On Friday, April 15th, 2011 a federal indictment against the founders of online poker's three biggest companies was unsealed. The founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker have been charged with, among others, bank fraud and money laundering. The government also issued restraining orders against dozens of bank accounts used by poker sites and their payment processing companies, as well as five Internet domain names, in addition to filing a civil suit seeking forfeiture of $3 billion.

The allegations revolve around poker companies allegedly employing fraud to slip their way around federal law, and “tricking” some U.S. banks into processing payments after the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1955 also factors in. Analysis by noted defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt, on her popular legal/crime blog TalkLeft (“Poker Busts: A Trail of Cooperators” April 16, 2011), reveals that the government’s case, as it is often, is based on getting previously indicted people to turn on others (by offering them, of course, very sweet deals). Rat season. It must also be noted that there are no allegations of poker companies attempting to rip off players, only to get around ambiguous law in order to pay those players their money.

This action has, effectively, shut down online poker in the United States. Up until this point, the US online poker industry has been the largest market of its kind in the world, worth many billions, despite its shaky (or not so, depending on whom you ask) legal ground. Is it worth the $3 billion the government is seeking? More? No one really knows.

Yes, gambling can be abused, and some people, I have even known one, were no doubt addicted and digging their financial graves by playing too much – again, no one can say how many – but this can be true of almost any activity humans engage in. What is known, in this depressed and corrupted economy, is that thousands of Americans had literally been making their living by playing online poker, many more were simply and necessarily supplementing, and even more were just enjoying the game as citizens of “free” America. No longer.

And so it is with increasingly incensed amusement, under this newly darkened cloud – with online poker dead for the foreseeable future, and with the tricked-up Wall Street casino still continuing to pull scams with its welfare money – that I review the final months of 2010, when I turned seven hundred and fifty free pennies from evil FullTilt Poker into more than ten thousand honest and hard-earned dollars.

In many ways, green criminal that I am, I still have no idea how I did it. But I did, the money is in the bank. And yes, Ms./Mr. Fed, the taxes have been paid on it. Now go find a loophole to make G.E. pay their taxes.

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Pregame. About four years ago, after never really caring for the game at all, inspired largely by watching on ESPN as Temecula’s Jerry Yang wins the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event (and the $8.2 million prize), I get interested in poker relatively late in its rise in popularity. I’m not a 22 year-old math whiz dropout, nor a trust-fund baby with a bottomless bankroll; I don’t play thirty games at the same time like some internet savants – I can handle two at the max, and mostly I play one at a time. When I start playing, I don’t even know the odds all that well, but I’ve watched enough on TV, way too many midnight hours of it, to have a decent clue. Plus, playing online, I can easily pull up an odds chart from a myriad of websites whenever I need to know exact numbers at a certain time. Mostly I learn as I play. And play and play and play.

I am, to be frank, just an odd guy in my, oh let’s call them my late early forties, who is looking to occupy his OCD mind in between house-husband/daddy duty, the occasional research gig, and trying to write the next screenplay his mostly former agents won’t be able to do anything with.

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At first I play freerolls: free tournaments with massive fields of players, up to ten thousand. Mostly I play Hold ‘Em, the game you see on TV all the time, where players are first dealt two down cards (also called pockets) with which they make their first bet or call or fold. After this first round, the “flop” is then laid on the table by the dealer. These are three community cards that everyone can use with their down cards to make their best hand. Another round of betting, checking, folding follows. Then the fourth card (“the turn”) is laid down by the dealer, the same action ensuing, then the fifth and final community card, called the “river.” Hands can be won before a flop is even seen, after it, and after the turn or the river. Sometimes everyone folds on their down cards and the last player to bet pre-flop, the big blind, wins the small pot. All depends on the cards and the action and the players. Skill and luck and backaches. It is a simple but maddening game that I will come to love and loathe.

In these freerolls, of the thousands of players who start, only the top hundred or so places pay any real money, and most of these pay just a buck or two. Win the whole thing and you may take home ten or twenty. For six hours of work. Freerolls are little more than amateur crapshoots, not much different than standing outside the 7-11 with a Newport Lite between your lips, a bag of donuts and Keno card in hand, and peering through the window at the numbers coming up on the lotto screen. And hoping.

I play these freebies on FullTilt, PokerStars, UltimateBet, all the indicted sites and a few others. But I play mostly on FullTilt, under the screen name “Roy L Phlush.” I love the name, it’s clever and makes me laugh, as it does others who comment on it, usually while they’re knocking me out. It’s a much better name than I am a poker player, and I don’t win a thing, I don’t even last long in these free tournaments. I’m terrible. I haven’t yet played enough, put in the time, and I’m the worst thing you can be in poker: impatient. But I’m only playing in between writing, or not writing, or taking my son to little league practice, and it’s not costing me anything, including time, since I’m so bad I’m usually getting knocked out within a half hour.

