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Underdog Hand

Federal crackdowns on online poker leave some pro players short stacked

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Now he’s unemployed.

Eventually, Nichols thinks the online poker sites will return, but in the meantime, he’s got to find a way to make a living. So earlier this year, he found himself turning to live games again and preparing to enter the World Series of Poker. This would be the third time in his career that he’d entered the tournament. The last two times, he says, he qualified for the World Series, and his buy-in fee was waived. This year, supported by backers, he forked over the $10,000 for a seat at the table.

And he’s feeling confident.

“This is my third main event,” he says before he heads out of town for Vegas, “so I’m feeling like this will be the lucky one. The first one, I busted on day one. The second one, I busted late in day two. I think that means I’m going to at least make day three this time. So, we’ll see.”

In April, the top executives of three of the biggest online poker sites – Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and PokerStars – were indicted by the federal government on charges of illegal gambling and bank fraud. Prosecutors seized the companies’ websites, stopping all games played for real money. The sites have been quiet ever since.

The U.S. Department of Justice froze the funds in the sites’ bank accounts as part of the crackdown, making it impossible for players, some of whom had tens of thousands of dollars in their online accounts, to cash out. The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, which orchestrated the crackdown, say that the players’ money was never part of the seizure and that the sites may return the money at their own discretion. Two of the sites, Full Tilt and PokerStars, currently display a prominent “This domain name has been seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation” message on their home pages, and all of the sites say they are working with players to pay them back. So far, though, most players say they haven’t been able to retrieve their funds. At the end of June, a class action lawsuit for $150 million was filed against Full Tilt, demanding that it return players’ money, plus damages.

For many young players who used the poker sites to make a living, the investigation meant the end of a way of life. Nichols says he used to average 100 online tournaments per week.

“That’s all I’ve done for the last five years,” Nichols says. “I started in college. I played cash games, but that was when I was addicted. I was gambling and having fun with my own money. I’d want to get home and play. I was, like, jonesin’ for it. It was like an addiction, for sure. … Then after a couple of years, I started doing really well in tournaments.”

Nichols and others like him aren’t rogues or criminals. In fact, legal experts say, they aren’t doing anything wrong, because playing online poker is not explicitly illegal in any state except Washington. It’s the sites themselves that are violating the law.

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