Can a movie produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake change the landscape of online gambling in Costa Rica? If it is up to the American Gaming Association (AGA), a powerful industry and lobby group in the United States, Runner Runner could be the worst thing to happen to online poker in Costa Rica since Black Friday.
The Costa Rica Star has been following the production of Runner Runner since May 2012. For those of you not familiar with the film, here is the synopsis by distributing studio 20th Century Fox:
Runner Runner is a poker term that describes a lucky hand that hits cards on the turn and the river. This film is directed by Brad Furman, known for his masterful turn behind the lens on The Lincoln Lawyer. Runner Runner is produced by Appian Way Productions, a film enterprise ran by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has a connection to both high stakes poker and Costa Rica. The script was produced by no less than Brian Koppleman and David Levien, who are revered among poker players for having penned Rounders.
Last August, the Costa Rica Star published Runner Runner: A film about Costa Rica that is not being filmed here. That article offered insight into the Hollywood practice of taking their productions to countries where attractive financial incentives are offered. Runner Runner was almost entirely filmed in Puerto Rico, which will surely perpetuate the mix-up between the Island of Enchantment and Costa Rica.
Sometimes Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
The reviews of Runner Runner are all in (sorry), and they are not the greatest. The trailers, however, look spiffy and exciting. You can certainly give credit to Mr. Furman and his effort to somehow make Puerto Rico look like Costa Rica. From the trailers, you can discern the following nice touches:
- Nice aerial photography of the Central Valley and rusty tin roofs
- Charter aircraft painted similarly to Nature Air
- Taxi cabs painted candy apple-red
- Accurate uniforms of Fuerza Publica officers, complete with the Costa Rica flag patch on the right shoulder
- Smoldering beauties who could easily pass for Ticas
The Runner Runner trailers also feature a slightly cryptic message: Based on a true story. According to a recent interview of Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Levien published by SBNation, the true story background developed as follows:
The scriptwriters are referring to a scandal in the online gaming world that unfolded in Costa Rica and that, according to unofficial sources, may have caused actor Ben Affleck to lose money. Mr. Affleck and Mr. DiCaprio were allegedly part of a Hollywood circle of high-rollers who enjoy playing the Texas Hold’Em style of poker. If the rumors are true, UltimateBet and AbsolutePoker may have performed a high-tech swindle that is very similar to a major plot point of Runner Runner.
The film Runner Runner is not alone in depicting the dark history of UltimateBet and AbsolutePoker in Costa Rica. There is also the book Straigth Flush by author Ben Mezrich, who also wrote Accidental Billionaires, The Founding of Facebook and Bringing Down the House. The former book was turned into the film The Social Network and the latter into the movie 21. Mr. Mezrich has also written about moon rock traffickers. Here’s part of the synopsis of Straight Flush:
The Costa Rica Star contacted Mr. Mezrich for this article but did not receive an answer by press time.
The AGA Ups the Ante
What does the American Gaming Association have to do with Runner Runner and the online poker industry in Costa Rica? The short answer is as follows:
Online poker in Costa Rica = Money. Lots of it, and the AGA wants in.
To say that the AGA likes Runner Runner is an understatement. Since we are talking about movies, let’s put it in a phrase we can all understand: Runner Runner is the AGA’s Hollywood moment. Let’s visit the AGA website and click on this Bloomberg link they offer:
If ever there was a boogeyman that the AGA could embrace is Ivan Block, the character adeptly played by Mr. Affleck. He does wonderful villain work that we have been waiting to see since Boiler Room. The AGA loves Mr. Block so much, they have dedicated an entire website to this bad boy:
Runner Runner – A Cautionary Tale for Americans
What the AGA clearly wants is to get a cut (or all) of what Costa Rica gets -at least to an extent. Let’s not forget that offshore income is not taxable in Costa Rica, and thus online gaming sites could funnel and keep their proceeds abroad and thus avoid revenue collection by the Ministerio de Hacienda (Costa Rica’s Treasury).
The Ghosts of Black Friday
The AGA certainly has the firepower to wrestle online poker away from Costa Rica and other jurisdictions. After all, this industry group was once presided by a former chairman of the U.S. Grand Ole Party (the Republican Party – GOP).
Costa Rica never fully recovered from Black Friday and the days that followed. In 2011, officers from Fuerza Publica and the Organization for Judicial Investigations (Spanish initials: OIJ) accompanied U.S. DOJ agents on raids of various brick-and-mortar offices of online poker outfits. Money was seized, arrests were made, and Tico employees were left pondering about their futures at workplaces such as Rational Group’s PokerStars in Santa Ana’s Forum I corporate park.
PokerStars is the world’s most visible and reputable brand of online poker, and they still have a significant presence in Costa Rica. They are also working on a presence in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they just announced their investment of $10 million into a poker room at Resorts Casino. The Garden State is considering legalization of online poker with the caveat of a brick-and-mortar presence to match. This is exactly what the AGA wants, and it is interesting to note that PokerStars went public with this information on the eve of Runner Runner’s opening in the U.S.
In a way, the AGA embracing Runner Runner is a follow-up to Black Friday, although not everyone is amused by this clever publicity campaign. According to a recent report in the Las Vegas Sun:
Poker Refugees in Costa Rica Could Go Bust
Online poker players in the U.S. have faced consternation since the advent of Internet gaming, but the events of Black Friday were the chip that brought the stack tumbling down. For some grinders (habitual players) enough was enough. If Uncle Sam did not want them, they would take their chips (or laptops) to another place where they could log in and play in peace. Why not Costa Rica, one of the online meccas of poker?
Enter Poker Refugees, a relocation and expatriation service that caters especially to disgruntled online grinder from the U.S. Poker Refugees offers a very specialized and personalized service to players who wish to set up shop in Costa Rica (and other countries as well). The founder of Poker Refugees isKristin Wilson, whose bio is as interesting as she is attractive and entrepreneurial:
Ms. Wilson’s work has been featured in the New York Times, ESPN, Huffington Post, and Bloomberg, among other publications. Poker Refugees offers everything from account setups to immigration issues, tech gaming installations, home rentals, concierge services, connections with other online gaming refugees, etc. Essentially, Poker Refugees is a very specialized lifestyle concierge that alleviates the woes of players who come from a jurisdiction where they can get arrested simply for wiring money to another country.
Could Runner Runner and the AGA blitz cause Poker Refugees to go bust in Costa Rica? Or is it all just a bluff? Poker Refugees’ business success depends on anti-gambling laws and the overzealous enforcement of the U.S. DOJ. Granted, some grinders may choose to return to the U.S. and move to jurisdictions where they are not ostracized for what is not so different from playing an online multiplayer session of Grand Theft Auto; however, the world of online poker is not confined to Internet card rooms. When choosing between New Jersey and Playas del Coco or other places in Costa Rica, many rounders will still choose to play online poker here.
Runner Runner may end up having an effect on the online poker industry in Costa Rica, but we still have that other wagering industry that sometimes uses artificial intelligence in their operations.
news.co.cr/this-movie-could-upset-online-poker-in-costa-rica/28355 - October 4, 2013