For over a decade, Asia has been touted as the region where the next – and most explosive – poker boom will occur, and yet the spark has failed to fully ignite. So how much appetite is there still for poker in the Far East and what’s holding the game back?
Ten years ago, more than 300 poker professionals and amateurs congregated in the fourth-floor ballroom at the Meritus Mandarin Hotel in Singapore. With a buy-in of $5,000 and a first-place prize of $451,700, this was the first real poker event of significance in the Far East and the inaugural leg of the new Asian Poker Tour (APT). Three days later, one man was left standing as businessman, philanthropist and notorious poker player Antanas Guoga, known simply as ‘Tony G’, was crowned champion. The gregarious Australian promptly (and unexpectedly) donated half his winnings to charity and handed the trophy depicting a ‘Merlion’ – Singapore’s tourism symbol – to runner up and local player Joshua Ang so that it stayed in the country.
This tournament was a big deal in poker circles back in November 2006 as it was seen as a potential catalyst to expand the game to a new frontier and the world’s most populous continent. At the time, the so-called ‘poker boom’ was in full swing in the US (despite UIGEA being signed into law in October) and much of Europe, as millions of people were discovering the game. Meanwhile, Macau was soon earning a reputation for playing host to some of the biggest cash games in the world where high-stakes professionals and super-wealthy businessman locked horns over pots worth millions of dollars. And it wouldn’t be long before PokerStars launched the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) to complement its successful European Poker Tour (EPT).
Yet in the ten years following that APT event in Singapore, poker has never truly taken off in the Far East; a couple of obvious major reasons being that online poker is illegal in most countries while land-based poker rooms and poker events are not that widespread. In fact, poker still barely gets a look in compared with baccarat in gambling’s epicenter, Macau. “Given that Macau is the world’s gambling hub with the best casinos in the world, it should follow that Macau would lead the way in poker, but it does not,” says APT CEO Jeff Mann. “To put things into perspective, there is one independent poker room in Manila that on any night runs more poker cash tables than the total of all poker tables available in Macau.
“The root cause for this is the imposed and strictly regulated gaming table cap for all casinos in Macau, so it would be career suicide right now for a casino executive to even suggest replacing a few profitable baccarat tables to establish a small poker room.” Mann says eradicating the table cap makes logical sense. “This would encourage casinos to expand their product offering to customers and would immediately open the door to major poker event organizers like APT, WPT [World Poker Tour] and WSOP [World Series of Poker] that would quickly rival anything on offer in the US or Europe.”
The prized jewel from a poker promoter’s point of view is Mainland China, home to some 1.3 billion people and where high rollers and a burgeoning middle class flood into Macau to gamble. Both the WPT and APPT have managed to stage events on the mainland, though the latter suffered the ignominy of having the Nanjing Millions raided by police and shutdown in 2015. Nevertheless, Alex Dreyfus, CEO of Mediarex, creators of the Global Poker League – a high-profile poker competition involving 12 franchise teams from around the world – is confident the game will eventually take off in the country. “I believe China will be one of the next to have a poker boost – not boom,” he says, choosing his words carefully.
“Why? Because in the last decade the boom never reached China and there are dozens of millions, if not more, ‘white collars’ that can embrace the game of poker – plus it is a skill game.” Dreyfus also highlights the popularity of free-to-play mobile poker in China. “Tencent offer a social poker mobile application that reached almost 100 million registered users, so the potential is there but you just need to find the spark to ignite it. But it will not be real-money online poker as we know it; we believe it will be very different – a mix of social poker, video games and eSports.”
As Mann mentions, the one country to boast a thriving poker scene is the Philippines. As well as being a regular stop for the main tours and having an abundance of poker clubs, it is where much of the high-stakes action can now be found. Indeed, Poker King Club, which is synonymous with high-stakes cash games at Macau, launched a sister poker room in Manila at the Solaire Resort & Casino last year. In January, the poker room hosted the first edition of the Triton Super High Roller Series featuring a $200,000 buy-in tournament, which attracted 52 entrants and generated a prize pool of $10 million. However, a breast cancer charity event in September outstripped that with a buy-in of $500,000. “High-stakes games are becoming more popular in the region,” says Jason Jastrzemski, marketing executive for Poker King Club Manila. Yet Mann worries that the country’s poker market is becoming too crowded. “In my view, the Philippines has now reached saturation point in terms of number of poker rooms in operation and the number of tournaments staged.”
Another fly in the ointment in terms of poker’s expansion in some countries is the fact casinos only permit entry to foreigners or locals holding overseas passports. Indeed, while Cambodia and Vietnam are “potentially big markets”, says Mann, banning locals isn’t conducive to growing the game in this corner of Southeast Asia. “It meant that when Asian Poker Tour went to both countries we had a great line-up of international players but not one local was able to experience an international poker tournament atmosphere and buzz, which, unfortunately, did absolutely nothing for grassroots development of poker in those countries.”
In the US, much of the grassroots development was kick-started by poker’s exposure on television. After cable TV’s Travel Channel began screening WPT events with hole cards revealed in 2002, it led to an avalanche of poker programs flooding the networks. This encouraged millions to deposit money and try the game online. Subsequently, the more skilled players saw their bankrolls grow while some went on to become the game’s professional superstars with lucrative poker site sponsorships. A select few even transcended the world of poker.
Asia hasn’t experienced this, however land-based poker in the region still manages to attract recreational players, suggests Jastrzemski, which is vital to sustaining the poker ecosystem, “There still are casual and young players discovering the game because poker is more of a social game and different to that of blackjack and baccarat. Players can find it exciting to sit and play with a celebrity one day, a professional poker player the next day, so by getting to talk to them can increase their ability and enjoyment of the game.”
On reflection, Mann says Asia experienced what he describes as a “mini-boom” a few years ago, but this has “settled down considerably” since. He states there is still a great deal of interest in the game, but there is no escaping one key issue: “The bottom line is that poker is not happening in most countries in Asia – both cash-game play and tournaments – because it is still illegal.” This situation doesn’t look like it is going to change anytime soon, and until it does, poker appears set to remain a somewhat niche gambling game across much of Asia.
Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.
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