Students in George Mason High School’s poker club in Falls Church, Va. on November 22. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 22, 2011

I make bets for lots of money knowing there’s an excellent chance I will lose. That’s my job. For a professional poker player, every risk has an associated reward, and sometimes the riskiest plays are also the most profitable.

There were always risks in playing poker online, but that didn’t stop millions of Americans from doing it anyway. Now, the calculated gamble we took has backfired. On April 15 — a date the poker community now calls Black Friday — the Department of Justice indicted the founders of Full Tilt, PokerStars and Absolute Poker on charges of illegal gambling, fraud and money laundering. These offshore Web sites have stopped taking U.S. customers, which means 95 percent of the American market has vanished.

It feels as if part of my life has disappeared. When I turn on my computer, where are the poker tables? Where are the data displaying my opponents’ betting patterns? Where is the $216 buy-in tournament with the $3 million guaranteed prize pool I was supposed to be playing? Where are my cards?

I fell in love with poker in the late 1990s, before it was popular online. As an undergraduate math major at Yale, I climbed the steep part of the game’s learning curve in $20 tournaments at Connecticut casinos, and then in small-stakes home games in the Washington area. I discussed poker every chance I got with anyone who claimed to know what he or she was doing. It still took years for me to get any good.

The Internet version of the game allowed me to turn professional. Old-school brick-and-mortar pros expected to play about 1,500 hands in a 40-hour work week. Internet professionals can easily play 10,000 hands a week thanks to lightning-fast virtual dealers and the ability to “multi-table,” or play more than one game at a time. True grinders — players reluctant to step away from the screen for even a bathroom break — can play 30,000 hands a week or more. That’s enough for a skilled player to overcome the game’s short-term swings and earn something that resembles a regular income.

As my career evolved, online play took on a smaller role. I coached poker. I wrote about poker. I traveled to play in poker tournaments against people I could see across the felt. Internet players are often tougher, so when I did log in, it was to learn a new form of poker, or to ensure that I stayed sharp, or to play tournaments with massive guaranteed payouts. If I needed to, I knew I could return to grinding out hands online to earn a living. Thanks to the Department of Justice, that fallback option is no more. It almost feels as if I’ve been stripped of one of my college degrees — as if a career skill I’ve been honing for all of my adult life is suddenly useless.

I’m not made for the regimented hours of a regular job. I spent three years in the real world as a software quality engineer. Some days, I inputted “&,” “$” and “*” into our programs to see which caused errors. What I really wanted to be doing was writing fiction. Most people who make an attempt at being creative struggle to balance their art and their rent. When I left my job to enroll in the master of fine arts program at Sarah Lawrence College in 2002, poker solved this problem for me, and it has ever since. When I decided to finish a short-story collection, I didn’t have to stop working to do it. When I wanted to take a few months to make a short film, I did. And recently, when I decided to spend five days a week working on a novel, I didn’t have to check with my boss first. Online poker can be the opportunity of a lifetime for a young entrepreneur, which is why many of us in the poker world find the Department of Justice’s crusade against the game so curious.

“You can legally place bets online for horse racing,” says Vanessa Selbst, a Yale Law School student and back-to-back winner of the North American Poker Tour’s Mohegan Sun event. Her point, of course, is that the government doesn’t seem to have a moral objection to all Internet gambling. With international operators sidelined by Attorney General Eric Holder, American companies — particularly land-based casinos — have a wide-open market for an online version of their product. In a way, the Obama administration’s actions may have brought us closer to legal, regulated Internet poker. Is it possible they’re not trying to ban the game after all? “I don’t think it’s about prohibition,” Selbst says. “It’s about money.”

Whatever their motivations, our legislators need to defend online poker. Wherever it’s played, poker is the quintessentially American game. It’s had players such as Jim Bowie and Mark Twain, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, Gabe Kaplan and Jennifer Tilly. Why shouldn’t poker be so ingrained in American culture? Assessing risk and reward is what makes a capitalist society function.

Poker teaches life skills. The best players use logic, discipline, psychology, mathematics and personality to turn themselves into professionals. An estimated 50 million Americans play poker regularly already. Let them do it online if they want. I envision a country where online poker is not only legal but also where poker strategy is taught at every college, where players are considered valuable members of society — I wrote a large check to the government on April 17, as did many of my colleagues — and where young people understand that they’re not relegated to a few preselected career paths.

As for me, I’ll take this blackout time to finish that novel. I don’t know that what I’m writing is any good, but thanks to poker, I’m doing what I want to be doing. Isn’t that the American dream?

Matt Matros, author of “The Making of a Poker Player,” blogs at mattmatros.com.

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