I was not around for the birth of my first child, something that I have always regretted. When Sarah was born I was working in another city and I was not able to successfully time my trip back to Phnom Penh. By the time I walked in through my doors at 11:30 AM, my wife was already holding our daughter in her arms. I had vowed since then that this would not happen again with my next child so I was intent to be there for every single moment when my wife became pregnant with our first son. Although I was quarantined in my condo alone for 3 weeks, I only missed one doctor's appointment and was able to accompany my wife on all other visits. As the due date neared things were fairly uneventful as both my wife and our child checked out normal on all visits. But just 2 weeks prior to the due date, everything would change in a way that brought every fear a father could possibly have into my mind.
My wife has always been a woman of small stature and frame. This was not an issue in her first pregnancy but when Sarah was born it really took a toll on her physically. It took her a long time to recover fully and I was a bit worried when she became pregnant again that she might suffer from some complications. She assured me that she would be fine and that she would take better care of herself. The initial trip to the doctor was also reassuring as we were told that everything should be fine as long as my wife kept up with her prenatal vitamin regimen. As I previously mentioned, I went to every doctor's visit with my wife save the month when I was quarantined. Every appointment went very well and all pointed to a smooth delivery come the due date. But on our final visit the doctor expressed some concern over my wife's blood test results. It turns out that she had developed anemia and that our son was now registering as a bit underweight. I had not noticed that my wife was not getting enough red meat and iron in her diet. As a girl from the province who grew up poor, eating something like beef regularly was a rarity in my wife's home and so she thought nothing of the fact that she almost completely lacked this element in her diet. The doctor prescribed some medication to alleviate the issue but also ordered my wife on a strict diet in which she basically had to eat beef with every meal, 3 times per day. So I got on my phone and ordered as many steaks as I could from the local butcher, stuck them in the freezer and told my wife's sisters that they were to cook them with every meal for my wife.
This was an easy enough fix and sure enough my wife's condition did improve. But during our next trip to the hospital the doctor informed us that we should still have some extra blood on hand just in case there was any loss during the birthing process. She also suggested that we opt for a cesarean section as that would minimize the loss of blood. I had never donated blood nor needed it during my time here in Cambodia so I asked the doctor to please inform me on the process. It turns out that the onus of obtaining the blood for a patient is not on the hospital, but on the patient. So I was told to go to the government run blood bank in town and exchange 3 bags of blood to get 3 bags back. If I can find three friends who matched the same blood type as my wife then the bags would be free. Otherwise I would have to pay for each bag, but still donate 3 bags of blood of any type. So I found three friends who were all nice enough to assist and met them at the hospital to go to the blood bank with one of their nurses. But when we arrived at the hospital everything changed and I was now told that they had to receive 3 bags of the exact same type or else they would not release any blood for my wife. I was obviously infuriated with the hospital for giving me the incorrect information as had I known I would have tried to find 3 friends who matched my wife's type. But when calling the hospital I was told that they informed me of the correct policy and that for whatever reason the blood bank had changed their normal procedure. Perhaps it was the fact that I am a foreigner and that I walked in with several others, but such is only speculation on my part. Fortunately one of my friends did match the blood type that was required and so he ended up giving a bit more than we had originally planned. He gave so much in fact that he nearly fainted once we left the blood bank, for which none of the staff surrounding us offered any assistance.
Once I reached the hospital the doctor told me that while it was a bit less than what she had hoped for, the amount of blood received from the bank should be enough. The planned date for the cesarean was not for another few days so I thought we could all relax, at least for a little bit. But on the very next night my wife started having violent contractions and said we needed to go the hospital immediately. The city was in lockdown during this time and people were not allowed to travel outside during any hours, except in cases of emergency. This obviously falling into that category, I called a taxi from Grab and prepared my wife's belongings for her stay at the hospital. But once I booked the ride on my phone, the driver called me and said he would not come unless I paid him $25 for the ride. I should mention here that this is normally a $4 ride but he cited the lockdown as the reason for why he would not come pick us up for any less. I told him that my wife was about to give birth and that this would qualify for as an emergency and that we would have no issue getting past the police barricades. He nonetheless did not care and insisted that I pay him the $25. I angrily hung up on him and immediately booked another ride but then that driver also called me and said he would come for less than $20. I quickly realized that my wife was in great deal of pain and so I agreed to the price with the driver and he quickly arrived in a few minutes. We arrived at the hospital within 15 minutes and quickly got checked in. As it was past midnight the doctor had to be called in so all we could do was wait. My wife was screaming in pain nearly the entire time and when I asked her if this was normal she said it was more pain than she had endured during her past pregnancies. As this was my first time being present for a birth, I was quite worried and every bad thought raced through my mind. The doctor finally arrived around 1:00 AM and by 1:30 AM my wife was taken into the surgical room. The doctor told me that the anesthetic had already been administered and that my son should arrive shortly after 2:00 AM.
While I was in the waiting room my friend unexpectedly arrived at the hospital, the same friend who had donated blood just a few days earlier and nearly fainted. I had sent out a mass text to all my friends when my wife went into labor, but I hardly expected anyone to show up. As I previously mentioned the city was in the midst of a lockdown and so there was also an alcohol ban in effect. But that did not stop my friend from sneaking in a bottle of cognac and some plastic cups into the hospital so that we could have a drink and a toast as soon as my son was born. At 2:15 AM we both heard what was the cry of a baby and since we were the only ones in that section of the hospital I assumed that my son had arrived. The doctor came out of the surgical room and confirmed his birth and assured me that everything was completely normal and healthy both for my wife and our son. My friend and I waited for the doctor to leave and then brought out the bottle of cognac for our celebratory toast. I told him how grateful I was for not only showing up, but also for the blood that he had donated earlier. He offered to stay longer but as it was quite late already I told him to go home and that I would text him the following day after we all got some sleep. My wife and baby were then moved into the room that I had rented for 6 days for her to be able to recuperate and heal from the procedure. The nurses brought my son into the room on a rolling bed, wheeled him up to me then immediately left as if to say "here you go!" I quickly tried to stop them and asked whether or not there would be any after care for the baby. I could have sworn that they laughed at me as they walked away. I was a bit dumbfounded as I had paid $2,000 to the hospital for this entire procedure. I spoke to the doctor and she informed me that I had only paid for the Gold Package and that I needed to pay for the VIP Package in order to receive such care. I did not even ask how much that was before I started screaming at her that I did not care and that I wanted my wife moved to such a package immediately. My wife then stopped me and said that she was already aware of this and that it would be fine as her sisters were on their way to stay with her in the room to help take care of our newborn son. I calmed down and left it up to her judgment as she had been through this before. It seemed as if the most trying parts of Aiden's birth were now over and that we would be able to enjoy the fact that my first son had arrived into this world.
During this time I had to go and look for a new apartment for our family as I did not think a 2 bedroom was big enough for our expanded family. I was fortunate to find a nice and spacious 3 bedroom apartment rather quickly for only $800 per month. The plan was to move everyone in after my wife's 6 day stay in the hospital but as the Covid situation worsened here in Cambodia, that plan quickly changed. In my next blog article I will write of how my wife's family started moving into this new apartment one by one until there were all of a sudden 12 people sleeping there every night. My family had expanded in a way that I had not expected, but as they were all out of work and money due to the pandemic it was not something I felt I could refuse. Life is full of unexpected surprises and this is not how I intended life to be like for our family after the arrival of my son. But at least he is not lacking for family as many are all around to show him love and attention at any given moment.
Cambodia has been an interesting place to live to say the least during this Covid pandemic. In the beginning we did not much feel the effects as our total infection and death rate was very low. Businesses remained open for the most part and life was fairly normal. But when an outbreak occurred on February 20, 2021 everything changed and the country has been in lockdown in one form or another ever since. The events that lead to the change are fascinating and deserving of its own article, but the point of this blog is of a more personal nature. My family has undergone much change as well during this time, transforming my life into something that I thought it would never be. As a person of means living in a third world country with a wife from a poor family, I have needed to take on more responsibilities than I thought I could previously bear. I have undergone a prolonged quarantine during this time, celebrated the birth of my first son and two birthdays during this pandemic. I have changed much during this time as has my family in size, complexity and structure. I first came to Cambodia 7 years ago in search of a particular life and now find myself in the midst of a life both unexpected and grander in scale. This article is part 1 of 3 in which I will attempt to trace my journey through this most unusual of times.
As previously stated, Cambodia seemed almost immune to the pandemic in the beginning. Most of our positive cases were imported from tourists travelling from abroad and the local population remained largely untouched. There were no curfews, lockdowns nor restrictions to speak of and life continued normally for most. It would be nearly a year until we would finally feel the effects when on February 20, 2021 a group of tourists quarantined in a hotel, who would later test positive for the virus, bribed a guard to leave their containment grounds and start a chain of events that would drastically change the course of the country. There were outbreaks throughout the city but my family and I were largely fine as we lived a bit outside of town, seemingly a safe distance apart from all the chaos that was ensuing in the city. I had a second residence nearby where I would go to daily in order to work and play poker and sometimes I would sleep there as well if my sessions ran deep into the night. It was at this residence that I first felt the effects of the pandemic as a group of people on the 14th floor would test positive for the virus. On one particular night I finished playing poker around 1:00 AM and proceeded to head out for drinks with some friends. I returned to the second residence at 4:00 AM and crashed for the night. I awoke the next day at noon and proceeded to head out to my favorite Japanese restaurant for lunch when I was stopped by a group of police and military personnel. I was told we had been locked down and quarantined for two weeks while they tested everyone in the building for covid after some residents had tested positive. They allowed us to get groceries and food delivered from the outside, but we were not permitted to leave the grounds nor could we receive any visitors. As this was my secondary residence, I am grateful that my family were nowhere near although it did make for a more lonely experience.
