Monday, March 31, 2014

70,000 drunks clinging to a rock (Part 2)

Author's note: I want to disabuse you of the notion that I plan these posts well in advance. The truth is that I have a lengthy list of topics that I know I want to write about, and each week I pick one and just start writing. When I started writing Part 1 of this now-lengthy tome, my intent was that Part 2 would be about living on the Isle of Man, and our very challenging decision to leave. Apparently there was more to tell than I realized. My apologies that this post doesn't exactly adhere to my "Next up" note from last week. And I make no promises that I'll adhere to this week's, either. 

September 2005 - April 2007
Sharon and I felt like we had officially moved once she arrived on the island in early December 2005. But our life bore one very distinct resemblance to our prior life: we spent a lot of time on the road. 

Within a few days of Sharon's arrival on December 9, we were getting ready to head to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. To our delight, we discovered that, for the exact same airfare from London to Nassau we could go London-Los Angeles-Nassau and spend a few extra days with the friends we had left behind. For Sharon this meant returning after a few weeks, but I had been gone since September. 

Our friends Sandra and David were house-sitting for us/leasing from us (they left our bedroom alone so we would have a familiar place to return to, but lived in the rest of the house). Sandra's three delightful sons lived there part-time. We surprised them by arriving on Christmas Eve 2005 after an 11 hour flight. We all had a delightful, unexpectedly fun Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with them.

Sharon had started complaining about pain in her leg right after the flight. This was always a concern for us - Sharon had a blood clot in that same leg in 1999 and a very minor second blood clot during the first PokerStars Caribbean Adventure on a cruise ship. It was a little worse on Christmas Day, but by that evening it seemed to be better.

Until the next day, that is. Sharon awoke early, complaining of severe pain in that same leg. We decided not to take any chances, and headed straight for the emergency room. The hospital staff knows not to take any chances with blood clots, and took us immediately. After an hour of tests, including a Doppler Study (which I assumed involved someone driving past her very quickly while blowing a car horn), we got the bad news - Sharon did indeed have another blood clot. This one was considerably less severe than the first, which had been a really bad one, but it was still a blood clot. 

If you've been following this blog, you know by now that one of Sharon's primary responsibilities at PokerStars was running live events, including the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The event was due to start in ten days, on January 4. There were roughly 100 staff members and over 1,000 players depending on her. This was not looking good for the home team - flying is one of the primary causes of blood clots (well, actually it's more the inactivity), and we still needed to take a five hour flight and a one hour flight. I was pretty sure that Sharon was going to be grounded, and I had absolutely no idea how we were going to make PCA 2006 happen without her.

[Side note: In addition to all of this panic, we had a major associated scare just a few days before this. When we flew to the Bahamas on commercial airlines, we arrived at Lynden Pindling Airport in Nassau, which was 45 minutes from the Atlantis Resort. And we invariably hit massive crowds at immigration and customs, so it was often 3-4 hours from landing to arriving at Atlantis. 

A year before, we discovered a commuter airline called Chalks, which ran seaplanes from Ft. Lauderdale. Instead of landing at the airport, the seaplane landed in the water right off the coast of Paradise Island. It was inexpensive, delightful and much quicker. There was a tiny immigration office in a trailer about 100 yards from the resort, and we invariably got in and out in 15 minutes or less.

One week before Sharon's blood clot diagnosis, the very Chalks plane we had taken several times before fell out of the sky and crashed into Government Cut, just off the Miami coast. There were no survivors. We were left scrambling for what ended up being a very expensive Continental flight. And we had more than a few moments contemplating our own mortality.]

An ER nurse put Sharon on an IV drip of Warfarin (fun fact: this is the active ingredient in D-Con rat poison). An hour or so later, the doctor came by to check on her progress. After telling us that this was a relatively minor clot, we couldn't wait any more, and asked the big question: could Sharon fly in five days?

The doctor was much more positive than we expected. Because the clot wasn't particularly severe, he opted to treat it with injections of blood thinners for a week, followed by oral doses for three weeks. He didn't love the idea that we were about to get on a long flight, and would have another one less than two weeks later, but he believed that it would be alright as long as I was willing to give Sharon the blood thinner injections. This surprisingly didn't bother either of us.

