They Were Kings for a Moment

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

Wright was luckier than most. Only a few thousand dollars in his PokerStars account was frozen by the feds. Others saw tens of thousands confiscated in the raids.

But he was now stuck in North Carolina, out of a job, living with his in-laws , and with no way to provide for a family of four. Their financial troubles accelerated. When the first opportunity came for his wife to take the bar, they didn't have the money to pay for the test.
_____________________

Hardly anyone noticed when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act passed in 2006. Moralists and casinos, who were trying to protect their turf, had been pushing it for years without luck. That's when Senators Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) got the bright idea to stuff it in a port security bill as a last-minute amendment.

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.

In true Washington fashion, most legislators never read the final bill. Many didn't even know an anti-gambling measure was in it. But in one secretive stroke, the two senators had declared war on poker.

It didn't actually outlaw online play. Kyl and Frist preferred their attack on the American pastime to remain surreptitious. Going after individual players would have meant a huge backlash. Instead, they targeted the financial institutions that handled the sites' money, making it illegal to deal in gambling proceeds.

Party Poker, the world's largest site, decided to cash in its chips. It agreed to pay a $105 million fine and leave the American market in exchange for not being prosecuted.

That left the world's most lucrative market up for grabs. PokerStars and Full Tilt, also-rans at the time, were quite willing to step into the breach, despite the legal risks.

Why not? PokerStars, based on the Isle of Man, and Full Tilt, headquartered in the UK's Channel Islands, figured they were outside the reach of U.S. prosecutors. It wasn't long before the two companies had cornered some 70 percent of the American market with revenues of nearly $2 billion a year.

But since the feds were squeezing banks and credit card companies, finding payment processors to handle their money grew increasingly difficult.

"By early 2007, suddenly the payment options are becoming much more tricky for PokerStars and Full Tilt," says Melinda Sarafa, a New York lawyer who's represented gamblers. "That's where they're starting to look into alternative providers."

The feds' squeeze was working. By 2009, an audit of Absolute Poker revealed that almost one-third of its revenue went to disguising the money trail.

Says Sarafa: "The allegation is that the companies tried to find banks that were essentially in distress, providing them with a very lucrative lifeline, and that the transactions were disguised as other types of transactions so it wouldn't raise regulatory eyebrows."

Some in Congress tried to fight back, realizing that playing a few hands of poker after work wasn't exactly the height of fiendishness. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) authored a bill to legalize online games.

But while that measure was winding through the House, the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York was pressing ahead. In 2009, it filed charges against Allied Systems and Account Services for processing poker money. The feds seized $34 million owed to 27,000 players.

The sites reimbursed their customers and rolled on. PokerStars and Full Tilt discovered that SunFirst, a struggling Utah bank, was willing to handle the payments in exchange for fees and an investment.

But the feds killed that deal a year later. They also quashed Full Tilt's attempts to make similar arrangements with two Illinois banks.

Full Tilt's problems, especially, were multiplying. Believing their revenue stream would soar eternally, its owners had pulled $444 million in profit from the business over the previous four years. But when the feds began seizing their payment processors' funds, the company had no war chest to cover the losses.

As of last March, its customers held $390 million in their accounts. But Full Tilt had only $60 million in the bank to cover those accounts. When the feds seized its assets a month later, American players alone were owed $150 million. The feds accused the company of running a "global Ponzi scheme."

On that Black Friday, the Justice Department killed a $2.5 billion industry.
_____________________

Four summers ago, Maxwell Fritz was making minimum wage serving cotton candy and curly fries at a Portland amusement park. He'd just finished his first year at Prince­ton, where he was studying to become a math teacher.

Fritz had played online casually with friends back in high school. He'd managed to turn a few hundred dollars' profit, and that planted the seed for next summer's job. It had to pay better than minimum wage.

He made $10,000 after school let out, so he continued during the school year. Over an 18-month period, while still attending Princeton and working his teaching internship, Fritz managed to take home $100,000. Over the next six months, he would grab another $200,000.

Then Black Friday hit. Suddenly, Fritz had not only lost his income, but $65,000 was seized from his Full Tilt account.

He was among the fortunate to recover quickly. A fellow player provided a reference that allowed him to move from one kind of gambling to another: Wall Street.

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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.

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!

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. -

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.

Jamie
Jamie

There is absolutely no new information in this article.

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.

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.

 
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