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Real City Matters

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Home is Where the House Is

Some online poker players lost everything when the United States shut down their game sites. Toronto, it turns out, is providing a very appealing alternative.

Toronto is a popular destination for American online poker players no longer able to work in their hometowns.

Almost exactly two years ago, on the morning of April 15, 2011, Mazin (he prefers to keep his last name private) got out of bed to find that his roommate was already queuing up for his computer. Shortly after, another friend from nearby dropped in. Online poker was a hobby they all shared, though Mazin, then a 20-year-old computer engineering student at North Carolina State University, had begun to take it more seriously. He arranged his schedule so that he only had 12 hours of class a week, two of which were online, so that he could spend more time on his laptop playing on PokerStars.com, the largest online poker room in the world. He won’t say how much exactly, but it did provide him with “a comfortable living.”

“Uh, guys? Is this a problem?” Mazin’s roommate said when a banner popped up on PokerStars’s website, advising that games were no longer available in the United States. Mazin didn’t worry too much at first—he thought maybe PokerStars would have to change its domain to a .EU address. But on further inspection, they realized it wasn’t the domain, it was their physical location that was the problem. On that morning of April 15, 2011, also known as Black Friday, online poker players across America lost the capacity to make financial transactions at online poker sites. Professional players were suddenly left without a source of income. All of them, professional or not, were left without access to their online accounts, many of which held significant portions of their net worth.

Since then, many of those players have relocated to Toronto.

“I’ve been involved in the poker business for a long time, as a journalist and also as a consultant to the big companies, so anything that’s coming you tend to have at least some advance notice of it,” said Chris Tessaro, host of The Poker Show on Sportsnet Radio Fan590. This wasn’t the case with the United States government’s decision to charge the three biggest online poker sites (PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet) with bank fraud, illegal gambling, and money laundering. “Nobody knew this was coming until it happened. Nobody knew. It was just an instant, hard slam lock down.”

The way Tessaro describes it, Black Friday resulted in war-like pandemonium in the poker world, with no word about when, or if, players would be seeing the money in their poker accounts again. And Toronto suddenly became a life-saving destination.

“People started weighing their options…a lot of the online grinders went back to their regular real lives, got real jobs, and stopped playing poker. And the rest had to move somewhere in order to ply their trade,” said Tessaro. As a well-known name in the poker industry who was also based in Toronto, he was instantly flooded with requests from friends to help them make the move, and fast. “It was a crazy situation.”

Canada was and continues to be an obvious choice for many poker players urgently needing to cross borders, with its geographical and cultural proximity to the United States. Within Canada, there are two major communities of expatriated online poker players: Vancouver, and Toronto. Shortly after Black Friday, Mazin turned 21 and traveled to Las Vegas to play in a live poker tournament, then made the trip to Toronto to meet a friend already living on Brunel Court, right beside the Rogers Centre.

“I really liked Toronto, but for me, it was an experience because I’ve never really lived in a big city of any sort. Just to be able to walk out the door and walk to anything I could think of was awesome to me. We didn’t have a car or anything, but you didn’t need one,” Mazin said. He and his friends were comparatively lucky: because they had been using PokerStars, they wound up getting their money back in a matter of weeks. On the one year anniversary of Black Friday, Full Tilt Poker still owed its users $300 million, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet owed $60 million. (Full Tilt Poker was eventually declared a “Ponzi-style scheme, and was bought by PokerStars, which had its charges dropped.)

As a 20-something with no commitments and a clear schedule, Mazin decided to seize the opportunity and see more of the world. Since spending July and August in Toronto in 2011, he relocated to Costa Rica, and again, about a month ago, to Vancouver. “There aren’t a lot of professions you can have at 22 where you can be anywhere in the world, as long as it’s not the States, and if you have your laptop with you you can make a decent living,” he said.

It’s typical for online poker players to move around a lot, according to Kristin Wilson, founder of Poker Refugees, a service that facilitates relocation for online poker players, which officially launched in August 2011. Since then, Wilson has moved 230 players, including Mazin, everywhere from Canada to Panama to Malta. In the couple of years since Black Friday happened, she has noticed a “snowbird” trend, where players will head south for the winter and then back north for summer.

Wilson says she has moved about 20 clients to Toronto, but suspects that number is low because many are able to make the jump without her help. Take Dan Smith for example, a Maryland native who got his start online and was ranked the number one poker player in the world in 2012. He’s now living on Queen West, and even as the U.S. gets closer and closer to re-establishing online poker gambling, he’d be hesitant to leave.

“I’m incredibly happy in Toronto. Even if poker came back, I’d still enjoy spending lots of time here…I have a bunch of friends here. It’s a bit expensive, but besides that I’m really happy with everything that Toronto has to offer,” Smith said. Mazin is also in no rush to return to the States, though he visits about every four months, and says he’s open to being in Toronto again.

Toronto’s community of expatriated online poker players mostly remains quiet in the press, since many would prefer to remain anonymous for tax or immigration purposes. But there are some, like Smith, who proudly make a living in their adopted hometown. The presence of this community doesn’t necessarily mean that Toronto’s professional poker enthusiasts will flock to a Toronto casino, should we choose to permit one.

“They all know casino games are a bad bet, pardon the pun,” Tessaro said. “Some might play blackjack because it’s fun, not to make money. They know statistically the house always wins.”

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