I once presided over a $2-$5 NLH game as manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh when an unexpected whale from Thailand arrived. It was clear from the beginning that the gentleman just wanted to have a good time and that the money was not that important to him. So unimportant that he also put his girlfriend in to the game, who had even less experience than he did. The fun began at about 9:00 PM and over the course of the next 8 hours the whale and his girl dumped thousands of dollars to nearly every other player on the table. At about 5:00 AM he asked for two racks and began to rack up his chips in order to cash out. At this point nearly every other player on the table asked for a rack and also began to leave. Upon seeing this the whale exclaimed, "Oh I see how it is! The fish leaves and no one else wants to play." The players could not have made it more obvious what they were doing and a fish may be a fish, but he was not an idiot. I recently ran into this player a few months ago, back in the same poker room although I was no longer the manager. I told him that it was great to see him after so many years and to this he replied that he had been back in Cambodia several times, but that he just did not play in this room due to the incident I mentioned above. The point of me telling this story is to drive home the notion that poker players are often their own worst enemy. I can understand wanting to leave in an online setting or even in a casino where traffic is plentiful. But in a local's room full of regs, players such as this are hard to come by and everyone should have known to behave in manner that would have encouraged him to come back. The fact is he had three more days on his stay in Cambodia, but none of those were spent in this poker room.
The truth of the matter is poker is a dying game in terms of popularity. We have long passed its zenith and signs of decline are everywhere. In such a climate the question remains, who's responsibility is it to grow and cultivate the popularity of the game. The most obvious conclusion is perhaps to say that such a responsibility falls on the operators of the room. In most cases where poker is played we have to then discuss the role casinos play in the promotion of the game. But as many already know, casinos could care less about poker as it generates the least amount of revenue while housing the most number of staff and incurring the largest payroll of any department. I knew many poker room managers during my time in Las Vegas and one chief complaint that most of them had was how little support they received from the casino at large, especially when it came to money. Very little is spent by a casino towards the poker room in terms of marketing space both inside and outside the casino. Drive down the Vegas strip and you will see 50 advertisements for buffets and has-been 80's musical acts before you ever see a sign promoting poker. The best managers will do it on their own, creating mailing and contact lists, making sure that no player leaves the room without liking their Facebook page or by just posting on online forums to promote their room. But they often do this on their own time, with no extra pay and as mentioned previously without any support from the casino. The situation is even worse for a private card room as they do not even have a larger entity such as a casino to ignore them.
So how did this game get so popular in the first place? The poker boom started because of a perfect storm of events that will probably never be repeated. But once Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event of the World Series, online poker swooped in to provide the mechanism by which the game would grow. In a largely unregulated environment, literally hundreds of online poker sites provided for players easy access to real money cash games and tournaments. Players started to sign up and send in deposits in droves and this led to television networks picking up on the growing popularity of the game and making broadcasts of special events near ubiquitous on many stations. From airings of WSOP events to WPT tournaments and the Hollywood Home Game to Celebrity Poker Showdown, the game was everywhere. But this all came to a grinding halt once online poker was made illegal in the United States and domain names of popular sites such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt were seized by the FBI on that fateful day that we now know as Black Friday. Many speculate, and still do, that the casino lobby was largely behind this policy shift as they wanted a larger piece of the online market to eventually monopolize it for themselves. But I think something gets lost in this line of thinking, namely that the casinos would be completely fine if poker were to disappear altogether. There are other forms of online gambling that will prove to be more profitable and the waning popularity of the game would mean that they would not have to maintain a physical presence in their casinos.
Why am I discussing all of these things and presenting such a bleak picture? The purpose of this article is to point out the painful fact that the promotion of the game relies solely on the players. And this truth is painful because if one observes the landscape of the game today, it is filled with players who seem hell bent on destroying it rather than furthering its cause. From behavior such as the one I cited in the opening paragraph of this article to general douchey behavior on the table, players do everything and anything to repel the very players that should be encouraged to stay in the game. I have lost count of how many times a fish's play has been questioned or berated during a game, often causing said player to leave the table altogether. That is of course the worst case scenario, but even in the best case players often remain completely quiet while playing without engaging other players in the slightest. If one were to speak to a recreational poker player, it would be easy to realize just how badly they want to be good players themselves and how in turn they admire those who can win in this game. They speak about and discuss their favorite players, like one might of their favorite movie star or athlete. And just like athletes who may win over a fan for life by signing an autograph, so can poker players promote their game by engaging with their audience. But unfortunately many players often spend more time mocking such people and making fun of other players to leave any time to grow the game.
