They Were Kings for a Moment

The feds attack online poker, killing livelihoods and a $2.5 billion industry.

They Were Kings for a Moment

When you've turned nothing into something once already, you tend to feel you can do it again. There's faith your luck will turn. Perhaps it's delusion. But for a professional poker player, self-confidence is essential.

So it is for Walter Wright, who now finds himself in Costa Rica. He left his wife and two children behind to redeem their failing finances and faltering marriage by doing something that's now illegal in the U.S. — playing poker online.

Wright's life began to change in 2005 when he followed his then-girlfriend from New Orleans to Virginia, where she was beginning law school at Washington and Lee University. He'd played strategy and role-playing video games as a kid in Houston, and later began to obsess over chess. That's when he noticed his chess buddies were becoming increasingly dedicated to online poker and raving about the returns. Wright became engrossed.

Maxwell Fritz, a Princeton student, made thousands of dollars with online poker, until he lost it all on Black Friday.
Will Rice
Maxwell Fritz, a Princeton student, made thousands of dollars with online poker, until he lost it all on Black Friday.
Mike Minkoff's business shipping videos and poker books has dwindled to almost nothing after the feds stepped on the online poker business.
Bill Hughes
Mike Minkoff's business shipping videos and poker books has dwindled to almost nothing after the feds stepped on the online poker business.

He started as most do, playing what's known as the "cash game." It's simple poker — win by pushing your advantage when the cards are good and bluffing when they're not. If you know the odds, bet wisely and seek out tables with lesser players, within a year or two you can be making a grand a week or more. Five to ten times more.

Wright started at low-stakes Texas Hold'em with table limits of just 25 and 50 cents. The beauty of playing online is that he could work eight tables at once. It wasn't the best of money; PokerStars.com was taking its own cut from the pots, generally capped at $2-$3 a pot. But as a volume player, he also received rewards points redeemable for things like Amazon gift certificates, which he used to buy food in bulk.

"I was grinding my face off," he recalls.

As he honed his feel for the odds and what his opponents were holding, he moved up to Sit-N-Go games, which are essentially small-scale tournaments that can be finished in an hour. It took time, but he began to see more money than he ever witnessed as a waiter in New Orleans.

He made $17,000 that first year and quit his job. He made $28,000 the next, and $55,000 the year after.

Four years ago, when his wife got a job in the Las Vegas public defender's office, the Wrights shipped off to Nevada. Walter dabbled in casino poker, where the stakes are higher. But it also required a bigger bankroll and presented wider swings of fortune. He wasn't ready.

"I made some money to, like, get some new tires on the car. Make some money and pay a bill...I was getting a little frustrated with that."

That's when he discovered multi-table tournaments online. They're like Sit-N-Gos but feature as many as 200,000 participants in a single tourney — and much bigger pots.

It was easier than playing head-to-head in cash games, since the competition was generally worse. His strategy was to play dozens of tournaments a night, primarily on PokerStars, moving conservatively through the early rounds as the lesser players fell away, then amping his aggressiveness as the field was whittled down.

It was still a grinding way to make a living, sometimes requiring Wright to stare at a computer for 24 hours straight. But he'd spent his teens pulling World of Warcraft all-nighters. And now, instead of making bank with tiny pot after tiny pot, he could bring home as much as $15,000 in a single session.

The first year of online tournaments brought in $100,000. A year later, his earnings had doubled, thanks to more than $100,000 he won by reaching the final table at the 7th World Series of Poker event in the summer of 2009.

But the money was coming a bit too easily. "We never really learned to manage money because nobody in our family has ever had any," he says. "So we didn't manage it well...My mind-set became, 'How much money do you need? I'll make more.' Rather than 'We need to cut down on expenses,' it was 'Don't worry, I'll shoot for this goal.'"

Wright found himself retreating more and more into the casinos, especially when he and his wife would fight. He was becoming a classic workaholic, and he didn't enjoy the soul-­sapping casino atmosphere. He was equally worried about the effect of Las Vegas on their kids.

Last year he convinced his wife to move to Asheville, North Carolina, to be closer to her parents. The plan was for her to take the year off, care for their newborn daughter and study for the North Carolina bar. Wright would support them by playing online.

Most of their bank account was consumed by the move, but he had few worries. Why should he? He could always make more.

They moved April 1. Two weeks later, the federal government took his job.

In the poker world, April 15 is known as Black Friday. That's the day the U.S. Department of Justice seized the assets and shut down the three biggest companies serving the American market — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker (which also operated Ultimate Bet) — charging them with bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling.