I immediately went inside to my unit and called my wife. Amusingly enough she did not believe me at first and I completely understood why; a married man telling his wife he could not come home for two weeks. But as news got around that we were 1 of 21 such condos closed down for quarantine, her suspicions quickly changed to worry and concern. I assured her I was fine as I was completely asymptomatic and that I would be tested in a few days. I then spoke to my kids who obviously had difficulty understanding why their father could not come home. Being away from the family was obviously the most difficult aspect of this quarantine, but I called them daily to tell them that I loved them and missed them dearly.
I had to move on to practical matters next so I quickly got out my phone and ordered enough groceries to last me the two weeks. This ended up being somewhat unnecessary as we were later told we could also receive deliveries from restaurants, which I ended up doing for most meals as I was not in the mindset to cook. I thought it would take the government a few days to organize and get everyone tested as 21 locations were locked down. But to my surprise they came knocking on my door the very next morning to inform me that the entire building would be tested that day. They rounded everyone up in the parking lot and tested us one by one, getting all of our information then swabbing us in the nostril. By the 7th day we were informed that everyone in the building tested negative and that we would be tested again on the 10th day of quarantine and that if everyone tested negative again, we would be allowed to leave after the two week period had concluded. While this news did provide much hope, I still have to say that the remaining time was quite difficult. My wife was 6 months pregnant at the time, I could not see my two daughters and I spent every night alone in what now seemed like a very cramped condo. On most nights I would open up all the curtains and windows in my bedroom just to fool myself that I was outside.
On the 10th day of quarantine they rounded everyone up again in the parking lot for our second test. Everything went as smoothly as before and I returned to my condo, hopeful of a release in 4 days time. But in what felt like the most disappointing moment of my life, we were all informed 3 days later that two people had tested positive in the building and that quarantine would be extended. I had read in the news that a similar result had occurred in another complex a few miles away and that their lockdown was extended for another 2 weeks. We were not specifically told how long the extension would be, but I feared a similar fate meaning I would be locked down for basically 1 month total. I informed my wife of the news and tried to explain to my kids why their father was away for so long. We all talked daily and nightly on video calls and they did much to lift my spirits. I wish that I could say that I was productive during this period and made good use of my time. But in truth I did not get much volume in poker wise as I was just not in the proper mindset. Most days were spent ordering takeout food and watching episodes of my favorite TV shows on my computer.
On the 17th day of quarantine they rounded us up again for another round of tests. We all gathered in the parking lot once again but the mood was quite different this time around. I am sure we were all thinking the same thing, namely what would happen if more people tested positive again and just how long are we going to be stuck here? I tried not to think of such things and prepared myself for the results and another round of tests before hopefully being let out after 28 days. But on the 20th day of quarantine I woke up to very surprising news. I was asleep when the management office of the building called and informed me that everyone had tested negative in the latest tests and that we were all free to leave. I thanked the building staff as they had gone through much as well, having been quarantined along with the rest of us during this time. I sprinted out the door without even combing my hair, high fived all the security guards on my way out and found the nearest tuk tuk to get me home. I did not tell my wife of the news as I wanted to surprise everyone. That 3 minute ride seemed like an eternity but I finally got home, ran through the front door and yelled "Papa's home!" They could not have been more surprised as both of my daughters ran to hug me as we had not seen each other in nearly 3 weeks. I kissed my wife, told her what had happened and spent the rest of the day in bed watching YouTube with my kids.
Although I was let out of my own quarantine, the city at large still went through various stages of lockdowns and curfews in the ensuing months. Given that my wife was 6 months pregnant I had missed one doctor's appointment with her but was glad to be able to resume accompanying her on such visits. Traveling about the city was becoming increasingly difficult and the police would stop all vehicle at nearly every intersection for the proper documentation to be able to travel. We did not possess such but were able to present our hospital records in their stead. On one such occasion, the police stopped us and asked why we were outside when my wife explained we were going to the hospital for our regular visit during her pregnancy. The policeman then asked who was pregnant, which was quite amusing as my wife was obviously showing by this time and the only other person in the car was myself. My wife laughingly exclaimed that she was the one who was pregnant, to which the policeman laughed and let us go on our way. All of our appointments went well in the ensuing months with no surprises. Everything indicated that we were going to have a healthy boy in mid May and we made preparations towards that date. We had not yet named our son and my wife had left that decision entirely up to me. I was having some difficulty as I did not want to follow the usual convention. Korean Americans have a tendency to name their children after biblical figures, a trend I myself continued when I named my daughter Sarah. But I wanted to deviate from tradition this time around so I did what I usually do when I have difficulty deciding anything and googled "most popular names for baby boys." Nothing really jumped out at me until I came across the name Aiden, an Irish name which meant "little fire." I thought to myself that the name struck a perfect balance between breaking away from convention but not being so out there that people might consider the name weird.
Life continued fairly normally for the next couple of months and we would not face much drama until it was time for little Aiden to be born. As I previously mentioned, the pregnancy was going very smoothly but that would all change about a week before the expected due date. My wife was not getting enough red meat and iron in her diet and so she had developed anemia. The baby was now registering as slightly underweight and the doctor's were recommending a cesarean delivery to limit the loss of blood. But they informed me that my wife would still need bags of blood on hand during the procedure as a precautionary measure. As I came to find out, procuring blood in Cambodia is a harrowing task and the week that led up to my son's birth would prove to be a trying and difficult time. In the next article I will discuss the peculiar method by which blood is obtained in this country and the eventual and life changing event that was the birth of my son Aiden.
It was my intention to travel to the States, and Las Vegas specifically, to play in this year's World Series of Poker. And while I did not plan on participating in the Main Event nor any hold'em event for that matter, I did want to play in at least two events involving Omaha or any of the mixed games. I had not been back to the U.S. in over 5 years and as I was feeling a bit homesick, I figured the WSOP would provide a good excuse to go. But with the recent turn of events here in Southeast Asia in regards to the Covid pandemic, I decided that it would not be the best time to leave my family behind just to make a solo trip to play poker. While concern over my family is the main motivation for me to stay in Southeast Asia, other factors did weigh in as well and the entire process has left me wondering about the status of the WSOP for this year and beyond.
As I mentioned, my family is the primary reason for why I decided to stay in Phnom Penh. Due to general visa restrictions it would have been very difficult to take my wife or kids to the States with me even before the pandemic. Things appeared to have improved here for a while as businesses were starting to open back up. But with the recent spread of the Delta variant from Thailand, we have seen a new surge in cases and are going to through another series of curfews and restrictions. The pandemic has laid waste to what was once a thriving and growing city in Phnom Penh. With so many locals and expats alike struggling through this period, the economic climate here has changed drastically. Our family recently moved into a bigger 3 bedroom apartment here in town after the birth of my son. When moving in we faced much scrutiny from the local neighbors as we took over the owner's unit, which is the biggest and nicest apartment in the complex. There was much suspicion on their part that I was Chinese and as their is a general animus towards them here amongst the locals, the "sangat", who serves much like a local councilman, came to our home to scrutinize everything about our lives. We were threatened with a two week quarantine in our own home, but I was able to dissuade their fears by showing them my vaccine card. Given the unpredictable nature of events during this pandemic, there is no guarantee that we would not face similar scrutiny in the future. I would feel completely powerless were my wife to find herself in such a situation while I was nearly 10K miles away. And while I do possess a valid visa to reside in this country, there is always the possibility that policies may change towards foreigners and that I might not be allowed back in the country. That scenario is highly unlikely, but there is still a $2,000 deposit required for anyone entering the country with no guarantees of how much of that amount I would receive back.
I have been fortunate in the past couple of years as online poker has not been negatively impacted by the pandemic. The same cannot be said for most people here in Cambodia, such as members of my wife's family. As most of them have been without employment for quite some time and have run out of money, they have turned to my wife for help. This has put her in a very tough spot as she does not wish to ask too much of me. But given that she is the only one in the family with any means at the moment, she has allowed several members stay to in our 3 bedroom apartment. Had they all moved in under different circumstances my reaction may have been quite different. But since I am in a position to help and appreciate the circumstances of the moment, I have allowed them to stay and have basically provided for their livelihood since. Currently there are 12 people staying in my primary residence, not including myself:
• My wife
• Our 4 year old daughter
• Our 3 year old daughter
• My first born son
• My wife's older sister
• The older sister's daughter
• Her younger sister
• The younger sister's fiancé
• Their daughter
• My wife's youngest sister
• My wife's younger brother
• My wife's youngest brother
Many people have asked me why it is I keep a second residence and this is the primary reason why. It has always been difficult for me to work, play poker and sleep in a house with 3 kids, but the current situation makes it virtually impossible. A trip back out to the States would be costly, especially going to a city like Las Vegas. I have estimated it would cost me approximately $10,000 for a 2 month trip and I obviously cannot guarantee that I would recoup that while playing poker during the visit. Such a number is simply too high and would divert resources that are desperately needed here.
