4 Reasons You Should Leave the US If You’re a Pro Poker Player

By in Tips & Advice on

When the federal government brought the hammer down on the online poker industry back on April 15, 2011 – a disastrous event known forever after as “Black Friday” – millions of Americans lost access to their hobby.

That was bad enough, but for a select group of poker players who earned their livings playing online, Black Friday was a crippling blow. After all, it’s not every day the feds swoop in with indictments and seizures to essentially shut down an entire industry. That’s exactly what happened to American poker pros though, and in more seven years since, the landscape hasn’t exactly changed for the better.

Sure, the Department of Justice (DOJ) did issue a memo in December of 2011 to clarify its stance towards online gambling. The ruling limited the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 to sports betting only, thus allowing individual states to legalize and regulate online poker if they see fit.

But only four states have taken those steps – Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania – and the Keystone State has yet to launch its online gambling industry. That makes it 47 states where Americans are still prohibited from playing online poker legally, effectively turning the Land of the Free into a no-fly zone for poker pros.

As such, a massive migration has occurred since Black Friday, as thousands of poker-playing Americans have dove headlong into the expat life. Whether they sojourned south of the border to Mexico, island hopped in the Caribbean, hightailed it up north to Canada, or hopped the pong to play in Europe, an entire generation of American poker pros no longer call the States home.

Whether you should make the same leap of faith is obviously a personal decision, one based on many factors outside of this author’s purview. With that said, the following list highlights four good reasons why poker players might decide to depart American shores for greener pastures.

1 – Statewide Legalization is Occurring at a Snail’s Pace

Right off the bat, American poker players face an uphill climb if they want to stay in the States and earn a decent living.

As of today, the only three states offering legal and regulated online poker are Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware. Of course, plenty of poker pros already live in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, so those gambling meccas are always an option – but they just can’t match the worldwide online poker scene.

Even with a recent tristate agreement to share players across the WSOP.com / 888 Poker network, America’s regulated sites are dwarfed by their counterparts overseas.

Taking a look at the latest data compiled by poker traffic tracking site PokerScout, you’ll find the WSOP / 888 network ranks 26th in terms of player volume. On average, only 190 players frequent the network’s cash games at any one time, with the traffic peaking at an average of 324 players.

That’s right, you read those figures correctly – less than 20 full tables of cash game action can be found running at any one time, even on the nation’s largest regulated platform.

The numbers are even more distressing for PokerStars NJ and PartyPoker NJ, two of the original online poker titans that only recently returned to the American market. PokerStars NJ averages just 75 cash game players, with an average peak of 213, while PartyPoker lags behind at 45 and 125, respectively.

With the player pools shrunken by years of prohibition – not to mention the ongoing migration of pro players out of the country – America’s regulated poker options just aren’t very appealing. The software still runs the same of course, but when a site’s player base only extends into the low hundreds, it’s extremely difficult to get higher-stakes tables running. To wit, the sites mentioned above all tend to cap their cash game tables at $5/$10 blinds or lower, which simply isn’t high enough for pro players to beat the rake and earn a steady income.

Conversely, when a pro heads abroad to grind PokerStars proper, the world’s leading online poker room counts 8,400 players on average, and an average peak of 13,964.

Yep, moving from PokerStars NJ to the European-facing PokerStars immediately provides pros with player pools 65 times larger. For that reason alone, cash game players have every incentive to relocate to an area where the industry’s heavy hitters can operate freely.

2 – Assimilating to a New Locale Is Often Easier Than You’d Think

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a poker pro expat – at least in the minds of folks considering the move – is adjusting to a foreign country.

Everything from the cuisine to the electrical sockets will be entirely different, and when logistics like the language barrier and currency exchange are tossed in for good measure, many would-be travelers can get cold feet.

Others find themselves tethered to professional or family obligations, making the move even more difficult, if not impossible – at first glance anyway…

In reality, when you ask the pros who actually jumped ship and made they way to a new country, they almost always report the opposite experience.

