When Black Friday hit on April 15, 2011, Kristin Wilson sprang into action, using her unique skill set to start helping online poker pros in the US relocate to countries more hospitable to poker, like Canada and Costa Rica. Several years later, she is still at it, having relocated thousands of players. Her company Poker Refugees helps with everything from finding an apartment to moving, customs, establishing bank accounts other important financial arrangements, and a host of other deceivingly complex aspects of moving to a foreign country as a professional online poker player. Get an inside look on how poker relocation is done on this week’s podcast.
Zac: Kristin Wilson from Poker Refugees, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.
Kristin: Thanks for having me.
Zac: Right off the bat, why don’t you give us the down low, what exactly is it that you do for professional poker players?
Kristin: Poker Refugees was founded in 2011 right after Black Friday. In the months following that event that everybody’s probably familiar with. The idea was originally to help American poker players move to other countries so that they could regain access to their accounts on sites like PokerStars and… well, Full Tilt was in flux — but any of the other international sites. That’s basically what I started off doing back in 2011 as I put together a relocation package specifically for American poker players who didn’t want to wait around for things to get settled back in the U.S. because who knows how long that could take. It could have been years or it still is years and things aren’t ever going to be the same as they were before.
Then, things have pretty much evolved in the past seven years. Now, instead of helping just American players, I do a lot of work with international players because as it turns out, the United States was just one of many countries to regulate or ban or restrict online poker and online gaming in some way. Now, we help people from any country who’s affected by that.
Then, also a lot of players, sports betters, pretty much anyone who likes to gamble online or who works and they’re location independent and they just want help getting set up in another country whether it’s for tax reasons, regulatory reasons or just for climate and cost of living. I’m basically your one-stop shop for travel planning and relocation and living in foreign countries and all the logistics that go along with that from finding a house to opening a bank account to getting all of your documentation in order and even everything down to grocery shopping, cellphones, internet, pretty much anything that you would need.
Zac: Cool. I can imagine that’s a big adjustment. I’d love to talk about some of those details but before we get into that, I’m really curious. How exactly do you get started doing this? I mean did you see Black Friday happen and then immediately said, “Oh, a light bulb went off. I need to start this business.” I mean, were you hanging out with poker players? How did your first few clients come about?
Kristin: Yeah. I mean it sounds cliché but it was such that aha moment that people talk about that I have never had before but I was living in Costa Rica back and I started living there in college. I studied abroad there in 2002, 2003 and then I moved back there full time in 2005 after grad school because the only thing that I liked doing was traveling, so I majored in international business and got an MBA and then went to live in another country since that was like the thing that I like. I was living there for a few years working in real… and had a lot of online, or I guess gaming company owners, employees as clients for real estate.
Over the years, I started to realize how many offshore gaming companies were based out of Costa Rica and that’s how I became familiar with the industry in general. Before that, I had never played poker. I didn’t really know anything about it but all of a sudden, all of my friends and all of my clients were somehow connected to the offshore gambling industry. That’s how I became familiar with what was going on, so when Black Friday happened, I had already been living there for seven years working in real estate, so gaining all of the skills needed to help foreign investors and expats and retirees move to Costa Rica.
My first instinct when I saw the Department of Justice press release and started reading everything about it was that this is going to be a long term mess and the only way for poker players to continue with their daily life uninterrupted or as much as possible would be if they actually left the country because the U.S. was the most affected. Yeah, overnight pretty much, I would say like a few thousand people lost their jobs in Costa Rica, maybe thousands, people who work at those types of companies and a lot of my friends moved within a couple days. They got fired and they moved back to their home countries in like London or England and all over the world, Canada. It was like this really interesting reverse migration where I recognized the opportunity to help young people like me, I was in my 20s, I was like I can help these young people move down here and at the same time, all of my friends and business contacts were like moving out of the country. It was pretty interesting.