There are plenty of local reasons for why I have decided not to play in the WSOP, but issues abroad in Las Vegas and America at large have caused some concern as well. With the Delta variant of covid emerging, infection cases have risen in many places but this is especially the case in Nevada. On May 31, 2021 Nevada had 0 new cases of covid and a 7 day average of only 120 cases per day. That number has steadily increased to a high of 2,156 new cases on August 2nd and a 7 day average of 911. Last year's WSOP was of course moved online due to the pandemic and these numbers suggest perhaps that they should have done the same this year. But those involved seem intent on running a live series, pandemic or not, and have come up with some interesting rules to handle the situation. The most notable is rule 115 which is reproduced here below:
"In accordance with guidelines promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control, [Rio] reserves the right to remove any Participant from any WSOP Event at any time prior to or during the WSOP Event, in its sole and absolute
discretion, for any health or safety related reasons, including but not limited to, if Participant is determined by [Rio] in its sole discretion, to have received a positive test result for COVID-19 or come into close proximity (within 6 feet for 15 cumulative minutes) of any person who has tested positive for COVID-19, or if Participant refuses to undergo any health and safety screening required by [Rio] to participate in a WSOP Event. If Participant is removed from a WSOP Event pursuant to this paragraph, and for no other reason, Participant shall not be entitled to any compensation or remuneration of any type other than what Participant had already been awarded prior to being removed from the WSOP Event. However, for the avoidance of doubt, should Participant be disqualified for any additional reason or reasons that subject Participant to penalties pursuant to the Official Rules, those penalties shall apply. Further, in the situation where one or more Participants is disqualified pursuant to this Paragraph, [Rio] reserves the right, in its sole and absolute discretion, to determine whether to proceed with any WSOP Event as scheduled or to postpone or reschedule a WSOP Event, or any portion of a WSOP Event, to a later date.”
There is obviously much to unpack here but basically what it states is that anyone who has received a positive result for covid-19 or come into close contact with such an individual (within 6 feet for 15 total minutes), that individual or individuals can be removed from an event at any time. So if a player enters an event, is the chip leader on day 3 but has not yet made the money, that player can be removed without any compensation should they fall under the above guidelines. This raises so many questions and issues that I hardly know where to begin. Let us address the issue of vaccination first as the obvious question that immediately rises is what if a vaccinated player has been exposed to covid? The WSOP clarified this situation this past Friday by stating the following:
"Consistent with CDC guidelines, participants who are known to have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 will not be required to leave the tournament and quarantine if they are fully vaccinated within the appropriate timing parameters and remain asymptomatic since the time of exposure."
This has led to accusations of discrimination against those who are not vaccinated and for this and other reasons have caused many on Twitter to state that they will skip the event altogether. And besides it has already been demonstrated that vaccinated people can still catch Covid and pass it on to others so I remain uncertain that a simple distinction made in the rule above will suffice. And what of mass exposure if for example a dealer should test positive and be exposed to several players. Rule 115 answers this very issue in the last sentence by stating that the Rio reserves the right to postpone or reschedule any event to a later date. And while the rule does not contain the word "cancel", I do think it reasonable for players to consider such a possibility. Even if I do not attend myself I would hate to see such possibilities come to fruition as I have many personal friends who have already planned their trips and set their budgets. In one case a friend has already begun his travels and has worked in the Series as the last leg of his trip. Any postponement, delay or cancellation would force people to alter their plans in a way that may prove prohibitive to playing at all.
Having said all this, the Rio and the WSOP are both in a very difficult spot and there is no set of solutions that is perfect nor will it appease everyone. They could have made vaccinations mandatory for example, which I am certain would have infuriated many and made this issue even more contentious. I personally believe that they should move forward with a live WSOP. There has been enough done and demonstrated in our recovery from this pandemic that most cities and states have reopened in America. At some point everyone involved has to remain consistent in a resolve to move forward. But at the same time to expect things to be as normal as previous years might prove to be foolish. There are just some things that cannot be planned for and although the WSOP has tried to account for every possible scenario, those who plan to play should practice caution and factor in all of the risks that we have thus far discussed in this article. I wish my friends and everyone playing safe travels, good health and much fortune in their quest for poker glory.
It was originally my intent to end this article with that last sentence. But as I look upon the photo of my family that I am using for the cover of this article, I cannot help but to think of my family back in the States. While the purpose of my initially planned trip was not to see members of my family, perhaps I would be lying to myself if I did not admit that the possibility loomed in the back of my mind. But it looks as if that day will have to wait at least a little bit longer, should it ever arrive at all. Many have asked how or why it is that I have decided to support eight additional members of my wife's family. As to the how I suppose one just works as hard as they can and somehow make it happen, much like my father did with us so many years ago. And as I have learned those lessons from him, I have come to realize that I now have a family of my own and that home is wherever they are.
There is a YouTube channel that I enjoy watching called Entertain the Elk in which they give critique and commentary of some of the most beloved shows on television. In one particular series they analyze certain shows in order to ascertain the exact moment the show figuratively died and began its descent towards eventual cancellation. While watching one such video, "The Day The Office Died", it gave rise to a thought in my mind that poker was also ripe for such critique and made me wonder if such a moment exists in regards to the poker boom. I think most players would agree that we are long since past the apex of the boom and while it may not be completely finished, we are certainly closer to the end than the beginning. Many may disagree as to the moment when this contraction began, but I do think that when all things are considered we can easily point to Joe Cada's win of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker in 2009 as the point when the poker boom died.
While the seeds of the boom began with the release of the movie Rounders in 1998, it did not fully take off until Chris Moneymaker's win of the WSOP Main Event in 2003 for $2.5 million from a $40 satellite entry. This was of course a perfect storm of events when a man with that name happens to win the most prestigious event right when hole card cams were beginning to be a thing in televised poker. Moneymaker made the every man feel and believe as he could accomplish the same feat and win it all. And those that would follow as champions in the next few years continued this trend. Certainly players such as Greg Raymer and Joseph Hachem did enjoy some tournament success prior to their big wins, but the winners from 2004 to 2007 were still largely looked upon as amateurs by the general public. But most importantly they were not the introverted internet players that would dominate the final tables in the years to come. And while figures such as Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang were polarizing to say the least, they were still big enough personalities that brought much publicity to the game and still advanced the cause of the recreational player. This began to change in 2008 when Peter Eastgate, a 22 year old internet player from Denmark, took down the Main Event for over $9 million. But this appeared to be a mere blip in the trend when in the following year, a larger than life figure by the name of Darvin Moon entered the final table as the chip leader with over 30% of the chips in play.
Moon, a self made logger from the panhandle of Maryland, looked like a literal lumberjack and as if he had just stepped out of a Brawny Paper Tower commercial. Many would come to criticize his playing style and his lack of experience, but these were exactly the factors that endeared him to the public and made him the people's favorite to win the Main Event. Other than a brief moment he basically held the chip lead throughout the entire event and entered the final table as the leader, even knocking out the likes of Phil Ivey. Moon would make it to heads up play on the final table and had he won, he could have done much to right the ship from the previous year for amateur players and continue the trend of poker being a popular and romanticized game among the masses. But when Joe Cada's 99 held up against Moon's QJ suited, it was not meant to be and the course of the World Series and poker at large would change and never revert back. In contrast to Moon, Cada was more of the introverted internet player that I spoke of earlier. Outside of an appearance on Good Morning America the following morning after his big win, I cannot recall a single interview that Cada did to promote the game of poker during his 1 year reign as champion. The ensuing years would be an endless list of "who is that" of internet players that no one outside of poker playing regulars had ever heard of. When they did stick out and made others pay attention, it was usually for questionable and generally douchey behavior on the felt, culminating in John Cynn's slow roll on the final hand of the 2018 Main Event when he tanked after flopping trip Kings heads up. It was true that the winners in the first few years of the boom were no strangers to such behavior as well. There were many that were not thrilled with Jerry Yang evoking god on every single hand and Jamie Gold's table talk during his run was also much criticized. But somehow it was different when the public thought the players in question were no better than they were. In contrast it felt different and less appealing when the player was a 12 tabling internet pro. The former inspired others to think that these players were beatable and that they too could win the event, while the latter just made the game feel less accessible.
None of this is to say of course that this is Cada's fault. His coronation was simply a marker of a change in the poker climate and as much as Moneymaker was at the right place during a perfect storm, Cada came at a time when everything in the game was shifting towards a much different paradigm. Had Moon won the Main Event I imagine that the following year would have been quite different and that it would have extended the air and inspiration of the boom that started in 2003. After Eastgate's win in 2008 the poker media was looking to crown a new people's champion and they would have done much to spread the story of a self made logger who won nearly $9 million without really even knowing how to play. But that would have worn off eventually as well and even a personality like Moon would not have been able to stem the tide of online poker, coaching sites, preflop charts and the rise of artificial intelligence in the game. And speaking of online poker, what once served as a gateway for so many recreational players to be introduced to the game and even make their way to events such as the WSOP, was now becoming more niche as it became increasingly difficult for the average player to get money on and off of the sites. The final nail in the coffin would come in 2011 on the infamous day that most now know as Black Friday when the domains of major sites were seized by the FBI and online poker largely disappeared from the American landscape. Poker sites pulled out of the American market, some folded and once prominent TV shows sponsored by such were all taken off the airwaves. Some networks remained to service the American market, but what remained was often sketchy and barely resembled what players were familiar with in the past.
