Kristin Wilson, CEO of PokerRefugees.com - a consultancy service for grinders relocating to play poker abroad - was kind enough to sit down with Rakeback.com for this exclusive interview.
Rakeback.com: Thanks for joining us today, I know you've been incredibly busy lately!
PokerRefugees: Of course - and yes, it's been crazy. I've been on a whirlwind tour of Asia - take it easy on me!
RB: Don't worry, it's all easy-going here. So tell us more about your Asia plans. Do you have an estimate on when you’ll be able to offer your services there?
PR: The plan is to launch 3 new country destinations this summer for players who want to move after WSOP. These countries are: Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong. We are also considering adding Australia. There will be 1-3 cities in each country that we can offer.
RB: Sounds great. Expansion is always good. And speaking of that, it’s been nearly four years since Black Friday, how can you explain your ongoing success?
PR: I think it’s because the business was designed to genuinely help poker players. Everyone thought that the Poker Refugees concept would be a trend that fizzled out after a couple months, but we’ve shown that there was really a lot more to the situation.
What started with helping American poker players move because of Black Friday has turned into another branch of the “digital nomad” global movement we are seeing in all the virtual industries.
People who are self-employed or entrepreneurs want to do what they want and live where they want. Poker players included. We now work for players from any country, regardless of the reason why they are moving.
Kristin has helped hundreds of people relocate, retire, purchase real estate and start businesses abroad
RB: So tell us some of those reasons. Besides the obvious legislation problems, why are people willing to just pack up and leave?
You name it. We get a wide variety of motivations - everything from boredom, to wanting warmer weather, to cost of living to taxes to finding exotic girlfriends, or even just for a fun change of pace.
So whatever they want to do, we can help with at any level or actually carry out all the logistics and planning for them. At this point, we are basically evolving in real time with the needs of the players.
This translates to being able to offer more á la carte services, more locations and more individual consulting compared to the one-size-fits-all relocations packages we started out with back in 2011.
RB: Very interesting. So what is the most popular refugee location among your poker-playing clients?
PR: It has varied through the years. When I started Poker Refugees, Costa Rica and Canada were #1 and #2 for Americans, but Mexico (Playa del Carmen specifically) took the top spot in 2013-2014.
This year, the verdict is still out. Things are pretty balanced.
For European players, the most popular countries are the United Kingdom and Malta, primarily for tax reasons. Malta is the favorite because of the mild weather, party scene and lower cost of living.
We now work for players from any country.
RB: Besides the super popular locations, can you tell us a “hidden gem” refugee location?
PR: I'll cheat and pick 2 locations if I'm allowed...
RB: Of course.
PR: All things equal, I really like the Central Valley of Costa Rica for the Americas and Budapest in Europe.
The San Jose province of Costa Rica has amazing weather, good infrastructure, a huge range of Internet options, all the amenities, banking in USD plus a big international airport in the middle. It’s a good hub for sure.
Budapest has a low cost of living, and there's a tight knit poker community which makes it a fun city to live in.
RB: Moving on to the logistical side - do clients tend to play on one site, for example, do you get a lot of Americans going abroad only to be able to play on PokerStars? or is it more of a variety?
PR: The dream is to play on PokerStars, of course, but once players go abroad, they have access to pretty much any international online poker sites that might be blocked in the US, so there’s a lot of opportunity to diversify and game select on a macro level.
Most players want to concentrate their VPPs on Stars or set a goal to achieve SNE for example, but it depends on which games people play and what makes the most sense for each person (to play only on Stars or spread out).
Multitable from a South American beach locale e.g. Ecuador
RB: So let's shift gears a little: do you play poker yourself?
PR: Ha – no, not seriously. I know the games and have a play money account on Stars but I never actually have time to play since I’m always working, eating, sleeping, traveling or planning.
I wanted to learn when I first launched PR, but I know where my strengths lie, and finally decided to leave poker to the pros and stick with my day job. I’m surrounded by poker players all day, every day, including my boyfriend, so I probably know more about poker than any other non-poker player in the world.
If I ever do get more involved, it would probably be on the charity side.
RB: If you could pick one location you’ve visited in your life and travels with PR to be trapped (i.e. can’t leave even for visits) in for 10 years, what location would you choose?
