It’s one thing to feel like a stranger in a strange land. It’s another to act like one.
The latter is something several U.S.-based poker pros are learning the hard way as they scramble for a place to call home in countries where online poker is still legal.
The April 15 “Black Friday” shutdown of online poker services to American customers sent thousands of players, some of whom made most or all of their poker winnings from the online game, considering the alternatives for maintaining their careers while the state of Internet poker in the U.S. remains in limbo.
In an interview with Covers.com just before the start of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Canada native Daniel Negreanu encouraged players who were affected by Black Friday to move out of the country.
Evidently, many of them heeded the advice. But for those who have limited or no experience traveling internationally, the move came with all sorts of obstacles they hadn’t anticipated.
Those included discovering it’s a bad idea to make a large bank deposit in a country where you are a foreigner, or finding it’s better to skip signing a lease agreement with a landlord for whom English is a second language.
This is where the new business Poker Refugees comes into play. The organization helps poker players with the logistics and legal paperwork needed to relocate to online-poker-friendly countries such as Canada, Costa Rica and Panama.
The idea came about when Kristin Wilson, a Costa Rica-based real estate agent since 2005 who has several poker industry contacts, started hearing cries for help from players who were encountering difficulty while trying to move.
Wilson, a 29-year-old former professional surfer from St. Augustine, Fla., soon realized there was a vast – if perhaps temporary – market for services she’s well-versed in providing. She started Poker Refugees in partnership with PocketFives.com, a popular poker-based website that offered an ample and eager clientele.
“When Black Friday happened, I immediately started getting a lot of emails on Twitter and Facebook asking these questions,” Wilson told Covers.com. “It seemed like a natural fit to formalize it and offer these services to help players relocate.”
The services offered by Poker Refugees include help with bank and real estate transactions, transportation concerns and referrals to English-speaking professionals for assistance with everything from car rentals to where they can find a good meal.
The business also assists players in obtaining high-speed, reliable Internet service, a must-have commodity considering they are competing for large sums of money and can’t afford to deal with a computer crash.
A player can have access to all of the services for $1,000, which doesn’t cover any moving expenses. But when you consider that poker pros regularly bet each other double that amount or more on who will be served the first beer at the bar, the fee appears to be a steal.
Sliding-scale fees also are available for multiple players – for instance, two roommates for $1,500 – and a la carte pricing is available for individual services.
Poker pro Nathaniel Phillips, a recent Virginia Tech graduate now living in Costa Rica, was put in touch with Wilson through mutual friends. He said he already has gotten his money’s worth through Poker Refugees.
“The poker companies require very specific documents in order for you to have your account restored,” Phillips told Covers.com. “If you don't have them, even if you are living in a different country, you will not be able to continue working.
“The main benefit of Poker Refugees is that they can tell you what documents you need and how to get them. This benefit, especially if you move to a country whose primary language is one that you do not speak, is worth the price, period.”
Matt Stout, a U.S.-based pro for Lock Poker who also moved to Costa Rica to ply his trade, said, “There are a ton of benefits to using this service.”
He noted that Poker Refugees had an English-speaking driver waiting for him and his roommate upon arrival in Costa Rica. The business also set them up with discounted hotel rooms and dining, and took care of the logistics in finding them an apartment.
Even so, Stout noted, his overall grade on Poker Refugees will come from whether the business has his financial affairs in order by the weekend so he can participate in a high-stakes online tournament.
“Obviously, getting set back up to play online poker on non-U.S.-facing sites is the primary objective of all ‘poker refugees,’ so my final review of the service is still pending until I'm actually allowed back on these sites when we have all of our paperwork together,” Stout said.
Wilson, the Poker Refugees founder, acknowledges there might be a limited window of opportunity for her business. There is a lot of momentum among lawmakers for legalizing online poker in the U.S., and many have predicted it could be green-lighted by the end of the year.
“Obviously, if it becomes legalized soon and our services are not relevant, we won’t offer it anymore,” she said.
Still, she isn’t discouraged from moving forward, particularly because she has more than enough clients to fill her days for the time being, and has found a market niche she believes could survive the legalization of Internet poker in America. This comes in the form of notoriously poor money management among those who gamble for a living.
Several players who had a large percentage of their wealth locked up in the sites affected by Black Friday incurred a brutal lesson about how to manage their finances.
“Some didn’t feel a sense of urgency about it before,” Wilson said. “They never had a shortage of money, but now they know what it feels like, and they want to plan better for the future.”
Josh Nagel covers football, poker and sports betting news for Covers.com and the Reno Gazette Journal.