Take the story of Chris Hunichen, a well-known online pro better known as “Big Huni” within the community. During a lengthy profile by Atlas Obscura – fittingly titled “Online Poker Players Are Exiled in Paradise” – Hunichen described his fears about making the move to Costa Rica in search of legal online poker:

“I knew that I had to make the move out of the country to continue to live my dream. I was horrified at first and nervous at what my new life would entail.

(But) We became somewhat local celebrities, it seemed, and the partying and women came plentiful.”

Hunichen isn’t alone by any means, as he grinds PokerStars’ most prestigious tournaments alongside a rotating pack of poker pro pals.

One of those players is Ryan Garitta, and as he told Atlas Obscura, the adjustment period he was expecting at first proved to be quick and painless:

“Right away I wasn’t alone in a foreign country.

We were all in the same weird boat, and all shared our passion for poker.”

While many Americans might feel isolated from the rest of the world, all it takes is one trip abroad to broaden your horizons for the better.

Technology levels the playing field by keeping you connected to your favorite TV shows, friends, and family. Learning a new language usually requires nothing more than immersion, and when it comes to currency, the beauty of playing online poker is everything flows through your preferred site to your bank account.

All things considered, if you have the skills needed to excel as a professional poker player, you should have no trouble at all adapting to a new country.

3 – The Expat Lifestyle Definitely Has Its Benefits

One reason why adjusting to a new locale isn’t so hard is the natural amenities and atmosphere offered by the most popular poker hotspots.

Along with Costa Rica, one of the most frequent destinations for poker pros leaving the U.S. is Playa del Carmen, Mexico – which was profiled in 2014 by Business Insider in a story titled “LIVING THE DREAM: Meet The American Poker Exiles Who Gamble All Day And Party All Night In Playa Del Carmen.”

Just get a load of what the pros have to say about their new tropical paradise south of the border:

Nick Davies:

“The lifestyle is badass. We’re not playboy gangster helicopter guys, but we have freedom.

There are kids who I think could run Fortune 500 companies and there are kids who I wouldn’t want watching my dog.”

Matt Block:

“The first 12 days I was here, I got absolutely nothing done. It sounds cliché, but when it comes to women here, it’s pretty limitless.

You meet people who are on vacation and you end up going on vacation with them. They are here for four days and you go out for four days with them.

You know that feeling you get when your vacation is over and you’re sad? You feel that.”

Seth Davies:

“As a tournament player, it’s all about being smart with your real-life money

It’s about being able to get a $50,000 paycheck and not go spend it. It’s funny as I’m telling you this while we’re talking about planning a yacht party.”

Yep, the only thing better than winning money at the poker table is heading home to the beach to spend your winnings with new friend by your side.

If you want to live the same dream – as captured by the profile which you should definitely read for yourself if only for the photo spread – leaving America to grind abroad is your best bet.

4 – The Tournament Series and Prizes Are Way Juicer

For tournament players, leaving the States to grind in another country is really the only way to stay afloat.

While the live tournament circuit in the country remains as vibrant as ever – thanks to the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and World Poker Tour (WPT) spawning several smaller tours – online tournaments have fallen sharply behind the pace. Once again, this phenomenon is linked to the slow pace of online poker legalization by individual states.

In 2018, tournament poker is defined by guaranteed prize pools. Rather than simply tally up every entry fee to determine what players are competing for, tournament organizers are increasingly reliant on guaranteed prize pools to attract interest. However, it takes a large base of players to contribute enough buy-ins and reentries to reach those guarantees, and sites like WSOP.com and PokerStars NJ just don’t have the numbers needed to host major tournaments.