Zac: Wow. Right place, right time. Speaking of places, you mentioned Costa Rica and I know that’s one place you do relocate players. We talked to one of your clients, Ryan Schnabel, on a podcast a few months ago. He relocated as an online poker pro after Black Friday. I’m sure a lot of our listeners are wondering where you relocate people and why you choose those countries.
Kristin: Yeah, that’s a great question. When I first launched, I thought what are the closest places to the United States? We started with Canada and then Costa Rica because that was the country that I was most familiar with, as well as Panama. At the time, I wasn’t working in Mexico at all but now, we pretty much branched out so north and south of the border, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, so North and South America and then also hotspots, I would say, that attract online gamblers like Malta for example, Budapest in Hungary, London and also Amsterdam surprisingly.
The things that I look at when I’m adding a new location are basically safety, let’s say cultural acceptance of like different people from different cultures, probably English-speaking or has a population that is bilingual and speaks different languages and also, infrastructure. Without the internet, poker players can’t play online poker. We need to make sure that they’re able to be online uninterrupted so that they don’t lose money. Then, of course, there’s also a convenience factor that we look at because a lot of people only go for a few months and not permanently so they aren’t going to be necessarily packing a container full of their stuff and bringing their car with them to overseas.
We’re looking at places where they don’t need a car, they can access public transportation, walk around, get delivery food which is great now because so much has opened up over the past few years with technology that now, there’s Postmates and UberEATS and different types of services like that in different countries. I’m just basically looking at what is going to be a location that a poker player can thrive in and all senses of that from online poker to their daily lifestyle.
Zac: Right. I can imagine every player has different needs but running a hypothetical here, let’s say I’m a U.S. player that wants to relocate and I don’t want to go too much different than the U.S., I want to keep it as close and as similar to the U.S. as possible, where would be some of the places you will be looking to relocate me?
Kristin: Well, Canada is probably the most popular destination for people who want to have a minimum cultural adjustment, I would say, and stay as close as they can to the U.S. and the U.S. culture because they speak English and they are so close and a lot of people are able to just literally drive across the border. We do a lot of work in areas like border towns, so Windsor for example because it’s across from Detroit, Niagara, Montreal, Toronto, basically all of the towns and cities along the border. It does have a very similar lifestyle and of course, Canada is like a major U.S. ally. I would say that it’s the least amount of cultural shock that you could experience.
Then, also, there are pockets and places like Mexico and Costa Rica that have a lot of foreigners, big international community, lots of Americans, lots of tourists now so everybody speaks English or at least in the restaurants and places like that. We do also relocate just over the southern border so from San Diego. There’s American amenities, people speak English. Then, in Costa Rica as well, there’s specific towns and cities within the country that are very foreigner-friendly and beaches in particular. That is a good place for people to adjust and kind of start their international online poker journeys from.
Zac: I imagine, if you’re a professional poker player, you’re not just looking at being able to play your game, you’re looking at the bottom line and the cost of living and those types of things. What can poker players expect in terms of expenses when they make the move and then their day-to-day life? Is it more expensive, less expensive? I’m sure, it varies by location but can you give just an overview of how that works?
Kristin: Definitely. That’s a really important point. I think one of the biggest misconceptions, not just with online poker players but just people in general who dream about traveling somewhere for fun or living abroad for a while, is that they think that it’s prohibitively expensive. That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, it’s, in most cases, going to be more affordable once you get to the destination compared to your average cost of living back at home. Unless the players are moving to a place with a very high cost of living like Vancouver, for example, or London, they’re probably going to save money.
Budgeting is one of the things that we do in the relocation process like help people forecast any expenses. Really, the major ones are leading up to the relocation which is typically anything involving storage or moving or getting things situated back at home. Then, basically, it’s just your transportation to the country whether you’re driving or flying and then, your security deposit and your first month’s rent and then, any help that they want like a relocation fee as well.
