Poker Heads East

Macau in the night

For some very obvious reasons, the eyes of the poker world have been on Las Vegas for the past few weeks, where the 44th renewal of the World Series of Poker is drawing its customary buoyant fields. However, poker’s administrators have long been aware that in order to sustain the game’s prosperity, and to encourage further growth, it cannot rest on its laurels.  While it is important to celebrate successes like the WSOP, it’s crucial also to look for new areas to bring the game.

For this reason, what happened in Macau last month, at the “PokerStars Live” cardroom at the City of Dreams casino, could have more lasting significance than anything occurring in Nevada this summer. PokerStars joined with the Asian company GuangDong Group to host the GuangDong Asia Masters (GDAM), a tournament with a buy-in of HKD $1m (approximately USD $130,000) and aimed squarely at the super-rich Asian businessmen who have recently begun to show an appetite for poker.

Talk to anyone involved in global marketing, and the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are the holy grail. Poker is already enormous in Brazil and Russia and while India is holding out for now, China is evidently fertile ground. Anything that raises the profile of poker in the People’s Republic could initiate a fresh boom, and PokerStars’ presence in the independent administrative zone of Macau underlines the company’s preparedness to lead the way.

GuangDong’s core business is arranging junkets for high-stakes gamblers, typically from mainland China and Hong Kong and typically to the baccarat rooms of the mega-casinos in Macau. Vegas casinos offer a similar service, ostensibly ensuring that the biggest gamblers are provided with the most pleasurable environment in which to speculate their eye-watering sums. The gamblers have every whim catered for, while the casinos watch gleefully as their croupiers go to work with the rake.

GuangDong had noticed that some of its clients had recently expressed an interest in poker, and last year arranged a tournament with a buy in of HK $2m (US $258,000 approx). It attracted 73 players and 21 rebuys, with Stanley Choi taking the first prize of close to $6.5m. This year, GuangDong and PokerStars made a mutually advantageous arrangement: the junket company would throw its essentially private game open to all, while PokerStars would run the tournament and ensure the presence of some of the top international players.

Although the buy in was cut in half, it would still produce a prize pool big enough to appeal to both whales and sharks alike, while the recreational businessmen would be able to improve their skills against the best in the world. Furthermore, the tournament would be webcast live, in the manner of EPT Live, offering the chance for GuangDong’s name to achieve some international recognition. Everyone would be happy.

And, it is fair to say, everyone was very happy indeed. Despite a potential clash with the World Series, as well as the International Stadiums Poker Tour event in London, the likes of Erik Seidel, Jonathan Duhamel, Greg Merson, ElkY, Ike Haxton and Gus Hansen were among the 71 entrants, who also added 54 rebuys and created a prize pool of more than US $15m. The structure was exceptionally steep—the final table started with an average of about 13 big blinds—but if you’re the kind of player who can afford to speculate $130,000 on a game you’re only just learning, you probably don’t have the time to spare to play for a full week.

The recreational players seemed quite content to take on the pros, while the pros arranged themselves into consortiums for swaps, attempting to reduce the variance that had been enhanced by all the unknown quantities. Eventually, Niklas Heinkecker won it, on behalf of the all-conquering German high rollers. The likes of Tobias Reinkemeier, Philipp Gruissem, Igor Kurganov and Fabian Quoss cheered him—and their percentage—all the way. They had Heinecker’s $4.45m and Kurganov’s $1,069m to divvy up between them.