Outside of some undisclosed Target location, a blonde woman in a perfectly coiffed ponytail does sit-ups, lifts weights with baskets full of goods, and literally screams in crazed excitement at a Black Friday flyer. No, this is not real life: It’s one of Target’s bizarrely humorous ads from holiday seasons past, starring comedian Maria Bamford. And while it’s an extreme exaggeration of the planning that holiday shoppers do in order to psyche themselves up to brave the Black Friday crush, some of it is based in truth.
To find the deals you actually want, you must sift through ads, decide which store to stake out, figure out when to arrive, determine how much to bundle up…and choose whether to bring coffee to stay awake or leave it behind because of the inevitable bathroom break it would require while standing in a line that’s snaking down the block. Now that we have Amazon and countless other speedy online delivery services, lining up for Black Friday deals in frigid temps seems quaint, almost old-fashioned. But stores haven’t given up on doorbusters for the old-school tribes of deal hunters, and it’s almost a given that once those doors unlock, there will be viral videos of streams of people risking life and limb trying to get their hands on this year’s hot shit.
But if shoppers have to go through all of this just to get a few hundred bucks knocked off a TV, what about the employees? Imagine watching a stampede of people seeing little more than dollar signs and merchandise rushing at you at breakneck speeds. It’s terrifying.
I’d know. As a retail veteran, I have spent hours upon hours during holiday seasons past catering to customers’ requests: Does this scarf match this jacket? Can you check for another one in the back? Would you get this necklace for your mother? Why doesn’t this coupon work? Are you sure there’s not another one of these in the back? Can you give me another discount? Can I just go in the back and look myself?
Last week, I stopped by Macy’s Herald Square location to pick up a pair of boots. The plan was to be in, out, and on my merry way before I got sucked into the anxious headspace I operated in during my holiday shifts at Macy’s years ago. The poor sales associate who helped me was already completely overwhelmed, and it was more than a week until Black Friday.
In 2016, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that an eye-popping 16,000 people entered the flagship location when it opened for Black Friday…at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving day. Countless more shoppers will queue outside of thousands of other stores around the country on Thanksgiving, too.
Those were the days when I took a deep breath in the stale popcorn stench of the break room, because I knew I’d spend the rest of the day playing catch-up. Backbreaking days of waking before dawn, pulling double shifts, and running from one end of the store to the other were ended with Icy Hot patches and exhaustion before having to go back and do it all over again. A staggering amount of emotional labor went into remaining chipper after having dealt with a difficult customer and a frazzled manager while Alvin’s pip-squeak voice drilled through my ear canals for the thousandth time. Yes, this is what employees are getting paid for, but I’d argue that they’re not getting nearly enough.
For two years, I had Victoria’s Secret managers breathing down my neck, reminding me that my job depended on asking customers — not once, or twice, but three times — if they wanted to open an Angel card and get early access to Black Friday deals. And forget about trying to keep the actual merchandise in order that day: If someone breathed wrong on the panty bar, I spent an hour refolding each thong to perfection only to look back and see it’d been picked through again. It was a Sisyphean task that made me question my sanity every time I stepped into that pink-and-black wannabe boudoir.
And it’s not just the people behind the counter working hard to make your holiday shopping experience a winter wonderland. Those who make the holiday magic happen have pulled all-nighters to make sure everything is just so. On my way out of Macy’s last week, I saw a trio of window dressers bundled up in puffer coats and woolen scarves peeking at their handiwork in progress from the sidewalk. “It works! The perspective is great!” The relief in their voices was palpable.
Now that I’m no longer in retail, there’s once again a sense of wonder, hope, and magic that fills my heart during the holiday season. Just as when I was little, my eyes grow saucer-wide when I see department store holiday displays replete with elfin animatronics, tinsel-tipped trees, and flecks of faux snow glittering under fluorescents — and it’s thanks to those people behind the scenes.
While Black Friday has historically been a good thing for companies and store owners, it’s hell for their employees. Working during the holiday season sometimes means extra hours and overtime pay, but I’d wager that there are few people who truly relish the onslaught of demanding shoppers.
So while you’re making your Black Friday game plan this year, here’s a gentle plea from someone who survived retail hell: Be nice to the people helping you find that perfect pair of gloves, the people putting extra whip on your PSL, the people helping you get to where you need to be, and the people delivering your Cyber Monday haul. Even if you’re the humbuggin’ type or you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, remember that the golden rule goes a long way for everyone — especially those in the service industry.
