Sunday, April 6, 2014

70,000 drunks clinging to a rock (Part 3)

September 2006 - May 2007
So here we were, essentially stranded on the Isle of Man.

OK, 'stranded' is too strong of a term. We could travel pretty much wherever we wanted, as long as we didn't return to the United States. Perhaps the biggest challenge wasn't that we couldn't return, but that we had no idea when we could.

This problem took several forms. As I mentioned in my last post, I have an elderly father (89 then, 96 now). We've been very fortunate - even at this advanced age, Gig was able to live pretty much on his own. He spent about half of the year in Pennsylvania (in the house in which I was born) and half in Florida, living with his girlfriend Bobbi, a sprightly 82-year-old fireball. Because I was in senior management, there was a non-zero chance that the US Department of Justice had me in their sites, or at least on some sort of watchlist.

The DOJ hadn't come after non-owners of online poker sites and affiliated companies yet, but they had been very aggressively pursuing executive owners of companies like NETeller, whose executives, Stephen Lawrence and John Lefebvre, were arrested and jailed. And just to be clear, NETeller wasn't a fly-by-night company; it was a $100 million, well-respected UK-based company that was the primary source of deposits and withdrawals for online gambling.

I was several steps lower than either Lawrence and Lefebvre, who had held the roles of CEO, president and chairman. Both were principles in NETeller, with significant equity positions. And there were quite a few people in senior management or ownership positions with online poker companies that were more visible and likelier candidates for targeting than me. The most obvious of these was Mike Sexton, spokesman for PartyPoker. But there were many others, including Howard Lederer (co-founder, investor and executive with Full Tilt Poker), Annie Duke (investor, senior manager and celebrity host at UltimateBet, and incidentally Howard's sister) and Phil Hellmuth (investor and celebrity host at UltimateBet).

Of course, all this really meant was that they were more likely to be arrested than me, but if the DOJ decided to drive up with a backhoe and scoop up management of online poker companies, all this would really mean was that I'd have company in the bucket.

After having carefully considered all of this, Sharon and I made the decision on October 3, 2006 (the date that PokerStars announced its intent to stay in the US market) that we would stay with the company and stay on the Isle of Man. Until then, we considered ourselves as guests, temporary residents on the island. Now we had to start thinking more permanently.

I've given you some sense of what life was like on the island, but it's nearly impossible to understand until you've lived there. I will apologize in advance for any negative characterizations here - we have many friends on the island who still live there - but it is what it is, which is a tiny island, essentially in the middle of nowhere, with not a whole lot to do.

I should note here that our opinions are jaded by the fact that both Sharon and I have lived in big cities most of our lives. I grew up in a small town, but I left 34 years ago and had almost forgotten how insular such places can be. And the Isle of Man isn't your typical small town. I grew up in Hazleton, PA, a city of about 30,000 population in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was your typical small town, similar to IOM in some ways but with one key difference - if I wanted to go somewhere bigger, Philadelphia was less than two hours by car, New York about three.

By contrast, while IOM is only 90 miles from Liverpool (the nearest tourist port), it's a four hour ocean journey. London is only an hour away by air, but that's deceptive - door-to-door from our house to a London hotel was more like five hours. Not a huge amount of time, I admit, but if you're doing it just to escape the island, it seems much farther.

So at that point, after a year on the island, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were there for the long haul. And while we already knew this to some extent, it was over the next few months that we came to understand a basic IOM truth. Manx residents call themselves "70,000 drunks clinging to a rock" for good reason - drinking is, by far, the most pervasive participatory sport on the island.

Although there was a distinct lack of diversity in food (Chinese, Indian and fish & chips was pretty much it), the bar scene on the island was vibrant and varied. Our favorite was Bar George, a large, noisy, fun place on the former site of a Sunday school. A typical Friday started early in the afternoon and usually ended very late, and in a taxi. And that wasn't limited to Fridays. We thought we knew how to drink, but our Manx friends taught us a few lessons.

The other place to which we all seemed to gravitate was the casino in the Isle of Man Hilton, affectionately referred to as "the cazzy" by locals. Calling it a casino was something of a stretch for people who spend as much time in Las Vegas as we do. The casino was about 4,000 square feet, which included a bar (of course), a surprisingly excellent restaurant and a surprisingly lame gaming floor. 