PR: Wow, that is a good question! This is a tough one. Let me think for a minute...
RB: Sure, take your time.
PR: Well, I’m very fortunate that I can travel a lot, but this is actually something I struggle with all the time: Where to live??? First world problems, right?
Ideally I would spend the summer in Vancouver or Amsterdam, and the winter somewhere tropical like Bali or Thailand. That would be the perfect balance! Can I pick two?
RB: No cheating this time! You're on the hot seat here.
PR: Ok, ok fair enough. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in Canada or Europe all winter for 10 years. I’m from Florida after all. So if I had to pick just one place it would need to have a mild climate and lots of things to do.
Since I've already lived in Costa Rica, I would choose Mexico because there's so much variety: cities, Pacific beaches, Caribbean beaches, history, mountains, surfing, and all the climates – even winter!
Tapas and 4-tabling Zoom at sunset in Rosarito, Mexico
RB: Shifting back to the business side - do you feel the possibility of regulated online poker in the U.S. is a threat to your business?
PR: Yes and no… honestly I wish I made a huge prop bet in 2011 on what would happen with US regulation because I’ve been right so far. I knew it would take so many years to get sorted and in the end, it might not even consist of the actual conditions needed for pros to live and work there.
We see things moving super slow and on a state-by-state level; it’s just not ever going to be the same as pre-Black Friday. People need to give up that pipe dream in my opinion.
State taxes and rake could also be an issue. If we take a look Europe, we see a clear pattern. Pros can’t afford to live in most of their own countries because of the way online poker is regulated.
It started in Spain and France and keeps spreading because it’s easier for countries to adopt a system that’s already been put in place. What is happening makes total sense because governments are regulating it for the masses and to earn more taxes, not for a handful of pros to make a living.
So even with lobbying in the pros’ interests, it’s going to be difficult to make compelling arguments that only affect a minute portion of players.
But I digress… long story short, US regulation can definitely adversely affect my business, but so far regulation has only helped it.
Either way, I’m prepared to retire from this and move onto new things at any time and have been since day 1.
I’m a millennial serial entrepreneur and that’s what we do. Refugees is the inverse of a normal business when it comes to long term planning, and I expect the life cycle can be cut short because we are dealing with an extremely dynamic regulatory environment (among other things) but so far we’ve outlasted everyone’s longest estimates by years so I’m happy no matter what happens.
It’s been a life changing and ultimately very fulfilling experience to help 500 fellow humans change their own lives. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
RB: Very interesting perspective.
If you think of how difficult it is to plan a vacation to a country you’ve never been, multiply that by 100 and that’s relocating for online poker.
RB: One of your on-site ads says that it took a player over a month to set himself up, and he wishes he had used your service. From the time a client first contacts you, approximately how long does it take to get set up in another country?
PR: Our secret is we do all the planning in advance and we know what we’re doing. So once the player arrives to the destination, he’ll usually be set up within just a few hours. But on average, 1-3 months of planning goes into each relocation while the client is living his daily life in his home country.
We do have a lot of players contact us after they move and have been unsuccessful on their own. It can take us a few days to a week or so to get them up and running when we are working backwards. It’s really a shame because they could have avoided the pain if they just went with us in the first place. Live and learn I suppose!
RB: If I came to you and said, “Kristin, I want to go, and I want to go now.” What’s the quickest you could get me going (including any extra charges for rush fees)?
PR: We literally did a relocation for 1 player in maybe 48 hours.
He hired us while he was boarding the plane to Toronto and we worked non-stop to get him set up. This was a former WSOP Main Event Champ, so he realized the value we provide and was happy to pay the fee to expedite so we could get things done for him ASAP.
A luxury apartment with garden and hilltop view in Bali
RB: So, continuing that thread - what are some of the most difficult issues with relocating poker players and how does using your service make it easier?
PR: If you think of how difficult it is to plan a vacation to a country you’ve never been, multiply that by 100 and that’s relocating for online poker.
There are virtually infinite websites and services to help people with travel or planning, but there are very few, if any, cohesive, organized resources to help individuals move abroad – especially poker players.
