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Online Poker Goes Underground

Word came down today that Full Tilt Poker, one of the largest poker sites on the internet, has been playing fast and loose with its bookkeeping. There’s $440 million missing, and more than a few people are likely headed to jail.

If you were waiting on a payout from them, it’s very bad news. If you were hoping to play an honest online game of hold’em at some point in the next decade, it’s just moderately bad news. But if you’ve ever had a nostalgic pang for the days of genuinely sketchy black-market games…it might actually be a good thing.

Something strange happened to poker in the last decade. It used to be a game for club rooms and hardened gamblers, but suddenly it was full of…well, nerds. College kids played eight tables at a time, making off the cuff calculations and only realizing after they left the computer that they’d just won six thousand dollars, or lost double that. Anyone with a head for numbers and a taste for risk got in on it. The allure of the shadowy room was all but gone.

Until now. Suddenly, the same celebrity players that vouched for the site are facing the possibility of criminal indictment, and the whole industry is up for grabs. We have our doubts about the role of law enforcement here—including the 2007 crackdown’s role in creating this whole mess—but the message is clear enough: maybe don’t trust your money to professional gamblers.

People aren’t going to stop playing poker; that would be crazy. They’ll just find a shadier place to play it. The games will move back to the Wild West side of the internet—where you can be robbed by highwaymen or swindled by a Nigerian prince if you didn’t keep your firewall up. Maybe they’ll even play with Bitcoins. It’s a shift back towards the dangerous kind of poker—the kind that still thrives in basements and discreet hotel rooms around the country. And if those games occasionally get robbed…it’s just one more risk to calculate.

Enjoy the shade.