But then in one freeroll I almost make money. My play is better, more patient, I make well calculated raises and disciplined folds. I grind for four hours and finish two spots from picking up a buck and a half, maybe less. I’m pissed, but perversely encouraged. Seeing this as proof that I am better than I actually am, I deposit a few real dollars of my own – a couple of times on FullTilt and once on UltimateBet. These are miniscule amounts, twenty-five or fifty dollars; but even with these paltry sums, the entire process of depositing feels creepy to me, and not just because of the dubious legal status, but like I’m making a backroom deal to poison someone’s pet. The second tiny deposit I make is accompanied by a call from Dubai. Great, I think, I’m dealing with people who need to locate their shit in Dubai, this is so shady I can’t stand it.

But the money is deposited and I play with it, and I get creamed. I’m still a donk, still too impatient, still playing the wrong cards in all the wrong positions, and then my wife says, “Please don’t become a degenerate gambler who loses all of our money.” So I never make another deposit. A few years earlier, my late stepfather had gotten himself deep in credit card debt playing online poker, tens of thousands of dollars worth, and my mother had to bail him out of it as part of their divorce, and that’s all I can think about when I hear my wife’s concern. I may be OCD and grossly eccentric and dysfunctional, but I’m not degenerate. Well, at least not that way. If you want to know what I am degenerate about, Google “dehydrated fruits that resemble alien corpses.”

So I go back to the occasional freeroll. Like I said, it’s hard to get through these free tournaments, and for one main reason: the thousands of bad players in them, myself included. Many times I am knocked out early by some fool who throws in all his chips against my dominant hand, a moron who needs two cards for a straight or flush…and then hits them. Because of this, I often oblige by being a bad player, too. I begin losing early again, very early, to dopes who push all-in with ducks (a pair of deuces) or, more regularly, 2-7 offsuit (statistically the single worst starting hand in Hold ‘Em), and I’m standing right back where I started: on a mark that says “Idiot.”

Finally though, after fifty tries at least, I win some real money in a free tournament. I play in a FullTilt freeroll with the usual gigantic field of players and manage to win two dollars. It takes me four and a half hours. This works out to an hourly wage that would keep a Bangladeshi pigeon-tamer fairly content. I am positively thrilled. I proceed to head for the micro and low stakes tables, where, playing for pennies and nickels, I manage to run those two bucks to about fourteen in a week, before busting out. I am getting better, but still not good enough.

The next time I score in a freeroll, weeks later, I actually manage to win a tournament. I outlast, outplay and, to be honest, outluck three thousand other people in FullTilt’s daily Omaha Hi freeroll. It takes me more than six hours. I win fifteen bucks. I am genuinely stunned. I have always, or almost always, played Hold ‘Em. Omaha is a tougher game to me, with more cards to worry about. Now I have a “real” bankroll to start with. Fifteen bones. But my joy is short-lived. This is because, unfortunately, I am depressed in general at the time, about a screenplay that I thought would sell, which didn’t, and I promptly lay all fifteen bucks down to play in a tournament with a $14,000 prize pool. I bust out in a matter of twenty minutes, my pocket queens assassinated by a pair of sixes, one of which is a diamond, a suit I don’t possess, and four diamonds hit the board, giving my opponent a flush that flushes me out of the tournament. See ya. Enraged, beating my futon’s pillow to a feathered pulp, I ponder my stupidity. I should’ve played one cent/two cent, or one dollar single-table tournaments (SNG’s), and run it up slowly, patiently. There’s that word. Patience. But instead, I blow it all again. Dope.

Disgusted, I don’t play for months. I write a screenplay with a friend in LA, a twisted comedy about thirtysomething identical twins with a bizarre sort of psychic bond, and we call it Corn Dogs in Limbo. I write a poker scene into it, of course. The screenplay, say those who read it, is funny as hell, BUT…it doesn’t have enough of a single stupid kindergarten throughline to interest anyone who matters. At this same time, I start writing a blog on the website of the local free weekly, the San Diego Reader, the first installment of which I manage to get published as a cover story. I will spend a year on the blog, cobbling together the first draft of what I hope will become a decent to incomparable memoir. I prefer the latter. As does my Id.

After completing and posting a new blog chapter one night, in a good mood, I open FullTilt and play a freeroll again. I play for several hours and make it to the final table in a free $100 Hold ‘Em tourney. It ends at 5 a.m. I take home four dollars. I play with this money the smart way, slowly and surely, patiently, and I run it up to thirty-five bucks in two weeks. My wife is pleasantly surprised when I tell her. But then I hit another bad skid, a horrible skid, I take bad beat after bad beat, suckout after suckout, every time I get aces they’re worthless, and I bust my tiny bankroll (not entirely, but I leave myself with too little to legitimately play with). I’m frustrated, but once again encouraged. Now I believe I have more than a clue at the table. I feel like I can be a good poker player. I swear to myself (and at myself), that the next time I win anything, I am going to do something serious with it. I take note of FullTilt pro Chris “Jesus” Ferguson’s $0 to $10,000 experiment, which took the former WSOP Main Event winner a full year to accomplish. Though I’m not so deluded as to think that I can make as much from nothing as Jesus did, I’m certain I can win something, and I’ll settle for much less. I just want to cash out once, I think. A few hundred dollars and I’ll feel like I’ve done something. I’m a better player, I know what I’m doing. Just give me one more chance.

