Attorneys for Full Tilt Poker denied charges that the poker Web site is a Ponzi scheme that cheats customers out of their money, suggesting that the Web site's woes stemmed from mismanagement rather than deliberate theft.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed civil charges against the directors of the company behind Full Tilt Poker, alleging that they defrauded customers by enriching themselves even as the Web site faced a shortfall of funds to pay customers who were owed money. A statement from Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Full Tilt Poker a global Ponzi scheme, a characterization that Full Tilt Pokers' attorneys rebutted on Wednesday.

Ponzi Scheme or Just Mismanagement?

A Ponzi scheme requires an investment vehicle in order to receive a certain rate of high return, said Ian Imrich, an attorney for Full Tilt owner and board member Chris Ferguson. None of those things happened here, he said, adding that maybe it was just mismanaged.

A group of prominent poker players that included Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer founded Full Tilt Poker in 2004, guiding the site into an online gambling titan with billions of dollars being bet annually. The U.S. Government maintains that online gambling is illegal in America, so Full Tilt is registered in the U.K.'s Channel Islands -- its owners are in a separate legal battle to preserve that registration, which is endangered by the Ponzi scheme charge.

The government complaint charges that online poker players were essentially gambling with phantom money that Full Tilt Poker never actually collected or possessed, with the site struggling financially even as various owners and directors paid themselves $444 million between April 2007 and April 2011.

Full Tilt Poker soon developed a massive shortfall between the money owed to United States players and the money actually collected from United States players, the complaint reads.