Let us consider those who have won the Main Event of the WSOP shortly after Chris Moneymaker's win in 2003:
• Greg Raymer (2004)
• Joe Hachem (2005)
• Jamie Gold (2006)
• Jerry Yang (2007)
Nearly every one of these names have been much aligned over the years when the truth is that they have done more for the promotion of poker than they are given credit for. Now consider the list of those who have won the ME since:
• Peter Eastgate (2008)
• Joe Cada (2009)
• Jonathan Duhamel (2010)
• Pius Heinz (2011)
• Greg Merson (2012)
• Ryan Riess (2013)
• Martin Jacbson (2014)
• Joe McKeehen (2015)
• Qui Nguyen (2016)
• Scott Blumstein (2017)
• John Cynn (2018)
• Hossein Ensan (2019)
Ask any poker player who won the ME of the WSOP in the first few years of the boom and most would recognize everyone on my first list. But ask the same question of those who won after 2007 and most would struggle to name half the list. There is a reason for this as whether by accident or design, these players represented the "every man" and they were true ambassadors of the game, either in fame or infamy. I actually met Jamie Gold on a few occasions as we were seated together on the same table during the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce back in 2010. I also played with him several times while he was ambassador for the poker room in the Tropicana casino the very next year. I have seldom met anyone friendlier on a poker table. And more importantly, he answered every question that players had for him even though he was trying to play in the event and not every comment nor question was all that friendly. But he did not shy from any of it and took the time to say hello, sign autographs and take a picture with anyone who asked. Every time a winning player stacks a fish on a table who has no idea what they are doing, they probably have one of the names on my first list to thank.
As poker has become a spectator sport to a large extent, I am encouraged by the new mediums in which the game is broadcast and promoted. As airing of poker on traditional television networks slows down, there seems to be an increase in alternative mediums such as YouTube and Twitch. This is important in that such sites trend towards a younger audience as many youths today do not even own a television set, but rather get all their media content online. I think it imperative going forward that more players make themselves available to the public in this manner, from broadcasting a vlog or playing an entire session live online. While I understand that many players desire privacy and do not wish to broadcast their life nor strategies for the viewing public, such is a tradeoff in the effort to keep the game not only alive, but to keep it growing. Social media personalities such as Doug Polk and Joey Ingram do much to promote this game in a fun manner and they should be lauded for their efforts. But there are countless others, while not as popular, but with thousands of followers themselves who deserve to be emulated and admired. I have a friend who recently started a Twitch stream along with a YouTube channel and how he is doing it should be considered textbook on how to promote the game of poker:
Engage your audience through honesty and storytelling, an often lost artform for those who stream on such formats; be an authority but don't speak down to your audience; offer players a desired lifestyle and provide for them a roadmap by which they can obtain it for themselves. This will especially be important as we move forward in a post-covid era, one in which the game has undergone drastic changes. Tournaments are being cancelled all over the world, Macau has shut its doors and even the venerable Las Vegas is down to just 29 poker rooms. Poker will be more difficult to find for the average person than ever before and we need a new generation of creative thinkers to reach out to the masses in order to engage a new audience and keep the game growing.
I once saw a poker documentary called "Bet, Raise, Fold" which chronicled the history of the poker boom and the rise in prominence of online poker. While most lauded the efforts of those who made this film, I came away from it with a different feeling. I thought to myself that if I were a novice player, I would never want to play poker again after watching this movie. The film came off as intimidating, talking about the technical aspects of the game and the use of software such as HUDS. Listening to the players in the film talk about their strategies, how they play 16 tables at once and crush their opponents, the entire thing sounded like a not so humble brag rather than a roadmap for how others could achieve their level of success. If my friend's new Twitch and YouTube channels is textbook in how to promote the game, what this film conveyed was exactly the opposite. But most of the figures I have discussed in this article are now long since gone and the game is ready for a new crop of players to take over the game and help propel it towards the future. Many can learn from the mistakes of the recent past in order to present this game to a new, younger and eager audience in a manner that enhances the ecology of the game of poker.
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I had written previously that it seemed as if everyone you speak to these days in a poker room is a pro. But seeing as how that is statistically impossible, I thought it may be cogent to discuss what it actually takes to be a professional in this game. The obvious disclaimer is that I myself am not a pro. But I still put in a significant amount of volume each year, have a positive win rate and have discussed this issue with a myriad of others who do play for a living. And I fully admit that I do not do everything that I am about to list off here in this article. But the best advice often comes from those who do not follow it themselves and perhaps this is one of those situations. I have played this game for 17 years, many of them for a living, and I have seen just about everything one can see in this game. Becoming a professional is not something I advise anyone to try normally, but let us forge ahead since this topic seems to be the obsession of even the most recreational of poker players.
ABSOLUTELY NO BOOKING WINS!