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In the middle of 2010, with banks dropping like flies (except, of course, those giant banks that were too big to fly, much less drop), the small San Diego bank my wife works for is in play. It is not a bank drowning in bad mortgages or risky financial bets, and the regulators who swarm all over the place like ants on picnic food remark that the bank isn’t like others they’ve closed: the executives aren’t driving Rolls Royces, their offices are not stuffed with pricey furniture and art, it’s just a small community bank run by honest people, but with a few big commercial customers who have gone belly-up, leaving the bank with some bad loans. The bank needs to raise $22 million fast, or they are going to be shuttered and sold off. The time frame given to raise the money is too fast for the bank to meet realistically (the fix is in, if you ask me). Still, they raise all but four million of the funds, and they will have the additional money in two weeks. They ask for a brief extension to secure those funds. But the government says no, you’re done, and the bank is sold off to a bigger institution; a heftier bank with, I think cynically, connections to some politician or politicians, and the whole thing just stinks.

Four million dollars is squirrel nuts compared to the billions and trillions squandered by the bigtime thieves who remain untouched; and it also pales next to the $87.7 million it cost to deliver on a platter, with no garnish or sides, skinny little First Pacific Bank to fat and hungry CityNational.

So my wife will be out of a job in a few months. She’s an executive, she’ll get a nice severance, we’ll be fine for awhile. Plus, a few years earlier we’d sold our tiny house in the city, in not-so-aptly named Normal Heights, at the height of the real estate kaboom, ignored our real estate agent and everyone and refused to buy after that, banked our sweet profit and became renters, a decision we will never regret. We are much better off than others. Still, I immediately begin to feel the pressure: time for Starving Artist Boy to bring in some real money. My first thoughts focus on my screenwriting, my latest script, begging my old agents to sell it, rent it, anything. But it takes me a week to get one of them on the phone, and then another two weeks to get them to read a single scene from my latest comedy, and they don’t laugh at all. But wait, don’t hang up, what about the baseball movie you always loved, and always said you’d take another shot at (the film THE ROOKIE, still only a few years old when my national pastime story first went around Hollywood, had made it hard for mine to sell). But they can hardly remember the baseball movie, and they show very little interest in picking it up again. Baseball movies never make money. What about my old thriller? You always say that’s what I really am, a thriller writer. Come on, guys, couldn’t we get it optioned again somewhere? Uh, no. Sorry. Write a new one.

Dejected and anxious, I sit in my office late at night, staring at my blank screen, unable to conjure a new and jackpot screenplay idea. I’m waiting for all my psychosomatic symptoms to kick in at any moment: my back, my stomach, my facial tic, my feet, any of them or something else. I am an emotionally induced malady machine. I have learned why and how, and I can control or mitigate the symptoms most of the time, but I have no desire to deal with any of it. Tonight it’s my feet, which start to burn madly when I try to walk, what doctors would call plantar fasciitis, and what I call “another one of the intense physical pains my subconscious brain likes to try to distract me with when it’s raging.” So I stand and face the wall, then lean into it, stretching each foot until the arches burn so intensely they feel like they are going to rip apart any second; I talk to my subconscious brain, tell it I know something’s up, just relax; this is how I meditate, I guess. And the pain usually goes away within minutes. I heave a breath and sit back down. It is close to midnight when I click into a FullTilt freeroll to distract my mind in a “healthier” fashion.

A little before seven the next morning, my wife enters the kitchen in her robe and gropes for her desperately needed Diet Coke caffeine jolt.

“Did you come to bed last night?” she asks.

“No,” I reply. “I stayed up all night and won seven dollars and fifty cents.”

And this is how it really begins. With these seven hundred and fifty free pennies.

You’re on, Jesus.

Go!

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Later that morning, I notice that I still had three cents in my account from my last mini run and crash. So I start with $7.53. That first day, playing in dollar SNG's (first place $4.50, top three places pay), I run it up to more than twenty dollars. I’m on to something, I know I am. I can feel it. Because of this, I quickly decide that I don’t like cash games anymore, that I’m a tournament player, single or multi-table, it doesn’t matter. I just hate watching coins dribble away every hand in micro cash games, where you are playing with real money in an open-ended game of fixed blinds (minimum bets), as opposed to a stack of tournament chips bought for a flat price in a format with a finite beginning and ending (via increasing blind levels) and a specific prize pool. For some reason, I can more easily handle paying a flat entry fee and seeing how I do. And there are low buy-in tournies, for under five bucks even, that can pay you a thousand for winning, or much more. They have large fields, often in the many thousands, but still, it’s a shot at good money, and a better shot if you know how to play, and I finally think I do. So that’s what I am after: a big little tournament score. I will play Hold ‘Em and little else.