It’s typically drawn out over the first few months. You might pay the relocation fee and then the next month, buy your plane ticket and then the next month, put down your security deposit and then when you get there, pay your first month’s rent. It could be out over three or four months. The typical cost of living in some of the smaller Canadian border towns, for example, I mean it could be as low as $2,000 a month. It’s the same in Mexico and Costa Rica. It’s quite accessible. I definitely spend more money when I’m in the U.S. than when I’m living in Mexico or Costa Rica.
Zac: Got you. On the subject of money, the whole point is to move to make money. I could imagine that gets a little complicated when it comes to winning large sums of money in tournaments, transferring that money around, taxes. Can you just give a brief overview of how money works when you relocate?
Kristin: Definitely. We kind of do a bit of a financial boot camp in our relocation packages because the whole reason that people move is to make money basically or to be able to continue making money in the way that they choose to do so. Managing your finances and being able to access that money is really important. It’s a combination of knowing what to bring with you and what you can access once you’re there. The tools for Americans are quite limited. It’s … Let’s see. Where can I start off with this to explain it in a very succinct way?
In the United States, pre-Black Friday, there were a lot of different deposit and withdrawal possibilities that weren’t necessarily transparent or lawful. I think that that was like what was involved in the Black Friday indictment. There were allegedly things relating to how the sites were processing their payment that were questionable. Things have definitely tightened up a lot. When people move, it depends on the country that they’re going to. It can basically depend on your citizenship, your country of destination and then the financial tools in that country.
Canadian citizens living in Canada have a lot of different tools at their disposal compared to Americans going to Canada. The main things that we help people set up is a bank account offshore in the country that they’re going to and then, also, e-wallet like Escrow or Neteller so that they can move the money from their bank accounts among the e-wallets and then from there, they can decide how much they want to deposit on the sites whether it’s $10 or $100,000.
Then, getting the money off, it’s a combination of things as well because there could be limits and restrictions on the e-wallets and then even with the bank accounts. In some places, you have to forecast how much you think you will be earning per month and withdrawing per month. Then, if you go over that, then the bank can ask a lot of questions or shut your account down. It can definitely be, I mean feel like a little bit of acrobatics there. Also, the swap market which you may have seen if you go on the forums in Two Plus Two, things like that, there are a lot of people trading money.
In the case where we had one client go abroad, he won, I think, $750,000 in his first week. I think it was a SCOOP tournament or WCOOP tournament and I don’t even know how he got the money off. I think he traded it with people to get it back to the U.S. or used backers and things like that but it’s definitely an issue because it’s always changing but we do help everybody set up a way for them to get money on and offline. It just depends on the cost and the speed that which they can do those transactions as far as what they decide and how they decide to do that. It works pretty well but I wish that there were more options especially for Americans because it’s really tough to open bank accounts in a other countries these days. That’s one of the things that we’re always kind of keeping out thumb on the pulse with that.
Zac: Yeah. Listening to that description and I know you’re just scratching the surface, it’s no surprise that you’re out there providing your services. That sounds like a total headache. I would imagine another challenging aspect of this is depending again on where you choose to go, dealing with the local government or the new government and dealing with the taxes and those types of things. I mean, I imagine that varies wildly but are there some common challenges that you see come off in that?
Kristin: Yeah. There can be some definite benefits for people. Because I’m not a certified accountant, I have relationships set up with tax attorneys or CPAs or accountants in each of our destinations. We include a free consultation with all of our relocations with one of those professionals. It’s interesting because as a U.S. citizen, for example, there’s some really, I guess, general commonly known strategies that people can use like if you live outside of the United States for a certain number of days per year, I think the cut-off is 330 days a year and then you can get income tax credits on … I think the amount … It’s somewhere between … I think it’s around $90,000 or something like that now.
For people who are definitely living outside of the United States long-term and they can benefit from those types of tax credits so it could be an asset to them but the main rule of thumb with Americans is that we have to file and pay taxes anywhere in the world. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter where you are, like you still have to file normally. There are some other documents that you need to file in addition, so like normal tax returns if you’re living offshore.
