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The three largest online poker sites serving U.S. customers have been shut down by the Justice Department. Go to Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker or PokerStars.com and you will see an FBI seal. This means that the people who've played online poker, sometimes as full time jobs, are left in limbo, some with thousands of dollars on account which they can no longer access.

NPR's Mike Pesca has the story.

MIKE PESCA: Shawn Lindstrom is like a lot of online poker players. He's used to assessing risk. And in the case of his favorite hobby, he didn't think there was much of one.

Mr. SHAWN LINSTROM: My self-conception was that my online poker playing was legal.

PESCA: Lindstrom used to play in a home game that moved online when members of the game moved out of town. That game was kept alive until an estimated eight to 10 million online poker players found their favorite sites shut down last Friday. Federal prosecutors charged three big poker sites and the banks that serviced them with fraud and illegal gambling.

Jospeh Kelly, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the co-editor of Gaming Law Review, says there's a decent case that these players really didn't break the law.

Mr. JOSEPH KELLY (Professor, State University of New York; Co-Editor, Gaming Law Review): It's uncertain whether these laws actually prohibit online poker. The Justice Department says it does.

PESCA: In poker, the players with all the chips push the short stacks around, meaning the actions of the DOJ must be taken seriously, even if no players were charged with violating the law.

Rather, poker site operators and bankers who facilitated transactions were charged, but that still leaves guys like Russell Fox out of luck.

Mr. RUSSELL FOX: I consider it a part-time job. You know, I consider it secondary income.

PESCA: Fox is a sales rep for a beverage company full-time. The phrase he uses over and over again is a joke. Poker players have a particular sensitivity to deception.

It is a joke, he says, that real-life poker is legal in some states and treated as the devil's downtime in others. A joke that websites have to put their headquarters in Costa Rica and the Isle of Mann to serve guys from Fresh Meadows, Queens, and a joke to think that online players will be denied.

Mr. FOX: They went after the big three to make a point. You know, but meanwhile, I can name 25 other poker websites that's still up and running.

PESCA: Really every player knows of these alternatives because a defining characteristic of the online player is that he's online. Poker chat rooms are burning with website workarounds.

Mark Anderson plays online and lives in Los Angeles.

Mr. MARK ANDERSON: If you go to those online forums, the different poker forums, they're all talking about moving. And they're serious. You know, because they'd much rather move to try to find a way to move to Canada and play up there, where it's completely legal.

PESCA: Another message board run by the Poker Players Alliance, an advocacy group whose president is former Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato is full of stories about how the shutdown is affecting players.

I recently graduated with two degrees, one in microbiology and one in molecular genetics. Currently looking for a full time job. I play online poker for three to four times more per hour than I do at my part-time job, and on and on.

There are, of course, no testimonials from players saying online poker was costing them a few hundred a month. But right now, there are no online poker winners. Today, millions of players know that the government holds all the cards.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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