Last Friday night, the stars had aligned: My wife was out, the kids were putting themselves to sleep, and my work for the week had been completed. I figured I'd buy into a set of 90-man sit-n-go tournaments on Full Tilt and play eight of them simultaneously. I had a Montecristo No. 2 clipped and ready to go. Great night, right?
Then, upon logging into the site, I received the same surprise that thousands of other American online poker players received that night. The domain had been seized by the United States Department of Justice. Same thing on Poker Stars and Ultimate Bet, the other two major online poker sites that cater to American players.
Player accounts were frozen, arrest warrants had been issued for the sites' key executives and charges were levied that included bank fraud. I can't say that the latter surprised me.
Because of federal laws that prohibit American banks from doing business with online poker entities, cash-outs to players usually came from vague companies that seemingly have nothing to do with poker.
Ultimately, that may be at the crux of the D.O.J.'s case against the sites' executives and a clutch of bankers who have been charged with assisting them (so far, 11 people have been charged in all). They allegedly created intentionally deceptive corporations in order to trick financial institutions into cashing checks and processing wire transfers.
Collateral damage in all of this is far and wide. Favorite poker shows—such as Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, and The Big Game—were bankrolled by the various sites.
Now that they are no longer marketing to American players, the sites have no reason to finance poker programming. So, watching Gus Hansen mix it up with Tom Dwan at 2:30 in the morning? Most likely that's history.
This year's World Series of Poker will be a much more intimate event, bereft of sponsored players and the agents who represented them. "My business disappeared overnight," groaned a rep who counts a recent WSOP champion on his roster. And for amateur players, guys like you and I who enjoy mixing it up on the virtual felts, well, we probably won't be doing it again any time soon.
Smaller, lesser known and less trafficked online poker operations are still courting American business, but putting my money in with one of those might be more of a crap shoot than I am comfortable with, at least for now.
Before feeding more cash into online poker, I'm hoping to get my funds back from Stars and Tilt—which, according to Wednesday's announcement of cooperation between the D.O.J. and those two sites, is beginning to seem increasingly likely.
Then maybe I'll consider putting some money into a small site and resuming play elsewhere—though I will miss those great 90-mans on Full Tilt.
While most of us might be losing a form of recreation that is (or is not) slightly profitable, a select number of truly gifted poker players are actually losing their livelihoods. On Friday night, after getting locked out of Full Tilt, I Skyped my friend Nick Rainey, the online pro who actually taught me how to beat the 90-mans.
He Skyped me back some words on the inevitability of this happening, his habit of keeping as little cash as possible online, and impending plans to hit the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida, for live poker and a shot at the upcoming World Poker Tour tournament that is due to take place there.
That said, with so much of the WPT's TV sponsorship now dried up, Rainey is smart to buy in while he still can.