The Real-Life Lost Boys of Online Poker

Oct 07, 2013 at 1:47 PM ET

Ankush Mandavia, known to his virtual adversaries as Pistons87, is one of online poker’s army of Lost Boys. Like many of his friends, he joined the wandering diaspora of young American players who self-exiled to Europe or Latin America or Canada after the U.S. government effectively banned Internet gaming in 2011.

His story is not especially slick, not a thriller like Runner Runner, the new movie in which Justin Timberlake portrays a Princeton student math genius who plays online poker to cover his tuition. Ben Affleck, his counterpart, is the brutish, comically sociopathic villain living on the other side of the server, in Costa Rica, where he cheats the kid out of his dough. Timberlake tracks him down only to get recruited into the syndicate.

Ankush lives a different kind of fugitive lifestyle, on the run from what you might call the monotony of conventional adulthood. At 26 years old, he “grinds” for a living, and he wins.

He entered the University of Georgia in 2005, two years into the online poker boom, when Americans were openly, and giddily, gambling billions. Ankush majored in economics and finance—he liked numbers and the complicated logic of markets. His parents, both Indian immigrants, a doctor and an engineer, were paying his way. He thought he could make some extra scratch and deposited $50 into a Party Poker account, one of the most popular sites for online gambling at the time. By the end of his freshman year, Ankush was up $2,000.

“I’ve only played with winnings ever since,” he says.

After college, Ankush dabbled in marketing and website development, but was bored with quotidian life. While he was between jobs, he had plenty of spare time to play Texas Hold ‘Em online. After making $20,000 in one month, he realized, wow, “this could be my living.” It was 2009, and there were now tens of billions of dollars in open circulation on Internet poker sites.

For several months, his streak continued. He specialized in two-player tournaments, and every couple weeks he’d typically withdraw winnings from his account, receiving a check in the mail. One month, he lost $30,000. But by the end of 2010, he was up a cool $100,000—a lot of money for a kid one year out of school.

Life was good. Ankush had a girlfriend, and he threw parties for his friends. His mom and dad were proud.

“They’re less conventional than other Indian parents,” he says.

Then, on April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice raided the three major online poker sites: Full Tilt, Absolute Poker and Ankush’s venue of choice, PokerStars. More than 75 corporate bank accounts in 14 countries and five domain names were seized. There were indictments for money laundering, illegal gambling and bank fraud. In the poker world, it became known as Black Friday. Some executives and intermediaries would plead guilty to charges. Others would stay out of the country, avoid arrest and claim innocence.

“I had $230,000 tied up online,” Ankush says. “I was freaking out. Everyone was freaking out. For three or four days, I had no clue what was going on with my money, but it thankfully got wired in. A lot of other people got screwed. A lot of other people haven’t been paid.”

Full Tilt, for instance, owed at least $180 million to American customers, who, as of September 2013, were finally able to file claims with the government for reimbursement. PokerStars, which acquired what was left of Full Tilt in 2012 as part of an estimated $730 million deal with the US government, repaid not just Ankush, but all of its US clients rather quickly, and has continued to do business outside the United States. Absolute, however, forfeited all of its assets to the authorities last year, with the hope, their lawyer told Businessweek, that the proceeds “will be used to repay our players.” Though how much that is, exactly, remains unknown.

After Black Friday, Ankush puttered around until early summer, when he packed a bag and headed to Vegas for the World Series of Poker. He bought in for $50,000, and by tournament’s end, he was even, which seemed like an anti-climactic end to his career. Ankush left the neon garden behind and retreated to his parent’s home in Michigan. There was a choice to make. He would either adjust to the new law and cash out for good, or become an expat in the name of the game. He had buddies, mostly his age, who were heading for Mexico, Europe and Canada, where online gambling remained legal. Ankush determined he would go, too.

“I thought there was lots of money to be made,” he says. “And there were thousands of people in the same boat, doing the same thing as me.”

The media labeled the young men who were pulling up stakes as “poker refugees,” and shortly thereafter, a service devoted to helping professional players relocate overseas popped up called pokerrefugees.com. So far, according to the counter on its website, the service has moved hundreds of men between the ages of 18 and 25.

“Most of them have never left the US before,” says the founder, Kristin Wilson, a blonde who resembles one of the girls from Blue Crush. Though she doesn’t play poker, she knew Black Friday presented a good business opportunity, and that it was important not to leave the young grinders stranded without work. “We’re full service,” Kristin says. “We make sure they know what to travel with; we match them with a destination; we find them a rental with other poker roommates. We also take care of setting up their Internet connection and bank accounts. Then we follow up, and make sure everything is working—make sure they’re happy.” To this end, PokerRefugees has Skype and Facebook groups, for community’s sake, and they organize barbecues and communal dinners. “It’s like a poker frat,” Kristen says. “Lots of boys. If you look at the photos on our page, I’m probably the only girl.” She keeps close tabs on all of them. “We’re good friends, and they can call me anytime, like at midnight, when they get locked out of the house. Some refer to me as the Poker Mom.”

Ankush didn’t require the services of PokerRefugees, but he has relied on a similar network of support. Through his friend Mark, whom he met online, he initially set up shop in Toronto, just six hours from Kalamazoo. He arrived carrying a tennis racket, a Toshiba laptop and enough clothes for a long vacation—packing lightly would make moving easier, and he’d be moving constantly over the next two years. He only had one requirement for the new digs, a short-term, fully furnished rental next to Blue Jays’ stadium.

“My main concern was high-speed Internet,” he says. “Poker players can deal with anything if they have high-speed Internet.”

The apartment—the first of many like it—had an office where the two boys could go to work. Mark wired up three twenty-four inch monitors, making it easier to play multiple games at once. Ankush would play five or six tables simultaneously, for nine hours a day, five days a week.

This is the way Ankush continues to live, maintaining his schedule, hopping from temporary dwelling to temporary dwelling, between Montreal, Toronto, London, Amsterdam and Prague (he prefers Montreal “because of the nightlife”). He has friends wherever he goes, guys just like him, people he knows from tournaments and virtual poker forums, and has avoided accumulating possessions beyond his bag of clothes and tennis racket and laptop, because he “never stays in one place for more than a little while.”

Still, even though Ankush is currently up almost $300,000, he misses home.

“I definitely want to come back soon,” he says. “Most of us do. I’m at the point where I’m ready to move on to something else. Maybe start my own business? Maybe.”

As of this year, Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware all permit online poker, but if you’re a professional, that’s not particularly useful, since the market is so small, confined to the players within each respective state. To make a living, the base needs to be much larger, which enables more games, and puts more money in circulation.

Periodically, the gaming industry makes a concerted effort to push legislation that would legalize, and regulate, virtual poker nationally. The latest effort piggybacks on the release of Runner Runner. “It’s our best argument,” says Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association. “We need consumer protection.”

Ankush and the Lost Boys follow the developments closely. “I check updates on poker forums once a week,” he says. “I think the movie will get the message out a lot faster.” He’s hopeful, but not overly optimistic. In the interim, he’ll continue moving around, making money on his own terms.