From the towering, pineapple-shaped Grand Lisboa to the vast campus of the Venetian, there’s no shortage of casinos to choose from in Macau. The only place in China where casinos are legal, Macau opened up its gambling industry in 2004, spurring the number of casinos to jump from 11 to 32. While there may be a question of where this city’s gamblers like to play, there’s no debating which game is king. Baccarat, a 15th century Italian table game, contributed 86% of Macau’s $14.1 billion in gambling revenue last year.
Despite baccarat’s dominance, a 2006 ban on Internet gambling in the U.S. is prompting poker promoters to take their card game across the Pacific in hopes of setting down roots in Asia’s Las Vegas. Since the Macau government approved Texas Hold’em cash games and tournaments in January 2008, three casinos have opened designated poker rooms. In its first year in Macau, Texas Hold’em brought in less than $7 million, but that number is set to rise: in the first quarter of 2009 alone, the game took in more than $4 million. “Poker has exploded in Macau,” says Celina Lin, 26, an Australian poker player who competes in Macau. “The skill level of the players here has increased dramatically just in the last year.”
From July 9 through July 12, the Macau Poker Cup, a bimonthly tournament sponsored by PokerStars Macau, will see more than 100 players competing for a minimum of $129,000 in the main event. The event pales in comparison with the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, which draws in 7,000 players for a grand prize of $8.5 million at its main event, but the Macau tournament’s organizers have high hopes for the game’s potential in Asia. “The gold standard is the World Series of Poker,” says Fred Leung, marketing manager for poker company PokerStars Macau. “In my mind, there’s no better place that could beat the World Series of Poker than Macau.”
Still, there are challenges to cultivating a poker following in this part of the world. The WSOP is taking place right now, but most Asians won’t have a chance to watch it. Unlike in the U.S., where the WSOP and celebrity poker tournaments have developed a sports following enabled by ESPN and Bravo coverage, poker is frowned upon along with other forms of gambling in some parts of Asia, and many markets ban televised tournaments and any mention of gambling in traditional advertising. In 2007, mainland Chinese censors banned a television commercial for the Altira Macau hotel and casino that featured Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat flipping hotel key cards and ice cubes in an allusion to gambling.
To get around these marketing challenges, promoters across Asia are sponsoring rising talents and relying on word of mouth to popularize the game. In South Korea, gaming company AsianLogic is hoping poker will take off among the legions of video gamers in that country. “We’re converting Korean [World of ] WarCraft players into poker players,” says Tom Hall, AsianLogic’s CEO. “If we dangle $5,000 in front of them, they’ll blog about it.”
Asia might be new to the game, but some of the most famous American poker players are of Asian descent. That includes five of the top 20 World Series of Poker players: Men Nguyen, Scotty Nguyen, John Juanda, David Chiu and Johnny Chan, who holds two WSOP main event titles. Still, without media exposure, these names remain unknown in Macau, leaving organizers to develop local heroes who can inspire the masses to take up the game.
Singaporean Bryan Huang, 24, is one such rising star and a favorite in this week’s tournament. Last year, he moved to Macau to develop his career as a professional poker player. He spends his days betting on as many as 12 simultaneous tables online, and then plays into the night in cash games at the Grand Lisboa. “Once people understand that poker’s a game of skill, they’ll grow into it and definitely prefer it over baccarat,” says Huang, referring to the fact that baccarat players bet against the house while poker players bet against each other. “Give it another three or five years. Poker here is going to be as huge as anywhere else in the world.” It’s a tempting bet, but can you ever really trust a poker player
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