Frustrated U.S. online-poker players bet on Costa Rica

Noah Sandler, 25,  at the World Series of Poker, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Noah Sandler, 25, at the World Series of Poker, in Las Vegas, Nevada. MCT

From his oceanfront balcony, Tyler Forrester glanced out at the Pacific surf on the beach. Palm trees rustled in the breeze.

“Tough life I’m living,” Forrester said, cackling at his own humor.

Forrester is 28. He has a degree in Slavic literature from Duke University, but his academic life is a thing of the past. Forrester now makes his living in a bedroom before two computer monitors playing online games of Texas Hold ‘em for hours on end. He’s a professional poker player, and a very successful one at that.

Forrester, who grew up in Dillon, Mont., is one of probably 150 American professional online-poker players who flooded Costa Rica after Black Friday: April 15, 2011, when U.S. federal prosecutors went after the founders of the three largest online-poker companies, slamming a lid on the surging business.

Many of the Americans – who are generally male and in their 20s – aren’t happy about leaving their U.S. homes. Unlike Forrester, they voice anger at being denied the chance to earn a living in their home country even while paying taxes there.

A few miles to the south in Playa Hermosa, Jimmy Doherty and Jake Wycklendt share a wooden house on pillars with their two pet pit bulls. Both men hail from towns near Milwaukee.

“I definitely resent the government,” said Wycklendt, who’s 28, describing how infrequently he can visit his wife and two children, who live in Las Vegas. “I’m sick of it. This sucks,” he said.

“Obviously, I’m really bitter at the fact that I have to be in another country,” added Doherty, 25, who started amassing poker earnings while he was studying to become an engineer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“Even playing 15 hours a week, I was making as much as an electrical engineer would at a full-time job,” he said. “My parents were very grateful that they didn’t have to pay for my college anymore.”

The American online poker players in Costa Rica are called “poker refugees,” partly because that’s the name of a relocation service in the capital, San Jose, that helps U.S. players travel to the Central American nation, open bank accounts, find housing and start playing online quickly.

“These guys play anywhere from four to 24 games at one time,” said Kristin Wilson, a former professional surfer from Florida who started the Poker Refugees relocation service.

Wilson’s company ensures that players who move to Costa Rica have nearly foolproof accommodations, to avoid the usual travails of less-developed countries.

“If the Internet or power goes out for 30 seconds, they can lose thousands of dollars. So they have to have two sources backed up to a battery. And they have a USB data card. So if the Internet goes out, they just switch over to the data card,” she said.

Wilson said her clients “are not really gamblers. They are specialists at the craft of poker.”

They master numbers, percentages and patterns in their opponents, exploiting weaknesses. Invariably, players are good at math, but not necessarily at reading the facial signs required for live table poker.

Brent Courson, 30, is good at both. He spends an average of three weeks each month playing online in Costa Rica, then a week either in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., or traveling to tournaments. In nine years, he said, he’s made “a little under a few million” dollars.

“There’s probably 30 of us living in Jaco,” he said in a Skype interview from Las Vegas, where he was playing in the World Series of Poker.

“My typical day is wake up about noon. The games have been running better at night, so I play till 4 or 5 in the morning,” he said.

Courson moved to Jaco Beach four months ago and lives on the 12th floor of a high-rise. His balcony offers vistas of jungle and beach.

“The view I have in Costa Rica is a lot better than the one I have in Grand Rapids,” he said. Still, he hopes that online poker will be regulated soon and back on its feet in the United States.

“I don’t envision, say, spending the next three years living in Costa Rica,” he said. “I think that would be too isolated.”

Many U.S. players settle in the capital, nestled amid mountain coffee-growing farms. San Jose has more urban amenities as well as direct flights to 15 U.S. cities.

Phil Murphy, a 49-year-old former pest-control agent from Seattle who switched careers to online poker, said he had strong impressions when he got off the plane recently: “Guards and gates everywhere. That’s the first thing that stuck out at me.”

Murphy said he’d recommend Costa Rica to other frustrated U.S. players.

“It’s a good place if they want to play poker. The nightlife is crazy – muy bueno!” he said. “I live in like the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica. Maybe that’s why it’s all gated up.”

Others said they faced culture shock on arrival.

“The roads, the infrastructure, everything was a complete shock,” said Jason Webster, a 27-year-old pro from Darien, Ga. Without knowing Spanish, “you can’t communicate with people.”

A former financial adviser, Webster said he now was “paying more money in taxes than my salary was at Merrill Lynch.”

Webster is galled that he still feeds Uncle Sam while being forced to live abroad.

“I’m extremely angry. . . . It’s ridiculous that the government says that we can’t do this in the land of the free,” he said. Unlike lotteries, “poker’s a game of skill.”

Players generally think that the U.S. casino industry is behind the shutdown of most online poker, concerned about how much revenue it draws off. They scoff at the legality and widespread nature of lotteries and racetrack gambling, and say it’s hypocritical not to act quickly to regulate online poker.

Forrester, the Duke grad, is more philosophical.

“I’m not angry about it. The system before Black Friday was unsustainable, in my opinion. The U.S. government wasn’t collecting taxes” on online poker sites, he said.

For now, Forrester is amassing savings that may keep him set for life. He’s thinking about calling it quits on online poker.

“My goal is to be back in school in September 2013,” he said. What will he study? “Applied math,” he said.

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