Online players frustrated by poker crackdown

Gambling websites hit

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The cards have gone cold on the nation’s booming poker industry since the Justice Department reshuffled the deck with a stunning crackdown on online poker gambling sites.

In the days since federal prosecutors shut down the three largest poker websites, the $6 billion industry has taken a hit that stretches from the homes of small-time recreational players to the biggest venues and priciest tables in the glittering world of high-stakes professional poker.

The two major cable stations carrying poker shows, ESPN and Fox Sports, have announced that they will remove poker-related advertising or programming after the Justice Department indicted gambling websites that serve as major sponsors of their televised tournaments.

“There is no direct sponsorship connection between the problematic websites and FSNs World Poker Tour series, but PokerStars had purchased some advertising time, which has been pulled as a result of the indictments,” said Lou D’Ermilio, a spokesman for Fox Sports Networks.

ESPN pre-empted this week’s “North American Poker Tour Presented by” in the wake of the indictment against PokerStars, one of the three online companies facing gambling-related charges.

Professional online poker player Robert Fellner is seen on the roof of his Las Vegas apartment building Tuesday. Fellner, who left his job at a New Jersey dry cleaners four years ago to move to play online poker professionally, has seen his bankroll grow to $280,000. But since the government essentially shut down the poker industry with a prosecution against executives of the main companies, Fellner and others like him worry they'll never see their money again. (Associated Press)

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Professional online poker player Robert Fellner is seen on the roof of ... more >

“We are aware of the indictment only through what has been announced publicly,” the ESPN sports cable channel said in a statement Tuesday. “For the immediate future, we are making efforts to remove related advertising and programming pending further review.”

The aftershocks of the surprise move continued Wednesday, as the Justice Department announced that it would release funds for two of the biggest online sites, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, which had been named in a civil money laundering and forfeiture complaint last week.

The government will restore the companies’ domain names so they can return money to U.S. players, and the deal permits them to continue to let players outside the United States gamble online. Government officials said they were prepared to enter the same agreement with a third company, Absolute Poker, if the company chooses to do so.

Full Tilt said in a statement that the agreement was a good first step, but that it won’t be able to give players refunds until the government gives up control of those funds.

Outraged online poker players had flooded the Internet with complaints after finding their favorite websites inoperative and their online accounts frozen. An estimated 10 million Americans play online poker at least once a year, according to figures from the American Gaming Association.

More than 75 company bank accounts in 14 countries have been frozen, and authorities are seeking some $3 billion in fines and restitution.

“They’re outraged because this came out of nowhere for them,” said John Pappas, president of the Poker Players Alliance. “The victims here are not the sites that are being targeted but the millions of people who play online.”

Mr. Pappas said that, despite the partial reopening of the two big sites, poker enthusiasts are “still in pain.”

“Even with todays announcement, millions of Americans are being denied their hobby, avocation and in many cases their livelihood because they remain unable to play poker on the Internet,” he said.

How the legal action will affect the wider economic and cultural boom in poker remains in doubt.

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