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Online poker players unplug and head to casinos

After the FBI shuts down the three biggest Internet poker sites, millions of online players find themselves with few alternatives except to play face to face with others in the real world.

April 20, 2011|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Poker players at the Hustler Casino in Gardena. Some club regulars predicted a culture clash between online and bricks-and-mortar players.
Poker players at the Hustler Casino in Gardena. Some club regulars predicted… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Though it was a Monday night and tax day to boot, finding a parking spot at Hustler Casino in Gardena was no easy feat.

It may have been the ongoing poker tournament that helped the crowd swell above normal size. But over the weekend, a breed of player not usually found in clubs had also swarmed the casino. Wearing sunglasses under their hoodies and hats, they stood out "like a zebra around a bunch of cows," manager Craig Kaufman said.

They were online poker players, who usually disdained Hustler's plush velvet detailing and soft jazz background music in favor of a dozen simultaneous poker games sprawled across home computer screens.

But after the FBI last week shut down the three biggest Internet poker sites — and accused their three founders and eight other executives of bank fraud, money laundering and violating gambling laws — millions of online players suddenly found themselves with few alternatives except to play in person. In the real world.

One of them was Steve Eisenberg, a father of three who has long preferred poker websites to Hustler, the casino that happens to employ him as a shift supervisor. With several hundred dollars trapped in a now-inaccessible online account, he was at a loss.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Eisenberg, who estimated that the crowds were running about 15% larger than usual in the club. "I could try my luck with the remaining sites, but some are shady, and who knows if they'll be shutting those down next week anyway.

"I could play more in the club, but that's difficult with the kids."

On what patrons are now calling Black Friday, the feds blockaded Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker. Ultimate Bet, a smaller site that has the same owner as Absolute Poker, was also blocked.

In the Southland, online players flocked to bricks-and-mortar casinos.

"These people have to play — and if they can't play online, they'll come in," Eisenberg said. "They'll find a way."

In the Los Angeles area, it was not hard to do. The six major casinos in the vicinity hold more poker tables than the entire Las Vegas strip, according to the online Card Player magazine.

Some club regulars predicted a culture clash between online and bricks-and-mortar players.

"There are going to be a lot of different styles," said Steve Johnson, 36, an El Segundo security officer who spends about 20 hours a week playing in person. "It might end up being harder to make money at casinos."

Known as the "young guns of poker," those who frequent websites are used to going through thousands of hands in a session. They tend to play faster and more aggressively, said Kaufman, who directs tournaments for Hustler Casino.

"They'll take 3-to-1 odds on something where regular folks need 5 to 1," Kaufman said.

Commerce Casino, one of the best-known local casinos, has not had a major influx of online players, said the club's chief executive, Haig Papaian. Some of those who did show up, he said, were in a bad mood. They had hundreds and even thousands of dollars on deposit with the big sites when they went down.

"They couldn't get their money out, like during the runs on banks," Papaian said. "But it was a bad bet on their part."

Many online players across the country don't have nearby casinos to turn to. Cameron Mirsaidi of Durham, N.C., had been playing up to 35 hours a week on the Internet.

"There's nothing left now," said Mirsaidi, a water treatment manager. "It feels like a dictatorship. This is not the way to do it. The people want to play."

He's planning a trip to Las Vegas for Memorial Day weekend.

Most of his peers in casino-starved areas will turn to one of the still-operating poker venues, despite the risk that those sites could also be shut down, said Joseph Kelly, a gambling policy expert and professor of business law at Buffalo State College in New York. He even predicted that new sites would pop up.

"This is a battle the U.S. might win in the short run, but they're not going to stamp out online poker playing," Kelly said.

Bodog.com and Bwin.com are two of the better-known sites that have not been blocked. Like the shuttered venues, they are located outside of the country. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Full-time poker player John Canawati, who lives in La Mirada, predicted that underage players might turn to the smaller sites. But they could also head for the clubs.

"They'll get fake IDs, play illegally — they're going to do whatever they can," Canawati said.

The online situation might also lure some poker celebrities back into casinos. Barbara Enright, the only woman to be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, had been playing mostly from her Hollywood home, up to 12 hours at a time, until the shutdown.

"I never left the house to go play poker unless it was for a tournament," she said. "So I'm going to have to go out to the casinos a lot more often."

With the likes of Enright and the young guns at the tables, casino play could get more exciting.

"The games there," she said, "are going to get much better."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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