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.