If it is one thing I hate hearing is when players tell me they only played a short session in order to "book a win." I would go on to define what this phrase means but I am still not exactly sure myself. You often hear this term from live players and this is the one area in which they are completely different from online players. In the mind of the online player there is no such thing as today, tomorrow, this week, month or year. This is just one long game that goes on seemingly forever until the day we die or go broke. For live players it seems to be all about this day, this session or this hand. The thought of losing even one big hand repulses them to the core, even if the truth is that they played it correctly. Just ask a live player to tell you a story about any time his aces got cracked and you will know exactly what I mean. Any online player who multi-tables has aces cracked multiple times in a session and for us it is no big deal because it is simply supposed to happen. There is no such thing as a hand that has 100% equity preflop and that includes aces. If you are a losing player and book a win, all that means is that you are delaying your losing by one day. If you are a winning player and heaven forbid you book a win, all you are doing is missing out on a chance to win more that day and delaying such winnings for one day. If you win you play and if you lose you play. The whole point of beginning an endeavor to play poker for a living is to find out if you can actually do it, to know whether or not if you are truly a winning player. And if you are one of the lucky few who knows that you are a winning player you should take every possible opportunity to play and continue on in games where you have an edge.
BUM HUNT UNTIL EVERYONE HATES YOU
There is so much hatred centered around this word and I have never understood it. If you are reading this article and are considering becoming a poker pro but do not know this term, perhaps you should reconsider. Bum hunting is the practice of following terrible players and only playing in tables they are on for the purposes of winning their money. It mostly applies to heads up matches online in which those who practice this refuse to play anyone not weaker than then they are but I think it could easily apply to those who play in regular 6-max games as well. The entire purpose of this game for those who endeavor to play it professionally is to win money and to win as much of it as possible in the shortest amount of time. The notion that one should play stronger opponents as a regular practice sounds rather ridiculous when said aloud, but there remains an immense amount of vitriol surrounding this practice. Much of it has to do with some sense of machismo I suppose, a belief in the idea that you are only the best if you beat the best. I could care less about being the best player in poker and while there is a certain amount of arrogance and confidence needed to play this game, the end goal simply remains to win as much money as easily as one can. Poker is a predatory game and concepts that include the word "hunt" or "hunting" should be entirely appropriate towards how one approaches this game. If we consider the world of actual predators in the wild, a pack of lions after killing their prey will not then turn on one another. They will simply wait for the next opportunity to hunt another weaker prey. In much the same way the notion that good players on a table should battle it out against one another after a mark has left seems ill advised at best.
This is a word often used when discussing this game, but one that is hardly practiced. People underestimate just how much discipline is needed to play this game, especially for a living. If you are reading this article and are the type of person who already has their life in order and practices a great amount of discipline in areas of life, health and love then playing poker for a living is probably the furthest thing from your mind. The truth is one has to be at least a little "off" in order to consider doing this for a living. Those attracted to this notion are usually those that are more attracted to the lifestyle more than anything else; the late nights, the money, baller lifestyle, hookers and blow and all that. And in truth those elements do and should exist in the poker lifestyle to a certain extent. After all, what is the point of doing this for a living if you cannot enjoy it like a true baller. But all of that should come after your session and only up to a point that it does not bleed into your session the following day. However f'ed up your life is for the majority of the time, everything better come together in the right way for those 6-8 hours that you are seated in front of your computer to play because if it doesn't there are plenty that will gladly be on the other side of the table waiting to relieve you of your funds.
MAKE TOUGH CHOICES
This leads to my next point which is that sacrifices need to be made if one is to pursue poker as a profession. The truth of the matter is that poker takes up a lot of time, both in the amount of time actually seated on a table and also the devotion towards studying the game in order to constantly improve. I have already discussed limiting one's baller lifestyle and practicing a certain modicum of moderation in one's social life. But apart from having fun and enjoying one's "poker life", sometimes other realities and responsibilities of life may intrude upon one's ability to focus on poker. I would like nothing more than to spend every waking moment of my daughter's life playing with her and enjoying her company. But I also realize that in two years I will have to put her in a private school and that she requires food, milk and a suitable place to live. I try to confine my playing hours to ones in which both my wife and daughter are asleep. And if I have to play during hours they are awake I will tell my wife that I absolutely cannot be disturbed and will lock the door. If she cannot follow these guidelines, I will simply leave and play somewhere else on my tablet. In the end the actual responsible thing to do is to sacrifice time with loved ones in order to devote yourself to a game that can potentially pay for all the things that they need. Or perhaps the toughest choice of all is the decision to leave the game altogether if it cannot provide for those that are in your care. I cannot think of anything more irresponsible than continuing to play a game in which one constantly loses when they have mouths to feed at home.
