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Poker in Asia: a busted flush? 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?

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en 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 socalled ‘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). Legal issues 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 landbased 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

Asia Gaming Briefings | November 2016


AGBriefings November 2016