I quickly, within a few weeks, have surpassed my previous high. I get my bankroll up to fifty, seventy, then a hundred dollars. I feel like I’ve won the World Series. I try to stay close to Chris “Jesus” Ferguson’s strategy of not putting more than 5% of your bankroll at risk at any one time. I may not follow it exactly, but I like to keep it in the back of my mind. With that hundred-plus dollars in my account, I start playing $4 Rush tournaments with fields of 135 players. Winner gets about $120, final table gets you decent bucks too. Rush poker is new. It’s different in that every time you fold you are automatically shuttled to a new table for a new hand. Though you can stick around and watch hands play out, most people play these tournaments because they are fast beyond reason. Boom boom boom. No waiting, just keep getting down cars until you get some good ones: fold, new pockets, fold, new pockets, fold, new pockets, all in. They are crazy and OCD friendly, and they’re fun. Even better, I make money in them.

I win two of these little tournaments, final table a few more, and I get my money to an astonishing $500. My wife is flummoxed, as am I, but I won’t cash out yet, I’m not as satisfied with a few hundred as I thought I’d be a month earlier. I know a big score is just around the corner. I am playing in twenty dollar tournaments now, real bigtime tournaments, ahem, with better players and bigger prize pools – in the many thousands. One Friday, I win a cheap satellite (a qualifying tournament offering entry to a bigger tournament for a much lower price), fourteen dollars, and earn an entry into the weekly $750,000 Guarantee tournament on Sunday, usually a $260 entry fee, with the winner getting more than $120,000. Thousands of people play. When it begins, I am confident, dreaming of what it will be like to see that staggering figure in my account. How the hell am I going to withdraw that sum? I am sure, at least, that I will finish in the money, which would be nothing but gravy, since I got in on the cheap. As the tournament goes through the first several blind levels, I am patient and disciplined, but I am what they call “card dead.” I never see a pocket pair, never a good ace, for two hours and a hundred plus hands this goes on. It’ll come, I think, just hold out. Surprisingly, I never even see a hand I fold become a winner, so I don’t feel all that badly, just ready to see my good cards. But they never come. As the blinds increase and my time runs out, I have to play what I get, which ends up being crap. I bust out, out of the money, two plus hours wasted. Oh well, I still have almost five hundred in my account. I am certain beyond question that it is only a matter of time.

I am playing online poker like a fulltime job now, and each of these days are filled with nine to five, plus overtime, poker agony. Another run of bad cards. If I am a 3-1 favorite, I lose at that same rate. Coin flips? Please, it is a two-sided coin against. I keep track of one stretch, about fifty of them, and I lose roughly eighty percent. Crazy bad run. In poker, a coin flip situation usually refers to putting some or all or a significant portion of your stack into a roughly fifty-fifty situation. For example, I have pocket eights, snowmen as they’re called, and I raise with them pre-flop. Another player then pushes his entire stack all in. I am fairly certain he has a big ace – AK or AQ probably, at the least two overcards to my eights. In other words, I am ahead right now, but if I call his bet and put a big chunk (if not all, donkey that I can be), of my stack at risk, then I am doing so knowing that I am in a coin flip situation. The odds are pretty much even that my opponent will hit one of his overcards on the flop or turn or river, and that he’ll beat me. Thus, as a result of my coin flip charting, I realize it is true what they say, coin flips are coin flips, you’re just as likely to lose as win, and good players try to stay out of them as much as they can. So I start to stay out of them a little more.

It helps, but I am still falling fast. A combination of bad cards, bad play, and too many distractions, the biggest of which is I’m depressed about my writing, and that means I’m playing poker when I’d really rather be doing something else, and when I do that…I lose.

The hellish bad beats, and bad reads, and bad cards, and bad run continue like never before. My bankroll falls below two hundred dollars. Then one fifty. I should stop playing and take a break. But that means I have to think about writing. I keep playing poker. I watch other players going through the same thing, and I read their enraged chat messages with sympathetic amusement. They are from countries all over the world, chatting in languages of all shapes and imagined sounds. I play at tables of nine or six, and many times I am the only ugly American there. Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Vietnam, Argentina, Russia (so many Russians), Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan (US soldier or Taliban?), Uzbekistan, India, Greece, Belgium,. Sweden, Norway, Lichtenstein, Mongolia, China, Australia, South Africa, Laos, Croatia, Dubai. More than I can name. And I soon learn that the agony is all the same wherever you go. And how sick and lonely and degenerate some guys are. They insult you, rant at you. You’re the most useless f-cking donk on the planet. Your mother is a dogwhore. Stuff like that. Sometimes in Cyrillic.

But here’s what I’ve learned: no matter the odds, the numbers, the statistics….it’s friggin’ cards. There are only fifty-two of them. It would be different if there were, say, a 599 of hearts, but there are only thirteen cards in each of the four suits. And you know what? That ain’t very many, and you’ll see all of those cards when you least want to a lot, especially online. Because you see so many more hands than in live play. Exponentially more. It’s just the nature of the online poker beast to scream in agony in the loneliness of your room at yet another suckout. Get used to it. I don’t think some of these guys really appreciate it. Fifty-two cards is just not that many. Go play Mahjong, I think there’s more than a hundred of those little tiles.

