JACO BEACH, Costa Rica — From his oceanfront balcony, Tyler Forrester glanced out at the Pacific surf on the beach. Palm trees rustled in the breeze.
Tough life Im living, Forrester said, cackling at his own humor.
Forrester, 28, makes his living in a bedroom before two computer monitors playing online games of Texas Hold Em for hours on end. Hes a professional poker player, and a very successful one at that.
Forrester, who grew up in Dillon, Mont., is one of probably 150 American professional online-poker players who flooded Costa Rica after U.S. federal prosecutors went after the founders of the three largest online-poker companies.
The crackdown on April, 15, 2011, a date known to poker players as Black Friday slammed a lid on the surging business.
Many of the Americans, who are generally male and in their 20s, arent happy about leaving their U.S. homes. Unlike Forrester, they voice anger at being denied the chance to earn a living in their home country even while paying taxes there.
I really liked being an American up until this point, said Alex Fitzgerald, a former Seattle Central Community College student who now lives in Costa Ricas capital, San Jose. But its just very difficult to tell your family, I cant live near you anymore, I cant conduct my business, I will have to completely change my life to play.
And all I do is play a card game. I can understand if I was selling a drug or if I was doing something else a little suspect.
In Playa Hermosa, Jimmy Doherty and Jake Wycklendt share a wooden house on pillars with their two pet pit bulls. Both men hail from towns near Milwaukee.
I definitely resent the government, said Wycklendt, 28, describing how infrequently he can visit his wife and his two children, who live in Las Vegas. Im sick of it. This sucks.
Obviously, Im really bitter at the fact that I have to be in another country, added Doherty, 25, who started amassing poker earnings while he was studying to become an engineer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Even playing 15 hours a week, I was making as much as an electrical engineer would at a full-time job, he said. My parents were very grateful that they didnt have to pay for my college anymore.
The American online poker players in Costa Rica are called poker refugees, partly because thats the name of a relocation service in San Jose that helps U.S. players travel to the Central American nation, open bank accounts, find housing and quickly start playing online.
Brent Courson, 30, moved to Jaco Beach four months ago and lives on the 12th floor of a high-rise. His balcony offers vistas of jungle and beach. He figures hes one of about 30 refugees living in Jaco Beach.
He spends an average of three weeks each month playing online in Costa Rica, then a week either in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., or traveling to tournaments. In nine years, he said, hes made a little under a few million dollars.
My typical day is wake up about noon, he said. The games have been running better at night, so I play till 4 or 5 in the morning.
Players such as Courson take part in anywhere from four to 24 games at once, said Kristin Wilson, a former professional surfer from Florida who started the Poker Refugees relocation service.
Her company ensures that players who move to Costa Rica have nearly foolproof accommodations, to avoid the usual travails of less-developed countries.
If the Internet or power goes out for 30 seconds, they can lose thousands of dollars. So they have to have two sources backed up to a battery. And they have a USB data card. So if the Internet goes out, they just switch over to the data card, she said.
Her clients are not really gamblers, Wilson said. They are specialists at the craft of poker.
They master numbers, percentages and patterns in their opponents, exploiting weaknesses. Invariably, players are good at math, but not necessarily at reading the facial signs required for live table poker.
A lot of people in the U.S. think that poker players are some sort of degenerate gamblers, when really theyre highly intelligent professionals they didnt come here to party, they came here to work, Wilson said.
One of Wilsons clients, Noah Sandler, 25, who grew up in Mercer Island, went to the University of Oregon for a little more than a year and then moved to New York before landing in Costa Rica in February.
He has won nearly $300,000, most of it in 2010 and 2011, with his biggest single victory coming when he snared $68,000 for finishing second in an online tournament. He described winning a big jackpot as one of the best feelings you can get, and said the federal move against online gambling came as a shock.
We have kind of been disowned by our country, our jobs have been thrown away, Sandler said. I mean, they were concerned about other things than the poker professionals. We kind of got the shaft as a result. It seems kind of absurd to be forced out, which is pretty much what happened.
Sandler said hed rather be living in the United States closer to his family. But he said that even if Congress legalizes online poker, winnings could end up getting taxed at too high a rate and hed still be forced to stay away.
Overall, though, Sandler considers himself lucky.
I mean, most of my friends who got out of college are either out of work or working at McDonalds or something, he said.
‘Guards and gates’
Many U.S. players settle in the capital, nestled amid mountain coffee-growing farms. San Jose has more urban amenities as well as direct flights to 15 U.S. cities.
Phil Murphy, a 49-year-old former pest-control agent from Seattle who switched careers to online poker, said he had strong impressions when he got off the plane recently: Guards and gates everywhere. Thats the first thing that stuck out at me.
Murphy said hed recommend Costa Rica to other frustrated U.S. players.
Its a good place if they want to play poker. The nightlife is crazy muy bueno! he said. I live in like the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica. Maybe thats why its all gated up.
Others said they faced culture shock on arrival.
The roads, the infrastructure, everything was a complete shock, said Jason Webster, a 27-year-old pro from Darien, Ga. Without knowing Spanish, you cant communicate with people.
A former financial adviser, Webster said hes now paying more money in taxes than my salary was at Merrill Lynch.
Webster is galled that he still feeds Uncle Sam while being forced to live abroad.
Im extremely angry, he said. Its ridiculous that the government says that we cant do this in the land of the free. Unlike lotteries, pokers a game of skill.
Fitzgerald, 24, has come to appreciate Costa Ricas people, its culture and his close proximity to the rain forest, mountains and beaches. And after meeting his girlfriend there, he said hes not about to leave.
Besides, hes not expecting Congress to approve online gaming anytime soon.
The Republicans are hypocrites when they do not defend my right to conduct my own business yet claim big government is the root of all our problems, he said. And Democrats are just incredibly naive and impotent. calling it quits?
Players generally think that the U.S. casino industry is behind the shutdown of most online poker, concerned about how much revenue it draws off. They scoff at the legality and widespread nature of lotteries and racetrack gambling, and say its hypocritical not to act quickly to regulate online poker.
Forrester is more philosophical.
Im not angry about it. The system before Black Friday was unsustainable, in my opinion. The U.S. government wasnt collecting taxes on online poker sites, he said.
For now, Forrester is amassing savings that may keep him set for life. Hes thinking about calling it quits on online poker.
My goal is to be back in school in September 2013, he said.
What will he study?
Applied math, he said.
Staff writer Rob Hotakainen contributed to this report.