Casinos without borders: 'I moved to Mexico to keep my job playing online poker'

border blasters lede

"Effectively, there’s no online gambling in the United States." Shane Schleger is a professional poker player with a remarkably chill grin on his face, considering. "Well,” he goes on, “except for fantasy sports. The fantasy sports lobby is strong, I guess."

Shane collects all his income from the biggest online poker portal in the world, PokerStars. For eleven hours a day he’s plugged into their software, playing in a dozen simultaneous tournaments at any given time, which amounts to five or six thousand hands every day. Needless to say, he's good at it: he's part of the site's elite "Team Online," and in addition to the money he wins at the virtual tables he's also compensated for simply trotting his avatar ("shaniac") out in public — his mere virtual presence inspires other players to buy more chips. His screen optimization isn’t just impressive: it’s a competitive edge.

And get this, haters: he’s a Mac and a PC.

Before he had poker, Shane held a pretty standard résumé for an aimless 20-something living in New York City: waiter, bike messenger, customer service representative. "I came up playing poker in clubs — the successors to the ones you'd see in the movie Rounders. That was my scene," he says. "There was a poker boom in 2003 — it became a huge fad, and you started seeing things like the World Series of Poker [on ESPN]. Online poker started coming around at that point too, and I started meeting people, smart people, who were making their living playing online."

And so began a new career. He eventually moved from New York to Santa Monica, where he still lives with his fiancé. Like me, he used to enjoy a five-second commute from his bed to his desk. But now his office is three hours south of Santa Monica, near Rosarito Beach in Baja California. George W. Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act into law in October of 2006: it was an eleventh-hour congressional add-on to an unrelated port security bill, but up until then, online gambling still existed in a legal gray area. Players bought online chips with e-wallet transactions and were able to withdraw their cash winnings directly into their American bank accounts. But on April 15th of 2011 (Shane and his colleagues call it Black Friday) the gray area was blackened: the federal government indicted PokerStars (and its poorly-run competitor Full Tilt Poker) for violating the UIGEA. Money laundering, bribing banks, and miscoding transactions were a few of the items on a laundry list that eventually spelled a very specific end to their doing business in the United States.

Real border, virtual address

He now works from a high-rise on the beach that's flanked by abandoned real estate dreams

"For all I know, there are people that use VPNs, but it's completely against the rules. Most serious players would never do that from a risk / reward perspective. The idea of being forced out of California, of having to move to a different country — at the time it was very shocking and disturbing to me," Shane recounts. He decided to move to Vancouver with a partner who was in the same predicament, but trying to maintain a life in both countries proved to be disastrous. Canada is known for taking its admissions very seriously, so Shane's partner had tried to legitimize his northward border-hopping with a Canadian student visa: a good concept, but when he tried to enter the country in September, the authorities wanted to know why he was coming to school four months before classes began. He was ultimately denied entry, and that’s when Shane saw the writing on the wall. Apprehensive of an unwanted knock on the door from the Mounties, Shane began poking around and discovered a community of expat players that had set up shop a half hour south of Tijuana, and suddenly a new path made itself crystal clear. "I rented a car, packed up all my computer equipment, and by the next week I was set up in Mexico."

A big reason Shane had initially looked north instead of south was linguistic. "It feels very weird to not speak the language — I'm very reliant on people who facilitate the gringo passageway." He now works from a high-rise on the beach that's flanked by abandoned real estate dreams, huge concrete skeletons that will never see glass in their window frames or paint on their walls. It's a common enough sight on Mexico's newly-renovated Highway One, a bilingual toll road that shoots down along the beautiful rolling coastline. It’s captivated adventurous American minds (and wallets) for centuries: it seems as if every native Southern Californian I meet blew a chunk of their college years on trips to Tijuana (also known as "TJ") for the lower drinking age and cheap thrills the border town served up to depravity-seeking co-eds. All of that ended in 2007 with the wild narcoviolence that destroyed the tourist trade Tijuana had thrived on: nothing spells terror in UCSD moms like the public decapitations Mexican druglords are particularly fond of.

While Tijuana is slowly outgrowing its violent reputation, the drug violence there has migrated away almost completely, favoring the larger and more desolate expanses of the Texas border. A small culinary boom in taking shape in TJ, and its most visible outpost is Javier Placencia’s upscale taco joint Mision 19. Shane and I met there to discuss the ins and outs of living with his feet in two worlds.

“I live a compartmentalized life. I’m down here for work, and I go back to LA for, you know, living.” Shane’s work week in Baja is usually four days, Saturday through Tuesday. He has a Mexican debit card, a Viva Mexico plan for his iPhone, and a Mexican iTunes account, since he couldn’t buy the real-money PokerStars app through the US store. “It’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive from LA, plus the wait at the border. That’s the big variable. Once you’ve waited two or more hours at Tijuana, that’s when you really start to feel like something is wrong, like you’re trapped and isolated.” His crossing methods are always becoming more refined — he recently acquired a US Passport card that allows him access to the “ready lane.” He travels late at night on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, the relatively quiet crossing nights. And he never crosses through Tijuana, preferring the relatively less-busy Otay Mesa crossing.

The commuter

What would you do if your entire livelihood were suddenly rendered illegal, leaving an eight-year hole in your C.V.?