At last, however, the bad run ends and I haven’t busted out. I win another of my $4 tournaments, do well in another few, and I get the bankroll above three hundred. Whew. But for the next week, I am frustrated beyond belief at my inability to win real money, to make a final table in a significant tournament. I’m not losing money, I’m just treading water, but the suckouts and bad beats at crucial times are beyond my comprehension to believe. I begin, for a few weeks of this abuse, to believe FullTilt might be rigged, that they know I am only doing this with free money, and that my account is marked and they won’t let me win more. They want me busted out and broke and once again depositing more of my own money. But I keep playing, running in place, waiting for the big score I am certain lay in the near future.

I start to play more regular tournaments again, not so many rush tournaments. In rush, you have no time to chat, except at the final table, because you’re never at the same table with anyone for more than a hand. In regular online poker, where you stay at the same table sometimes for hours, frustrating periods like this are filled with chat, as I try to make myself laugh through the rage:

“My pockets are pitiful. I just folded a deuce and some guy’s business card.”

“I haven’t seen a phucking ace since the last time I watched TOP GUN.”

“My down cards are so down they’re clinically depressed. Prozac pockets.”

“I was in a tuxedo at a toga party – wrong suit.”

I think my best chat comes in response to a British guy, who I’ve just busted out. He has AA, I have QQ, but I hit a queen on the turn to take him out. It happens. But not to this psychopath. He hangs around for several hands, ranting at me, insulting my play, my gender, my cock, my wife, my mother, my child. I picture him in the cellar of his parents flat in Yorkshire, wearing only a pair of his sister’s panties, with a two-headed baby in a jar above his computer monitor.

He keeps it up. Calls my mother a whore.

I chat back, finally, employing my standard rhetorical strategy in these situations: “She’s hot, you want me to give her your number?”

Pause. Did this get rid of him?

Nope. He chats back: “That’s okay, I picked her up on the street today.”

Me: “I know, she told me about your diaper and the penis pump. You guys really do have good medical care in England, even for inmates.”

Him: “That’s funny, but now I’m sodomizing your wife.”

Me: “I’m gay. And Rocco has a colostomy, you may want to wear a raincoat.”

Another pause. I think he’s gone. I could just turn off chat, but I like tormenting him. These guys never know what to do when I mess with them like this.

He comes back with a string of obscenities.

I finish him off: “Get out of your mum’s basement, call the police, and tell them where you’ve buried the bodies. At least give the families closure. You lonely, lonely man.”

This gets rid of him. I get thanks from others at the table. Of note, during this months long poker run, I do not encounter a single instance of degenerate chat coming from any player I think to be a woman. There are plenty of women playing, a decent percentage, and surely a sub-group are as wretched as those certain men I play with, but when it comes to foul yapping it is dominantly a dude’s game. As such, it will be another dude, with another bad attitude, whom I bust out with a worse hand – a much worse hand, it turns out – who plays a huge role in my first big tournament cash.

That’s right, I do it. After weeks of doubt and torment, after countless miracles on the river to beat me, after unfathomable suckouts and bad beats…I finally hit.

It is a tournament that starts close to noon. I have written in the morning, so I feel good about letting myself play poker. I have to pick up my son from school in a little less than four hours, so I plunk down $26 to play in the Turbo $10,000 Guarantee, which should end in time for me to ensure that my son isn’t left at school when the moon starts to shine. I am one of 1284 players entered, and the tournament pays more than $2000 to the winner. In turbo tournaments the blind levels, or minimum bets, increase at a much faster pace than in a normal tournament – every five minutes as opposed to every ten or twelve or fifteen, for example. This removes a measure of patience from the game, which online play removes enough already, and turbos tend to become lotto on speed. And speed plus lotto equals splotto. And splotto is how I usually fared in turbos, but this day it’s the only tourney that gives me a shot at winning good money in the time I have left before daddy-duty.

My big hand comes when I have only about twenty blinds left. Not enough to be too patient for too much longer. With everyone else folding before me, with only the small and big blind players after me, I raise with A-9 offsuit, a strong hand in that position. The small blind, who has only a few hundred chips less than me, pushes all-in. The big blind folds, and the action is back to me. I hesitate, think about how this guy has been playing, a little loose I recall, and then I look at my paltry remaining stack. In that position, with no one else in, with a tiny stack and my time running out, I think I have to call. I hope he has a crappier ace, or a little pair, but I’m wrong, he has A10 suited. I’m dominated. But then the flop comes, and there’s my nine. I survive the turn, then the river, and boom, I’m back in the tourney. The guy goes berserk, manically types how much I suck. Look, I chat back at him, it’s late, it’s a turbo, I have to call there. But he’ll hear none of it. I’m the worst player ever, the biggest donk he’s ever lost to, rant rant rant. He hangs around for dozens more hands, giving me crap from the peanut gallery. Usually I would rip him a new one, but I feel lucky to be alive, more than ever, so I don’t reply, and finally he goes away.

