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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

In 2006, the Bush administration passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which makes it illegal for payment processing websites, banks and credit card companies to allow U.S. players to transfer money to gambling sites, or to process gambling-related payments. Though the law passed in 2006, it wasn’t scheduled to be implemented until 2010.

The dominant poker site at the time UIGEA was passed, Party Poker, ceased its U.S. operations in response to the law, and two new companies, Full Tilt and PokerStars, stepped in to fill the void. They operated relatively unfettered by feds until 2010, when the law kicked in and the government indicted them, as well as Absolute Poker, on charges of bank fraud, money-laundering and, of course, violating the UIGEA. The move didn’t surprise Nichols, who says he suspects that the government wants to intervene in online gambling so it can regulate it – something he thinks is inevitable and that he’s actually in favor of. In addition to legitimizing the careers of online players like himself, he says, it’d protect people from being preyed upon by unscrupulous gamblers and cheats.

“I remember 2006 so well. I thought it was over then,” he says. “Six months ago, they were talking about a blackout period for a year and a half, and I was actually rooting for that when most kids didn’t want that to happen, because they were like, ‘What? We can’t play for a year and a half? This is bullshit! And that’s just the way it is?’ And I told them: ‘Guys, the status quo is not sustainable, it’s going to burst eventually.’”

A survey conducted in 2009 by PokerPlayers Research, a London-based market research firm, found that even though poker sites offer a “play-money” alternative for people who don’t want to actually gamble, some 10 million Americans play poker online for cash each year. The closest competing market was in the U.K., where 1.9 million people play for real money regularly.

As a result, American players dominated the online poker games and tournaments and rose to the top of online poker ranking sites like pocketfives.com (where Nichols works as a trainer). Since the shutdown, though, international players are all that are left, and they’ve been cleaning house, competing against a weaker set of players: the fish, who are also known as “ATMs.”

When Nichols went to a World Series of Poker event recently, he says he ran into a former online poker mentor and backer, Chris Moorman. Moorman, who lives in Essex, England, told Nichols that it’s easy to win big, now that U.S. players are out of the picture.

“He’s winning everything, because all the good players were American,” Nichols says. “Literally, of the top 10 players in the world, he was the only one who wasn’t American. So, now he’s just been climbing up the rankings, and it’s been kind of like the joke on the net that it was only a matter of time until he was first.”

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