Forget all the tornadoes, earthquakes, revolutions, civil wars, and nuclear meltdowns that have been ripping the world apart—for American poker players, the worst disaster of 2011 occurred on April 15: the day online poker died. The FBI arrested heads of the three largest online poker websites on a slew of charges that included money laundering and fraud. The sites’ domain names were seized and they banned US players from playing. There’s a thread on TwoPlusTwo, the popular online poker forum, where you can see the crisis unfold in real time. At first people were incredulous, then confused, then angry, then slowly they realized that the era of free money is over.
The story of the “poker boom” has been told several times already, but the Cliffs Notes version goes like this: In 2003, ESPN televised the World Series of Poker, an event obscure outside of the gambling world, and millions of people watched as Chris Moneymaker—an amateur who made some boneheaded mistakes but got lucky again and again—won the tournament, and $2.5 million. A bunch of people saw Moneymaker and said, “Hey, I could do that!” and the legal-at-the-time poker websites were flooded with new members, most of them “fish” who could barely read the symbols on their electronic cards.
As a result, it suddenly became possible–even easy–for someone with basic math skills and card-playing experience to become a professional or semi-professional gambler. While the vast majority of new players were losers in the most literal sense (their winning days never covered their losing ones), there was a substantial number of people–mostly young men–who discovered that sitting at home in front of a screen, keeping track of nine to twelve games at a time, for several hours a day, paid better and was more rewarding than any other job they could get.
I knew a lot of these guys: slightly geeky 20-somethings–usually college grads–who were smart, good with numbers, and focused enough to pay close attention to details for long periods of time: qualities that would probably have led to a solid career in the pre-recession days. But the way the job market looked, they decided, rightly, there was more money in poker. You could set your own hours, work from wherever you wanted, and there was a thrill in taking money from the pockets of those donks and calling stations who didn’t have half the poker-brain you did. Even after online poker became technically illegal in 2006—much as torrenting music is illegal—and casual players started to drop out, there was still money to be made. It was like a nerdy gambling gold rush.
Well, the rush is over now. I imagine the players who became relatively famous and earned millions of dollars off of the game aren’t hurt too badly by the FBI’s clampdown. If you are successful enough and really dedicated to the game, there’s always the option of moving to Europe where online poker is still completely legal. But the small-timers–the guys who were winning players but never broke into the high-stakes games or scored sponsorship opportunities–have very few options.
One of my friends has been playing poker professionally since he graduated college in 2009. He’d been paying rent on his New York City apartment with his winnings (he had to carefully explain what he did for a living to the landlord), but now he’s burning through his savings with no job, no opportunity to collect unemployment, and barely any kind of resume. “I don’t have anything going for me,” he told me at the bar the other night. “I’ve really had to think about life.” He never wanted to be a poker player forever, but he took pride in being skilled enough to be successful at something. He would probably have to get a job at some point, but “the idea of a job just to get by makes me want to die.”
Some players are migrating to smaller, less-reputable sites, which will probably be shut down or close their doors to US players in the coming months. A few are trying to make a living playing live games at casinos, which is more difficult and requires different skills. Others have simply quit: one fella who was grinding his way up from small stakes games is now packing boxes for minimum wage. If I was still relying on poker for my primary income source–like I was for a few months after college–I honestly have no idea what I would do. Young pros thought they had this “making a living” thing more or less figured out, and now they don’t.
I just got a long, ranty email from a friend who was lucky enough to win six figures playing in the World Championships of Online Poker and is in no danger of living on the street. He called the shutdown “fascist” and then described how online poker saved his life.
He had been a student at an Ivy League school before suffering a nervous breakdown and being locked up in a mental hospital for a time. He went back home to the West Coast to live with his parents. There he played poker while he was too damaged to find a real job. He won a large tournament, cashed in some other ones, and found his way back to mental stability through the mathematics of card-playing. “It was the most effective therapy for a sick and despairing soul,” he said. “Therapy that I was very happy to call my career for over a year after I convalesced.”
“Online poker is a terrific living because you don’t need anyone’s help. You learn self-reliance. The independence is exhilarating. It’s all on you to make your own way. In my life and my job, there was a concrete connection between effort and reward, and that’s the most precious thing the government took away from us when they deprived us of our livelihoods.”