The long weekend is here! We say you abandon your Black Friday shopping strategy, take it easy, and check out a few of the city’s less intense events — none of which require you to wait in line at 5 a.m.
Black Friday Brunch, multiple locations, Friday
Instead of spending the day wandering aisles in search of toys, pull up a chair for a rare Friday brunch opportunity. A. G. Kitchen will begin service at 11:30 a.m. in the Upper West Side with chili-laced bloody marys and a smoked salmon torta, while Astoria residents can head to The Strand Smokehouse starting at 11 a.m. for a brunch burger. Additional spots offering shoppers a Black Friday reprieve (or over-indulgers a hangover cure) include Amigos in Morningside Heights, Preserve24 in the Lower East Side, and the new Upper East Side location of MexiBBQ.
Chanukah v. X-Mas: The Battle Royale of Beers, Spuyten Duyvil, 359 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, noon
Featuring a selection of cultural brews courtesy of Shmaltz Brewing Co. and other hop houses, this “battle” is one of few where everyone comes out a winner. He’brew beer will go up against a Christmas time offering from Sly Fox, with Fette Sau on hand to dish out barbecue.
Fizz & Chips: Alternatives to Champagne, Astor Center, 399 Lafayette Street, Sunday, 2 p.m.
Can’t taste the difference between sparkling wines? Tess Rose Lampert will help educate you. For $49, guests will sample five different sparkling wines and learn all about what makes these non-Champagne bubblies worth having at a party. Stick around for the bigger event, included in your ticket price, which will let you taste through 16 sparkling wine and chip pairings.
Mominette’s First Anniversary Party, Mominette, 221 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, 8 p.m.
This French bistro is breaking out the card games and drink deals to celebrate its first anniversary. Tarot cards, palm reading, music, and general merriment are all part of the evening’s festivities. Your ticket also includes a tasting of cheese, charcuterie, and desserts. Reserve your birthday party entrance through the restaurant’s event ticketing website.
Last year around this time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent in his force of NYPD officials to Zuccotti Park right before dawn, evicting the original Occupy Wall Street encampment that ignited a movement that would soon spread across the world. A week later, while the protestors reeled from the enforcement, hundreds of thousands of Americans descended upon department stores and Wal-Marts all over the country, stomping each other’s faces (and sometimes killing each other) to grab the last piece of half-off Tubberware or whatever. We have all seen the videos.
When you’ve turned nothing into something once already, you tend to feel like you can do it again. There’s faith 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 and faltering marriage by doing something that’s now illegal in the United States—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 had played strategy and role-playing video games as a kid in Houston and later began to obsess over chess. That’s when he noticed his chess buddies were becoming increasingly dedicated to online poker and raving about the returns. Wright became engrossed.
He started as most people 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, generally capped at $2 to $3 per pot. But as a volume player, he also received rewards points redeemable for things such as Amazon gift certificates, which he used to buy food in bulk.
“I was grinding my face off,” Wright recalls.
As Wright 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 had ever witnessed as a waiter in New Orleans.
Wright 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. Wright dabbled in casino poker, where the stakes are higher. But it also required a bigger bankroll and presenting wider swings of fortune. He wasn’t ready.
“I made some money to, like, get some new tires on the car,” Wright says. “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. Wright’s strategy was to play dozens of tournaments a night—primarily on PokerStars—move conservatively through the early rounds as the lesser players fell away, and then amp 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.
The first year of online tournaments brought in $100,000. A year later, Wright’s earnings had doubled, thanks to more than $100,000 he won by reaching the final table in the seventh 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,” Wright says. “So we didn’t manage it well. . . . My mind-set 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, Wright convinced his wife to move to Asheville, North Carolina, 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 exam. Wright would support them by playing online.
Most of their bank account was consumed by the move, but Wright had few worries. Why should he? He could always make more.
They moved April 1. Two weeks later, the federal government took Wright’s job.
In the poker world, April 15 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)—charging them with bank fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling.
Wright was luckier than most. Only a few thousand dollars in his PokerStars account were frozen by the feds. Others saw tens of thousands confiscated in the raids.
But Wright was now stuck in North Carolina, out of a job, and living with his in-laws, 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, who were trying to protect their turf, had been pushing it for years without luck. That’s when senators Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) got the bright idea to stuff it in a port security bill as a last-minute amendment.
