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Online Poker Refugees Living It Up in Paradise – But will the Good Times End?

Posted on by RTR Dennis

Many American online poker players remember April 15, 2011 (a.k.a. Black Friday) as the fateful day when US authorities indicted owners of the world’s biggest poker sites. This immediately saw PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Cereus (Absolute/UB Poker) vacate the market.

Most pros stayed in the US, playing in land-based poker rooms or grinding out small profits at unregulated online sites. Others moved offshore to locations like Costa Rica and Mexico so they could keep playing at the largest internet poker rooms.

The latter have been living it up in paradise while churning out big profits. But will these good times continue forever? Find out as we look at the strange transition that online pros have dealt with, and discuss how long this lifestyle can continue.

Poker Refugees Stuck in Limbo

When many American pros moved to offshore destinations, they thought it would be a temporary move until the US ironed out poker legislation. What’s ensued has been a dream life filled with adventure, partying, and poker winnings.

Ryan Garitta is a perfect example of this hedonistic poker lifestyle. After moving to Jaco, Costa Rica, he and his friends fell into the welcome pattern of playing poker in the day, drinking at night, and exploring the country during downtime.

Garitta’s transition to the new country was aided by an influx of American poker players. “There must have been more than 50 American poker players living in a two-mile radius,” he told Atlas Obscura.

Chris Hunichen is another successful pro who moved to Costa Rica after Black Friday. Initially worried about the move, he found the transition easier once he arrived.

“I was horrified at first and nervous at what my new life would entail,” he explained. “[But] we became somewhat local celebrities it seemed, and the partying and women came plentiful.”
While the adventure has been nice for many players, it’s a wonder if they expected to stay in other countries this long. We’re now six years past Black Friday, and many pros find themselves in the same positions.

Kristin Wilson, who founded the company ‘Poker Refugees’ to help pros move, said that some players find the move “a bit isolating and lonely.”

International Poker Community is Relocating

American poker pros aren’t the only ones looking for a change of scenery. Wilson said that she’s already helped 100 players relocate, and she’s beginning to see more international clients.

“Now my clients come from Poland, Israel, Greece, and Portugal,” she explained.

The big reason why Wilson is seeing a larger influx of international players is because other countries are either banning online poker, or creating restrictive legal environments.

Greece is a great example of this because they impose a 35% tax on online gaming revenue. Most companies won’t deal with this high tax rate; those that do pass the costs onto players in the form of higher rake and reduced VIP rewards.

If a country can’t field a large enough player pool, it forces pros to look abroad for other opportunities. And this is why even Europeans from regulated countries are joining Americans in Costa Rica, Malta and Mexico.

For many of these players, the party is just getting started. But will they too be stuck in paradise with no idea on when poker will become profitable in their homelands?

Leaving Paradise

Some players love their new homes so much that they put down roots. Such is the case with Hunichen, who married a Costa Rican woman and has two children with her.

“My life has changed a lot from partying to family man,” said Hunichen. “It mostly revolves around them.”

But he’s now thinking of returning to the US with his family, after ruling out the idea before.

“If you asked me two or three years ago, I probably would have said I would never come back to the U.S.,” he said. “But a lot has changed in the past few years, and now I would most likely move my family to Las Vegas if poker came back to the U.S.”

Hunichen is considering going back to America regardless, even if poker legalization doesn’t happen on a widespread level.

Garitta is already back in the US, after getting married and buying a house in Florida. He felt burnt out after playing poker and was happy to return to the US. “I do like traveling, but also having a house and settling down was appealing,” he said.

However, this isn’t to say that Garitta doesn’t have some regrets about his decision. And his nine-to-five job has made him “appreciate poker and the lifestyle that much more.” Garitta added, “I really have only known poker my whole life. I am not sure what is next for me, but I will figure it out in time.”

Will Poker Refugees Ever Return Home to the Game They Love?

The ultimate scenario for many poker expats living abroad is that they’ll be able to go back home and continue playing professionally. But this line of thinking seems highly optimistic at this point.

The US, for example, has only seen three states regulate online poker since Black Friday. New York and Pennsylvania are in serious talks to do so, but that would only make five states out of 50.

France, Italy, and Spain have been discussing sharing liquidity for years. But when will it finally happen?

A number of smaller European markets have limited player pools and high taxes that make then unattractive to operators.

The truth is that many of the pros we discussed have no idea when it will be profitable to return home. This being said, they can stay in offshore destinations and continue enjoying the party, or return home when they’re tired of the poker grind.

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