Illustration by Jesse Lenz.
When you've turned nothing into something once already, you tend to feel you can do it again. You have faith that 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 by doing something that's now illegal in the U.S. — 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'd played strategy and role-playing videogames as a kid in Houston, Texas, and later began to obsess over chess. That's when he noticed his chess buddies were growing increasingly dedicated to online poker and raving about the returns. Wright became engrossed.
He started as most 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, which were generally capped at $2 to $3. But as a volume player, he also received rewards points redeemable for things like Amazon gift certificates, which he used to buy food in bulk.
"I was grinding my face off," he recalls.
As he 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 ever witnessed as a waiter in New Orleans.
He 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. Walter dabbled in casino poker, where the stakes are higher. But it also required a bigger bankroll, and presented wider swings of fortune. He wasn't ready.
"I made some money to, like, get some new tires on the car. 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. His strategy was to play dozens of tournaments a night, primarily on PokerStars, moving conservatively through the early rounds as the lesser players fell away, then amping up his aggressiveness as the field whittled down.
It was still a grinding way to make a living, sometimes requiring Wright to stare at a computer for 24 hours straight. But he'd spent his teens pulling World of Warcraft all-nighters. And now, instead of making bank with tiny pot after tiny pot, he could bring home as much as $15,000 in a single session.
Wright's first year of online tournaments brought in $100,000. A year later, his earnings had doubled, thanks to more than $100,000 he won by reaching the final table at the 7th World Series of Poker event in the summer of 2009.
But the money was coming a bit too easily. "We never really learned to manage money because nobody in our family has ever had any," he says. "So we didn't manage it well.... My mindset became, 'How much money do you need? I'll make more.' Rather than 'We need to cut down on expenses,' it was 'Don't worry, I'll shoot for this goal.'"
Wright found himself retreating more and more into the casinos, especially when he and his wife would fight. He was becoming a classic workaholic, and he didn't enjoy the soul-sapping casino atmosphere. He was equally worried about the effect of Las Vegas on their kids.
Last year he convinced his wife to move to Asheville, N.C., to be closer to her parents. The plan was for her to take the year off, care for their newborn daughter, and study for the North Carolina bar. Wright would support them by playing online.
Most of their bank account was consumed by the move, but he had few worries. Why should he? He could always make more.
They moved on April 1, 2011. Two weeks later, the federal government took his job.
In the poker world, April 15, 2011, is known as Black Friday. That's the day the U.S. Department of Justice seized the assets and shut down the three biggest companies serving the American market — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker (which also operated Ultimate Bet) — and charged them with bank fraud, money-laundering and illegal gambling.
Wright was luckier than most. Only a few thousand dollars in his PokerStars account was frozen by the feds. Others saw tens of thousands confiscated in the raids.
But he was now stuck in North Carolina, out of a job, living with his in-laws, and with no way to provide for a family of four. Their financial troubles accelerated. When the first opportunity came for his wife to take the bar, they didn't have the money to pay for the test.
Hardly anyone noticed when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act passed in 2006. Moralists and casinos trying to protect their turf had been pushing it for years without luck. That's when Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and John Kyl (R-Ariz.) had the bright idea to stuff it in a port security bill as a last-minute amendment.