If Black Friday was the nail in the coffin, than the lowering of the casket came in late 2020 when Poker Stars dropped Chris Moneymaker from it's lineup of sponsored pros. The man who started it all now also signaled the end. I was a bit surprised that more was not made of this news, but now being 17+ years removed from his win in the Main Event, I fear that we have already reached a period in which players have not only forgotten the man but more importantly the legacy and significance of what he started. But still as I look around the poker landscape today, I am encouraged by a new generation of players that seem intent on creating new media content for the game and modeling their own paradigm. But I am still a bit discouraged when I see such content filled with technical discussions and hand analysis using programs such as Odin. I wonder if they truly think about just exactly who it is they are trying to reach? One of my favorite movies of all time is Moneyball in which Brad Pitt's character says towards the end of the film, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?" This is exactly how I feel about poker as romanticism born out of inspiration is what enables the game to grow. In the end I am not sure as to how much of a difference Darvin Moon winning the Main Event in 2008 would have made. But what I do know is that when Joe Cada did win the event instead, that was the day that the poker boom died.
An interesting phenomena is occurring in the state of Texas in which poker clubs are operating in cities that do not traditionally have any legal gambling venues. Whereas others in the past have tried to argue for the legality of poker by claiming that it is not gambling due to its strategical and mathematical nature, the clubs in Texas are taking an alternative route that takes advantage of a loophole in the state's gambling laws. To put it simply, Texas law states venues are not allowed to profit from the game itself nor are they allowed to take money off of the table that is being used in play. These rooms are therefore charging their players a membership or hourly fee, or some combination of both. Other amenities within their facilities are available to patrons that enable them to generate revenue such as the holding of special events, food and drink. While we have seen a model similar to this employed in Asia, this is rather new in the States, at least on a legal level. But these clubs operate in the open and proudly proclaim their legality. This begs the question of whether or not such offers a better model going forward in how live poker rooms should operate. As the pricing is completely different there are many points of comparison that can help us in answering this very question.
As a means of quick review, poker rooms generate revenue by taking a collection from each pot on the table, generally known as a rake or commission. While the rates vary around the world in how much is collected per hand, tables in Las Vegas offer a simple model by which we can compare with this new one. Typically Vegas rooms charge 10% of the total pot capped at $4 or $5 for games of $1-$2, $1-$3 and $2-$5 blinds. For games of $5-$10 and above, a timed rake is taken by which players pay a flat fee every 30 minutes. But it is the former structure taken per pot that will concern us for the sake of this discussion. As I have covered in previous blog posts, a typical $1-$2 or $1-$3 game will generally rake a bit over $100 per hour and each player, assuming it is a full table, will contribute about $11-$13 per hour, depending on the speed of the dealers and whether or not the game is maxed out at 9 or 10 players. A regular player, or grinder, who plays at least 40 hours per week will pay north of $20,000 per year in rake alone as the price of admission in a $1-$2 or $1-$3 game. Players at $2-$5 are charged the same rate in every Vegas poker room. And while pots are bigger in these games and will generate a higher total rake, the consistency in the structure presents a better value for players as the money available to win on the table is also larger. In other words, players in Sin City are rewarded the higher they play.
On the surface, the structure used in Texas poker clubs appear completely different. Instead of taking a certain percentage of every pot from the table, they instead charge players by the hour and usually also a general membership fee. The latter is almost negligible as at a standard rate of $200 to $300 per year amounts to less than $1 per day for a regular player. The hourly fee varies a bit from club to club but the standard rate seems to be $10 to $12 per hour. In this way the fees are very comparable to what a Vegas room would charge and thus offers no real significant advantage. But the number of these clubs have boomed in the past few years and with that comes competition. I saw a promotion on the website of one of these clubs advertising a daily rate of $10 instead of the usual hourly charge. I cannot speak to how sustainable such a rate is and it seems hardly possible that they would do this for every single day year round. But if promotions such as this are offered at enough times throughout the year it could pose a significant savings from what one would normally have to pay in games of $1-2 to $2-$5. This presents an opportunity for these venues to offer for players a greater amount of flexibility in how they are charged to play. One might argue that traditional casino poker rooms can enact similar measures in the way of rake reductions. But in truth such are rarely done on a full table and are only offered at later hours when the game is short handed and near breaking. And even in such situations they hardly offer a discount to the player as with less players the dealers will get out more hands. The room will still meet their hourly quota of $100+, but now with each player contributing a higher amount per hour.
The big question that remains is whether or not these new venues can be significantly profitable using this structure. Every interview that I saw from local TV stations with the owners of these clubs all claimed that they were turning a healthy profit. Much of this depends on how much of a "culture" they can create in the club and get players to spend time within their walls before and after they have played. The other amenities offered will go a long way towards accomplishing this end as if players stay to have dinner, watch the big game or generally hang around to speak with friends and other players the room should generate enough revenue to remain in the black. As I mentioned these clubs have existed in Asia for quite some time, myself having managed one a few years back. We did just about everything to create this sort of culture from offering food and drink, discounted hotel rooms and even an in house massage facility. We were successful for the most part but with the creation of this atmosphere comes another issue that is prevalent in these sorts of clubs. Poker is traditionally offered in casinos where it is a small part of a much larger enterprise. Other games and amenities are offered throughout the casino and people from these other sectors will often populate the poker table. Whether it be the sports bettor waiting for his game to start, the husband waiting for his wife to finish playing slots or those just killing time because they have nothing to do in their hotel room the poker table in a casino is often filled with such players. And with this influx of casual and recreational players, action is created and usually makes for a good game. In contrast, when poker is the sole focus and purpose of your enterprise then you will attract a different clientele. In the end those that are going to be interested in a poker club are going to be those that play the game more seriously than the average punter who stumbles into a casino poker room. The challenge of these venues in Texas will be to provide for their clientele an air of exclusivity and premier membership, while at the same time attracting casual players and keeping the games good enough for those that are there trying to win money.
These clubs appear to be successful by all accounts and have grown in number over the past 3 years in the state of Texas. I can easily see this branching out into different states where similar gambling laws exist, where they would employ the same arguments for their legality. I do not believe though they would ever challenge in states that have a strong casino presence such as Nevada where Vegas reigns supreme. In the end, one cannot beat the foot traffic of a casino and the games are often much better than what you would find in a private or social club. But even if one were to argue that the games are better or can be, the casino lobby is simply too strong in states like Nevada. Poker players are already familiar with how much power corporations such as Caesar's Entertainment or even individuals such as Sheldon Adelson hold in their fight against the legality of online poker in America. While social clubs may not stand a chance in certain regions of the country, it would be interesting to see if they could make a stand in a state like California. The sunshine state does have a gambling lobby, but not one nearly as strong as Nevada. And while poker is popular there as evidenced by venues such as Commerce Casino, state laws are also rigged to structure the rake in such a way that games below $5-$5 are basically unbeatable. California by law takes a flat rake, which means that at least $5 is coming out of every pot no matter how big or small. This essentially makes nearly every game that does not take a time rake unbeatable. They have turned the game of poker into a house game of sorts, where only the they profit. The model of the poker club would be an interesting challenge to such an enterprise and offer real and meaningful competition in a regions that desperately needs it.
Although I currently live in Asia, this development fascinates me not only as someone who formerly played in the States but also because of the possibilities of how this model can be adopted here. As I mentioned earlier I have managed similar clubs here in Asia, but never did we employ such a model like the membership one. I do not believe that casinos here will ever adopt such a model, nor should they. Traditional venues of this nature offer enough amenities and access that a standard rake system is completely justified and still very much beatable. And while a few clubs here in Asia have operated for several years, I have also seen many more come and go by the wayside. The central issue involved with the closure of some rooms has been the one of rake and how much they try to extract from the player base. And while a handful of rooms in Asia can boast that they have been running for years successfully using the traditional rake system, can we say the same for the players that populate their table? How many are truly making a living in these games and while the room marches on, how many players have returned home nearly broke without turning a significant profit. It might behoove everyone to think outside of the box and consider non traditional modes of operation. I ran one such club in previous years as I mentioned earlier and while there were some similarities with the Texas clubs, we too employed the traditional rake system. But if I were to ever venture into this industry again, I would strongly consider a membership model as it may offer the best balance of profit between the players and the very rooms they help to keep open.
Perhaps there is no more influential book in the world of poker than Doyle Brunson's Super System. Many players, both young and old, swear by the book as it continues to shape the game today. But back when it was first published in 1979 the poker landscape was far different than what it is today and few, even Texas Dolly himself, could predict where the game was headed. In retrospect Brunson has expressed some amount of regret in writing the book often stating that it has probably cost him more money on the tables than what he was paid to write it. In addition, he has said in more than a few interviews that he has had to change his playing style due to the fact that so many players have read his book. Modern coaches and authors are in quite the different context than Bruson as the game has exploded many times over throughout the world. Given that an icon such as Doyle Brunson has already admitted that his book has worsened the poker ecology for both himself and other players, it has to be asked why current coaches offer insight into a game where there is a limited supply of equity to go around?
