The Online Poker Players Next Door

Ask any professional poker player after a losing night what happened, and very rarely will he attribute the outcome to bad luck. There is an element of chance involved – for example, in the cards one is dealt – but long-term success lies, literally, in each player’s hands.

As professional poker player Annie Duke put it, “All that poker is a decision-making exercise. If you’re a better decision-maker than your opponents on whether to bet, raise or fold or call, or how much you’re supposed to raise, that’s what it’s about. … If I’m better in making those decisions than you are, then I’m going to win.”

A 2009 study by Cigital, a leading software-security consulting firm, analyzed 103 million cash-game hands from an online card room and found that the best cards won just 12.5 percent of the time. That means the other 87.5 percent of the time, a better card player got players holding better cards to fold. This clearly demonstrates that the “luck of the draw” has little to do with a player’s ability to win.

However, some in Congress, citing problem gambling as an epidemic, have sought to limit access to all online gaming. In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which prohibits credit-processing companies from transferring payments related to “unlawful Internet gambling,” which the act vaguely defines as “any game subject to chance.”

The act fails to differentiate between games of skill and games of chance, so practically all online gambling, including poker, falls into the unlawful category.

As a result, many professional and semiprofessional online poker players find their source of income at risk. Income? Yes. Far from being an inherently wasteful activity that inevitably leads to ruin, poker – including online poker – enables skilled players to earn money. More than four years after UIGEA’s enactment, U.S. laws regarding online poker remain vague, and responsible online poker players are left facing legal uncertainty.

When most people think of a professional poker player, they envision either a deadbeat dad with a drained bank account or an underage college student wasting hours of study time while racking up thousands of dollars in credit card bills. Yet these stereotypes are not representative of the more than 40,000 (according to the Poker Players Alliance) professional and semiprofessional poker players who earn a living or supplement their income through honest and highly skilled competitive online play.

For many middle-income people, online poker is a reliable way to supplement their incomes without having to leave home. For others, it is the only way they can cover their costs of living. Below is a selection of some online poker players who recently told me their stories.

Tim Lebel:Mr. Lebel, a 40-year-old resident of Lansing, Mich., is a husband and father and works full time as the vice president of a small telecommunications company. After his daughters have gone to sleep, he plays a few hours of poker online, about 15 hours a week. Through his online poker playing, Mr. Lebel earns several extra thousand dollars a year, most of which he puts toward his daughters’ college savings plans.

Greg Shevak:A 21-year-old college student in Albany, N.Y., Mr. Shevak is studying to earn a degree in computer networking systems. When he approached his parents about playing online poker, they understandably were skeptical. After some practice, though, Mr. Shevak is able to earn more than enough to pay for his tuition by playing 30 to 40 hours a week. With that money, he paid off the student debt he had built up before online poker – an activity that he says doesn’t interfere with his studies. He pays for his tuition out of pocket, and his parents have come around to a more positive perspective on their son’s extracurricular activity.

Richard Edwards:Mr. Edwards, 29, decided to join the Peace Corps after he graduated from Virginia Tech. Following his two-year stint in Turkmenistan, he returned to the United States only to discover that steady work was hard to come by. He spent the subsequent four years traveling the nation in search of steady work. Since then, he has been able to draw a decent yearly income playing poker online 25 to 30 hours a week. “In many ways, [poker] was much more honest work than being a Peace Corps volunteer,” said Mr. Edwards, who resides in Front Royal, Va. If legislation makes his ability to play online for money difficult, he said, he has plans to move to Las Vegas, where he can continue his career as a professional poker player.

Sheryl Jefferies: Ms. Jefferies, a 50-year-old resident of a Southern state, began playing poker just last year after illness forced her to retire from her job as a pharmacy technician. She says she earns about $75 a month playing low-stakes poker online, enough to cover the co-pays for her prescription medications. “I would never be able to play live poker regularly – I cannot handle it physically. … Being able to play online is crucial for me,” she says.

Limiting online poker or banning it altogether will not stop the problem gamblers, who will continue to find ways to gamble – legally or illegally. But it will hurt the honest professionals who rely on their poker earnings to supplement their incomes. It is time for Congress to reverse the damage done by UIGEA and fully legalize online poker. More important, it is high time that lawmakers respect and protect individuals’ right to spend their time, money and careers as they choose.