As the tourney turbos on, I make my way up the leaderboard. I’m as patient and strategic as I can be in a turbo. I cannot remember every hand that moves me up, but they come one after another. I fold when I should, raise when I should, win when I should. And the next thing I know…I’m among the last nine players, I make the final table. Here I am. The screen changes, the table is now surrounded by TV lights and a sellout crowd. Oooooooh. I’m already guaranteed more than I’ve ever won in a tournament, but I want more. And I get more. I manage to last until only three players are left, until I call a pre-flop raise by pushing with pocket tens. My opponent has A-Q suited. Another coin flip. Sigh. He hits nothing on the flop. I am encouraged, excited, but then…comes the turn. A queen. I’m toast. The river fails me, and I am done, deflated for an instant. But then a small dialog box comes up on screen, and it reads:

“Congratulations! You have finished the tournament in 3rd Place. $1797.60 will be deposited in your account.”

I gaze at the message for a moment, then erupt in euphoric hooting and hollering, jumping around my office like a rodeo steer. I’ve done it, I’ve actually done it! I call my wife at work and give her the news. She is in total disbelief, but elated.

Now…I just have to get the money.

I’m convinced this will be impossible. I request a check for $1500. First I have to verify my identity by sending them a copy of my driver’s license and passport. Then I have to wait. And wait, and wait. And wonder…is it really legitimate? I know plenty of people are making tons of money playing online, I’m just not so sure schmucks like me actually get our checks, much less when we’ve been playing with free money. My wife’s tenure at her bank comes to an end. She is home with me now. We have a trip to Hawaii planned, and that $1500 is our fun money. If it shows up.

Before it does, and before we head for the Big Island, I score big two more times. I finish second, in a field of more than twelve hundred players, in the $10,000 Rush Guarantee, pocketing a little under $1500. Six days later, I stay up all night again and outlast more than eleven hundred people to finish fifth in the $18,000 Rush Guarantee, winning $1326.25. A rush it is indeed.

My wife is in shock. She spends most of her time under blankets as I request another check, this one for $2500. I have four grand in free poker booty on the way. I am heading to Hawaii. Life, especially if that first check shows up before we leave, is very good.

Days before our vacation departure, and much to our astonished delight…the first check shows up! It is from a payment processor in Utah. Those wily Mormons, I think, they know how to work it. Depositing the check, I feel the same creepiness I felt when I got that call from Dubai. But the teller says nothing unusual, only that it will take a few days to clear, and that is that. Now I can go on vacation with spending money in the bank and the knowledge that this poker thing is for real. That I can really try for more and trust that the money will show up when I make a withdrawal request.

Starving Artist Boy done good.

Hawaii is a blast. The time with my wife and son is beautiful. We get a private guided tour of Volcanoes National Park. I go snorkeling in water deeper than I ever would have normally, fearful of sharks and other sea life that may understandably view my trembling ass as lunch. I have too much New York Jewish blood in me. I’m a land animal. And happy be on terra firma always. But I jump right into the turquoise Pacific and revel in the rainbow of fish and coral at play below me. My son spots a fat eel sticking out his neck, razor teeth visible from a distance. I don’t flinch. We visit thunderous green curtained waterfalls, their beauty more than words can express. Everything is sweet and simple and pleasure.

Until, that is, the night before we are to leave, and I have a little breakdown, high maintenance child of dysfunction and chaos that I am. I know it’s because I feel the pressure to win more, and I’m sure subconsciously it’s much worse, as if I have to bring in this bacon now that wifey, the bank vice president, is out of work and the entire banking industry is blowing up. I feel the hyper-tension, and so do my wife and son as I rant around the condo for a few minutes incomprehensibly, like a nutcase reality show housewife. Then I am a bear at the Kona airport, a largely outdoor affair that is so crowded we are waiting in the sun for an hour, my mood worsening with each degree of burn being scorched into my hatless and thinning coconut.

Our flight home is late and connects in San Francisco. Here, fog like a giant cotton ball blankets the airport. We return so late to San Diego airport that all the cabs have gone home. Standing in a steady November drizzle, increasingly wet, I see two shuttle van drivers picking their noses. Realizing we are going to be tenth or twentieth in line for cabs that aren’t even there, I become cruise director and begin to yell out for any people who live near us and want a ride home, to organize a full shuttle trip, as these driver’s require. Soon, within minutes, our van is stuffed with wet and weary travelers anxious to get home. But my recruiting prowess overwhelms our driver. He cannot figure out the best route, whom to take home first. Stymied, the confused shuttle driver hands me his laptop invoice to figure out. It is under my direction that he is able to deliver his passengers to their destinations. We are dropped off second to last, a sullen gal in her twenties from Pacific Beach none too thrilled with being the final passenger. She is probably worried, without me to guide the driver, that she’ll never get home.

