WSOP [World Series of Poker] that would quickly rival anything on offer in the US or Europe.” Mainland prize 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.” Manila thrives 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.” TV exposure 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 Briefings | November 2016