Chris Moneymaker, the first person to become a poker world champion after rising up through playing online poker.
It wasn't so long ago that the American internet poker community was a thriving, vibrant scene where brilliant young college kids could win millions from their dorm rooms. But two years ago today, the US Justice Department raided the three most popular poker sites — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker — and summarily shut them down, seizing about 76 bank accounts in 14 countries and five domain names. "It happened, it happened fast and it completely annihilated what was a flourishing industry in the United States," poker agent Brian Balsbaugh told CNBC at the time.
After the raid, the booming online poker scene ground to a halt. Most players either gave up or started playing in live games; a few took on extreme commutes so they could gamble in a country where online poker was still legal. (Poker Refugees is a service that has helped 230 internet poker players expatriate to six safe havens including Costa Rica and Malta.) Some players still have not been fully reimbursed for the money that was in their accounts on the day they tried to log in and saw a notice from the Federal Bureau of Investigation instead of their favorite poker site.
The legal status of internet poker is murky. Some believe it is now legal due to a Justice Department opinion in December 2011 that appeared to remove obstacles to certain types of internet gambling. That interpretation has yet to be tested in court. For now, the default assumption is that internet poker is illegal under US federal laws. I. Nelson Rose, a professor and lawyer in California who writes about internet gambling, believes online poker is actually not technically illegal.
However, the push for the legalization of online gambling has recently accelerated. Online poker has been legalized at the state level in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey. There are proposals to legalize internet poker in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, with California gearing up to introduce a bill soon. Texas Congressman Joe Barton has declared his intention to push for federal legislation this year.
"April 15, 2011 was truly a dark day for Internet poker that reverberated throughout the entire poker world," John Pappas, director of the Poker Players Alliance, said in a statement. "But, over the succeeding two years, the poker community has been taking back what was snatched away... To use a poker phrase, there is a full house of activity on the legislative front."
"There is a full house of activity on the legislative front."
There's also been some movement on other fronts. PokerStars has put a toe back in American waters by negotiating to buy an Atlantic City casino. Nevada has started granting licenses to online poker sites. And of course, you can play online poker with Bitcoin.
A few new poker sites have even gotten some traction with US players who are willing to risk attracting the attention of the government again, so it is still possible to find poker games online. However, there are hardly ever more than 2,000 players online at a time, which makes it harder to find enough open games to play for an extended period of time. By comparison, PokerStars, which is still operating outside the US, has more than 110,000 players online concurrently.
Poker forums and news sites are treating today as a day of remembrance and reflection. However, some say poker players themselves are part of the problem. Poker is an individual game, not a team sport, and the PPA has had some trouble recruiting players to help lobby for the cause. The PPA was formed in 2006, after the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act made it easier for the government to pursue what it considered to be illegal poker sites. That should have been the first sign that trouble was coming.
Driving to gym and hear 3 lottery commercials but online poker illegal. #backwards— Chris Moneymaker (@CMONEYMAKER) April 12, 2013
Still, most online poker players didn't care about the new law, as long as they could play and get their money out. It wasn't until Black Friday that the majority started paying attention. But even now, many former internet poker players The Verge spoke to are complacent. Once they got their money refunded, they stopped paying attention to the legislative fight, even though many would still like to play if they could.
However, most internet poker players believe the game will make a comeback. Poker needs to be legalized for three reasons, Pappas told The Verge in an interview in September. The first is that it's already happening, but without licensing and regulation. The second is that it's a potential revenue generator for the government. And the third is that it just strikes most people as common sense. "Why shouldn't an adult spend their evening playing a five dollar sit-and-go on an internet poker site with their own money, in their own home, on their own computer?" he said. "It just doesn't seem like a logical prohibition."