Draw or Fold: Shut Out of Sites, U.S. Poker Pros Mull Move Abroad

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Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty

It's not often that the federal government shuts down the only means of income for hundreds of thousands of hardworking Americans.

Naturally, then, on April 15, when the FBI pulled the plug on PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker, the four largest offshore online-poker sites serving U.S. players, full-time online pro Isaac Haxton started thinking about moving overseas. Among the initial batch of candidates: Melbourne, Malta and Madrid — all places that allow gambling online. "Ultimately, it doesn't really matter where I end up," said the 25-year-old Haxton, who currently lives in Las Vegas. "So long as I can get myself to a country with good Internet connections, a country that allows me to earn a living again, I'm there."

Life has changed drastically for professional online-poker players in the wake of what many are calling Black Friday. One day, it was business as usual for regular players: 10 to 15 tables at a time, roughly 500 hands per hour, tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in play. The next day, nothing, not even a single virtual chip.

Before the shutdown, the Poker Players Alliance, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for the right to play poker online, boasted that as many as 10 million Americans played on computerized felt. Earlier this week, John Pappas, the group's executive director, estimated the current number is no higher than 2 million.

Poker players have responded to this threat to their livelihood the same way they might respond to aggressive opponents at the table — evasively, rationally and, above all else, tactically.

Most smaller-stakes players — people who earn between $40,000 and $80,000 annually from online poker — have improvised, spending more time playing live cash games in local card rooms or moving money (that is, whatever money isn't currently frozen in a government-controlled bank account) over to smaller poker websites that have escaped the shutdown for now, although few offer trusted or accredited banking services.

Higher-stakes players — folks like Haxton, who has earned millions playing online — are taking more drastic action by fleeing the country for poker-expat communities.

Poker pro Vanessa Peng, a 28-year-old Las Vegas resident, plans to travel for most of May, return to the U.S. to play in the World Series of Poker this summer and then take off for good. "Leaving the country really is a logical decision, though I'd like to say it's a political statement," says Peng, a native of Singapore who in 2010 became a fixture at the top of online-poker rankings. "Before I came to the U.S., I thought this was a country of freedoms. I know better now."

Justin Bonomo, a friend of Haxton's who also has earned millions playing online, is excited at the opportunity to live abroad (the two players are planning to move together, along with five other pals) but laments the fact that moving will likely force him to break things off with his girlfriend before he goes. Then there are other complications, like visa issues, as few countries welcome foreigners for more than 90 days at a time. "It's not like you can get a work visa if you're playing online poker full-time," says Bonomo. "When [your paperwork] expires, you've got to leave the country and get it renewed; it's not a big deal, but it isn't something you can ignore."

Small-stakes online players face different challenges. Transitioning from online poker into live cash games practically guarantees smaller profits, since cash games move more slowly and players can only be in one place at a time (online, players were able to play multiple tables simultaneously). With all this in mind, players both large and small have been rethinking their vocations. Faraz Jaka, a Chicago-based pro who has won more than $4 million online since 2006, has spent much of his newfound free time promoting a side business — a caster-board company named Axis Casterboarding. Ethan Ruby, a smaller-stakes player in New York City, has redoubled involvement with Poker4Life, an organization he co-founded to host charity poker tournaments as fundraisers for other nonprofits. And after two years of playing 40 hours a week online (and earning a rough average of $1,200 per week), Matt Lessinger, 36, of Alameda, Calif., expects to take a full-time job as a floor manager for a local card room. "Online poker was a great source of income for a while, but I am not prepared to rearrange my entire life to keep it going," he says. "Will I go back if and when it's legalized again? Probably. But if I don't play it ever again, that'll be okay, too; there are plenty of other options in the industry."