For people who are coming from Europe and other places, they might actually be able to change their tax domicile. Let’s say they’re French. They can change their tax base to a different country if they live there for long enough. We do get a lot of players from European country who want to go somewhere like England where poker and gaming revenue is not taxed and also a place like Malta where they pay a lot lower tax base compared to Scandinavian countries or France or Spain or something like that. That can definitely be helpful to their bottom line.
Zac: Wow. I didn’t know about that at all. That’s fascinating. Do you have a lot of people actually taking the extra step and becoming citizens or trying to become citizens of these countries or are they mostly staying U.S. citizens and working abroad?
Kristin: Yes. Actually, I just did a couple of videos on that topic because people always ask, do they have to give up their U.S. citizenship. You actually don’t have to. Most of our clients are going with their passports and just a tourist visa but as the years have progressed, we’ve definitely help people get permanent residency in different countries like Canada and Costa Rica. Yes, some of them have just stayed and had families and kids and dogs and are living there long-term and we just had our first client whose permanent residency, I think, in Costa Rica, I think it came up for renewal because he had been there for five years.
You can still maintain your home citizenship and then a temporary residency or a permanent residency in the country that you’re going to but for all intents and purposes, for most people who are just trying this out and going for a few months or a year or something like that, they don’t really need to worry about doing that until they’ve decided that it’s something that they want to do permanently.
Zac: I mean you gave so many details on making the move and I still immediately feel like I would hire you in a heartbeat because it’s so complicated. I guess my last question is you’ve been around since Black Friday. You’ve been doing this a long time. I read that you’ve relocated over 600 poker players. Did you ever think that poker would be in this legal state still to this day, that things have moved so slow, only three states have fully legalized poker in the U.S.? Did you ever think that you’d be still doing this as much as you are at this point in time?
Kristin: I really didn’t. I mean I didn’t know how long it would take the U.S. to regulate things and figure something out but I thought I would maybe be doing this for a year and that has been very shocking that I’m still doing this six, seven years later. I think it’s just because the type of person who wants to move is now different. At the beginning, it was all these really young, like 21-year-old poker wizards, right, and everyone could just drop what they were doing and move but as the years progressed, people went back to the real world. They got jobs or they went back to school and they did a bunch of other things just waiting for the U.S. to regulate online poker and it just never happened.
The reasons for that are debatable and it could have to do with the election cycles and a lot of other things but, so then it just became regular people who weren’t necessarily professional poker players who just wanted to play poker and they just missed it because it had been five or six years and so they said, you know … They reached out to me and they’re like, “I am not a poker pro but I love online poker. I want to be able to play on more sites in the U.S. facing sites.” Now, it just kind of evolved and I’m just going with it.
I’m really passionate about making this something that anyone can do and so I’m just really happy and fulfilled with my job, I guess because I invented it and also because I’m making it accessible for just regular people who would never consider doing something like that and what was so weird and controversial about what I was doing in 2011 has now just become commonplace. People don’t even blink. They don’t even think twice about it because they know they’ve seen thousands of other people who did this, so now it’s like normal from now.
Zac: Yeah. It really sounds like a dream job to get to help people out doing what they love to do and help them make more money, couldn’t ask for anything more than that and when that $750,000 cash comes in, that must feel pretty good.
Kristin: Yeah, definitely, and they get to access the giant tournaments like SCOOP and WCOOP and even live pros who just travel around playing like EPTs and tournaments like that, I’ll set up people in one country and then they might be there for a month or so and then they go travel around playing live tournaments. Then, wherever they are, if they can access online poker from there, they’d log in from there when they’re not playing in a live tournament, in like Macau or something.
People really just kind of made it a part of their lifestyle. Even people like … I remember a video came out with PokerStars about Shaniac and he was living in L.A. or San Diego and it was a video about him just basically commuting to work over the border. It’s just so interesting to me because here, we have America, like our mental picture is always of people from south of the border crossing into the U.S. to go to work and here we have American poker players commuting to Mexico to go to work.