© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dmitry Feoktistov/Tass
When Drew Layton dropped out of college in 2006 to play online poker full-time, it was a hard sell to his parents: “They were not thrilled,” he said.
But 14 years later, as coronavirus and the subsequent shelter-in-place orders have shut businesses around the globe and forced people to stay inside, some jobs have proven more stable than others. For Layton, online poker seems to be a good bet.
Layton said he had seen a marked increase in traffic to websites where he plays and thus a rise in his income. “I wouldn’t say I’m thriving because of the pandemic, but one area of my life has gotten a little better,” he said. “All of a sudden, being self-employed is a huge benefit.”
The four US states with legal online poker sites – New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware, and Pennsylvania – reported record revenues in March. Operators in New Jersey, for example, took in a combined $3,629,112 that month – an increase of 90.9% year over year, according to numbers reported by the New Jersey division of gaming enforcement, and more than double February’s online poker revenue.
With more time being spent at home, the number of people turning to online poker is increasing, said Donnie Peters, managing editor of online poker news site and forum PocketFives.Com. Meanwhile, in states like New Jersey and Nevada where gambling is big business, many avid poker players unable to go to casinos may be migrating online. According to the American Gaming Association, a trade group, 987 of the US’s 989 casinos were closed by early April to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Related: UK betting firms to stop advertising on TV and radio during lockdown
Veteran players are making more money for two reasons, according to Peters. The influx of online players are generally newer to poker and more inexperienced, making it easier for professionals to win. And when the number of players increases, so does the pot – the money players wager.
On Sunday, the online poker tournament GGPoker beat its $500,000 guarantee pot for the first time after 3,662 players joined. The recent WSOP.Com Super Circuit Series, which was launched to replace a live event in Las Vegas, increased its prize money from $1.24m to $4m after a higher-than-expected turnout of players.
“What this means is that not only are those who make their income from poker able to do so more efficiently because they’re playing against a larger population of weaker competition, but the money that can be won from online poker tournaments has grown,” Peters said. “In short, professionals are able to win more money more often.”
“As unfortunate as a situation as this has been for so many, online poker is an industry that is flourishing right now,” Peters said.
But the rise in online gambling has also sparked concern. Those who already gambled online are doing so more often, a survey published in the UK on Friday found. Since the beginning of the Covid outbreak, 25% of gamblers said they were continuing to bet at least once a week while 28% had increased their activity, the survey showed. This has worried anti-gambling advocates in the UK, who are calling for legislation to protect people from gambling their money away while on lockdown. UK betting firms have stopped advertising on TV and radio.
No similar research has been published yet in the US, but advocates there too are calling on states to take measures. The anti-gambling group Stop Predatory Gambling on 20 April called on states to halt to state lotteries.
Although there is no federal law banning online poker, regulations bar it most states and many online poker sites block users based on their computer location. So-called “social poker sites” do not allow betting and thus are legal across the country. Instead of betting on each hand, users participate in sweepstakes and get cash prizes. One such site, National League of Poker, saw a 30%-50% increase in new players in March alone and a 131% increase in revenue, a spokesman said.
Some worry that the restrictions on online poker sites may cause novice online gamblers to turn to unregulated and dangerous offshore poker sites. “The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified this issue,” said Jed Hoffman, who has been playing online poker for 12 years but does not play full-time. “One thing we don’t need right now, as individuals or as communities, is any more risk, especially at the precipice of a serious recession.”
Hoffman said he has noticed about four times as much activity in the past month on his go-to poker site, which is legal and based in Nevada. On Monday, he took home $4,259 in a tournament on Monday he only paid $75 to join.
“I do hope people stuck in lockdown don’t injure themselves economically by playing too much or too high,” Hoffman said. “That is bad for society, and bad for the viability of long term growth in the online poker community.”
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