U.S. online poker players find refuge in Canada

Canada is becoming a refuge for online poker players from America, where money games are no longer legal. Players can pay a broker $1,200 to help facilitate a move north.

Online poker ban in U.S. sends players north of the border

On April 15, 2011, a day known as ‘Black Friday’ in the world of online poker, the U.S. government made it illegal for a person to be paid money for playing online poker in that country. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

Canada is becoming a refuge for online poker players from the U.S., where money games are no longer legal.

On April 15, 2011, a day known as "Black Friday" in the world of online poker, the U.S. government made it impossible for a person to be paid money for playing online poker in that country. It's now illegal for online poker sites to pay players if they are located in the U.S.

Since then, professional online poker players have been leaving the U.S. in order to keep their careers alive.

The change in law sparked the creation of the website Poker Refugees, which, for $1,200, helps players from the U.S. to move to Canada, where online poker is still legal.

"Canada’s one of our most popular destinations — in addition to Costa Rica," said Julie Wilson, who runs the site. "The main reasons are because it’s English-speaking and its proximity to the U.S. It’s less of a culture shock for players to cross the border into Canada than into Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean.

'Canada's one of our most popular destinations.' — Julie Wilson, Poker Refugees

"They really don’t want to leave the U.S. but they have to for their careers, which they lost, literally overnight."

Players see cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Windsor as some of the more desirable new locations.

Wilson has relocated several players to Windsor. Most of them are "grinders," players who are simply making a living at the game. The high-rollers tend to head to Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Whistler or even Europe, she said.

"We have clients anywhere from barely scraping by to guys who are multimillionaires in their 20s," Wilson said.

Her clients tend to be young men with deft math skills. Some, she said, will apply for tourist visas or student visas in order to stay in Canada.

The University of Windsor said it would have no way of knowing if American students are enrolling simply to play poker in Canada.

"In any case, personal information about students is confidential," said Lori Lewis, manager of the school’s news services, public affairs and communications.

Wilson said there are plenty of players who choose not to use her site’s services and make the move on their own.

Players post ads on the free online classifieds site Kijiji and in online poker forums and message boards.

An ad recently posted on Kijiji is from someone claiming to be a player looking for a room in Windsor.

"I'm an American coming to Windsor for 4-6 months ... I play online poker for a living, but it has become much more difficult to do so in America due to new laws passed," the ad reads. "You must have a reliable internet connection. [I’m] looking to pay around $300/month."

Player 'never heard of Windsor'

Eric Beck, 22, from Louisville, Ky., said he was "really getting in a groove" when the U.S. government stepped in. He and his girlfriend are moving to Windsor on Jan. 1.

"Growing up I’d never heard of Windsor. When I realized it’s only about seven hours from Louisville, I realized it would be the perfect spot," he said.

He plans on visiting Niagara Falls while he’s in Canada.

Beck, who has been playing professionally for four years, used Kijiji, Craigslist, poker forums and Google Earth to find a place to stay. He plans to stay for only six months and then head to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

For added security, Beck also got himself a Nexus card on the basis that he wants to vacation in Canada "and possibly play some poker there."

The Nexus program is designed to expedite the border clearance process for low-risk, pre-approved travellers into Canada and the United States.

CBC News found two other American players living in Windsor, but they declined to be interviewed.

'Better than average job'

Beck plays eight hours a day and wins, he said, between $5,000 and $6,000 a month.

"They’re making at least what they could in a normal job and work the hours they want," Wilson said.

Beck, who knows players living in Toronto, said being a professional online poker player in Canada is better than an average job in America.

"I’ve had my share of minimum-wage type jobs," Beck said. "Poker’s not easy either, but it’s better than waking up at a certain time and having a boss."