To Play Poker in a Pandemic, Americans Flee the U.S.

Three years ago, Maria Konnikova, a writer for The New Yorker, came up with a brilliant stunt for a book about luck. A novice at cards, she would learn poker from one of the game’s best players, Erik Seidel, to see if she could improve her odds of winning through study and skill.

She gave herself a year to play, but something surprising happened: She started winning so much money that she put the book on hold.

After winning over $300,000, she was finally ready to publish “The Biggest Bluff” this year, on June 23. Normally, that would be smack in the middle of the annual World Series of Poker, or W.S.O.P., at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, where more than 100,000 players brave the sweltering Las Vegas heat each summer to compete for millions in prizes across dozens of card tournaments.

Not this year, during the coronavirus pandemic.

In-person poker is not a great game for this era of public health protocols, with players crouched over the same table, breathing on one another and using communal cards and chips. In March, some retirees in Florida who had a regular, friendly game were all infected with the virus, and three of them died.

Like the N.B.A., the N.H.L. and the N.C.A.A., the World Series of Poker, which is owned by the casino giant Caesars Entertainment, had to postpone its in-person event; unlike the others, it was able to move the tournament online, even as its Rio casino remains closed while some of its other Las Vegas properties have reopened. But the complicated legality of internet gambling in the United States and around the world, along with inevitable tech issues, meant the transition has not been entirely smooth.

For the first part of the series, players needed to get to one of two U.S. states, and then, if they wanted to compete for the big money, they had to get out of the country entirely — forcing them to decide whether their potential winnings were worth the risk of traveling abroad.

ImageFaraz Jaka flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to play in the online poker tournaments.
Credit…Faraz Jaka

The series kicked off in July using the W.S.O.P.’s software. More than 40,000 people participated, and they had to provide identification and proof of address, and they had to be, as determined by the geolocation settings on their devices, in New Jersey and Nevada. “A drivable option from either coast,” according to Ty Stewart, the W.S.O.P.’s executive director.

Those are states where Caesars holds licenses to operate online gambling.

Konnikova had not left her Brooklyn apartment since early March. Her book had come out as scheduled, and sold well. Publicizing it on the poker circuit didn’t work out, but reflecting on what she could control helped.

“We don’t know when there will be a vaccine,” she said. “We don’t know so much about the virus. What I can do is choose what information to pay attention to. You have to pay attention to the right things in poker or you will lose.”

At the beginning of July, she and her husband drove about 90 minutes from their home in New York, where online poker was illegal, to a small Airbnb on the New Jersey shore, where it was lawful. Konnikova spent the days swimming and promoting her book, and then at 6 each evening set up her laptop on a patio overlooking the water to participate in the day’s tournament. She played there until a dying battery or the mosquitoes forced her inside the studio apartment, where she would sit in the dark at the kitchen table until the early morning hours while her husband slept.

Another New Yorker set up an even more temporary residency in New Jersey: On a Sunday evening in July, Ryan Depaulo, who lives in Manhattan, rented a car and drove across the Hudson River to a Whole Foods parking lot in Closter, N.J. He parked and played through the night on a laptop using the shopping plaza’s Wi-Fi connection, which booted him every hour, forcing him to play on his phone intermittently. Late into the night, a police car pulled up next to him.

“I told them I was playing in the World Series of Poker and didn’t think I’d be here this long,” Depaulo said. “They told me to win.”

He did. Depaulo came in first place out of 1,624 entries in the no-limit Texas Hold ’em tournament around 6:30 a.m. that Monday, taking home nearly $160,000 after buying in for $500.

He spooked a masked person entering the Whole Foods when he screamed from his car: “I’m a legend. I’m a god.” In a YouTube video, he proudly displayed the cup and bottle into which he had urinated as he had no access to a bathroom through the night.

“I didn’t want to risk driving while playing,” he said in a phone interview. “It felt like the safest move was to pee in the car.”

Konnikova cashed in two tournaments, but she also had to deal with bad luck in the form of technical glitches. During two tournaments, the W.S.O.P.’s software, which is provided by 888Poker, froze up for her. She could see her cards — memorably, in one instance, an ace and a king which is one of the best starting hands in Texas Hold ’em — but she couldn’t make any bets. She watched helplessly as her digital stack dwindled as hands went by and minimum bets were withdrawn.

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It wasn’t just her. Daniel Negreanu, a professional player from Canada who is one of poker’s highest earners, with over $42 million over his lifetime, was so incensed by the glitchy software that he picked up his laptop and pretended to punch it, while littering his Twitch stream with expletives. (Negreanu, who is also GGPoker’s spokesman, was later suspended from Twitch for threatening an online commenter with violence.)