The slot machines looked like they had been recycled from Vegas casinos of the mid-90s. There were exactly two video poker machines, neither of which offered anything near reasonable returns. And there were a few table games - three blackjack tables, a roulette wheel, two Three Card Poker tables (called "Brag" in the UK) and a strange, beatable game called "WOO" (more on that game another time). 

The casino opened in the early evening and stayed open until 4am. I found myself being unhappy about the 'early' closing time, which smacks of "the food isn't good the the portions are too small" - as weak an excuse for a casino that it was, we still wanted to be there, because what else was there to do?

So most weekend nights either started or ended at the cazzy. The bar carried one brand of bourbon, which was exactly one more than any other bar on the island, so I suppose it could have been worse. 

By November, we had developed a pretty serious case of cabin fever, Sharon more than me (but not by much). She missed the US, missed the friends we used to see every day, missed sushi (back then there was none on the island, although I understand there are a few places now). This was going to be the first Thanksgiving we spent on the island - the prior year I went back to LA for Thanksgiving - so we decided that a huge Thanksgiving feast might make us all feel better.

We made a traditional Thanksgiving, including turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce and at least ten other dishes. We invited all of the Americans on the island, all of our PokerStars coworkers and a handful of Manx people we'd gotten to know. Just finding a turkey was a major challenge. We went to our friend Adrian for help with this, who somehow found us a gigantic turkey even though we had scoured the island before we called him. I'm pretty sure we ate someone's pet.

Around this time, I decided that Sharon had spent way too much time away from her two closest friends, Sandra and Shaena. I arranged for them to meet us in London the first week in December, during one of our regularly scheduled London trips. It was a perfectly executed surprise that backfired - while Sharon was thrilled to see Sandra and Shaena, and was completely surprised and stunned, the visit served to remind Sharon of how much she was missing by not being in the US.

In January 2007, Isai pulled me into his office and asked me how things were going. He never asked a question idly, and he knew exactly what I was doing on a daily basis, so it was clear to me that this inquiry was about our state of mind. I was very straight with him - we weren't happy. We still loved working for PokerStars and had no interest in leaving, but the toll of being an expatriate was far greater in reality than in theory.

Isai surprised me by asking how we would feel about living in London. Until then, he had wanted all of his key employees on the island, but that was changing - his son Mark was spending almost all of his time in the London office, and much of the marketing team was there. Sharon and I both loved London, and this seemed like a viable solution to our growing homesickness.

I went home and discussed it with Sharon. To her credit, she jumped on the idea although she was still very unhappy about our exile. We immediately planned a trip to London to find a place. The company connected us with an estate agent (real estate person) who set up appointments for us. We found and fell in love with an ancient three-bedroom flat in Kensington, signed a lease and went back to the island to prepare to move.

A few nights later, we were propped up in bed, making lists of things to pack, arrangements to make and the various other business involved in moving. A few days earlier, I had gotten a call from a headhunter about a startup gaming company that was very interested in hiring me. In a departure for me (I used to get these calls all the time, and fended them off), I talked to them, and in a matter of two days went from interview to firm offer. I told Sharon about it, and asked the big question: How would she feel about leaving PokerStars?

I expected some back-and-forth, but there was none. Sharon made it very clear to me that she was done. We were both making terrific livings working for a company we loved, with people we cared about and respected, got to travel the world and live nicely. But none of that mattered - not being able to return to the US had ground us down.

Almost six years earlier, our careers at PokerStars had started with a tiny startup, with perhaps 1,000 players and never more than 50 at a time. On that momentous day for us in February 2007, PokerStars had well over 25 million players, regularly hosted 150,000 or more players simultaneously and was home to the second-largest tournament of any kind in the world (only the World Series of Poker Main Event was larger than the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker, WCOOP). 

We were unspeakably sad to leave, and unspeakably relieved. But we knew we had done well, had fun, made lifetime friendships and left the company in the most capable of hands.


  1. Dan, love reading your stories, but you slacked off this week.
    Guess you'll be buying me premium drinks during BARGE or when I visit San Diego

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