We stumble into our Bay Park house after one in the morning, and it takes everything in me not to immediately head to my office and click into a tournament. At that hour, however, I am likely to be playing with mostly Europeans and Asians, and they tend to beat me senseless when I am outnumbered in abundance, so I crawl into bed. The following morning, I tell myself, with plenty of crappy Americans playing, I’ll get back to raking in the pots.

                     *   *   *   *   *   *   *

A few days after we return from Hawaii, my second check shows up, for $2500. I proceed to celebrate by winning an eight dollar satellite tournament, earning entry into the daily $60,000 guarantee. About $12,000 of that – at least – will go to the winner. It’s a tournament that would normally cost me $160 to enter. Because of that price, fewer people will be playing. The final tally is 445 players. I like that number, I feel good about it. It’s manageable, and not a daunting several thousand. I grab a sandwich in the kitchen and kiss my wife, who is home out of work, making another in what seem endless batches of cookies and candy. She wishes me good luck, and I head back down the hall to my office to start playing. I begin the tournament as confident as I have ever been.

I have good reason to be, as it turns out. Two or three hands in, in early position, I draw pocket aces. I put in a big pre-flop raise. Everyone folds around to the small blind. He raises me huge. Now I have a decision. I know I have the best hand, but do I want to risk my tournament right away? It’s free money, I think, go with it here. I push all-in. He calls immediately with a pair of kings. I have him dominated and knock him out, doubling my stack quickly. This allows me to make more moves, bluff a little. To play real poker, in other words. And I play it well. That double-up puts me in the top ten right away, and I only leave for a brief spell, when I bottom out at fifteenth. Everything falls into place after that, I don’t make any stupid moves, I get lucky a few times like you have to in order to win big tournaments, and I find myself at the final table. The table thins quickly, I am picking up hundreds, then a grand, every time someone is eliminated. I end up finishing in fifth place, winning what to me is an astronomical $4505.63. I walk into the kitchen, where my wife is sitting at the counter. My son is in the living room doing homework, and I don’t want him to know what I’ve been doing, so I write my results on a card and put it in front of my wife. She reads it.

“Oh my god. Are you serious?”

I nod, yes. She swears she cannot be more amazed.

When I request a check for the money, however, I am informed that FullTilt is “temporarily” not able to offer checks. My only option is a wire transfer. Here we go again. After waiting a few days in the hopes that checks would become available, I soon become nervous about leaving that much money in my account for too long. I decide to try a wire transfer. Expecting feds to show up at my door any minute, instead the money shows up in our account with no problems in a few days (except for being a slight amount short, a potential skim I am curious about, but not enough to dig any deeper – it's probably a small service charge, and why draw attention?)

My wife will soon have a final chance to be amazed. Only four days later I play in that same $18,000 Rush Guarantee I’d scored in earlier. I stay up all night one more time, and when I crawl into bed close to six a.m., my wife groggily asks me, “Well?”

“A little over twenty-one hundred dollars,” I say, spooning her. “I already requested the wire transfer.” She falls back to sleep.

It is now, in the pre-dawn morning, that I realize I’ve beaten Jesus. I’ve gone zero to more than ten thousand in less than four months, and all the big scores in little more than one. Hmm. I don’t know what to feel. I mean, I’m proud. And I like the money. But I don’t know. I need to get back to my book.

Unfortunately for my literary instincts, I am making money at poker, as opposed to writing, and it continues to draw me in for awhile. I still have several hundred dollars in my account, and I spend a good chunk of it on satellites for FTOPS tournaments. FullTilt Online Poker Series, their little World Series of Poker knockoff, offering larger buy-in tournies with much bigger prize pools, several in excess of a million dollars. During this time, I play several hands with pros, which is fun. I play for about an hour at a table with Lee Watkinson, whom I’ve seen many times playing on TV in dark sunglasses with his hoodie pulled tight. I tell him about my freeroll run, and he is impressed, and when I get him to fold on the river on a bluff, I think I have truly arrived as a player. It’s just one hand, but he’s a pro, I’ll take it.

I don’t get into any of the FTOPS tournaments this way, the cheap way, the smart way. So I pay full price to enter one, the most I ever pay to enter a tournament, in the hundreds, way more than 5% of my bankroll, a stupid move Jesus would not approve of, but I’d already beaten his mark, and I was curious to play in an FTOPS event. I finish just in the money and make my buy-in back plus a little extra. But it is nothing that will excite me anymore. After that, I lose some more, play completely average and uninspired poker. I play when I’d rather be writing.

I take a colossal bad beat that kills me. I am about to move up in a tournament. About to get into position to make money. I have this guy read like a book. I know he has a big pocket pair. But I have trips (three of a kind) on the flop. And now a boat (full house) on the turn. He’s falling for my trap the whole way, is sure he’s ahead, bets big again, and then I push all-in. He calls me without the slightest hesitation. Just like I thought, he has that big pair, kings. I have him dominated, a ninety-plus percent favorite. He only has two outs at the most left in the deck, the remaining kings, one of which would make a better full house for him than I have. I just have to survive one measly card, then I’ll be on the way to another prime score, I know it. I am counting my chickens by the thousands. Then the river hits.