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11 comments
MayoYvette22
MayoYvette22

Ṁy buďďy'ś ex-Wife ṁakeś $67 an ĥouŔ on tĥe laptop. śĥe ĥaś been Witĥout a job foŔ 10 Ṁontĥś but laśt Ṁontĥ ĥeŔ pay Waś $9089 juśt WoŔking on tĥe laptop for a feW ĥourś. Ŕeaď ṁore on tĥiś Śite>>> LazyCash1.com

Thetruth
Thetruth

Walter Wright is a deadbeat Dad who has no marketable skill other than poker. He LEFT his wife and children with a mountain of debt, and has sent them a grand total of $2700 in four months. He would like you to believe he is some kind of activist for the poker "industry", but in reality he is a gambling addict who spent his days locked in a room, playing poker, smoking dope, ignoring his children, and emotionally abusing his wife...Good riddance!

tee-wee
tee-wee

The idea that any of these guys have no choice but to play poker to make a living is incredibly flawed. It's stupid that this was taken away from consenting adults, but these overgrown 12 year olds should grow a pair and take care of their business, but that would make them men.

Gail S.
Gail S.

Great information. Thank you for shedding light on this story! I'm glad you are providing information on the tragedy that was our Black Friday. It is well past time to license and regulate this industry in the US. Most of the world is able to play this game of skill and strategy online and Americans, of all people, should be free to play as well.

Sheryl J
Sheryl J

- Thanks for this informative article about online poker and what the government did to it. An entire industry was destroyed last year. This is the first article that really illustrates the situation. We need federal legislation that licenses and regulates online poker in the U.S. and brings back an industry. -

Jamie
Jamie

There is absolutely no new information in this article.

shu
shu

"He started as most do, playing what's known as the "cash game." It's simple poker — win by pushing your advantage when the cards are good and bluffing when they're not."

Wow, it's clear from this paragraph that the author is not a poker player – or a poor one. First, the definition of "cash game" is that it's not a tournament. Serious cash games have little to do with being "simple poker," in fact they're quite the opposite. If we're talking no-limit or pot-limit, cash games can require very difficult decision making under big pressure for real dollars. Unlike tournaments, which carry their own type of pressure, but which is dictated most by survival and preservation / growth of what is essentially play money (albeit, for an entry cost), versus real dollars in a cash game. Granted, there is no time / blind level-related survival element in a cash game. But there's a big difference in calling a $10K raise in real cash versus tournament chips, which may have only cost you $5 in real money.

Win by pushing your advantage: of course. Bluffing when the cards are not good: uh... sometimes, in the right position, against the right (few or one) opponents, with the right cards on the board, and based on your table image, stack, and the story you have spun during that hand and that session. I'd love to play with players that simply feel they can continually bluff their way to consistent winning sessions.

All this said, I'm actually glad online poker is potentially fizzling. The best online players are simply not playing the same game as live players. Those who constantly multi-table and play as a job have reduced an art to a science, a numbers game. Play enough hands properly over the course of time, manage your bankroll, find your sweet spot among the limits and structures, and you'll come out ahead.

While many of poker's current "stars" have successfully transitioned from the online world, a vast majority will fall by the wayside, neither having the patience, discipline or face-to-face experience to play one table or one event at a time in the brick-and-mortar world. Plus, if the successful choose to play games appropriate to the size of their bankroll, they're going to be facing much stiffer players in the real world than the "fish" who dabble online.

Lisa
Lisa

Your comment is completely uncalled for and flawed. Do you have the same opinion about people who worked in the mortgage industry who are now out of work? Have you been paying attention to the amount of unemployed Americans competing for even the most menial of jobs?

You operate under the assumption that professional poker players affected by this unfair treatment of their job are not trying to make ends meet by any means possible. If your job was unavailable to you tomorrow, how easy do you think it would be to just find another job to support yourself/your family?

Insulting the members of this industry highlights your immaturity. My husband has played for years, always claimed his winnings on his taxes and, most importantly, loved what he did and helped support our family. The people in the poker industry are doing hard work, just like the "gamblers" on Wall Street, and they have been punished for an activity that caused no harm.

And FYI, there are many female players as well, just like the one mentioned in the article!

Walter Wright
Walter Wright

If you are suggesting we pick up and move to another country where we can continue our professions to take care of our business . Thanks thats a good idea!

Guest
Guest

This is, by no means, "the first article that really illustrates the situation."

It might be the first one you've read, but it's nothing new.

Sheryl J
Sheryl J

Maybe not if you already know the story, but there are a lot more people who have no clue what happened.

 
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