Take a look below to see how the upcoming 2018 PokerStars New Jersey Championship of Online Poker (NJCOOP) schedule stacks up, both in terms of buy-in level and guaranteed prize pool:

PokerStars 2018 New Jersey Championship of Online Poker (NJCOOP)

Buy-In Event Guarantee
$150 NL Hold’em [1R1A] $12000
$1000 NL Hold’em [High-Roller] $50000
$100 NL Omaha Hi/Lo [8-Max] $8000
$25+R NL Hold’em $10000
$200 NL Hold’em [Win the Button] $18000
$50+R PL Omaha [6-Max] $8000
$150 NL Hold’em [Turbo] $16000
$100 PL 5-Card Omaha [8-Max] $8000
$200 NL Hold’em [Deep, Hyper-Turbo] $10000
$300 NL Hold’em [6-Max] $25000
$75 NL Hold’em [Zoom] $12000
$100 NL Hold’em [Big Antes] $12000
$500 NL Hold’em [Main Event] $150000
$50 NL Hold’em [ME Structure] $25000
$100 NL Hold’em [Win the Button] $15000
$75 NL Hold’em [Sunday SuperSonic] $10000
$150 NL Hold’em [NJCOOP Wrap-Up] $22000
$100 NL Hold’em [Deep, 6-Max] $10000

The centerpiece of the NJCOOP schedule is a $500 buy-in No Limit Hold’em tournament offering a guaranteed prize pool of $150,000. But that’s just the Main Event, one tournament among dozens on the slate. Other than that high-profile affair, the tournaments here tend to cost $50 or $100, with $12,000 to $20,000 in guarantees on offer.

That may sound like a decent chunk of change, but for pro poker players who grind tourneys for a living, those events are more like chump change.

For a sense of perspective, check out the tournaments that made up part of the 2018 PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) series earlier this year:

PokerStars 2018 Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP)

Buy-In Event Guarantee
$22 PLO [6-Max, Win the Button] $75,000
$215 PLO [6-Max, Win the Button] $150,000
$2,100 PLO [6-Max, Win the Button] $400,000
$11 NLHE $60,000
$109 NLHE $200,000
$1,050 NLHE $1,000,000
$11 FL Badugi $15,000
$109 FL Badugi $30,000
$1,050 FL Badugi $60,000
$5.50 NLHE [3-Max, Progressive KO] $75,000
$55 NLHE [3-Max, Progressive KO] $250,000
$530 NLHE [3-Max, Progressive KO] $500,000
$11 Stud $15,000
$109 Stud $30,000
$1,050 Stud $60,000
$5.50 NLHE [8-Max, Progressive KO] $100,000
$55 NLHE [8-Max, Progressive KO] $300,000
$530 NLHE [8-Max, Progressive KO] $1,000,000
$109 NLHE [Main Event] $1,500,000
$1,050 NLHE [Main Event] $4,000,000
$10,300 NLHE [Main Event] $5,000,000

As you can see, random preliminary events dotting the schedule typically offer guarantees higher than the NJCOOP Main Event. And as for the SCOOP Main Event, players can compete at three different tiers, with guarantees of $1.5 million, $4 million, and $5 million drawing massive crowds to the virtual tables.

As a tournament pro, players rely on volume to survive the swings of short-term variance. Even the very best players in the game will inevitably suffer downswings over a short sample size, so they must put in hundreds of tournaments to balance out the scales in their favor.

Unfortunately, even as the American regulated market continues to grow (slowly, but surely), sites PokerStars NJ just aren’t equipped to offer the volume tournament pros rely upon. Even big series like the NJCOOP are one-off affairs, rather than the regular assortment of major tournaments that pop up on PokerStars proper every week.

With that in mind, pro players looking to take the next step in their tournament career have little choice but to flee the U.S. for the big leagues.


Picking up stakes and moving away from the United States can be a daunting task, even for the most adventurous among us. When the American way of life is all you’ve ever known, learning a new language, adjusting to new cultural norms, and making new friends can be difficult indeed. But the term poker pro inherently points to professionalism, and players that take risk.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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