In March 2018, a Los Angeles accountant named Dennis Blieden took the poker world by storm. He had only been playing in tournaments for about 18 months and was essentially an unknown.
That changed as Blieden, then 28, plowed through 493 entrants and bested veteran players to win the World Poker Tour’s L.A. Poker Classic and its $1 million prize.
The website Poker News lauded his “nerves of steel” and Poker Central noted his “fearless style.” Blieden bragged that he played by the seat of his pants, calling himself a “crazy fish” who threw opponents off-kilter.
Until that point, Blieden had only won about $20,000 playing tournament poker. But now he was someone to watch. Two months later, he was invited to play at the Super High Roller Bowl, which had a $300,000 buy-in.
According to federal authorities, while Blieden was making a name for himself in the poker world, he was doing a far riskier kind of gambling: embezzling money from his day job that he used to cover his poker and gaming losses.
Blieden was the vice president of finance for StyleHaul, a marketing firm that represented YouTube and Instagram influencers like Zoella, Joey Graceffa, and Dulce Candy.
An indictment unsealed this week in Los Angeles says that the bean-counter allegedly began wiring cash from StyleHaul in 2015 to his personal account, dummying up accounting records and faked Western Union letters to make it look like the money was going to clients.
He allegedly stole $22 million from the company between 2015 and 2019, socking some of the money into his cryptocurrency trading accounts and using some of it on personal expenses, including buy-ins for poker games, the feds allege.
A forensic investigation found more than $7 million in wire transfers and checks written to other poker players. Blieden also blew company money on online gambling sites, the feds said.
In a statement, StyleHaul said it spotted “certain accounting irregularities” during an internal review and launched an investigation that uncovered the missing millions.
In March, the company grilled Blieden about the allegedly cooked books and he admitted embezzling about $15 million since 2017, according to a detention memo filed by prosecutors.
“It started small, in the thousands,” Blieden said in the interview, according to notes included with the detention memo. “It started out as monthly transactions and then sometimes became weekly.”
Asked what he had done with the money, Blieden said, “I had borrowed money from people. From other poker players, and friends, and other people I didn’t know that were friends of friends... to gamble with.”
He said the amount he was stealing increased in 2018 to dig himself out of the hole before he was caught.
“I wanted to try and pay it back, so I was taking more to try to make more back so I could pay the company back,” he said, according to the notes.
But a new chief financial officer started at the company, and she noticed something “funky” in the books, Blieden said.
He was asked if had any of the company money left.
“Defendant stated that his largest assets were his car, about $50,000 in his personal accounts, and some crypto-currency in various electronic wallets,” prosecutors wrote.
“Apart from those assets, defendant stated that the money he embezzled was gone. Defendant was terminated that day.”
But, according to prosecutors, Blieden lied about how much cash he still he had.
He was seen at poker tournaments with stacks of chips on the table in front of him. And after he broke up with his longtime girlfriend and decamped from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, he hopped from one casino hotel to another, pouring more than $3 million in slot machines, the feds said.
Blieden was arrested Wednesday in Las Vegas. His attorney did not return a call for comment, and his family declined to comment.
StyleHaul—which claimed to have 5,000 digital influencers on its roster, generating 2.5 billion views per month—is no longer in business. The company, which has sued Blieden in state court, ceased operations last month and scrapped a plan to move from Los Angeles to London.