One year later
Since the Black Friday indictments on April 15, 2011, the path of every member of the poker industry was affected as they attempted to find normalcy in an environment which presented a wide variety of challenges.
Over the past year, numerous players have spoken about how their lives had changed. Stories of players either moving or establishing residence in another country in order to play online or choosing to travel and play more live poker became commonplace. One by one, the best players in the online world restarted their lives at new locations, keeping true to the actions that had gotten them to a point of poker success.
Surprisingly, the story of the man who many could argue was the best online player in the world for a number of years prior to Black Friday is remarkably different
Like the rest of the poker world, Steve Gross, 26, remembers the moment when he heard the news about Black Friday.
"I was in Wal-Mart and my friend gave me a call and told me the news," he said. "Initially, I told him to just relax because there was always news like this. I thought it will be fine. But when I went home and tried to get online, I saw that everything blew up, and it was the real deal."
What a big deal it would be for Gross and every other online poker player around the world.
Known to the online poker world as "gboro780," Gross was clearly the best online player in the world from 2008 through 2010. In 2009, he captured CardPlayer's Online Player of the Year (OPOY) and amazingly finished second in those same rankings in 2008 and 2010. During this three-year stretch, he nearly averaged $1 million per year in online earnings. Playing five to six days a week, Gross would wake up around 11 a.m. and begin grinding away tournament after tournament. In 2011, prior to Black Friday, Gross was still playing online, having another successful year.
The world that Gross knew came to a screeching halt on April 15, 2011.
Most of Gross' online bankroll was on PokerStars, so he was eventually able to receive his funds back, but that isn't the same for those who had sums of money on Full Tilt that, to this day, have not been returned.
Like the majority of online players, Gross decided to play the WSOP and hoped for more clarity regarding the online poker situation after the summer.
Entering the 2011 WSOP, Gross had high hopes, and before the event began, he told family and friends he was going to win a bracelet and go from there. Unfortunately, Gross did not live up to his prediction, and the government did not provide any additional clarity on the future of online play.
An industry changed forever
As for me, I have also experienced significant change since Black Friday, undergoing many ups and downs throughout the year.
On the playing front, live tournament registrations have increased. However, higher buy-in events such as the formerly common $10,000 main events in the U.S. are far and few between. Most main event buy-ins are $3,500 or lower and all the WSOP Circuit and Heartland Poker Tour events at about $1,600. This trend definitely affects the prize pools, which in turn makes it more difficult to be profitable in tournament play because the other travel expenses such as flights, hotel and food still remain constant.
As for the poker media side, the industry was greatly affected immediately after the WSOP as many of my colleagues across the industry lost their jobs. With online advertisers retreating from the U.S. market, there are less opportunities and growth potential for media outlets. Many start-up publications have folded up shop, while the larger outlets are still operational with the hope of brighter opportunities in the future. Yet, the public is still hungry for poker shows on television, but the market cannot readily supply the need right now.
Nevertheless, I am still very bullish on poker's future. We have suffered through the worst setback in our history but poker players across the country have shown the government that poker is not a fad, but is here to stay. Poker has become part of the American culture. Overall, I am cautiously optimistic that online poker will return in the next few years.
Let's hope that we can celebrate happier anniversaries in the future.
Shortly thereafter in September, Gross scheduled a trip to Canada to play in the largest online poker tournament series in the world, the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). He fondly remembered playing poker online again after this forced layoff.
"It was nice to play online and return to some sort of normalcy," he said. "Remember, poker had been my job and passion for years."
During the 2011 WCOOP, gboro780 not only enjoyed himself, but also showed the world why he had been considered the best online poker player for the past three years. He cashed four times and captured his first WCOOP bracelet in the process.
Up to this point, Gross' story parallels that of most online poker players, but now it takes a unique turn. With no resolution for the online industry in sight, most players had to make a pivotal decision: move out of the country or play live.
As for Gross, leaving the country was not an option he even considered.
"I had recently settled down in Las Vegas where I had a serious girlfriend and just gotten two dogs," he said. "Moving was out of the question. I wasn't ready to uproot and leave the country."
As for playing live, this option was possible since he was living in Las Vegas. However, he quickly rejected that idea as well since he didn't like grinding hours upon hours outside the comfort of his own home.
Gross was at a major crossroads in his young life. Having fully devoted the past few years to online poker, his decision-making process pulled him in so many different directions. After weighing all of his options, Gross shockingly chose a path that few, if any, took, especially among the top online players.
"I decided to take a break and put poker on the back burner I [decided I] would play it by ear and see what happened to online poker based on the legislation."
At the time, Gross believed his break would be for a short period of time, maybe a month or two. But over the next several weeks, Gross began to enjoy his newly found freedom.
"For so many years, I was a slave to the poker schedule and let it dictate my life," he said. "I now realize that poker is not a very healthy lifestyle. I began living a much more normal life, such as being able to see daylight whenever I wanted. I really enjoyed it."
As Gross reflected on the past several months, he realized that this unexpected break from poker may have been the best thing for him.
"At the time [of Black Friday], I was so focused that I did not realize it, but I could have started to be burned out. It all seemed normal since the money was still coming in and I was doing well, but I was getting tired of the daily grind."
Fortunately for Gross, he had developed vital money management skills at an early age. Crediting his father for developing this proficiency, Gross saved ample money over the past few years, while keeping precise records and diligently paying his taxes. Additionally, he believed the one activity that separates him from others is never actively staking players.
"I had heard so many horror stories and it really seemed like a job," he said. "Keeping track of tabs and keeping your guys in line. I never wanted to deal with this. And I know so many people who lost so much and said that this was their biggest mistake."
Overall, Gross had enough money put aside to do well, nothing.
His days now ironically begin slightly earlier, but Gross has no deadlines or late registrations to worry about. His only major daily commitments are to take his dogs to the park every morning and play basketball with his friends. With his spare time, he also began reading more, as well. In short, he was able to catch up with all the things that he missed while being a slave to the computer screen and mouse.
"I began leading a much more normal life and doing things that I couldn't do when I was 10-tabling," he said.
One year after the biggest disaster that an American online poker pro could imagine, Gross leads a much more balanced lifestyle. While he may play the occasional Las Vegas live tournament, he spends much more time reconnecting with family and friends. Recently, he enjoyed his sister's wedding and has caught up with old high school and college friends that fell out of touch due to his intense focus on poker.
Gross, who grew up in New Jersey, is also an avid New York sports fan. With this self-imposed respite, Gross was able to put his heart back into watching sports, especially football.
"While I was playing online poker, Sunday was no longer football day," he said. "I grew up going to New York Giants games with my family since I was a little kid, so I missed that. But this year, I was able to watch every game and really feel the emotions of such an incredible season. It was awesome. Then, add the storyline of Jeremy Lin for my Knicks, it has been an incredible year for my hometown teams that has had a lot of captivating stories for me to follow."
The past year has changed a lot of things, but one thing hasn't changed: Gross is still a poker player at heart.
"It's been a good time off, but I'm ready to come back," he said. "I'm getting the itch. I feel refreshed and ready to play again."
After a timely and well-deserved break from poker, it may be time for the poker world to be reintroduced to "gboro780." Gross plans to leave the U.S. and head to Canada in order to play the Spring Championship of Online Poker next month and then continue his chase of a WSOP bracelet this summer. However, this time, he will be rejuvenated, a little more balanced and ready to take over the poker world once again.