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Jennifer Robson

American poker players struggling after April 15

9 May 2011

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's a standard recession-era tale of woe: A company closes and workers lose their income.

But there's little else conventional about what has happened to North Las Vegan Mike Ziethlow.

Ziethlow earns a living through Internet poker, playing for cash on websites such as PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker and selling poker-training software.

It all came crashing down on April 15, when federal prosecutors in New York indicted those sites' founders for fraud, money laundering and operating illegal gambling businesses.

The sites ceased U.S. operations immediately. Caught in the legal crossfire were the bankrolls of thousands of online players. Take Ziethlow, who said he has roughly $9,000 tied up in the sites. That's 75 percent of the 30-year-old's life savings.

"My money is all locked up," he said. "I have no money."

So Ziethlow has taken to the Strip with his guitar, strumming and singing for donations from passers-by outside casinos. He's gone from making $20 an hour online to earning $40 playing for four hours on the resort corridor on a recent Friday night.

"Now that they've taken my money, I can't do anything else. I can't even go play live (poker). And I moved to Vegas just in case they did something with online poker, so at least I could still play live," he said.

Legions of Americans face Ziethlow's dilemma.


John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance in Washington, D.C., said 8 million to 10 million Americans play poker online for money. Roughly 50,000 classify themselves as full-time, professional Internet poker players, while "countless thousands more" use online poker to supplement income from day jobs. The three shuttered sites probably represented about 70 percent of the U.S. Internet cash-play market. Statistics from, an industry research and data service, show the sites' importance to the game: The world's online poker market shrank 22 percent in the week after the shutdowns.

"The economic impacts of this crackdown are severe. So many ancillary businesses and industries have been supported by growth in the popularity of poker, particularly Internet poker," said Pappas, citing adjunct operations such as training companies, trade magazines and agencies that represent players. "There's untold economic damage."

The harm is even greater in markets such as Las Vegas, where unemployment remains above 13 percent and suddenly cashless players have few options, Pappas said.

"It couldn't have happened at a worse time for poker players, particularly in Las Vegas. They're being thrust into a really terrible job market," he said. "They had a really steady income, and now that's been taken away from them. It's not as if they're able to just go out and get an equally high-paying job."

For Barbara Decker, of Allentown, Pa., the federal case has erased five years of toil invested through PokerStars, FullTilt and Absolute Poker. Decker, who spent around $80 buying Ziethlow's poker software two days before the federal shutdown, said it's taken half a decade to diligently analyze her opponents, take notes and develop a database that allows her to play intelligently.

"All of that is just gone," she said.


Lest you think Internet poker isn't genuine work, Decker reeled off the effort she put into her online game.

"It is a real job. I work at least as hard at this job as I've worked at any job, and I work hard at whatever I'm doing," said Decker, who left a 20-year career in real estate appraisal to focus full time on poker. "I put lots of time and effort in. On any given hand, poker is a game of chance, but over a large sampling of hands, whether you win or lose depends on your skill."

Decker, 57, wouldn't discuss the size of her bankroll or how much she earned playing Internet poker. She's considering starting over at another, smaller site, or she may look for another job. Because she's lived below her means for most of her life and has some savings to live on, she said she'll be OK.

Her son, Evan Decker, isn't so lucky.

The 26-year-old used his online poker proceeds to pay for college, where he's studying to be a physician's assistant. He's played the game online for four years, up to 40 hours a week. When he started school in 2010, he dialed back to 25 hours a week. At its worst, in 2010, his annual poker income still reached $45,000 to $50,000. He has a bankroll approaching five figures invested -- and now frozen -- online.

For now, Decker and his wife will continue to live with his mother instead of getting a place of their own. He'll look for work in landscaping, where he said he'll likely make 10 percent of what he made per hour during his peak poker-earning years.

Meanwhile, Ziethlow will keep hammering away at his guitar.

Ziethlow estimated that he cashed out roughly $30,000 in income from PokerStars and FullTilt since he began playing through them two years ago. He collected $2,000 or so on sale of online-poker software through his website.

It was a good enough living for Ziethlow. His needs are simple, he said, and he can live happily on $1,000 a month.

It could be tough to clear that much playing on the Strip.


The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently caught up with Ziethlow on a blustery Friday night on the pedestrian crosswalk between Bellagio and Caesars Palace, where he stood atop a milk crate, dancing and belting out '80s hip-hop classics with his guitar case open for donations. Above his tips jar, he'd taped a sign that read, "Former Online Poker Player -- FBI Seized All My Money -- Please Help." Ziethlow drew a smiley face after the entreaty.

OK, so the FBI didn't technically take Ziethlow's money. Rather, the operators of PokerStars, FullTilt and Absolute Poker suspended "real-money" play in the U.S. after the federal indictment came down.

But the shutdown has had the same financial effect on Ziethlow as any seizure of funds.

Even as he described his frustration with the legal limbo that froze his money, Ziethlow remained affable, smiling frequently and talking about how he planned to make do in coming months.

"Without poker," he said, "I'm gonna make music my life, and making music my life means coming out here and playing for a bit of spare change."

Ziethlow is also working through creative-funding website to lure donations for his band, The Dead Languages. Once he reaches $5,600 in contributions, he plans to record an album of original songs. He'd brought in a little more than $3,000 as of Wednesday. He needs to raise the rest by May 16 to make a go of the project.

Ziethlow said he figures online poker won't bring in a good living for at least two years, as the federal government takes time to revisit regulations and "bad players" steer clear of cash-play sites in fear of future bankroll freezes.

The jury's also out on whether Ziethlow and the Deckers get their bankrolls back.

PokerStars said in an April 20 statement that it had arranged a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to let U.S. players cash out. Cereus, the parent company of and Absolute Poker, said on April 28 that it was working out an agreement with U.S. attorneys to "facilitate the return of funds to U.S. players."

Ziethlow said he's received "a small portion" of his money, and the company told him another check "is being processed."

The Deckers said Cereus hasn't responded to their queries.
American poker players struggling after April 15 is republished from