“There’s a desolation to that four-day stretch, and it wears on me. I look forward to getting back to civilization.” He spends his American “weekends” in very normal ways: having lunch with friends, going to movies with his fiancé, and water skiing every Friday at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. While he sometimes gets out for tennis or dinner in Rosarito, his primary function there is playing winning hands of No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. “I’m a bit of a loner anyway, and at the end of a work day I usually just wanna make dinner and be passively entertained on the couch.” Shane is, for the most part, a very free laborer, governed only by his own sleep schedule and the patterns of tournament play. He’s also a very smart guy, independent and hard-working, which made me wonder if he ever thought about pursuing another line of work.

“I’ve considered other things to do, but to be honest at this point there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of options. I enjoy writing, and I used to have ambitions as a writer — blogging is a big part of my online sponsorship, but I’ve never come close to making a living at it, and I’m not sure if I could.” What would you do if your entire livelihood were suddenly rendered illegal, leaving an eight-year hole in your C.V.? As someone who also works online for a living, I tried to put myself in his shoes: if collecting money from internet publishing is taken off the deck, what happens? I apply for a copy-editing job at the local alt-weekly, which is always going out of business anyway? Maybe try to sell handwritten poetry to tourists in Venice Beach? Try to go back and get another, less-frivolous degree at an expensive graduate school? Although they exist, the offline options currently available to me suck, and getting into a new line of work would require a long evolution of education and networking. As an entire generation of online laborers has done, I’ve internalized the routines and strategies of working primarily through a computer interface. To knock down that structure wouldn’t just be a setback, it would be a career-stopper. The same goes for internet card sharks.

“In a way I’m envious of live poker players.” Shane has friends who still play live games, with an hour commute to cardrooms in Commerce, CA. “But casinos are not a pleasant environment to work in, especially during the day,” Shane says with a scowl. He doesn’t have to explain. The stench of Vegas leaps instantly into my mind’s nostril, a wretched concoction of pungent air fresheners mixed with the cigarette smoke of a million one-glove’d slots tourists, all filtered through the depressing light emitted from stained chandeliers that never, ever turn off. It can be enthralling for a few days a year, but to call that scene my office would drive me to melancholia. And the internet provides an important level of abstraction away from some of the harsher realities of the gambling lifestyle, like the fact that someone has to lose in order for you to win.

“I wouldn’t want to be flippant about that. Who do I make money off of? Gambling addicts, for sure, people who had an unfortunate streak of beginner’s luck and now spend their free time trying to find it again, people who like gambling but can’t seem to get better at it.” Winning consistently is an analytical process that takes time, talent, and luck — Shane happens to have all three, but others, by necessity, don’t. “I have to win a net amount of times to get payouts, and those payouts have to come from new deposits, or from people who play consistently and lose consistently. Poker is an egalitarian thing — it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” Throw in the element of sheer luck — “you can put the best player in the world in front of a first time player and the rookie will win 35% of the time” — and you’ve got something of a professional sport where amateurs are allowed to test their mettle in the big leagues whenever they want. And who could blame them? They’ve got a decent chance of winning.

Subjective analysis

The ‘contribution to society’ aspect is dubious, and you end up grappling with that

Gambling has a history of being morally and fiscally hazardous to one’s health, and to pursue it professionally carries a corresponding philosophical weight. But big-money occupations always involve some element of betting and risk. The fact that poker foregrounds the risk seems to put moral questions out in front, rather than obscuring them behind the other logistics of an occupation. “I was humbled in life before I came into poker,” Shane says, laying all his cards on the table. “I feel like my life is the shit not because I’m an amazing poker player but because I get to play a game I love overlooking the ocean and it keeps the lights on. Those are the positive aspects for me. But the rest is very nebulous — there’s no artistic or creative output that poker puts out, and it doesn’t relate to a larger audience outside of the game. The ‘contribution to society’ aspect is dubious, and you end up grappling with that. I still love the game, but it’s probably a better as a hobby rather than a profession”

Luckily, Shane is always thinking about the whole thing, and his recent exile has given him even more to think about, and a long commute to think about it in. “It’s a legit activity — people play live poker [legally] in most states, and it's absurd you can't do it on the internet.” As we’ve seen before, the federal government’s scope on society’s migration into the cloud is very narrow, and its hastily-assembled methods of handling them (like the UIGEA) cause people and money to flow away from our borders. “You consider the absurdity that hundreds of us, maybe thousands, have felt compelled to get up and move to another country.” The future of online gambling in the States is still murky, but there are glimmers of hope to be found in other G12-esque countries. PokerStars has worked with other governments as legislation developed, and as a result pokerstars.it, pokerstars.fr, and pokerstars.de are all fully functional real-money online businesses.

As the presence of jobs north of the border continues to decline, so does the migratory flow from Mexico to the USA. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to envision a moment in the not-too-distant future where that traditional flow is reversed: Americans will inevitably find themselves more able to make a living south of the border where regulations are looser and the living is significantly cheaper. Like Shane, they will inevitably be commuters, and will increasingly rely on an evolving notion of citizenship that has more to do with an IP address than it does with a passport. Although he will continue to make the physical commutes between work-life and living-life, Shane looks more and more like an economic citizen of the internet, cast out from the the antiquated realm of a singular nationality.

“But it’s not enough just to be a citizen of the internet,” Shane says. To him, Mexico is essentially a very large shell that really only needs to be big enough to hold an IP address and a debit card. “I still feel very culturally attached to the US. It would be very isolating if I ever had to leave it completely.” Score one for the United Meatspace of America, where the rock n’ roll, television, and beaches are still — for the time being, at least — better than they are in Second Life.

Photos used in lede image Sam Beebe, Ecotrust, CC By 3.0 and Jamie Lantzy.
Additional photos courtesy Richard Masoner and Carl Groner.

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