marked the beginning of major sports betting boom and mainstream gambling in the United States as well as ushering in the GameFi industry in earnest. A catch-all term for any kind of speculative financial market activity that takes place on a blockchain, GameFi can include sports gambling, virtual gaming and practically all cryptocurrency-based speculative trading or investment schemes presented in a gamified environment.
Most significantly, GameFi represents nothing less than global capital’s ticket to bring the masses onboard the tokenized economy, demanding that we put aside notions of personal agency and turn our livelihoods over to chance by accepting the designs of technoscientific capitalism and the assetization of human capital.
Oregon’s ability to look past SBTech’s dubious business practices in order to tie its pension system to gambling revenues is a testament to the changing narratives around what is legal, moral or beneficial to society as dictated by the forces of Western capital. It was also a sign that Atlanticist geopolitical imperatives were about to do a little house cleaning.