Although I have never been a coach nor do I ever hope to put myself in the same league as Doyle, I found myself in a similar situation a few years back when running a poker room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had a local player base that can largely be considered recreational, with money to spare that did not mind giving a lot of action. Foreign players would sometimes find the game through various online forums, but it was not a widely known phenomenon in the grand scope of the poker world. Ask a random player in any Western country and I doubt that most would have known that one of the best $5-$10 PLO games existed in this humble third world country. But the room was getting on in years and had started to decline. Thus the job that the room's owner charged me with was to grow the player base and increase it's revenue. Towards this end I started a social media campaign unlike any before and while the room had always had a Facebook page, I started an advertising blitz that would ensure that many more eyes would come to see the room. With discounted hotel rooms and free meals also being offered, word quickly got around and we were able to draw players from neighboring countries and beyond. My boss was certainly pleased with the results, but I would come to discover that not everyone was happy with my efforts. Many of the foreign players who had occupied our tables for years would have preferred to keep the room a secret and did not want to face tougher competition in the form of players from Western nations that were very familiar with the game.
Although I fought it at the time, in retrospect I have to admit that the reasoning was sound. Given the nature of my advertising and the fact that I am a foreigner myself, it was not as if I was growing the local player base. The number of local and recreational players I had mentioned previously was largely stagnant, while the base from abroad was growing. Thus it could be interpreted that a larger group of players were now fighting over a smaller amount of resources. My answer to this at the time was simple; not all players are winning ones and in fact the majority are not. Therefore it can be argued that I was bringing in just as many losing players as winning ones, if not more. In essence the advertising efforts were creating a new equity source from which the remaining winning players can draw from. It could be that current poker coaches and authors have a similar mentality, namely that in the end their efforts will not worsen the poker ecology as there will always be more losing players than winning ones and that their coaching will not affect this to any considerable degree. If this is indeed their thought process, there are several issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, given the claims of most coaching sites in terms of how they can help the average poker player, there is then a dissonance between what they are selling and what they know to be the most likely result. But on the flip side if any coaching site is successful and can back up their claims of creating winning poker players, they are then worsening the ecosystem of the game and further reducing the resources available for it to grow. I recently saw a YouTube video from such a site where they were reviewing hands using various Artificial Intelligence (AI) software and solvers to analyze different strategies. It is very unlikely that such videos would be appealing to the general public and in fact can have the opposite effect. Poker is a shrinking game and we have long since passed the days of the boom. These sites and books reach out to a very niche audience within the existing player base and if successful worsen the game while not attracting any new players at the same time.
Of course another possibility is that these sites are basically a complete scam, that they cannot in any way back up their claims of creating winning players and are largely run by those who either never won in the game or at the very least cannot continue to do so. I remember a post on the 2+2 forums several years back critiquing one such coach, who was offering training packages starting at over $1,000. But with some research the forum community was able to discover that he had not been a winning player online for the past 4 years, although he did have some notoriety in the years prior. Poker is a shrinking game and if a player such as myself can read the writing on the wall it stands to reason so can these players that tout themselves as coaches. We have all heard the phrase, those who can do and those who cannot teach. One can readily see how this sort of thinking applies not only in poker but also in closely related fields such as sports betting. Social media is littered with those who tout themselves as sports betting gurus, who promise their clients untold riches if one can simply pay for their picks and consulting services. There is an exhaustive list of why all of these gurus are complete scammers, too many to delve into in this short article. But for those who speak truthfully on this topic they all reiterate the same point; why would anyone who consistently wins give away their secrets when it adversely and directly affects their own livelihood for the worse. The same can be said for coaching in poker as resources in the form of losing players' money is not an unlimited one. Simply put, to coach players to become winners creates competition and makes no logical sense if this game were truly their sole source of income.
All of this is before we even address the issue of cost. In my previous analogy of sports betting, the cost comes in the form of what is known as vigorish (or vig). The truth is that even your average sports fan can come close to having 50% winning results. But what prevents them from being actual winners is the vig, the commission that the sports book takes from the bettor for placing the bet. So in reality to make a wager to win $100 one would have to make it for $110 ($100 + 10% vig) and that is the difference that makes most bettors losers. The vig in the world of poker coaches comes in the form of the cost of procuring such advice and insights into the game. As I see it there are two basic models at work in this industry, the first using charging a monthly subscription that seeks to cast a wide net and the other a more personal approach in which the coach only accepts a handful of applicants but charges much more. In the former model one could argue that price is not a significant issue as it does not appear to be prohibitive. But one has to wonder about the quality of such material when it is so mass produced to attract as big of an audience as possible. In the end it may very well be true that you get what you pay for. The latter model may be more attractive to many as it takes a more personal approach and one can receive training from the actual coach and not just a series of videos from partners and associates. But in these cases the prices are much higher, often ranging well into the thousands. As poker coaching can be somewhat of an ongoing process that does not end with one lesson, the costs can quickly add up. The fact is that poker players already have a vig in the form of rake that most regulars pay into the tens of thousands each year. To have to add to this total the cost of coaching does not make much sense in that the most likely outcome would not overcome the total cost.
I do not mean to denigrate all coaching sites as I personally know those who are sincere in their motivations and actually helpful when it comes to their students. But I find a general contradiction in reasoning and philosophy when it comes to the issue of coaching that most have not been able to address. In the worst case scenario a coach may just be a complete scammer. But even in the minority that is the best case scenario, affective coaches are worsening the poker ecology for both themselves and every one else. One model that I have seen employed that comes the closest to addressing every issue is the staking model. In this practice coaches take on a handful of students to go through the entire course material, but in the end will take the few best ones and stake them into real cash games to split the profits at a predetermined ratio. In this way everyone gets a chance to pay for and review the material once, but then those who will benefit from it the most can continue the relationship and mutually profit from it along with their instructor. In this manner cost is no longer an issue as what the student pays is derived from his winnings. And while this in of itself can be considered a cost, it can be considered offset by the fact that the client's buy-ins are provided by the instructor. For the coach this method can provide verification for prospective clients that they are still keeping up with the game, demonstrating real world results if not from themselves then from those that they mentor. It also demonstrates that the coach's primary income is still derived from the felt and not the instruction itself.
In its conclusion the issue of poker coaching creates too many philosophical issues that cannot stand to sound reasoning. The old adage of "if it's too good to be true it probably is" applies here as so many poker coaches cannot possibly do for their students what they claim. And in the best case scenarios where they actually are helping, they end up making the poker world a worst place. But philosophical issues are often impossible to solve and thus the point of this article should be to address the consumer side of things as there will always be a market for this service as long as poker is still a thing. To those coaches who are of good intent and repute I would advise to follow a model of complete transparency. Those that code may already be familiar with Github, a repository where one can share their programming code for the community to view and even edit. I do not see why the poker coaching world could not follow a similar model by providing the results of their students in order to provide for the community real world demonstrations of their service. In this way coaches can limit the number of students, thus minimizing their impact on the ecology, and avoid the boiler room type of coaching videos that have a limited impact even at their best. And even if some players were to choose not to employ these types of services, such can at least provide real proof and inspiration that it is at least possible that one can improve their game and become winners in poker. In the end, the results will often be what makes for the best marketing tool for those in the coaching world.
My very first hand of poker was in a live home setting in which I learned the game over a $0.05-$0.10 no limit holdem table. Eventually this caused me to open online accounts on several sites and given the faster nature of the virtual felt, I played many hands in a quick amount of time. But as I lived in Los Angeles at the time I would still continue to play live in rooms at the Bike and Hollywood Park. Eventually this would lead me to move to Las Vegas, where I had the privilege of playing professionally for five years. I still maintained my routine of playing both live and online but in my mind they were almost two separate worlds. This is what made what happened at the Excalibur Casino in 2009 so interesting as they laid off the entirety of their 40 person dealing staff, moved out all of their poker tables and replaced them with 12 electronic poker gaming tables. It was a bold experiment by the Excalibur to say the least and as such it garnered much attention. But most of it was negative and the tables did not last very long, not even 6 months. The casino failed to recognize the main reason why these tables would come to fail, namely that live poker is an experience and that electronic tables cannot possibly replace nor mimic this aspect. In the end everything returned to “normal” as nearly every dealer was hired back and all tables returned to the poker room and the phenomenon of the electronic poker table has hardly been heard from since.
My very first experience with electronic tables at the Excalibur was at the beginning of their experiment when they hosted a slew of promotions to promote their new tables. One such promotion was a $100 satellite for events into the World Series of Poker (WSOP). They held these satellites for several events and it presented itself as an inexpensive way of entering the prestigious tournament. When my friend told me about these tourneys I felt as if I had to play one right away. Unfortunately the satellite occurring on that evening was the one for Omaha, a game I had very little experience in at the time. But feeling impulsive and seeing as how it was only $100, we decided to try our luck. They limited the field to 30 players for each satellite to be played over 3 electronic tables. My friend got knocked out relatively early but somehow my chip stack kept growing. Once it was down to five players it seemed like a realistic possibility that I may win this thing. It got down to 3 players and someone suggested a deal, but the chip leader at the time wanted the seat which I also coveted so we could not come to an agreement. But then he got knocked out 30 minutes later and it was down to heads up. Once again a deal was discussed but the woman sitting across from me was the chip leader and wanted the seat so we played on. A few hands later I took a healthy portion of her stack and then on the very next hand I would claim the seat in an all in when my KT98 double suited connected with the flop for two pair. I would go on to play in the Pot Limit Omaha $1,500 buy-in event at the WSOP in what is still my only event played in that tournament. I did not fare well in the actual tourney as I was busted by Chip Jett before the first break when his pocket kings held up against my KQT9 single suited. But what this experience did accomplish was that it gave me a favorable impression of the electronic poker tables, on which I would frequently play over the next few months.