King.

Boom. His boat sinks mine with that card. Bye bye.

I am finished, busted. Two-outed on the river. Awful. I stare at the screen for minutes. I can’t even be pissed. 52 lousy cards. That’s all. A few days later, my online “career” comes to an end with what I can only describe as the worst fold I have ever made. I have pocket jacks. I end up folding and losing a bundle to what I will be shown is a pair of nines. He has to show me, doesn’t he? Thanks, pal. I could live happily thinking you had queens, but nines? This I can be pissed about. But my interest is waning in general. I start to feel like I’m becoming a computer, like I’m less human. When my bankroll falls below fifty bucks, I quit. Those pocket jacks killed my mojo.

                     *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I have sore feet and a mild new facial tic for the last month that I live in San Diego. I’ve spent my entire life in southern California, but my wife has gotten a job in San Francisco with a new and, no laughter please, socially conscious bank, and we’re moving to the bay area. It stresses me out of my mind. She moves a month before my son and I, and she comes back on the weekends. I am the single father for those weekdays. I am anxious about leaving my mild and temperate homeland. About leaving my proximity to Hollywood, close enough to keep the dream alive, even if it really isn’t the same kind of dream at all. Mostly I hate change, fear it, because I had too much unpleasant change as a kid. I’m a mess of worry, and I can imagine how much more badly it must be rattling around my subconscious. Hence the foot pain and the facial tic. (The foot pain I deal with as I usually do, but the tic is persistent and only ends when we move north and are settled in.)

I go on one last poker binge in the month before we move north. But it‘s pointless. I don’t really want to play, and so I lose. Then, one night, my chat gets as degenerate as those guys I used to hate. That’s it. I’m not that guy. I go back to my book and work hurriedly to get the first draft completed before we have to move. I am happy I do.

Out of nothing, I have put several thousand dollars in our pockets. Sure, I could’ve done better, that fold to those nines still sticks in my craw, and that river suckout did its damage to my will. I could’ve played in more big tournaments, for more big money. I could’ve played more cash games, like most moneymaking players do. I could have, as always, been smarter. And, of course, more patient. But I’ve done pretty damn well, and, for a guy with a malignant sense of inferiority who literally started from scratch, that’s more than enough for me.

This is not to say, however, that there isn’t a part of me that feels tread on, that is ready to go Tea Party on my nanny government. I work hard at something, become good at it, better than good, I turn thin air into lots of cash – an even older American dream than an overpriced house with an adjustable rate mortgage you’ll never be able to sell – but Uncle Sam says, no, sorry, I don’t play that game, and neither can you. Then, as if to rub their greasy, grifting paws into my already disconsolate face, I discovered only recently the absurd and infuriating fact that Congress members, brace yourself if you didn't know this, are legally allowed to engage in and profit from inside information gleaned as part of their congressional duty. In other words, we can't play poker online, but Congresscritters have a free pass to cheat the stock market for fun and profit all they want.

Pitchforks, anyone?

                     *   *   *   *   *   *   *

More sentimentally, this was my farewell to San Diego, I suppose, to SoCal itself. This mad poker run. Now I live in the bay area. And the online poker bonanza is over for everyone in the United States, at least for the time being, the long time being perhaps. Indictments and civil suits are pending. Tens of thousands of players are stuck with money in their accounts, huge amounts for many. Though the sites and the government say the money will be refunded, the logical anxiety and uncertainty remain. The Europeans, meanwhile, must be shaking their heads at us again. They legalize and regulate. We’ve still got too much puritan in us. They don’t have that, since all their puritans got on boats a long time ago and sailed away. Where did they sail to? Right here, and they started a country.

We became, however, a largely wild west nation, and in that tradition, for a few months, I gambled as a full-time job. I made something from nothing, just like those banksters and Wall Street players did with their derivative junk and other illusions. I even did it faster than Jesus could. The only difference between me and those banksters, in this sense, is that I rarely bluffed, that I didn’t screw millions of people to make my free money. I had to play a real game, not just rig a fake one.

So, my powerful government, go after FullTilt, and PokerStars, and the others (hell, you may still go after me). If they did evade taxes by laundering money, if they indeed committed fraud, then you may have them legitimately. But please, spare me the outrage. Trillions more have been made off with by those who are, in effect, the financial monarchs of our kingdom (or their kingdom), incapable of being touched. The Wall Street power guys are laughing at these poker fools, just like they laugh at community banks like First Pacific: “You boys never had enough juice to game the real casino. Not like us. Good luck, you’ll need it, since we already bought all of it.”

Well, not quite all. I swiped a bit for myself my last few months in Southern California.

Now, where are my tar and feathers?

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