In true Washington fashion, most legislators never read the final bill. Many didn’t even know an anti-gambling measure was in it. But in one secretive stroke, the two senators had declared war on poker.
The amendment didn’t actually outlaw online play. Kyl and Frist preferred their attack on the American pastime to remain surreptitious. Going after individual players would have meant a huge backlash. Instead, they targeted the financial institutions that handled the sites’ money and made it illegal to deal in gambling proceeds.
Party Poker, the world’s largest site, decided to cash in its chips. It agreed to pay a $105 million fine and leave the American market in exchange for not being prosecuted.
That left the world’s most lucrative market up for grabs. PokerStars and Full Tilt, also-rans at the time, were quite willing to step into the breach despite the legal risks.
Why not? PokerStars, based on the Isle of Man, and Full Tilt, headquartered on the U.K.’s Channel Islands, figured they were outside the reach of U.S. prosecutors. It wasn’t long before the two companies had cornered some 70 percent of the American market with revenues of nearly $2 billion a year.
But because the feds were squeezing banks and credit-card companies, finding payment processors to handle their money grew increasingly difficult.
“By early 2007, suddenly the payment options are becoming much more tricky for PokerStars and Full Tilt,” says Melinda Sarafa, a New York lawyer who has represented gamblers. “That’s where they’re starting to look into alternative providers.”
The feds’ squeeze was working. By 2009, an audit of Absolute Poker revealed that almost one-third of its revenue went to disguising the money trail.
Says Sarafa: “The allegation is that the companies tried to find banks that were essentially in distress, providing them with a very lucrative lifeline, and that the transactions were disguised as other types of transactions, so it wouldn’t raise regulatory eyebrows.”
Some in Congress tried to fight back, realizing that playing a few hands of poker after work wasn’t exactly the height of fiendishness. Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) authored a bill to legalize online games.
But while that measure was winding through the House, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York was pressing ahead. In 2009, it filed charges against Allied Systems and Account Services for processing poker money. The feds seized $34 million owed to 27,000 players.
The sites reimbursed their customers and rolled on. PokerStars and Full Tilt discovered that SunFirst, a struggling Utah bank, was willing to handle the payments in exchange for fees and an investment.
But the feds killed that deal a year later. They also quashed Full Tilt’s attempts to make similar arrangements with two Illinois banks.
Full Tilt’s problems especially were multiplying. Believing their revenue stream would soar eternally, its owners had pulled $444 million in profit from the business over the previous four years. But when the feds began seizing their payment processors’ funds, the company had no war chest to cover the losses.
By last March, Full Tilt’s customers held $390 million in their accounts. But the business only had $60 million in the bank to cover those accounts. When the feds seized its assets a month later, American players alone were owed $150 million. The feds accused the company of running a “global Ponzi scheme.”
On that Black Friday, the Justice Department killed a $2.5 billion industry.
Four summers ago, Maxwell Fritz was making minimum wage serving cotton candy and curly fries at a Portland amusement park. He had just finished his first year at Princeton, where he was studying to become a math teacher.
Fritz had played poker online casually with friends back in high school. He’d managed to turn a few hundred dollars profit, and that planted the seed for next summer’s job. It had to pay better than minimum wage.
Fritz made $10,000 after school let out, so he continued during the school year. Over an 18-month period, while still attending Princeton and working his teaching internship, he managed to take home $100,000. Over the next six months, he would grab another $200,000.
Then Black Friday hit. Suddenly, Fritz had not only lost his income, but also $65,000 was seized from his Full Tilt account.
He was among the fortunate to recover quickly. A fellow player provided a reference that allowed him to move from one kind of gambling to another: Wall Street.
“I figured if gambling online is illegal, I might as well go to legalized gambling in the form of the stock market,” Fritz says, laughing. A friend had gone to a Wall Street firm and “just blew the doors off, and he said what he learned in poker really helped him. They were like, ‘Well, we need to hire more poker players.'”
For Michael LaTour, the game was a way out of unemployment. The Syracuse man landed a job out of college selling mortgages and personal loans for American General Financial. But a year later, spectacularly inept bets by American’s parent company, AIG, put him back on his ass.
“There weren’t many jobs out there, and I’d been on unemployment for a while,” LaTour says. “I saw some people being successful at poker, and I decided if I was ever going to seriously take a shot at it, now would be the time to do so.”
