US poker players turned into refugees by online gaming ban

American card players are hardly a high priority for humanitarian organisations protecting the rights of the world's imperilled communities. But such is the current plight of professional poker players in the United States, where online poker has been all but illegal since April, that a new service launched last week offering to relocate beleaguered card players to "poker-friendly countries" around the world.

The service, called Poker Refugees, was launched in response to the US Department of Justice's clampdown on online poker operators earlier this year, which effectively enforced prohibition on online poker in the US. On what has become known in the industry as "Black Friday", the three biggest poker sites in the world were closed to US traffic and their executives indicted by the FBI on numerous charges, including money laundering and bank fraud.

The operators have since either ceased trading or closed their doors to American customers, leaving thousands of professional players without income unless they dramatically change their circumstances.

"They're not moving outside of the US because they want to go on vacation, or because they want to pay less taxes," said Kristin Wilson, a real-estate agent based in Costa Rica, and a partner in Poker Refugees. "They're moving because they have to keep their job, keep their career and support their families."

Although poker is still defined as gambling in most jurisdictions, the best and most-skilled exponents have been able to earn regular incomes, comfortably in six figures, playing mostly on the internet. When the poker sites were closed to American customers, some players moved to the casino poker rooms but the games are much slower, less convenient and charge a higher fee, making the professional life much more difficult to sustain.

"Thoughts went through my mind about other options," said Kenneth Smaron, 26, from Philadelphia, who has played professionally for five years and relocated with two poker-playing friends to Hermosa Beach in Costa Rica in late July. "But reality set in and right now the only thing for me is to be up and running online to survive."

In order to reactivate frozen online poker accounts, the operators require players to demonstrate proof of a non-American bank account and overseas domicile. The Poker Refugees relocation package, which costs $1,000 per person, helps players to arrange housing and personal administration, as well as set up the other essentials for online poker players, including an internet connection – and the phone number of the closest pizza delivery outlet.

"Most poker players are not really go-getters about stuff like this," said Adam Small, the co-founder of the online poker community, which is behind Poker Refugees. "And this is a sort of monumental thing, moving to another country."

Although options exist for emigrants to begin citizenship processes, most players intend to remain perpetual tourists in their chosen destination, renewing visitors' visas as required by taking short trips over the border or home to the United States.

The Poker Refugees website offers a country comparison, detailing information such as typical internet speeds and duration of tourist visas, with the initial focus on Costa Rica, Panama and Canada, all within a short aircraft ride of the US.

"I will do this through 2012 maximum," Mr Smaron said. "Lucky for me, my girlfriend is very understanding of what I do for a living."

Other high-profile poker professionals have moved to Malta, Mexico and Brazil. Life as a poker refugee can be good. In Costa Rica, for instance, small networks of players have already been established, living in gated communities close to the beach.