For Michael LaTour, the game was a way out of unemployment. The Syracuse man landed a job out of college selling mortgages and personal loans for American General Financial. But a year later, spectacularly inept bets by American's parent company, AIG, put him back on his ass.

"There weren't many jobs out there, and I'd been on unemployment for a while," LaTour says. "I saw some people being successful at poker, and I decided if I was ever going to seriously take a shot at it, now would be the time to do so."

He played for two years, earning $50,000 in 2010. He was doing much better last year, averaging $10,000 a month for 2011 until the feds came calling. Suddenly, the $35,000 in his PokerStars account was seized.

"The days after it was really a panic," he says. "Nobody knew what was going on. It's been draining emotionally."

If he and his girlfriend hadn't bought a house, LaTour might have gone to Canada. Instead, he's taken the Syracuse police officer exam, but the academy doesn't offer classes until April. Two years after pulling himself off unemployment by his wits, he's back to searching for a job.

"This isn't something I wanted to do my entire life," he says, "but the money was out there, and it made more sense than any entry-level job just because of the potential to win such huge amounts of money."

Players weren't the only ones thrown out of work. The feds blew up an entire industry. In 2003, Michael Minkoff started a business that handled the shipping of poker books and videos sold on websites. His Las Vegas company also did freelance video production. It was a modest affair, employing three people and a passel of part-time help.

Then came the stealth attack by Frist and Kyl in 2006. Sites began closing and paring costs, hurling little guys such as Minkoff to the side of the road. Black Friday nearly finished him. At his height, he was moving more than a thousand books a month. Nowadays, he's selling less than 50, hardly enough to employ himself part-time.

The feds launched an even bigger hit on the television industry. The list of canceled shows since April 2011 is long. Poker After Dark, the late-night show on NBC, was cancelled abruptly after four years when the feds called its sponsor, Full Tilt, a "Ponzi scheme." The National Heads-Up Poker Championship, also on NBC, collapsed in October after seven years. In April, Fox pulled PokerStars Big Game and PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge prior to their second seasons.

According to Kantar Media, Full Tilt and PokerStars spent $26 million in television advertising last year; PokerStars spent another $8.3 million on web and magazine ads. In one fell swoop, the feds made it disappear.

Though they wiped out the major American sites, a few remain, most notably Bovada and Merge Gaming Network.

The volume is much lower, and it's difficult to get paid. All have severe restrictions on how much and how often you can withdraw from your account. Merge only allows players to withdraw up to $2,500 once every six to eight weeks. And many are finding it difficult to add money to their accounts, since credit card companies will often reject the transaction.

After Black Friday, Walter Wright started playing on Merge just to salve nerves made raw by an empty wallet and a screaming baby. He and his wife went to Florida for a live World Poker Tour event, but he didn't play well. When they returned to North Carolina, they didn't even have enough money to get their dogs out of the kennel.

With their marriage stretched to its breaking point, Wright went to Costa Rica just before Thanksgiving. A friend agreed to front him a roll, pay his airfare and cover his rent for a few months.

Costa Rica has become a magnet for Americans. Wright lives in an apartment complex with other online players. The country's tourist-friendly economy makes it a logical landing spot for those such as Wright, who has a DUI that bars him from entering Canada under that nation's customs laws. Since Black Friday, companies such as Poker Refugees have sprung up to help players gets visas, bank accounts and apartments in Costa Rica.

But there remains a larger question: Why are the feds chasing honest, taxpaying citizens out of the country? Especially for something as benign as playing cards, an act committed by nearly every American?

Congressman Barney Frank denounced the crackdown as an "incredible waste of resources," wondering why the feds felt compelled to protect "the public from the scourge of inside straights."

After all, for most of the country's estimated 2 million online players, poker is little more than leisure recreation. And those who made their living from it seemed to personify the American spirit, providing for families by creating livelihoods from the wits.

There's also the question of why conservatives such as Frist and Kyl would push a law so lush with the dreaded nanny-state overtones.

Frist declined to comment on his motives. Kyl didn't respond to repeated interview requests.

Most players cynically dismiss the senators' move as a strong-arm play. The feds want their protection money — i.e., taxes — and won't let the ride continue until someone pays up. But since government moves in slow motion, it has left a multibillion-dollar industry to rot from atrophy. Any remedy will likely take years.

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6 comments
Terrycart
Terrycart

This is also a main proof for the fact that more people are becoming bored of the real life. They seek to relax in this way.

Gail S.
Gail S.

Great information. Thank you for shedding light on this story! I'm glad you are providing information on the tragedy that was our Black Friday. It is well past time to license and regulate this industry in the US. Most of the world is able to play this game of skill and strategy online and Americans, of all people, should be free to play as well.

Sheryl J
Sheryl J

- Thanks for this informative article about online poker and what the government did to it. An entire industry was destroyed last year. This is the first article that really illustrates the situation. We need federal legislation that licenses and regulates online poker in the U.S. and brings back an industry. -

anon guest
anon guest

As someone who played on PokerStars, I can tell you I got every dime I was owed when Black Friday happened, PokerStars was very open and up front and my account was paid out in a timely manner, so no complaints about that. It's a total shame that the U.S poker industry has come right out and said "tax us and regulate us", and yet the government can't seem to figure out a way to allow law-abiding U.S citizens a way to enjoy a favorite pasttime. Seems to me that the moral police are behind this.

Slaps
Slaps

I thought I was hearig that they were going to put in new legislation to make it legal.... I think some people use other poker sites in the USA to gamble like BODOG...I personally use betanysports.com for all my sports betting.

KITTY
KITTY

This is another example of the feds having their heads up their asses. Just like prostitution and drugs, gambling has been with us for eons and will never go away. The feds should legalize all these things and tax the revenues of each. Our debt problems would be solved in short order. As a person who is hooked on Texas Hold'Em, I wish I could play for real money instead of chips on AOL. People who watch the World Series of Poker know that some American poker pros maintain other residences in Canada so they can play online legally, raking in lots of big bux. Hmm, more good paying jobs leaving the USA....

 
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