Exodus of online poker players under way
Chris Morris / Special to the Sun
4 August 2011
- Poker websites’ actions were risky, experts say (4-29-2011)
- Caesars CEO Gary Loveman: Poker indictments present opportunity (4-26-2011)
- Internet poker company looks to Nevada for entry into U.S. (3-21-2011)
- Bill would set regulations for Internet poker (3-10-2011)
- NV considers Internet poker bill, but casinos balk (3-10-2011)
- Board OKs Caesars Entertainment ties with foreign Internet gaming company (3-9-2011)
- Online gambling is illegal, but betting sites’ logos often in Nevada casinos (7-13-2010)
- Question evolving from legalization debate: How to tax online casinos?
- Lawmakers push to regulate, tax online gaming (5-19-2010)
- With aggressive push, Internet gambling again in play (2-9-2010)
VEGAS INC Coverage
Like many people who moved to Las Vegas seeking opportunity, Shaun Deeb is considering leaving town for greener pastures.
But unlike the recession-triggered exodus of construction and hospitality workers, the sagging economy isn’t factoring into Deeb’s moving plans. In fact, he and a few hundred other people in town who share his vocation seem immune to the dips and turns in the economy.
Deeb and others in his circle boast of working hard — minimum 10-hour shifts — and playing hard — enjoying some of the fanciest restaurants and nightclubs in town.
And if they want to maintain that lifestyle, they’re having to move out of town.
Deeb and the others are online poker players.
And their freewheeling lifestyle came to a screeching halt April 15, on a day since dubbed “Black Friday” by the poker community. On tax day, the Justice Department — which long ago declared Internet gambling illegal — shut down the country’s largest poker websites and indicted their CEOs. The most significant Internet gambling crackdown in American history has tied up millions of dollars players deposited on at least two of those websites and sent employees and customers of the targeted sites scrambling for other sources of income.
“Guys in their 20s who were making from $30,000 to $80,000 or more online ... what other life skills do they really have?” said Dan Michalski, editor of Pokerati.com, a poker news and information website. “A lot of people are really lost and confused right now.”
Finding themselves without ready access to ply their trade, Deeb and others like him are preparing to move to places such as Canada, Costa Rica or Mexico, which are among the many countries where Internet gambling is either legal or allowed to continue under laissez-faire governments.
“I used to play poker for 100 hours a week,” Deeb, 25, said. “Every day I sit around I get more motivated to leave.”
Tony Dunst’s friends are packing their bags for Canada.
Months from now, Dunst, the television commentator for the Los Angeles-based World Poker Tour, expects to be the only member of his online poker circle left in Las Vegas. He says his job, which allows him to travel the world playing casino poker tournaments, will lead to bigger career opportunities.
But his poker-playing entourage?
“Their lives revolved around playing online. They have no wives or kids,” he said. “They’re capable of making so much money online that it would be extremely financially stupid for them not to move.”
The loss of such players will be felt by businesses all over town, said Dunst, whose online winnings amount to about $800,000.
“You’re talking about people with a lot of discretionary income who like to spend it,” he said. “These are educated, bright guys and excellent consumers who weren’t frustrated by the economy.”
Las Vegas became a favored home base for many poker professionals because of the concentration of big-money poker games, tournaments and all-hours access to amenities and entertainment. Many online players also play poker in casinos — although those who make most of their money in virtual poker rooms have little use for the typically slower and more expensive games offered in Las Vegas casinos.
For pros such as Deeb, online poker resembles stock trading on Wall Street more than the more leisurely form of the game played in casinos, where assessing personalities and behavior plays a role.
Deeb typically plays more than 10 games of online poker at once — making lightning-quick decisions about which hands to call, raise or fold based on historical probabilities and hands played against particular opponents. Just as an appreciating stock can offset a declining one, a bad hand in one game can offset a better hand in another game.
The speed of play can make online poker a fast route to riches for a select few with photographic memories and expert math skills — or a rapid road to ruin for those with little aptitude for the game.
Many players prefer Internet poker rooms because they offer free training games where no money is wagered and cheap, penny- or dollar-ante games. Online poker sites generally charge smaller fees for overhead than brick-and-mortar casinos that have raised such fees over the years as poker has grown. And there’s no tipping dealers in cyberspace.
Online poker is “more like playing a video game” with friends than gambling in a casino, Dunst said.
