Online Poker Kings Get Cashed Out: Killing Livelihoods and a $2.5 Billion Industry, the Feds Attack Internet Gambling
When you’ve turned nothing into something once already, you tend to feel like you can do it again. There’s faith your luck will turn. Perhaps it’s delusion. But for a professional poker player, self-confidence is essential.
So it is for Walter Wright, who now finds himself in Costa Rica. He left his wife and two children behind to redeem their failing finances and faltering marriage by doing something that’s now illegal in the United States—playing poker online.
Wright’s life began to change in 2005, when he followed his then-girlfriend from New Orleans to Virginia, where she was beginning law school at Washington and Lee University. He had played strategy and role-playing video games as a kid in Houston and later began to obsess over chess. That’s when he noticed his chess buddies were becoming increasingly dedicated to online poker and raving about the returns. Wright became engrossed.
He started as most people do, playing what’s known the “cash game.” It’s simple poker—win by pushing your advantage when the cards are good and bluffing when they’re not. If you know the odds, bet wisely, and seek out tables with lesser players, within a year or two, you can be making a grand a week or more. Five to 10 times more.
Wright started at low-stakes Texas Hold’em with table limits of just 25 and 50 cents. The beauty of playing online is that he could work eight tables at once. It wasn’t the best of money. pokerstars.com was taking its own cut from the pots, generally capped at $2 to $3 per pot. But as a volume player, he also received rewards points redeemable for things such as Amazon gift certificates, which he used to buy food in bulk.
“I was grinding my face off,” Wright recalls.
As Wright honed his feel for the odds and what his opponents were holding, he moved up to sit-‘n’-go games, which are essentially small-scale tournaments that can be finished in an hour. It took time, but he began to see more money than he had ever witnessed as a waiter in New Orleans.
Wright made $17,000 that first year and quit his job. He made $28,000 the next and $55,000 the year after.
Four years ago, when his wife got a job in the Las Vegas public defender’s office, the Wrights shipped off to Nevada. Wright dabbled in casino poker, where the stakes are higher. But it also required a bigger bankroll and presenting wider swings of fortune. He wasn’t ready.
“I made some money to, like, get some new tires on the car,” Wright says. “Make some money and pay a bill… . I was getting a little frustrated with that.”
That’s when he discovered multi-table tournaments online. They’re like sit-‘n’-gos but feature as many as 200,000 participants in a single tourney—and much bigger pots.
It was easier than playing head-to-head in cash games, since the competition was generally worse. Wright’s strategy was to play dozens of tournaments a night—primarily on PokerStars—move conservatively through the early rounds as the lesser players fell away, and then amp his aggressiveness as the field whittled down.