“I have a temper,” Negreanu said. “It was my raw emotion. I know I act like an idiot.”

The World Series of Poker has dozens of different tournaments, but most people are familiar only with the two-week-long “Main Event,” a spectacle broadcast live on ESPN in recent years. Players pay $10,000 each to compete for millions of dollars and a championship gold bracelet.

In 2003, an amateur player — a Tennessee accountant with the fitting name Chris Moneymaker — won the tournament and $2.5 million, inspiring other novices to try their hands at the game, ushering in a poker boom that dramatically increased the number of people playing, both in card rooms and online.

But that online boom was cut short in 2011, on a day deemed “Black Friday” throughout the poker community, when U.S. prosecutors shut down the three biggest online poker sites and seized their assets, including the bankrolls of thousands of players. The sites had wagered that poker, a game of skill and not just chance, was allowable despite federal laws against online gambling. Prosecutors disagreed.

As a result of the shutdown, most international online poker sites stopped letting people from the United States use their sites.

So, in August, when the world series moved from to a site called GGPoker, players who remained in the United States were out of luck, particularly because the most lucrative events were scheduled for then, including the “Main Event,” which, for a mere $5,000 entry fee, offered a chance at a $3.9 million first-place prize. (The in-person version of the tournament last year had more than double the prize pool and a top prize of $10 million, and the entry fee was $10,000.)

“Given travel restrictions to and from the U.S.A., it would have been impossible to achieve international participation, even online through, without a licensed third-party to serve these customers in their home market,” the W.S.O.P.’s Stewart said.

It would also have been a far smaller event had it remained in the United States.

GGPoker, which launched in 2017, is based in Canada and Ireland with gambling licenses in the United Kingdom, Malta and Curacao. It paid W.S.O.P. a licensing fee to host the tournament. As of mid-August, over 170,000 people, have played in the international events.

Konnikova is not one of them because she refused to get on a plane for fear of the coronavirus.

“I wanted to drive to Canada,” Konnikova said. “If the border had been open, we would have gone.”

Canada, along with many other countries, wasn’t admitting Americans because of the U.S.’s surging number of coronavirus cases. Some parts of Mexico were letting Americans in but only by plane, not by car. Many of the game’s most well-known players, such as Negreanu, Phil Helmuth, Maria Ho, and poker vlogger Brad Owen, got on planes bound for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Negreanu, who is a Canadian citizen, could have gone to Canada, but he and his wife preferred to be on a beach so they chartered a private plane from Las Vegas to Cabo, because it seemed like the safest and nicest option in Mexico. “We looked at the Covid numbers and Cabo was by far the least affected,” he said.

Credit…Jeff Bottari/Getty Images for Epic Poker

“There are very few countries that allow us,” Seidel said. One of the highest grossing poker players ever, he originally wanted to go to Tokyo before realizing Japan wasn’t accepting Americans. He wound up in London, in part because his daughter lives there.

Traveling internationally to play in tournaments isn’t unusual for professional live tournament players, but doing so just to sit in front of a computer screen is. Playing online, rather than in a card room together, also adds the complication of new kinds of cheating.

“Anytime you’re online there’s a concern,” Seidel said. “People can be sharing cards or have other people giving them advice or people using software that tells them how to play.”

Many players mentioned a “ghosting” scandal from earlier this year, where a professional player used the online account of an amateur.

“The only thing that makes me more comfortable is that the honest players all do well anyway,” Seidel added.

The series left many players miffed that the U.S. has not legalized online poker federally. On Twitter, players without the means to get abroad talk about using virtual private networks, known as V.P.N.s, to try to circumvent geolocation restrictions to play.

“It’s a risk — if you V.P.N. from the U.S. and someone sees you at the grocery store in Chicago the next day,” Negreanu said. “If you get caught, you have your funds confiscated.”

Negreanu condemned the law, rather than the players trying to break it.

“The U.S. law is dumb. It’s stupid,” he said. “I don’t care what couch you play from.”

“The demand is huge. Poker is a game of skill,” said Faraz Jaka, a professional player who flew from San Jose, Calif., to Cabo last month. “When we see more legalization, we won’t have to run around the whole world to sit in front of a computer.”

The prohibition on online poker, intended to protect people from the societal ills of gambling, doesn’t mix well with a pandemic, resulting in travel that is risky not only for the players but for the destinations to which they are traveling.

“I don’t think it’s ideal. I don’t think people should be traveling right now unless they really, really need to,” Konnikova said. “A lot of poker players will say, ‘I need to; this is what I do.’ If they can’t play live, they have to go where they can.”


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