They Were Kings for a Moment

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

"I figured if gambling online is illegal, I might as well go to legalized gambling in the form of the stock market," Fritz laughs. A friend had gone to a Wall Street firm and "just blew the doors off, and he said what he learned in poker really helped him. They were like, 'Well, we need to hire more poker players.'"

For Michael LaTour, the game was a way out of unemployment. The Syracuse man landed a job out of college selling mortgages and personal loans for American General Financial. But a year later, spectacularly inept bets by American's parent company, AIG, put him back on his ass.

"There weren't many jobs out there, and I'd been on unemployment for a while," LaTour says. "I saw some people being successful at poker, and I decided if I was ever going to seriously take a shot at it, now would be the time to do so."

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 played for two years, earning $50,000 in 2010. He was doing much better last year, averaging $10,000 a month for 2011 until the feds came calling. Suddenly, the $35,000 in his PokerStars account was seized.

"The days after it was really a panic," he says. "Nobody knew what was going on. It's been draining emotionally."

If he and his girlfriend hadn't bought a house, LaTour might have gone to Canada. Instead, he's taken the Syracuse police officer exam, but the academy doesn't offer classes until April. Two years after pulling himself off unemployment by his wits, he's back to searching for a job.

"This isn't something I wanted to do my entire life," he says, "but the money was out there, and it made more sense than any entry-level job just because of the potential to win such huge amounts of money."

Players weren't the only ones thrown out of work. The feds blew up an entire industry. In 2003, Michael Minkoff started a business that handled the shipping of poker books and videos sold on Web sites. His Las Vegas company also did freelance video production. It was a modest affair, employing three people and a passel of part-time help.

Then came the stealth attack by Frist and Kyl in 2006. Sites began closing and paring costs, hurling little guys like Minkoff to the side of the road. Black Friday nearly finished him. At his height, he was moving over a thousand books a month. Nowadays, he's selling fewer than 50, hardly enough to employ himself part-time.

The feds launched an even bigger hit on the television industry. The list of canceled shows since April is long. Poker After Dark, the late-night show on NBC, was canceled abruptly after four years when the feds called its sponsor, Full Tilt, a "Ponzi scheme." High Stakes Poker ended a six-year run on the Game Show Network in December. The National Heads-Up Poker Championship, also on NBC, collapsed in October after seven years. In April, Fox pulled PokerStars Big Game and PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge prior to their second seasons.

According to Kantar Media, Full Tilt and PokerStars spent $26 million in TV advertising last year; PokerStars spent another $8.3 million on Web and magazine ads. In one fell swoop, the feds made it disappear.
_____________________

Though they wiped out the major American sites, a few remain, most notably Bovada and Merge Gaming Network.

The volume is much lower, and it's difficult to get paid. All have severe restrictions on how much and how often you can withdraw from your account. Merge only allows players to withdraw up to $2,500 once every six to eight weeks. And many are finding it difficult to add money to their accounts, since credit card companies will often reject the transaction.

After Black Friday, Walter Wright started playing on Merge just to salve nerves made raw by an empty wallet and a squealing baby. He and his wife went to Florida for a live World Poker Tour event, but he didn't play well. When they returned to North Carolina, they didn't even have enough money to get their dogs out of the kennel.

With their marriage stretched to its breaking point, Wright went to Costa Rica just before Thanksgiving. A friend agreed to front him a roll, pay his airfare and cover his rent for a few months.

Costa Rica has become a magnet for Americans. Wright lives in an apartment complex with other online players. The country's tourist-friendly economy makes it a logical landing spot for those like Wright, who has a DUI and consequently isn't allowed into Canada. Since Black Friday, companies like Poker Refugees have sprung up to help players get visas, bank accounts and apartments in Costa Rica.

But there remains a larger question: Why are the feds chasing honest, taxpaying citizens out of the country? Especially for something as benign as playing cards, an act committed by nearly every American?

Congressman Barney Frank denounced the crackdown as an "incredible waste of resources," wondering why the feds felt compelled to protect "the public from the scourge of inside straights."

After all, for most of the country's estimated 2 million online players, poker is little more than leisure recreation. And those who made their living from it seemed to personify the American spirit, providing for families by creating livelihoods from their wits.

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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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