Before we delve into all of the negatives, I should first discuss how the tables worked and some of their positive aspects. Each player had a tablet like screen in front of them where their two hole cards were dealt. They were dealt face down and once the player placed his hand on the screen the cards would peel up to show their value. One could easily place their hands in a manner to cover them so it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a player sitting in the next seat to see someone else’s cards. Then there was a bigger monitor in the middle of the table where the community cards were dealt. Players could assign their bet amounts on their individual screens and that would be displayed on the larger monitor for other players to see. Here is the only video (with no sound) I could find on YouTube of the original tables I played on initially:
As previously mentioned there were positive aspects to these tables and they were not insignificant:
No matter what criticisms people had of these tables, the software was very well developed. In the hundreds of hours I played I cannot recall a single glitch; everyone always got two hole cards, the flop always came out correctly, there was never a delay and the pot was always pushed to the right player. All of this is to basically say that there was never a misdeal nor a mistake made by the software. This leads into my next few points which all have to do with the lack of a dealer on the table, to which there were some benefits. To say that these tables were fast is an understatement. In my experience of managing poker rooms the fastest live dealer I have ever clocked comes in at 25 hands in a 30 minute down, while the average was around 19 to 21 hands. The electronic tables would often put out 50 hands in a 30 minute segment, while never making a mistake. This was very attractive for obvious reasons, especially for those playing for a living and needing to maximize their winnings on the table. Secondly, without a dealer on the table there was hardly a need to tip anyone in the poker room. Granted I would throw the floor manager a red bird ($5 chip) every few days, but that did not compare to the countless number of chips I had to tip to live dealers in other rooms. And I use the phrase “had to” as while tipping was theoretically optional, players that did not practice this custom were universally hated by both players and dealers and basically became pariahs. I have discussed in past blog articles how in a typical $1-$3 NLH game a regular player pays over $20K per year in rake. But that does not even include the thousands of dollars that one would have to pay just giving out $10 per session in tips. The final feature that I personally found attractive was the house bank. As the chips employed in these games were virtual, they did not have to be cashed out at the end of each session. Players could keep their money as recorded on an electronic ledger with the casino, much like how the Bellagio does it with their private boxes for high stakes players. It added a certain premier feel to the experience and made myself feel like a VIP.
One other benefit that I did not mention is that the electronic tables were very attractive to new players. For gamblers that were not familiar with poker, these tables looked like any other electronic table or slot machine on the casino floor and thus were able to lure them to try a new game. These would create very social games with players who did not necessarily care about losing money. And with certain celebrity players who had shares in the company that made the tables often dropping by to play, the outlook seemed positive for this new experiment. But in the end it was this very appeal and the previously mentioned lack of dealers that would cause the downfall of these new tables. While the new players injected life and a high level of softness to the games at the Excalibur, they also did not know any of the rules. This led to much table talk, often of the variety that was not allowed, and the game would slow to a snail’s pace. And with no dealers at the table to govern the action, there was no remedy in sight. The floor managers did the best they could to stem the tide, but in the end gave way to the sea of chaoticness that would come to run these games. And eventually with so many new players on the tables, the games were often kept small as the Excalibur was not exactly known for their high stakes clientele. Initially games started out as $1-$2 and $2-$5, but eventually gave way to stakes as low as $0.50-$1 to appeal to this new crowd.
With games being so small the Excalibur just could not attract the right clientele to run bigger games and generate more revenue. While well known players did initially come out in support, none of them wanted to play in micro-stakes games and eventually stopped coming. And without them the tables had no chance of succeeding as the experiment already faced an uphill battle. Back in 2009 Las Vegas was still very much old school, not in the take cheaters into the back room and cut their hands off kind of way, but much more than it is now in the age of the internet and technology. Online poker was still a relatively new phenomenon for most back then and live poker still ruled the scene with an older crowd of players that had an inherent distrust of technology. I knew several players who would not play on these tables out of principle and in fact my own roommate at the time, who also played professionally, never came to play with me even once at the Excalibur. Another force in play was the unspoken alliance between players and dealers. As a local player living in Las Vegas, one spends a lot of time with dealers with whom they even become friends. This certainly was the case in my life as well as some of the closest friends I had in town were dealers. These tables presented a threat to the livelihood of those in the dealing profession and the players were squarely in their corner against the electronic tables. Below is the only clip I could find of news coverage concerning the Excalibur experiment and one can readily see even in this short segment how the primary concern is over such a threat:
But perhaps the most significant factor in the downfall of the electronic tables was something that I did not fully realize until recently. I have not played much live poker in the past couple of years as I primarily play online. As an online poker agent I often make photo and video posts on social media of my sessions in order to promote my agency. I can track how many looks such posts receive in order to measure what types of posts perform well and which ones do not. Recently I had the urge to play live for the first time in a while and so I went and sat in a local $5-$10 PLO game. I bought in for $1,000, ended up doubling up to $2,000 and posted a photo of my stack as a story on both Facebook and Instagram. To my surprise the photo got a significant increase in the amount of looks it received over similar pictures I had posted from online sessions. I play smaller online in terms of blinds but my winnings are more stable over a longer sample size vs were I to play live exclusively. But no matter how good an upward trending poker graph looks, it does not compare to the tangible nature of a photo depicting stacks and stacks of physical chips. In the movie Rounders, Worm talks about “stacks and towers of checks I can’t even see over” as what cheers him up and not a huge balance on a computer screen. There is a certain level of romanticism concerning this game that is much better represented by live poker and this is the very factor that the Excalibur ignored or could not reproduce when attempting their electronic experiment. While there were benefits to these tables, in the end they could not reproduce the experience and sentiment that is attached to the live game.
Eventually the Excalibur would return to their live format and the electronic tables have not been tried in another casino since. And while the Excalibur would continue to run their poker room for several more years, this is all somewhat moot as currently they have yet to reopen their room after the corona related closures of casinos in Las Vegas. In fact only 21 poker rooms have opened at the time of this writing and live poker faces a very uncertain future. Although I have written of its demise in the past, I do secretly hope that I am wrong and that the game bounces back. As the game has shifted more towards the online realm in the past decade, even pre-corona, it is no coincidence that the game has lost much of its luster and appeal with the general public. And while I personally prefer online play and find it to be more profitable, ironically I recognize how important the live game is to the survival of poker overall. In the end nostalgia and sentiment will always win out over hard numbers and data, especially when attempting to appeal to the general public that could potentially serve as the new lifeblood of this great game. If this cannot be achieved, poker players then face the prospect of a game cannibalized from within in which they are only playing against one another. If the sentiments connected with the live game cannot somehow be reproduced by online players, it is imperative that live poker not only survive but thrive in order to attract new players.
I used to manage an internet cafe where teenagers would come and play PC games on the many terminals that we had set up. They would spend so much time there that it became a de facto day care center for the parents who would drop off their kids daily. They spent so much time there, the parents would often ask me to drive them home after we closed and even give me gas money. Eventually they asked me if I could just keep the place open late just for them so that they would not go wandering elsewhere in the middle of the night. So many nights we would all just sit there, each of us with a computer terminal playing our favorite PC game. And back then there was only one game that we played, Counter Strike. It was a first person shooter game and we could literally sit there for hours clicking away at our mouses and shooting each other in our virtual heads. But one night I suppose the kids tired of the game and asked me if I wanted to play no limit Texas hold’em. I told them that I did not know how to play but they said they would show me and so we played $0.05-$0.10 no limit. This was back in 2003 just after Chris Moneymaker had won the main event of the World Series of Poker and the game has held me captive since.
We began to play poker more and more. After that first game we would play a couple of times per week. Then it became three nights, then four and eventually we were playing every night. In the beginning we would pull the desks out from the kiosks that were built for the computer terminals to make an ad hoc poker table. But as we would do this starting at midnight, people would look in through the front glass of the internet cafe and wonder what the hell a grown man was doing with a bunch of teenagers late into the morning. So we moved the game up to the attic of the business and continued to play without interruption. We did not have any tables upstairs so a group of us would sit on the floor in a circle and take turns dealing. Eventually there would be four such circles nightly, all playing a game of hold’em huddled around and hunched over a decks of cards. Obviously everyone started to complain about the playing conditions so I struck a deal with everyone. If I were to buy the tables and chairs to make the experience a bit more comfortable, then they would all have to be fine with me collecting a rake. Aside from two kids, everyone else agreed and thus was born my first poker game.
