- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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I wouldn't be shocked if I crashed mail servers last week after I tweeted that I wanted poker players whose futures were affected by "Black Friday" to email their stories to my account. Hundreds answered the call, sharing at length the dire circumstances they face in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice's actions against poker industry entities and the subsequent departure of those entities from America's digital space. People are hurting. A lot.
"You have these tens of thousands of U.S. players and millions of casual players who want to play on occasion and these people have money tied up and are suffering more than [PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Ultimate Bet] ever will," said Michael D, one of the affected. "I don't know the reasons behind the DOJ's actions, but it seems like there might be broader ramifications than they considered. They didn't have the foresight to see how people would be impacted by what they did."
While the DOJ can't be faulted for the enforcement on the alleged crimes, many U.S. citizens are now feeling they were lulled into a false sense of security, investing or leaving large sums online because for more than four years, enforcement of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was minimal. Those sums are now mostly frozen online (PokerStars announced Wednesday they are ready to return player funds), but many have legitimate concerns regarding whether everything will be returned. For some, patience isn't an affordable luxury.
Michael D, who asked that his last name be protected, speaks from experience. A 38-year-old military veteran who served in the Navy from 1990-94, Michael says his problems with depression and related issues have kept him in and out of work in the years since. He says he'd finally found stability in online poker, putting in an estimated 55-60 hours a week of play, study and analysis. He was finally seeing dividends, building an $8,000 bankroll while siphoning off money for rent, food and bills. But he says "Black Friday" froze that $8,000 and he's looking at eviction in two weeks.
"I looked at it like I had a small business, where my bankroll was my operating fund," Michael told ESPN.com. "I'm in this spot where I have money online. My primary means of making a living has been taken and I have no idea where I go from here. Because of my depression issues, I've worked a huge variety of jobs and could never hold onto one. In the last year and a half, it was looking like this would be the best year I've ever had financially. Somewhere between $45,000-$65,000. The best year I've ever had. Ever. From poker! Doing something I loved to do. I hear people talking about how I contribute to society being on the fringe. I've never been a great contributor, but at least [before Black Friday] I was paying bills, rent, taxes and spending money in the community. I felt like I'd finally found my calling."
Now, Michael is faced with asking some people in his life for assistance. He says he's called up old Navy buddies who have offered to help him relocate or offered him a place to crash, but for a proud man who'd pursued poker for the independence it offered, accepting that help is a tough pill to swallow. "I don't want to rely on other people that way," Michael admitted. "I started playing poker seriously because I wanted to achieve some measure of independence."
He's not the only one. Brian Ford, 28, has been confined to a wheelchair for most of his life due to issues with Muscular Dystrophy and Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Mobility is a consistent issue. When Ford found his work doing data entry drying up with the U.S. economy in late 2008, he said he turned to online poker, where he found independence he hadn't experienced in some time.
"The thing I've gotten from online poker is comfort," said Ford via Skype. "I was just a screen name on there. I didn't get treated any differently than anyone else. You don't have to rely on other people to do stuff. I can do it all myself with the push of a button. It allowed me to be independent, do things for myself."
Now, with online poker no longer a stable option, Ford is looking at an unstable future. With the job market still hurting (and according to the Poker Players Alliance, 50,000-plus American professional poker players suddenly re-entering it), Ford is honest about his prospects, admitting, "I have no idea what I'm going to do."
It's a refrain that's been heard time and again over the last two weeks. Players with massive gaps on their résumés are suddenly staring at a future without income, without their chosen profession, without the support they've given one another.
Stephanie Martin, 50, suffers from lupus, a debilitating disease whose punishments include relentless joint and muscle pain along with frequently occurring seizures. Playing poker outside her own home isn't much of an option and casino personnel aren't trained to deal with her malady. Still, it's not being deprived of the game that's the most upsetting for the Florida native, for whom the anonymity of the Internet provided equality and community.
"Poker's given me a lot of good friends who would jump in, say hi, see how I was doing," Martin recalled of her poker experience. "They don't know my personal situation. They just know I'm a poker player. They didn't care that I was fat, skinny, healthy, sick they just knew that we were like-minded individuals. There are a lot of people out there who have trouble coping in the world for whatever reason. We've been deprived of a social environment here. If what the DOJ says about money laundering and fraud is true, the sites have to be held accountable, but a lot of us are getting hurt out here."
These stories from the aforementioned trio are just three of thousands. Whether deprived of access, community, profession or the future as laid out in front of them, poker players are suffering for the crimes of others in profound, painful ways. Some are leaving the country and taking their disposable income with them. Some are being forced to the bottom of the employment food chain. All have been affected and to a man or woman, they all wish there was some way to turn back the clock.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.
7hThomas McKean, ESPN Stats & Information