LaTour played for two years, earning $50,000 in 2010. Averaging $10,000 a month for 2011, he was doing much better last year, until the feds came calling. Suddenly, the $35,000 in his PokerStars account was seized.
“The days after, it was really a panic,” LaTour says. “Nobody knew what was going on. It’s been draining emotionally.”
If he and his girlfriend hadn’t bought a house, LaTour might have gone to Canada. Instead, he has taken the Syracuse police-officer exam, but the academy doesn’t offer classes until April. Two years after pulling himself off unemployment by his wits, he’s back to searching for a job.
“This isn’t something I wanted to do my entire life, but the money was out there, and it made more sense than any entry-level job just because of the potential to win such huge amounts of money,” LaTour says.
Players weren’t the only ones thrown out of work. The feds blew up an entire industry. In 2003, Michael Minkoff started a business that handled the shipping of poker books and videos sold on websites. His Las Vegas company also did freelance video production. It was a modest affair, employing three people and a passel of part-time help.
Then came the stealth attack by Frist and Kyl in 2006. Hurling little guys like Minkoff to the side of the road, sites began closing and paring costs. Black Friday nearly finished him. At his peak, he moved more than a thousand books a month. Now, he sells less than 50, hardly enough to employ himself part-time.
The feds launched an even bigger hit on the television industry. The list of canceled shows since April is long. Poker After Dark, the late-night show on NBC, was canceled abruptly after four years when the feds called its sponsor, Full Tilt, a Ponzi scheme. High Stakes Poker ended a six-year run on the Game Show Network in December. The National Heads-Up Poker Championship, also on NBC, collapsed in October after seven years. In April, Fox pulled PokerStars Big Game and PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge prior to their second seasons.
According to Kantar Media, Full Tilt and PokerStars spent $26 million in TV advertising last year; PokerStars spent another $8.3 million on Web and magazine ads. In one fell swoop, the feds made it disappear.
Although the feds wiped out the major American sites, a few remain, most notably Bovada and Merge Gaming Network.
The volume is much lower, and it’s difficult to get paid. All have severe restrictions on how much and how often you can withdraw from your account. Merge only allows players to withdraw up to $2,500 once every six to eight weeks. And many are finding it difficult to add money to their accounts, since credit-card companies will often reject the transaction.
After Black Friday, Wright started playing on Merge just to salve nerves made raw by an empty wallet and a squealing baby. He and his wife went to Florida for a live World Poker Tour event, but he didn’t play well. When they returned to North Carolina, they didn’t even have enough money to get their dogs out of the kennel.
With their marriage stretched to its breaking point, Wright went to Costa Rica just before Thanksgiving. A friend agreed to front him a roll, pay his airfare, and cover his rent for a few months.
Costa Rica has become a magnet for Americans. Wright lives in an apartment complex with other online players. The country’s tourist-friendly economy makes it a logical landing spot for those like Wright, who has a DUI and, subsequently, isn’t allowed into Canada. Since Black Friday, companies such as Poker Refugees have sprung up to help players gets visas, bank accounts, and apartments in Costa Rica.
But there remains a larger question: Why are the feds chasing honest, taxpaying citizens out of the country? Especially for something as benign as playing cards, an act committed by nearly every American?
Congressman Barney Frank denounced the crackdown as an “incredible waste of resources” and wondered why the feds felt compelled to protect “the public from the scourge of inside straights.”
After all, for most of the country’s estimated 2 million online players, poker is little more than recreation. And those who made their living from it seemed to personify the American spirit, providing for their families by creating livelihoods from their wits.
There’s also the question of why conservatives like Frist and Kyl would push a law so lush with the dreaded nanny-state overtones. “I believe in a smaller, more conservative role for government than telling me which card games I can play on my computer,” Fritz says.
Frist declined to comment on his motives. Kyl didn’t respond to repeated interview requests.
Most players cynically dismiss the senators’ move as a strong-arm play. The feds want their protection money—i.e., taxes—and won’t let the ride continue until someone pays. But because the government moves in slow motion, it has left a multibillion-dollar industry to rot from atrophy. Any remedy will likely take years.
“It’s really frustrating to me,” LaTour says. “It just seems they weren’t seeing any of that money that was going out there, so they want to set it up, so they can tax it. But the longer this takes, the more there will be people like me who just give up on it and move on with our lives to find another way of making a living. I’ve pretty much stopped waiting around.”