This experience underlined for us what a challenge we might have living on the Isle of Man. We needed to come back to the US regularly - as often as every 6-8 weeks - and the idea that we'd have to sweat Sharon's health on every flight was scary. But we were committed at that point, so we just added it to a growing list of things that made the Isle of Man less than thrilling.

By the spring of 2006, we had pretty much settled in on the island. Although it seemed remote while we were there, IOM is, in fact, only about 250 miles from London, a flight of less than an hour. We found that we were able to get to a lot of wonderful destinations in Europe very easily, and took advantage of it. We went to a poker tournament in Vienna, visited Italy again, went to Dublin, even took the train through the Chunnel to Paris for our third anniversary in March 2006. We chose our destinations carefully, making sure Sharon didn't have to endure more than a two hour flight unless absolutely necessary. I also had the unenviable task of making sure she got up and walked around every 30 minutes or so.

In May 2006, we both returned to the US for the World Series of Poker. This was a particularly huge and stressful event for both of us (see "The Girl with the $16 Million Purse" for one example), with PokerStars sending over 1,600 players to the WSOP $10,000 Main Event. I had been promoted and given considerably more scope and staff, so I shuttled back and forth between Las Vegas and the Isle of Man every few weeks rather than staying for the summer as I had in the past. Most of the responsibility for this massive presence at the WSOP was on Sharon, so she stayed in Las Vegas throughout. 

During that trip, Sharon realized just how much she missed the US and our friends. It was a tough summer, but she was grateful for getting to spend even a little time with the people she cared about the most. We resolved to come back to the US no less than every six weeks, staying for at least a week.

But like most resolutions, they are subject to the intervention of fate. We stayed in Las Vegas through early August, returned to IOM, and made exactly one trip back to the US before the most stunning development to date in the star-crossed history of online poker took us all by surprise.

There had been a number of legislative attempts to ban online gambling in the US over the years. PokerStars kept a very close eye on legislation, of course, and generally knew in advance what pieces of legislation were being debated or might come up for votes. But no one saw this one coming. Late in the evening of September 29, 2006, hours before the Congress adjourned for the midterm elections, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was smuggled into law, attached to the SAFE Port Act, a must-pass bill. It was never debated or even fully read into the Congressional record. Dozens of legislators who were interviewed later admitted that they didn't even realize that they had voted for it.

The UIGEA was earth-shattering legislation. It didn't attempt to make Internet gambling illegal. It took the tricky and clever route of making the financial transactions that facilitated Internet gambling illegal. The sponsors of the legislation knew they would be trampling on states' rights if they attempted once again to pass anti-gambling legislation. But the UIGEA was almost as good - it made a critical component of online gambling illegal.

This created an untenable situation for the public companies that offered online gambling in the US, most particularly PartyPoker. PartyGaming plc, PartyPoker's parent, had gone public a year earlier, and immediately had a market value greater than British Airways, peaking at over $12 billion. But the company had a very tough choice to make - leave the US market, which represented about 50% of its business, or be delisted by the London Stock Exchange. PartyGaming watched its stock lose 60% of its value the following day, and one day later, they left the US market, along with a number of other public companies in the online gaming sector.

I'll tell the longer story about the next few days in another post. But the short version is that PokerStars decided to stay in the US market. This put a few people in PokerStars senior management, particularly Lee Jones and me, in a very difficult spot. It was not at all out of the question that either of us might be arrested upon coming back to the US. 

So this was it - the UIGEA officially made us expatriots expatriates [thanks Terrence]. If we were to stay with PokerStars, we couldn't return to the United States for the foreseeable future. How long? No one knew. We harbored some hope that there would be a legal challenge to the UIGEA, but things didn't look good.

Next: the toughest decision of our lives.


  1. I think it may have made you expatriates, but only you can make yourself an ex-patriot. :)

  2. Terrence is correct, and I've changed it. It did make me slightly less patriotic, though.

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