Seeing as how we were in an internet cafe, it did not take long before we started to play online as well. I had most of my money back then in Party Poker and I would play everything from limit, no limit and even games like seven card stud. The kids who were not eighteen years of age yet somehow all had accounts. Regulations were a lot more relaxed back then or they would just get their older siblings to open accounts for them. During the summer they would all come in by opening at 10:00 AM and spend about the first seven hours or so playing Counter Strike. But after dinner, they would all come back and open up their online poker accounts and play cards. And as soon as we closed at midnight, we would all congregate upstairs where the game eventually got as high as $1-$2 NLH. I remember one particular night a new kid showed up to play and he got involved in a hand that still stands out in my memory to this day. A player opened in early position, he 3-bet with AJ suited and then the other player shoved. Considering that this was a game full of teenagers, that was a call nearly every player would have made in that game. But this kid tanked for a long time then folded the hand face up. I remember pulling him aside later on in the evening and telling him that I knew he would be a great player one day. I will not reveal the players name, but I ran into him years later when we were both living in Vegas. He had just turned twenty one years old but had been playing for a couple of years at the Venetian with a fake ID. A few years after that, he would finish second in the World Series of Poker Player of the Year ranking. He played his very first live hand in my game when he was all of fifteen years old.
This went on for months, but as I was paying little attention to the actual business of the internet cafe it went under. So I had no place to run the game anymore and I ended up giving my players list to a friend who wanted to start his own game in his apartment. But that game stopped after a while as well and after having done nothing but just playing poker at the Bike for a few months, I decided to restart my game. This time I got some friends together to pool our money and rented a warehouse on the north side of Los Angeles. We had a twelve month lease as a party planning company. I figured that was a good cover for why we had so many poker tables around as I had told the leasing agent that we specialized in casino night events. So I had six custom made poker tables built, bought some sixty chairs, cards and the rest and off we went. I remember on one particular night I had my partners and the staff we had hired stay all night in the warehouse putting stickers on the chips we had purchased. I remember the name of the club vividly as I called it Chesterfield West. It was an homage to the movie Rounders as the name of a club they played in was called the Chesterfield. In the scene where they all run into each other at the same table in Atlantic City, one of the players remarks “Welcome to the Chesterfield South” as a joke that they had just transplanted their entire game southward.
I initially thought that the game would just run from where we left off when I ran it in the internet cafe. But such was not the case as some of the players had moved away or lost too much money to continue playing. I had spent about $15,000 to get this game off the ground so I had to do something and so I took a huge risk. There was no Facebook back then as MySpace was still the most popular social media platform. So I did a search for people in my area who had listed poker as an interest and sent out a mass invite to all of them. Over the next four days I received several messages from people wanting to play and thus the game was born again. We would play $1-$2 on most nights, sometimes playing $2-$5 and it was a good game. I had the dealers trained very well and had them running the games efficiently. Word got around town and soon we were running multiple tables and having new faces show up nightly. The staff, my partners and I would gather nightly at 6:00 PM at a local Chinese restaurant to have dinner then slowly make our way to the warehouse around 8:00 PM to start the game. The games were going so late that I would basically sleep at the warehouse on a couch that we had put in the lounge. I would have to go to my friend’s house in the afternoon just to take a shower.
We were taking some huge risks back then and the biggest one was perhaps continuing to allow underage kids to play. We certainly had plenty of them wanting to play as they could not play in the casinos. On one particular weekend, one of these teenagers came in and lost about $2,000 on a Friday night. He had told his older brother about it, who happened to be a lawyer. What happened next I cannot be completely sure about, but I soon got some visitors in blue who would basically order us to stop the game. When everything was said and done, we got off fairly light. Our landlords were told about what was going on of course but they still would not let us out of our lease. So we could not run the game anymore but still had to sit on that warehouse and pay the rent for another six months. I still slept in the warehouse as I figured I should get some use out of it. So I moved out of my apartment so I would not have to pay double rent and spent most days and nights in the warehouse either playing poker online or watching movies in the lounge that we had built.
When the lease to the warehouse was finally over, I decided to look for a new apartment with some friends. After a few days of not finding anything we liked, I remember a couple of us sitting in my car and concluding that we should move close to a casino since we all loved playing poker so much. But then in a moment of clarity, we looked at each other and all said at the same time, “We should just move to Vegas!” From that moment we began to make plans to move to Sin City. Nothing was really holding us in Los Angeles anymore as I was not working, did not have an apartment and my would be roommates had just graduated from college. About a week after we had agreed to move, we took a tester trip out to Vegas to see what the apartment market was like. There were plenty of apartments available in the city that were much cheaper than what we were used to in Los Angeles. So on the second day of our trip we signed a sixteen month lease on a three bedroom apartment in a suburb of Vegas called Henderson for $1,100 per month. After a few nights of poker and some ill advised blackjack, we headed back to Los Angeles to pack up our belongings and make the move to Las Vegas.
I was originally born in Seoul, South Korea but our family immigrated to the United States when I was 6 years old in 1981. It was a bit of a culture shock to say the least when we first arrived as none of us really knew how to speak English and we were nearly broke. The first few years were very tough as we struggled financially, emotionally and even physically. The person that held us all together during this most difficult time was my father, who's unrelenting work ethic kept us all fed and led us to greener pastures. And while our current relationship is less than ideal, he remains the paradigm of how I conduct myself as an adult as our lives have eerily mirrored each other in more ways than either of us would like to admit.
As I only spent the first few years of my life in South Korea there is not much about it that I remember. I recall that we had a nice house, a nanny, chauffer and did not lack for anything. My father worked very hard as I hardly ever saw him and would come home many nights in the AM, drunk and carried home by his employees. I would come to learn later in life that my father attended Seoul University and had graduated with a law degree. Instead of becoming a lawyer though, he married my mother and started to work at a bank. He would eventually open his own construction company and built that to a successful enterprise. But sometime around my 5th year of life things started to change. We moved out of our house into a condominium complex and all of a sudden my father was home all the time. I remembered enjoying this time of my life a great deal as my father and I were able to enjoy much quality time together, something I sorely missed in earlier years. We did not spend too many months in that complex though as I was told that we would soon be moving to the United States. My grandparents on my mother's side resided in America and had sponsored us to come. But as they were only able to do so for a limited number of people we would have to leave our grandmother on my father's side behind. On our final day in South Korea, we all gathered in a room and made our tearful goodbyes as my parents, brother and I headed out to our new lives.
My grandmother whom we left behind played an integral role in the survival of our family. Both her and my father are actually from North Korea and lived through the war. My father was only 3 years old at the time and I have heard the story of how they both escaped countless times. The only way to escape from where my family was living in the North was via a train. But as there was limited space not everyone could board and there was a general understanding that only women and children would be allowed to board and escape. My father once told me that only cowardly men would try to board the train, but that his father refused and stayed behind as his wife and children were sent to safety. Once in South Korea my father had to assume the role as man of the house at the tender age of 3, both for my grandmother and his younger brother. He would never see his father again and had to become an adult entirely on his own. From these humble beginnings he worked as hard as one could and studied his way into the top university in the country.
While my father did work very hard to find initial success, the economy in South Korea turned and his company went bankrupt. Although I did not know this at the time, this was the reason for why he was all of a sudden home so much during our final year in Korea. He could not find work and was too proud to ask his friends for money. With no other options left, he accepted the help of my mother's parents and accepted their sponsorship of our family to move to the States. Our first apartment in Los Angeles was paid for entirely by my grandparents, a humble "one bedroom" but really just a studio that had a curtain down the middle of the room that separated the living quarters from the bedroom. My parents soon found work at the same photo processing company as office clerks as my father's law degree from Korea meant very little in the new country. Good meals were very hard to come by during this time and we often ate what we could. This meant eating a lot of Spam as a substitute for "real" meat and even cut up hot dogs, fried on a pan and eaten with rice. My parents worked 40 hours per week but took whatever overtime they could and whenever they got paid on Fridays they would still take me to my favorite restaurant. They did much to shield both my brother and I from these tough times as they bore most of the stress from life's struggles.
As hard as they worked it became apparent to my father that his current employment situation was not going to get our family very far. So he decided to take on a second job at night as a janitor that would ensure he would have 60-70 hour work weeks. He and my mother would go to their day jobs, be home by 6:00 PM to eat dinner with the family and then my father would be back out the door by 8:00 PM to literally clean toilets. My father worked so hard that he eventually developed a stomach ulcer and became so violently ill that he could not work for a month. As soon as he was better my father would return to both jobs and continue his monstrous work schedule. On top of all this he picked up an extra job on the weekend working once again as a janitor in a luxury condominium complex. He impressed enough in just the 2 days per week that he worked that he outperformed his boss and caught the attention of the facility's management office. They eventually gave my father the contract for the cleaning of the entire complex and with this he was able to quit both his day and night jobs. He would go on to form his own cleaning company and after picking up a few more contracts was able to move our family out and buy a proper home.
Around this time we used to spend Saturday evenings with my mother's sister and her family. I remember they had an apartment very much like the one we just moved out of and had been in the States as long as we had. I asked my father why they were not able to get ahead like he had and he gave me an answer that has weighed heavily in both my heart and mind since. My father told me that my aunt's husband was not able to find consistent work because he too had come from a prestigious university in Korea and that he found much of the work that he was able to find in the States beneath him. Then with all of the seriousness of the world my father looked at me and relayed to me words that I would never forget. He said that when your family has to eat, and more importantly if you want for them a better life, there is no such thing as a job that is beneath you. You have to do whatever you can to provide, even if that means working 70 hours per week and cleaning toilets to the point you become sick. My father was nearly the literal representation of working oneself to death because he knew that nothing short of that should stop one from working and providing for one's family.