A solution seems rather simple: Because everything is handled electronically, Internet poker offers the possibility of instant taxation of winnings. And the feds could easily force sites operating in the U.S. to pay American taxes for the privilege of doing business here.
Yet the mom-and-pop poker enthusiast doesn’t employ a battery of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. And even if she did, she’d still be confronted by the moralists who believe any form of gambling is a sin.
“We’re a pretty small minority,” Wright says. “We don’t have a big voice. We need to be louder. But we’re talking American politics. One, we know it’s going to take longer than it should, they’re going to find a way to screw people, and they’re probably going to make the taxing situation really complicated.”
Brian Mogelefsky grew up on Long Island and joined his dad’s mortgage business, Discount Funding Associates, out of high school in the early ’90s. It remained a small concern until the 2000s, when they took the business online, hiring 600 people at their peak.
But the mortgage industry was about to implode. By 2006, the Mogelefskys had closed shop.
Until then, poker had been little more than a hobby. Mogelefsky started playing after seeing the Matt Damon–Ed Norton film Rounders and began showing up at house games on Long Island.
But when his company collapsed, Mogelefsky decided to play poker online for a month in earnest, a test to see if it could provide a living. He ended up making $7,000. A new career was born.
His new job offered geographical flexibility. He and his wife began making lists of where they’d like to raise their two kids. They settled on a perfect neighborhood in south Charlotte, North Carolina, where they could halve their cost of living and build their dream home.
“I want to be here when my kids grow up,” Mogelefsky says. “For the things I wanted to accomplish, it was worth it to make the sacrifices. Even today, I don’t really want to play poker for a living, but I sort of backed into it, and it allowed the lifestyle and things that were important to me. . . . It was going great until April 15.”
Mogelefsky had the best week of his life just before Black Friday, earning more than $15,000. He generally never let his Full Tilt account rise above $10,000 before withdrawing the money. But by that time, the company was already experiencing financial problems.
Full Tilt refused a withdrawal at the beginning of April. By the time the feds seized its assets 15 days later, Mogelefsky had $28,000 in his account. It was now frozen.
“I know how to pick them,” Mogelefsky says, laughing ruefully. “I went from the mortgage industry to the poker industry, the two biggest collapses of the last 10 years. . . . I was in shock. Not only am I not able to produce more money, but the money I basically earned the last three months is also gone.”
The closest casino to his home is Harrah’s Cherokee, three hours away in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But it doesn’t offer enough action to make a living. So Mogelefsky began flying to Florida, crashing at his in-laws’ place in Fort Lauderdale, and playing the poker rooms at dog tracks and Indian casinos. The competition isn’t particularly tough, but the pots are small, and he can’t churn the hands that he could online.
Still, with a family of four to feed, he has no other choice but to gut it out.
“It’s hard because my expenses are through the roof, just from traveling, and then I have to eat. All the gas, all the extra costs, and I’m not able to put in nearly as many hours, and now I’m away from my family all the time.”
Like most players, Mogelefsky has no illusions about the government riding to the rescue. The feds might have crushed a $2.5 billion industry, but they seem to have no idea how to resurrect it in a more palatable form. Nor do they seem to acknowledge all the families they’ve cast adrift.
Says Mogelefsky: “It’s month to month, but the game plan is, hopefully, I can make enough playing live to survive until that day comes, whenever it may be—Five years from now? Two years from now? Ten years from now?—when I can go back to playing online.”
Vanessa Peng is a vivacious, engaging young woman from Singapore. She came to the U.S. with her newly remarried mother when she was eight, settling in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
It was a culture shock, to say the least. Peng and her brother found comfort playing video games as they slowly assimilated, and the seed of competition was sown. She would eventually study law in little Lexington, Virginia. Her eureka moment came when she watched a friend play poker online. “I was completely fascinated.”
It wasn’t until her third year of law school that Peng found the time to dive in. Slowly learning the game, she started with $25 in her account and played the penny tables. She was thrilled by the competition and the mental challenge.
“The thing about living in a very, very small town is you get bored pretty quickly,” Peng says. “Since I didn’t have much of a social life in that little town, I was able to play a lot of poker in that six months. By the time graduation came, I was supposed to be studying for the bar and that good stuff, but I was so wrapped up in poker, that was kind of what took over my life. On top of everything else, the legal market had sort of crashed at this point.”
