I started playing online poker in September of 2009. After nearly two years of crippling health problems, I had returned to Seattle from college to seek the superlative medical attention my hometown offers, and while I recovered from a radical operation on my esophagus, I turned to Full Tilt Poker as a means of staving off the boredom my immobile state might otherwise have guaranteed.
I thought I would return to school within a couple of weeks. Little did I know that my convalescence would be such a protracted and difficult process, and that online poker would play such an integral role in restoring me to health. After a setback, I decided not to go back to New York for my senior year, and, crushed by this necessity, I hid from reality on the digital felt.
My beginner’s luck was so copious that it might almost suggest the presence of a deity to this stalwart atheist. I won four-figure sums twice within the first week and suddenly had a bankroll to punt. And punt it I did: following my second psychiatric hospitalization, in December of 2009, I returned home to a severely depleted amount of money on Tilt, my only assets at the time.
The day after Christmas, I entered a 55-dollar tournament and won it for $7500 and change. Without this score I may never have gotten better, as, when I finally banished my ill health, in February of 2010, my money enabled me to pursue online poker as not just an escape from reality, but a career. Starting at twelve-dollar games, I worked my way up the stakes painstakingly and iteratively, and the profuse amount of effort I poured into studying the game, in theory and practice, granted me a modest yet steady income.
In September I made the final table of a World Championship of Online Poker event, finishing fourth for $28,750. Rather than resting on my laurels, I took the score as another opportunity to make more money, but variance spun me downward, and I took a sabbatical from the game. As dark clouds gathered on the horizon, the sabbatical extended. It became indefinite recently, when the FBI seized the domains of the two major sites, Full Tilt and PokerStars, and they shut their doors to American players for the foreseeable future.
To me, online poker obviously meant a great deal: it was my job, and a job I treasured dearly – for its autonomy, for the concrete connection between effort and reward, and for the radical self-reliance it allowed me to embody. It was more than just a job, though – at various points in my life, it functioned as a failsafe escape from debilitating depression, a means of feeling good about myself, and, as I once again became healthy, a very fun pastime that happened to be lucrative. The lifestyle it enabled (and, to some extent, still enables) was and is indispensable for me. I cannot imagine working conventionally after finding something so suitable for my temperament as online poker.
With the hammer coming down just now, it’s easy to forget what caused it to do so in the first place. In 2006, Bill Frist hid a law in the Safe Ports Act. The law was the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). It stipulated that money could not be exchanged over the Internet over games of chance. As an independent piece of legislation, subject to scrutiny by more scrupulous lawmakers, the UIGEA wouldn’t have had a chance. But hidden within the Safe Ports Act, it passed the U.S. Senate unanimously. Online poker became, like cannabis, a legal gray area.
The law wasn’t enforced; the immediate effect was that Tilt and Stars turned to ever-shadier payment processors to shield themselves from claims of outright illegality. The use and abuse of these payment processors, which were the only way players could get money on and off the sites, was what instigated the recent crackdown: the sites created a ‘financial black hole,’ according to FBI language, and laundered unseemly sums of money that escaped the oversight of the Federal government—until now.
The crackdown is clearly awful for the owners, operators, and employees of Full Tilt and PokerStars, but I would argue its more far-reaching effect is on the players. We’ve lost a terrific way to make a living; it’s not that jobs aren’t available to me, with my B.A. from Columbia; it’s that there aren’t any jobs that could offer me the same freedom, joy, lucre, and independence as online poker.
It’s not just the professionals who will suffer, though. The hordes of recreational players have lost a fun way to pass the time. And the government has lost a way to legitimize and tax our earnings. Online poker offered something for everyone. Some would say that it was a zero-sum game—or worse than that, given the cut the house always took. But it wasn’t. It had great social utility. It made the Internet and the world a better place. And now that it’s gone, indefinitely, I feel that everyone has lost.