Greg Powers opened his laptop computer, logged on to an Internet poker site and bellied up to a Texas hold-’em table. In 15 minutes, he was about $400 ahead. "I could always get another job if I wanted,’’ said Powers, 24.
Fresh out of college and armed with a history degree, the Scottsdale resident makes his living playing online poker.
At first, the stakes were low — and strictly for entertainment. He gradually started winning a few hundred bucks here and there from poker Web sites.
Powers began to take his luck seriously following successful tournament
finishes. He used the winnings to pay out-of-state college tuition at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
During the summer, online poker became a full-time job.
"I don’t think I’m a professional gambler,’’ said Powers, who credits his success to a competitive personality. "I call myself a strategic decision specialist.’’
In recent years, events such as the World Series of Poker sparked a surge in poker’s popularity, both in the casinos and online.
The Web sites not only draw new players to the game, but also a considerable amount of controversy.
Internet gambling is illegal in the United States, based on the 1961 Wire Act that banned sports betting over phone lines. Enforcement of those laws is another story.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is waging a battle to criminalize online gaming. He cites it as a negative influence on society and children, who could easily gamble with their parents’ credit cards.
In 1995, Kyl first introduced the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which would prevent U.S. banks and credit card companies from handling online gaming transactions. The bill has not passed to date, but was reintroduced during the last session of Congress and is still under consideration.
As required by the Internal Revenue Service, all gambling winnings are taxable and must be reported. U.S.-based online casinos report winnings to the IRS and send players a W2-G tax form.
Online casinos based outside of the United States can sidestep these requirements. For example, Partypoker.com tells gamers that "all federal, state and local taxes due in connection with any winnings awarded to you are your sole liability.’’ The casino is registered through the Government of Gibraltar, a British territory, and does not send tax forms to U.S. players.
PartyGaming.com, another online gaming site, claims 88 percent of its customers live in the U.S. — and spend billions of dollars. That’s a big problem for the IRS, especially when winnings are claimed on an honor system.
"In the rest of the world, they are looking at trying to regulate and tax it,’’ said Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., and leading researcher of gambling laws. "The United States is looking for a way to outlaw it.’’
Mesa accountant Margaret Otton added that any players who don’t accurately report gambling income run the risk of the IRS catching them.
For players, those debates are secondary to the thrill of risking their money.
Mesa resident Randy Burger, 33, said he wins more at online poker now that he plays for fun again.
Burger said he made a decent living from virtual casinos during a four-year stretch. He estimated the top professional online players earn between $30,000 and $60,000 a year — and likely more if they also win tournaments.
He recently traded the lifestyle for a "real’’ job as a finance manager — giving him a more secure source of income for the married father of a newborn daughter.
His advice to those who aspire to poker riches? Be realistic. "You have to play the game like you are working,’’ he said. "You have to be able to play the same way when losing as when winning.’’