Finally things were looking up for our family as we lived in a nice house, in a great neighborhood and my father was the head of a successful company. We were even able to sponsor my grandmother from South Korea so that she could finally join us in America. At this time we would receive news that both my father and grandmother thought would never come. A family friend who was also from North Korea headed back in search of his father, whom he had lost in a similar manner. While he was there he offered to look for my grandfather as well and after a few weeks sent word that while his own father was since deceased, that he had found my dad's father who was remarried but very much still alive. Upon hearing this news I recall thinking that I had never seen my father and grandmother so happy. She could honestly care less that my grandfather had remarried as she was just so happy to hear that he was still alive. My father also found out that he had step brothers and sisters and was excited at the prospect of at least speaking to them and his father through letters. While he and my grandmother were discussing the possibility of going out to North Korea themselves, they would receive a phone call that would immediately reverse all the happiness they were feeling. With all the sorrow and regret in the world, our family friend relayed to my father that a horrible mistake had occurred. The information he had received was incorrect and it was his father that was still alive and that my grandfather had passed away several years ago. My grandmother did not come out of her room for two weeks as she spent most of that time crying endlessly. We had to leave meals for her at the door, many of which went uneaten. To this day I cannot imagine what my father must have been going through but he carried on as he always had. He went to work every day and held things together during a most tragic time for our family.
Much of what remains in the history between my father and I is largely negative. This fact revolves mainly around two things, one my decision to be a poker player and pursue a career in this game and my decision to not only come to Cambodia but to start a family here with a Cambodian woman. When I first started playing poker the fact that I lived in Vegas was a well kept secret in my family. When I would return to Los Angeles for holidays my other family members would ask me where I had been, not having a single clue that I lived 5 hours away. After I had reached some level of success as a player I invited my parents for a visit after I started renting an 11th floor condo on the strip right behind the Wynn Hotel. When my mother and father entered my new home, they took a careful and long look around before uttering a sound. Then after a dramatic pause that seemed to last forever, my father finally said, "This is not your home. Whose home is this?" To be fair there was a lot right about why my father was thinking. I have mentioned in a previous blog post that the condo was much too expensive and that I had no business renting it. Not to mention that I would go broke within 12 months of that visit. Even though I eventually came to have more success and stability in poker, the reservations they had were completely understandable and justified. And I imagine that this is not what he exactly envisioned for his son when he moved the entire family to America for a better life.
What remains and brings us to the present day is even more complicated. Neither of my parents were thrilled with my decision to visit Cambodia. They had horrifying thoughts in their heads of me sleeping in a hammock outside, catching malaria and worst of all meeting a Cambodian woman. There is no delicate way of saying this, but it is largely true that 1st generation Asians in America can be racist. I have had many conversations with my father about whom I am allowed to marry in terms of race, with a sequential order no less. The list is as follows:
The following are strictly prohibited:
• Southeast Asians
My father's worst fears would come true as I did meet a Cambodian woman who would eventually become the mother of my first and only children. Neither of my parents have met nor spoken to any of my kids and we have not spoken to one another in nearly 6 years.
With all that is happening right now in Cambodia with covid-19, I have thought that this might be an opportune time for a visit to the States. It would allow me to get vaccinated and I can run my business there easily and send money back to the family. I have already emailed my mother with this possibility but have yet to get a response. It would be the first time in 5 years since I have been in America and perhaps may serve as an opportunity for a reunion with my parents. There is a lot that has remained unsaid regarding our relationship in this blog post. And I have done much as well to contribute to the current state of our relationship as I have not always played an innocent role. Therefore such a reunion remains unlikely and I am not getting my hopes up too high. I doubt that my children will ever get to meet their grandparents and I remain unsure whether I even want them to. I have resigned myself to the likelihood that I will not be around when my father passes. But in many ways my father will live on in certain ideals that I have adopted from him and hope to pass onto my own children.
Never in my near 7 years of living in Cambodia have I witnessed what we are all experiencing in this climate of covid-19. After more than a year of enjoying a relatively free lifestyle, the pandemic has finally hit home as Phnom Penh and other cities are either under curfew or under a complete lock down. In such a time it is tempting to become depressed and ponder on all the negatives. I admit that even the thought of going back home to the States has crossed my mind in these past few weeks. But perhaps this presents even a better opportunity to consider why I came here in the first place and in the end still love living in the Kingdom of Wonder. From my family to the great lifestyle I have been afforded here, it is clear to me now that this home is where I will continue to live my life.
Like so many others one of the chief reasons for why I came here was due to the low cost of living. But in my time here I have come to realize there are two ways to approach this. For some they simply choose to live the same or similar version of their life back home, but at a much lower cost. And for others they decide to live a better lifestyle, one they could not afford back home, affordably here in Cambodia. My first few years I was of the former camp but have moved squarely into the latter as the years have progressed. The truth is I did not like much my life back in the States and it was not something that I wanted to spend the rest of my life duplicating here. For certain I can write this blog highlighting the $1 meals and $0.75 draft beers, and I mean no disrespect to those who choose this path. But I wanted to improve my life, not recreate it. I have lived in the $100 studio room, but now much prefer living with my family in a spacious and modern apartment with an off duty police guard standing duty 24/7. And as I find it difficult to work at home I was able to rent a nearby condo, where I play poker and do my live Twitch streams from, at a fraction of the price of what it would cost back home. All this while being able to go to the gym, swim in a large pool and enjoy lightning fast internet speeds. My second child, and firstborn son, is about to enter this world in one month. Back in the States I could never imagine being able to afford having such a family. Here it is not only possible, but the prospect of sending all of my children to a decent school is one I will be able to do comfortably.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I was often found wanting in terms of quality food. As I stated previously I often did the $1 meals from street carts as that at least offered great value. But the food and restaurant scene has changed so much in these last few years that I often find myself struggling to decide where to eat. One would expect great Asian food in an Asian country but that has not always been true. As I am Korean-American, quality Korean cuisine was difficult to come by in my first few years. But currently I have a choice of nearly every type and regional type of food that my home country has to offer. There are is no shortage of great Western fare as well. From simple burgers to quality steaks, there are a plethora of restaurants vying for our dollars, constantly improving their menu and reducing their prices. Is it exactly the same as I enjoyed in the States? Of course not, but eating in such a way back home was cost prohibitive to the point that going out to certain types of restaurants was a luxury that could not be done often. Although going out with friends and enjoying a fine dining experience is a common occurrence here, one can also have that brought right to their door as well with a plethora of choices in delivery services throughout the city. And should I have a craving for local fare I can enjoy that as well whether that be the $1 variety from down the street or at the new restaurant that offers a premium and reimagined menu of traditional local food.
Much of this is of course due to poker and the fact that we are still allowed to play online here. Unlike America which offers the game only in a few States, players here are able to enjoy the fruits of their poker labor as most traditional sites and apps are available for real money play. And for those that prefer the live venue they exist as well from the Nagaworld casino here in Phnom Penh to games in other cities such as Sihanoukville and Kampot. If one cannot play poker there is very little reason for a player to come here, but fortunately the Kingdom offers a wide array of choices for those that play both professionally and recreationally. Personally I enjoy playing in the comfort of my own home on my desktop rig with games spread over two monitors. But everyone is different as a close friend takes 4 tablets over to his neighborhood 24 hour gastropub to play and drink cappuccinos all night. Others can play in the casino in games from $1/$2 to $5/$10 or take a holiday down to the beach and play in any one of their many casinos. It is ironic considering where I come from, but I had to come to a third world country to enjoy the freedoms of playing poker in all its forms.
The last reason for why I love living in Cambodia is no big secret, especially for those that follow me on social media or have hung out with me at night. The nightlife here in Phnom Penh is absolutely epic and while we can argue ad nauseum over other places that some might enjoy more, this city is just perfect for me personally. There is no shortage of bars, clubs, KTVs and the like that one can choose from when trying to decide where to spend one's night. The greatest nights I have enjoyed in my life have been those traversing the bars at night with friends, barely able to remember all the events the following morning but somehow still knowing we had an epic night. And here we can talk about the cheap drinks because alcohol here costs nothing compare to what we are used to paying back home. If beer is your poison of choice than just a few dollars will carry you a long way. Personally I like to drink whiskey and even those can be had for near $3 at some places. But why settle for a drink when bottles can be had under $100 at just about every bar and club. But more than the alcohol, the real reason we go out and keep coming back are the bevy of beautiful and young girls at the hostess bars and KTVs ready and willing to keep all their customers happy. Make no mistake when I say that I came here to be a much bigger fish in a very much smaller pond. Back home I could not get pretty girls to look at me twice let alone get the kind of attention I get here. The nightlife here is very much a stage and when we go out we are the stars of the production.
I write all this of course as Phnom Penh and neighboring areas are experiencing a full lockdown. Currently everyone has to stay home and we are not allowed to go out anywhere, let alone enjoy the nightlife. The streets are dark at night, the bars shut and all of the girls at home staring aimlessly at YouTube on their phones. But to all my fellow poker brothers I say that life is merely on pause. As difficult as things are currently, others that surround us are experiencing a much harsher time. So do not be afraid to give a little back when the opportunity presents itself because they are all around us. As the old saying goes, this too shall pass and pass it shall for all of us. Businesses will be back open, bars will be pouring drinks soon and girls will be at the ready to laugh at every unfunny word we utter that they can barely understand. Until that day comes keep your head up, keep grinding and be ready for that night when all things returns to normal.