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.
Back when I lived in Las Vegas I remember a night of playing $1-$3 NLH at the Treasure Island Poker Room. I was on a table with a close friend and we happen to get into a fairly big pot heads up. I had bricked my draw by the river but when he checked I decided to put in a huge bet to try and take the pot anyway. He tanked for a minute and then made the call with top pair. Upon losing the hand another player at the table, who as it turned out was a poker coach, remarked that I had really polarized my range with the sizing on my river bet. When hearing this my friend immediately asked the floor for a table change. I asked him if he did not want to play on the same table as a friend to which he replied that he simply did not want to be in a $1-$3 game where players were talking about polarizing ranges. This was back in 2009 and it was the day I realized that it was the beginning of the end for No Limit Hold’em.
Back when I started playing in 2003 my friends and I were printing money. Online sites were filled with recreational players that never seemed to mind shipping it in constantly with marginal hands. When we moved out to Vegas in 2005, live games were just as easy as I would often joke that I could walk through a poker room blindfolded and come out with at least a few hundred dollars. But as the game grew, especially online, data collection and the proliferation of software made the game increasingly difficult to play as players were constantly improving and even recreational players became familiar with advanced principles. All one has to do is look at the list of the winners at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker since the boom in 2003. Names like Chris Moneymaker, Jerry Gold and Jerry Yang represented the “every-man”, making many believe that truly anyone can win at the game of poker. But since Joe Cada’s win in 2009, the list of winners has been filled with younger players in their 20’s who all made their way up in the poker world through online sites. And if one does decide to jump online now to try and fulfill their poker dream, they will be faced with players who have played at least a million hands in their lifetime, all using software and many who study daily. And even lower stakes live games are now populated by those with much experience that used to play bigger, now playing smaller in order to survive.
All poker rooms, both live and online, are now riddled with promotions in order to attract players. But all that everyone is doing is recycling the same old players and what most are failing to do is the one thing that might save the game, namely the creation of new players. I see it all the time on my Facebook feed as agents for online poker clubs travel the world over to sign up this player and that player. But these guys were just playing on a different site previously and now they are just going to make the games on some other network much tougher. But creating new players for no limit hold’em is very difficult to do as the game is no longer as attractive as it once was. It is not as ubiquitous on television as before and the lack of participation by huge markets such as North America has depleted the player base of new players. And it does not take even recreational players long to realize that they are completely dominated once they sit down at most tables. Not only are they facing much tougher players with every resource available to them, but hold’em is not a game that lends itself well to newer players. When most of the money gets in the pot for big hands, equity does not run all that close in this game and recreational players often find themselves on the bad side of domination.
The more established players do not help their own cause in this regard. No Limit Hold’em is a game that has become increasingly more difficult to play over the years and the tables are filled with those that are losing more, not winning as much and those that are barely surviving. My friend used to comment about one particular room here in Phnom Pehn that it was such a depressing place to be compared to years prior. The online environment has not proven to be any better as players using software and playing for massive amounts of rakeback have not made for great games. In addition, the online side of things creates its own unique set of problems such as the presence of bots that can now be programmed to beat games at most levels. And the presence of massive promotions that benefit regular players do keep the rooms busy, but in the long run will be the downfall of the game. Recreational players are not attracted by such promotions as it unfairly punishes them for being passers by. Poker is a game that is fed by tourists and those that do not play regularly in any one location. These promotions are always paid for by taking additional money to the rake and recs often figure out that they are being taxed for something that they rarely can benefit from as promotions such as freerolls and bad beat jackpots give a higher chance of hitting for those that play more regularly in one room. And if nothing else, the extra money being taken depletes the money of those that are already losing.
As regular players we have all noticed the proliferation or gaining popularity in recent years of different games apart from no limit hold’em. Games like pot limit omaha have steadily grew over the past decade and even newer games are proving to be popular in parts of Asia such as short deck poker. And while recreational players may not necessarily be conscious of why these games are growing, it is no accident why they are drawn to these tables. I won’t get into the technical intricacies of each game, but the fact remains that in a game with more cards such as omaha the equity runs much closer and bad players do not get their money in as often being dominated, as is the case in a game like no limit hold’em. We see this evolution on a micro level within omaha itself as 5 and 6 card versions are now gaining in popularity as the equities run even closer with the additional cards. Short deck poker produces similar results, although for the opposite reason as cards are now removed from the deck. In either case, the high variance that is created by the equities running closer is also a more attractive feature of the game for newer players. Whether online or on a live table, there is perhaps nothing more boring than sitting in a no limit hold’em game with tight players, most of them chasing some promo offered by the room. These newer games provide a much more conducive environment for gamblers, those that want to play the game for every right reason.
I doubt there will ever be anything like the poker boom again, but it does appear that these newer games represent the future of poker. Fewer players are being attracted to poker today and the price to pay for getting them in very well may be adjusting to play these games. After all there has to be some give and compromise as we cannot expect recreational players to just hand over their money in an environment where regulars have most of the edge. I made the adjustment to omaha myself about a year ago and recently switched to 5-card games. As 6-card variants are now being offered I will probably have to adjust and switch to that game as well eventually. The numbers never lie and the point that I am making here can easily be seen on the tables. When playing these different games, those that have a high VP$IP can regularly be spotted whereas they are rare specimens on the hold’em tables. I do not see anything in the near future that can possibly change this trend. I know many point to the popularity of poker in parts of China as a sign of hope, but I have already covered in previous articles how the way in which the Chinese run their poker rooms is not conducive to the game’s growth. And it just so happens to be that the game of short deck was born out of games in Macau and is already quite popular there. Perhaps if America were to legalize the game again on a federal level and everyone had easy access the market can see an upward spike. But given how legistlation has been slow to be enacted even on a state level, I cannot see that happening any time soon.
There is a phrase that poker players love to use, namely “GTO” which stands for game theory optimal. I absolutely hate this saying as it represents everything wrong with poker culture today. I understand that players want every possible edge and advantage, but without other players to provide that edge there will be no game and more importantly no money to be had. Poker has become a game in which 2% of the playing population win 98% of the money. How long can such an ecosystem be sustained? As players we have to give up some equity on the table itself in order to meet others at some sort of half way point to ensure the survival of the game.