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Sudden end to Web bets angers online poker players

US crackdown on 3 big providers cuts off easy access to potential profits

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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For Northeastern University student Brendan O’Dowd, online poker was more than a game. He played almost every day, often for hours at a time. He says he turned consistent profits that he relied on to buy books, food, and walking-around money.

Like a shift worker punching the clock, he thought of the electronic card games like a regular paycheck.

So when federal prosecutors shut down the three most popular online poker sites last month, accusing their owners of defrauding banks to maintain the flow of billions in illegal gambling profits, O’Dowd and legions of players like him were livid.

“It was my main source of income over the past few years,’’ O’Dowd said. “It was a livable part-time job where I could be my own boss and make my own hours, as well as have a higher hourly rate than pretty much any normal job I could be working.’’

An ardent online poker community immediately dubbed the April 15 crackdown “Black Friday’’ and remains in a state of angry mourning. Now, some players want to convince US lawmakers that online poker should be legal, and some are planning to travel to Washington, D.C., this week as part of the Poker Players Alliance, which is aggressively lobbying to legalize online poker.

“It’s a great game,’’ said Alan Haley, 42, who began playing seriously after watching qualifier Chris Moneymaker stun the poker world by winning the 2003 World Series of Poker. “And they took it away from us.’’

To incensed poker players, “they’’ refers to the US Justice Department, which last month charged the owners of Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker with laundering billions in illegal gambling proceeds. The government seized the foreign-based companies’ domain names and froze their accounts, leaving millions of online players without a reliable place to play.

Federal law has long prohibited betting over phone lines, which prosecutors have interpreted as banning Internet gambling. Several major online poker sites are headquartered in offshore havens, out of reach of that law.

But a new law in 2006 barred US companies from processing payments for unlawful Internet gambling, effectively barring such companies from operating in the United States. Prosecutors say the poker companies duped US institutions into accepting them.

“These defendants, knowing full well their business with US customers and US banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck,’’ Janice K. Fedarcyk of the FBI said in announcing the indictment.

Poker advocates are pressing for legislation to legalize the game and regulate the industry.

“It’s good for the economy,’’ said Dan Brown, a Wakefield player who heads the state’s chapter of the Poker Players Alliance. “It’s competitive, and it’s convenient.’’

While supporters of legalization say thousands of professional players have been stripped of a livelihood, opponents say easy access to gambling can cause addiction and financial ruin.

“It takes gambling from being a social activity to a solitary activity,’’ said Margot Cahoon, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. “That makes it more dangerous.’’

The group has received numerous calls from parents whose children have run up large bills playing online poker at college, drawn in by the easy access and addictive quality of the game.

“A lot of young people have problems with this,’’ she said. “The money seems unreal, and they can play for hours without realizing it.’’

Between 8 million and 10 million Americans play online for money, poker groups estimate, and an increasing number are college age. Between 2008 and 2010, monthly use of Internet gambling sites rose from about 4 percent to 16 percent among college-age males, an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found. About 400,000 males between 18 and 22 gamble at least once a week online, the survey found, and more than 1.7 million do so at least once a month.

O’Dowd, who has played online throughout his college years, was reluctant to say how much he typically wagered, except to say he was able to win consistently. Until now.

“I’m pretty miffed about it,’’ he said.

Other online sites remain open to American players, but advocacy groups like the Poker Players Alliance are warning players to avoid them because of the threat of legal action.

“Unless Congress regulates the activity and establishes a safe market for the players, this game of whack-a-mole between the [Justice Department] and overseas website operators will continue for a long time,’’ said John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance.

Haley, a father of three from Tewksbury, said he has been devastated by the loss of the online game, which he played first thing in the morning and last thing at night, sometimes for hours.

“I’m sitting on my deck with my laptop, looking at my pool, and I can’t play poker,’’ he said Friday afternoon. “I thought this was America.’’

A landscaper by trade, Haley dived into the online poker world, and says he improved to the point where last year he won $11,000 in a three month span.

“You can play so many more hands than at a casino,’’ he said. “And you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home.’’

Still, a casino is now is main option, and Foxwoods is only 105 miles from his home.

“I’m thinking about going tonight,’’ he said.

nGlobe correspondent Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.