Poker players have 2 choices: read the internet and 2+2 for months, buy a plane ticket and hope for the best, or hire Poker Refugees and have everything done correctly the first time. You save an almost incalculable amount of time and money by using a service like ours.
The learning curve of doing this on your own is incredibly steep and incredibly minus EV; if you kill yourself trying to do this one time, where does that get you in the future? And that's not to mention scams and other things you might run into on your own.
I’ve been moving to foreign countries and helping others do so for 10 years now. At the beginning, I made a ton of mistakes and wasted a ton of money. Now I help people avoid all the mistakes that everyone inevitably makes, plus I set up a comprehensive foundation for online poker that will last them forever in theory.
It seems crazy not to get help with something like this, especially when you are moving for your career and not just for fun. I wish my present self were around to help my past self with all those moves years ago.
RB: You make a great pitch. We're sold! But surely it's still difficult emotionally, even with your help. Has anyone ever come to you crying begging to help get them back home?
PR: There is one guy who comes to mind.
I won’t name names, but he moved to Costa Rica and left within 1 week.
Turns out he borrowed money from his parents to move and only had enough to last him 2 weeks. When he didn’t bink a tournament in the 1st week, he got spooked and called me to ask for a ride to the airport. It was pretty unexpected!
Other than that, most players really enjoy the experience and a few have never left their adopted countries. I know a lot of guys who have been abroad since May 2011 and just visit the US a couple times per year.
Daleroxxu (ex PS Team Online) blogs and grinds from Bangkok, Thailand
RB: Poker is a game of mental preparation. What sort of mental preparation would you recommend to someone thinking of relocating to play poker?
PR: Mentally, just keep an open mind and start with a clean slate. Nothing will be like what you expect and nothing will be like home.
Possibly more important than the mental preparation is the bank roll preparation. If you move without money, you’ll be stressed and putting a lot of pressure on yourself.
RB: What would you say to people who want to relocate to play poker but are afraid of living in another country?
PR: I would say give it a go; you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Home will always be there. No one has ever told me they regret moving abroad. Ever. Even the guy who left after 1 week, he still had a blast and told me it was the best thing he ever did.
I’ve been traveling internationally since I was 16, and I still get a bit intimidated when I go to a new country I’ve never been to, especially if I don’t speak the language. But you will be surprised how fast you get into your comfort zone. It’s pretty cool. Then you won’t want to leave.
If a few thousand other poker players are living abroad already, you can do it too. Most of these guys never had passports before.
A poker refugees client grinding from Malta
RB: So let us play devil's advocate here: What would you say to critics who say what you’re doing is “Anti-American?”
PR: If what I’m doing is anti-American, then how would they classify how their state representatives and national government are handling the regulation of online poker – an American national past time?
Doesn’t seem like they are doing the game justice to me.
The online poker exodus is just a side effect of a bigger problem.
I believe that what I’m doing is 100% good for America. I’m helping Americans enhance their quality of life, realize their goals and live life to the fullest, so that when they eventually move back home they come back with a sense of independence and responsibility, a more worldly attitude and cross cultural compassion and understanding.
Maybe even a second language or a spouse or a family when they come back. This can only be a good thing.
RB: You've been so forthcoming - so we need to ask: Have there ever been any totally crazy stories?
PR: Haha, yes. I will never forget this client who I relocated with his girlfriend.
Long story short - I found out via a phone call in the middle of the night that they were actually in an abusive relationship and the girl was beating up my client! They were both hysterical.
RB: Wow! That's heavy...
PR: Yeah, and I had to call the Costa Rican police and stay on the phone with them mediating and translating. I was half asleep, but I recall she was also trying to steal money and their dog. What a mess.
Eventually I drove over to their house and put the girlfriend up in a hotel to separate them. It was by far the craziest relocation experience I’ve been through.
I was not happy, but I just wanted them both to be safe. I don’t remember what happened after that but I think they eventually broke up for good and moved home.
Grinding from a 14th floor luxury condo in Jaco, Costa Rica
RB: That's dedication! And on that note, we're out of time for now, but Thanks again to PokerRefugees.com and Kristin in particular for meeting with us. We hope to see you again soon! You're welcome at the Rakeback.com studio anytime.
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