Peng found a job working with a divorce attorney in Chicago but discovered she didn’t have much of a stomach for it. Then she failed the bar. It was something of an omen.
“I was able to take a step back and really re-examine my life,” Peng says. “Around that time, poker was going really well for me. I had my first five-figure month, and I just really started re-evaluating, thinking maybe this is what I was meant to do.”
Peng made $40,000 that first year. By 2010, she was pulling in six figures annually.
When Black Friday hit, Peng was one of the top moneymakers on Ultimate Bet, with $30,000 in her account. She had also just won $12,000 in a Full Tilt tournament. All told, she saw $80,000 frozen in the crackdown.
Peng was better situated than most to weather the storm. She and her boyfriend—who also plays—moved to Windsor, Ontario. The Canadian town sits just across the river from Detroit, allowing her to play online while still traveling to live tournaments here and abroad.
Nearly a year after the feds froze her money, Peng, who planned to use it to start a used-jewelry business on eBay, still hasn’t seen a penny of it.
Within a month of the federal crackdown, PokerStars returned $100 million to U.S. players and continued to operate abroad.
Full Tilt was cleared to offer returns but never did, since it doesn’t have the money. It owes $150 million to American players alone. In September, the feds accused owners Howard Lederer and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson of running a “global Ponzi scheme.”
“Banks fail for not having sufficient revenue to cover customer deposits all the time,” the company’s lawyer, Jeff Ifrah, said at the time. “No one refers to such failures as Ponzi schemes. And there was no Ponzi scheme here.” The court battle rages on.
Last fall, the French company Group Bernard Tapie stepped in to buy Full Tilt for $80 million and promised to pay off the debts to international players. The feds have assumed responsibility for paying American players. They’ve announced no timetable for repayment.
Absolute Poker—originally formed by four frat brothers at the University of Montana—wasn’t liquid enough to continue, either. None of its players have been reimbursed.
In December, Absolute Poker co-owner Brent Beckley pleaded guilty to lying to banks about the nature of his transactions. He’s expected to receive 12 to 18 months in jail.
Beckley’s accomplice, Ira Rubin, ran a payment-processing company in Costa Rica that disguised gambling proceeds through fake merchants and suppliers. He pleaded guilty in January and is expected to receive up to two years.
Rumors have been circulating that Absolute Poker will be repay players soon, though payoffs might be as little as 25 cents on the dollar.
“If you had a federally state-regulated system, that wouldn’t happen,” says Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas). He’s also pushing a law to legalize online poker. “This is one of those rare congressional bills that’s not a Republican-Democrat issue. There are people for it and against it on both sides, but there are much more people for it. If it came up on the floor of the Senate on a majority vote wins, it would pass. Whether it has 60 votes, I just can’t tell you.”
The general sentiment, from players to politicians, is that something will get done . . . eventually.
In the meantime, poker has gathered some powerful advocates. Casinos that once guarded their turf are hoping to get in on the online action. They’re pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to get something done, but the prospect of new revenue sources is anathema to many Republicans. They squashed Reid’s attempt to pass an online-poker regulation in 2010.
It might come down to the states legalizing online poker within their borders (much like medical marijuana) and daring the feds to step in. Nevada has already begun issuing online-gambling licenses. Washington, D.C., passed a plan for running its own online-poker site. And in December, the Justice Department reversed its long-standing view that the 1961 Wire Act banned online gaming, a move many experts see as opening the door to state-regulated poker.
Yet for the moment, the future remains cloudy. Maybe one day players will again be able to provide for their families. Until then, they’re just out of luck.
A hero roll has never seen a better filling.
Let’s face it: The very best part of Thanksgiving is not the dry turkey breast, the candied yams, the green bean casserole, or the pumpkin pie surmounted by a cumulonimbus of Cool Whip. It’s the stuffing, hands down. Nor does the food taste best on Thanksgiving itself, but on the day after as you rummage through your fridge marshaling your leftover resources.
So here’s what to do with that magical pile of now-cold turkey stuffing. Go to the bodega and buy an Italian hero roll, preferably with sesame seeds. Split it in half. Put a little mayo or freshly pressed olive oil on each side. Pop the bowl of stuffing into the microwave for 15 seconds. Then spoon the herby, bready goodness into the loaf.
Now, tuck a napkin under your chin, and dive in. Fuck you very much, Dr. Atkins!
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