“Live (casino) poker is really slow and monotonous, and the casino setting is generally unpleasant,” Dunst said. “You’re sitting in a chair for nine hours around people you might not like or want to listen to. For people like us who play eight to 20 games at a time from the comfort of our own home ... your buddies are around and you can watch movies and order food. You can talk strategy and communicate with friends from all over the world.”
Hundreds of mostly small, black market websites unaffected by the federal crackdown remain open for American gamblers. But in the wake of the government’s action, most online players in this country have stopped wagering online, because they no longer think their money is safe and are unwilling to try their luck on unfamiliar sites.
Over the years, federal prosecutors have seized millions of dollars in gambling proceeds from third parties that process gambling payments for online poker rooms. Although such efforts resulted in guilty pleas and jail time for some of those involved, players — who have never been subject to federal prosecution under laws that govern gambling operators — typically got their money back as sites refunded what was seized by the government in an effort to maintain public confidence in their growing empires.
Not this time.
Deeb, for one, isn’t hopeful about recovering any of the $150,000 he had on deposit with Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker when the feds stepped in.
“I was always a little concerned (about the legality of online poker) but I always thought my money was safe,” Deeb said. “I was kind of shocked how it went down. As a player, I always thought our money would be protected.”
Dunst, who is out more than $60,000, is equally scarred by the experience.
“Black Friday ruined everything. It will likely destroy a decent percentage of my net worth, it has crippled how I want to conduct my life and has made me quite pissed off at my own government.”
About 90 percent of online poker players — most of them Americans — dropped off the radar after Black Friday and didn’t switch to sites that remained open in the United States, said Dan Stewart, owner of PokerScout, a Las Vegas company that tracks online poker traffic worldwide.
The process has grown cumbersome for many Americans still trying their luck online.
Before Black Friday, stating another country of origin was all some websites needed to grant access to American players. Now, most of the larger and more popular poker websites have begun requiring players to provide proof of foreign residency, including copies of utility and phone bills, rental agreements and mortgage statements, players say. Some sites are warning players that any efforts to circumvent rules banning Americans could result in frozen or seized gambling accounts.
Jesse Knight, 39, and his wife, Patricia Marie Frick, think they’ve found a permanent solution. They recently moved to Mexico, where they play online poker from a new home in Tijuana.
They are among an estimated 100 or more people living in Las Vegas or Southern California who were employed by major online poker sites and put out of work after Black Friday. Those include people in marketing, programming and web design as well as players like Knight and Frick with contracts to play online for sites aiming to keep as many games going as possible.
The federal seizure of money the couple had on deposit online prevented them from participating in this year’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. From their home in Southern California, the couple traveled to Las Vegas several times a year for big tournaments and cash games. From hotel rooms in Las Vegas, they would supplement their income playing online poker.
The couple have no need to spend money in Las Vegas since moving to Mexico, where they play online without fear of government intervention, Knight said. Living in Tijuana doesn’t sound like an ideal future for an American, middle-class couple. It’s been a boon financially, however, he said.
Some countries “want to know who you are and why you are there,” he said. “Mexico is happy to have American dollars — and the visa fee.”
Some players are having second thoughts about uprooting their lives.
Steve Graham thought better of moving to Canada to play online full time. Instead, the Las Vegas resident is thinking of moving to Illinois, his home state, and getting a traditional job — maybe teaching.
Online poker doesn’t have the same appeal after having money seized online, said Graham, 31.
“I’m not happy about it. I’m kind of unclear about what the future of poker is going to be.”
For Deeb, who has won more than $6 million in online tournaments, moving is the only way he can continue a lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed.
The thought of being further removed from his tight-knit family in upstate New York is making his stomach turn, however.
“I always wanted to move out of the country but for a short term,” he said. “To live permanently in another country — that’s a crazy thing.”
Join the Discussion:
- New Las Vegas Strip arena to cost $350 million
- Here’s why hundreds of wannabe murderers are roaming our streets
- Sin City? Blog says the title rightfully belongs to St. Louis, not Las Vegas
- Company preparing to sell tickets for Las Vegas party train
- On tap for LV council: Olympic Garden rooftop pool, new retail near Mob Museum and energy codes
- Developer attains 'a real little gem' in ManhattanWest, now the Gramercy
- These five homes sold in May for how much?
- So long, Shenandoah? Wayne Newton expects to move into newly purchased home by month's end
- Rio plans zip line ride between two towers
- The Fremont Street Experience no longer free at the Golden Nugget
Will online gaming hurt brick-and-mortar casinos?