Ace (not his real name) has been playing online poker for a living for two years. He started with play money in 2003 but last year earned around $30,000 in real cash playing on PokerStars.com and FullTilt.com.
Then, last month, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office shuttered PokerStars, FullTilt and another site, AbsolutePoker.com, and indicted their principals on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling.
Here, Ace explains how he turned a profit from online gambling and what the FBI crackdown means for him and other online poker players.
OOTS: How long have you been playing online poker for a living?
Ace: About two years. Before I started playing for a living, I had been playing recreationally for about five years.
OOTS: How did you start?
Ace: I started playing online poker just for fun with play money, back in 2003 … I thought I would go ahead and just play for fun to see if I actually could be any good at the game … I set up an account on PokerStars … and started playing with play money. I played quite a bit of play-money poker—so much so that I turned $1,000 in chips into millions.
One day, I was sitting at a[n online] table and someone offered to buy some play money chips with actual money … I ended up selling $1 million [in] play chips for $20 [in] real money. I asked the buyer why they would want to buy fake money, and the buyer said something along the lines of, “I want to teach someone how to play, and the only reasonable play-money games are the highest stakes games.” That actually made some sense because at the lowest level play-money games people don’t really try and [they] make ridiculous plays or decisions.
Needless to say, I was really excited to actually have real money to play with that didn’t come out of my own pocket … I lost that $20 in, like, two days, so it was back to play money. Pretty soon after, I found another person that wanted to buy $1 million [in] play-chips for $17. This time, I reflected on the error of my ways with the previous $20 loss, and with that $17, I’ve never looked back.
OOTS: How did you get paid?
Ace: I always had checks mailed to me. They came from various banks from various parts of the world, including the U.S. at times.
OOTS: How has the FBI crackdown affected you so far?
Ace: Well, soon after it happened, FullTilt and PokerStars froze all U.S. accounts. U.S. players couldn’t play, couldn’t transfer, and couldn’t cash out. No one knew what was going to happen with the money, but there was a ton of speculation. Since then, Pokerstars has worked out an agreement with the Department of Justice to let U.S. players get their money, so I didn’t lose the money I had on there. FullTilt has not made an agreement yet, so I still don’t know what’s going to happen with that money.
OOTS: How did you find out the sites had been shut down?
Ace: I have a lot of friends that play online poker from all over the world, who I chat with on instant messenger or AIM. I had been playing for about an hour when one of those friends told me to look at some articles describing what was happening. At first it looked like some prank, but pretty quickly we realized it was serious.
OOTS: What was your reaction?
Ace: Initially I was confused, stunned, shocked. I was glued to my chair for hours just scrambling for answers as to what to do. It felt like I got fired from my job and robbed at the same time. I soon realized I just have to wait for the dust to settle and see what happens, but mentally I had assumed that all the money I had on there was gone. I never thought something this sudden would happen. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if something sudden happened on one of the smaller online poker sites that aren’t as big [and] dependable [and] reputable as PokerStars and FullTilt, but for it to happen to both sites and so quickly—totally unexpected.
OOTS: What are other online poker players you communicate with saying about the crackdown?
Ace: All the American players I know are upset. Some of them are planning on moving out of the country so they can continue to play online poker as a living. Others aren’t sure what they are going to do.
OOTS: If and when this all blows over, do you think you’ll go back to playing poker online for profit?
I really don’t know what I will do. I truly enjoy and love the game of poker, but I also love where I live and don’t want to leave the country. In the end, it’s just sad that I (and a lot of other Americans) can’t continue to do something we love.
When I started playing, nothing about it was illegal, and I never want/wanted to do anything illegal. So when [the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act] went through[, in 2006], it was a weird time for me, and I’m guessing all the other U.S. players. Just like the recent events, no one really knew what was going to happen or what to do. I had lofty hopes of the act being revisited and, ideally, removed, but in the end, I just continued to play (recreationally at the time). During all that time, nothing happened to me or anyone I knew, so I think most American players generally felt like everything was fine—until April 15, 2011, at least.
If it were considered totally legal, then I would most likely start playing again—either recreationally or professionally, depending on what else I have going on in my life. So I guess we will just have to see what the government decides to do.