THAT DREADED WORD "BANKROLL"
During my time in Las Vegas I had a bankroll of about $70,000 during my peak. I divided this in several ways:
• $3,000 per month living expenses * 6 months = $18,000
• $12,000 in online poker accounts
• $40,000 to play live $2-$5
Regarding the last point I usually bought in for $500 for the $2-$5 game at the Venetian, meaning that I had 80 buy-ins for that level. I will readily admit though that is the last time I practiced such bankroll management and in truth most players I know are exactly the same. But this sort of strict management is exactly what is required and perhaps this is the primary reason that I do not play for a living anymore. To play your best game, one needs absolute freedom from the worries of life in order to make every right decision during a session. If you cannot stick in that 4-bet because you have to pay rent the next week or cannot shove all-in with air against a player that you have proper fold equity against, then you should not be pursuing this game as a profession. This sort of idea also applies in-game as well as one should be mindful of what stakes they play against the amount of money they actually have. I realize it is more impressive to tell others that you play $2-$5 live or $2-$4 online, but to play above one's means is a recipe for disaster. Poker is a game of mistakes and I can guarantee that your game will be riddled with them if you play above your means. There are those that actually play for a living who will be waiting on the other side to capitalize on every single mistake you make. If you cannot make the correct decisions in a game due to money concerns, then the proper thing would be to step down in stakes or have another revenue stream until playing higher is more comfortable.
KNOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Studying the game of poker does not have to be confined to strategies. One should also be aware of where they are playing and the conditions of their environment; how much rake does the room charge, how much are they dropping for the bad beat jackpot, how much do I spend tipping dealers, etc. It is the popular thing to say that only nits care about such things or as I like to call them, winning players. To be mindful of all these things means that one needs choice and options on where to play. If you are playing live then you should be living in a city where there are a multitude of rooms and tables at every stake level. And if you are playing online then you should belong to a high traffic site or belong to several sites and/or clubs in order for you to table select. I have players in my online agency that have an account and money in each and every one of the 16 clubs I offer. Every day they simply open up each app, look for the softest games and then commence printing. There is no point to pursuing this if you are going to play the same 10-15 people every single day as even the most terrible of players get better over time. And if you are to play online be sure to get a good rakeback deal, but do not sacrifice the quality of the games just to get a slightly higher percentage. I cannot overstate the importance of rakeback when going through a bad down swing.
I am sure there is much more that can be said regarding this topic, especially concerning the actual play of the game. But for this article I only wanted to cover over arching principles and issues of mindset rather than strategy. I realize that I am knee deep in a sea of hypocrisy in discussing this topic as there are many points that I just wrote about that I do not follow myself. But then again that is why I made the choice to no longer to play for a living and gain other modes of making money. A better way to state it may be to say that the game made the choice for me. I am still in the field of the poker industry, but I no longer rely on having to win in order to survive. Having said all this, I will admit that I do miss solely playing poker for a living as there is no other better feeling in the world. I may sound as if I am overstating it a bit, but there is something to knowing that you can successfully do something that so few can. For those that come across this article, I wish you good fortune whichever road you may choose.
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An interesting thing happened recently in a live game here in Phnom Penh. A friend of mine walked into a game that was near full and took the only open seat. Upon sitting one of the players exclaimed that he did not want to play with another "professional" and cashed out. Other people did the same and over the next 30 minutes what was a full game was now finished. For the record my friend is a winning player and the assessment of the first exclaimer was correct. This was not an issue in the past as since the game of poker was more popular it was easier to maintain a balance between pros and recreational players. But with the waning popularity of the game and the shortage of new players, one can reasonably understand why some of those who play for fun may not want to play on a table with multiple players who are doing nothing else but looking to make money. This puts the poker room in an awkward spot as theoretically speaking they should be welcoming of all players who are willing to buy in with cash and follow the rules while playing. But they also face the prospect of losing those players that keep their game fun, friendly and more conducive for action. There are two solutions to this quandary that poker rooms, both live and online, have employed in recent years to varying degrees of success. In this article we will endeavor to examine both sides and try to reach a conclusion as to which one, if any, is the most viable solution going forward.
One solution and the one employed by many online poker sites recently is to simply ban those who win too much. This is exactly what the GG Network did in confiscating $130,000 from one Tobias Duthweiler. This player had previously been on this network before and had been banned for winning too much. Years later when he came back unknowingly through a different skin he ran up a profit of over $100K before the network noticed that it was the same player they had banned years back. They ultimately returned his initial deposit, confiscated his $130,000 in profit and dispersed it back to the players he had won it from. In their press release regarding this incident, GG cited Duthweiler's "bumhunting and predatory behavior" as the reasons for why he was banned and his funds taken. They further went onto state that he had only played on tables with the worst players, only giving action to said terrible players and would leave the table as soon as they stopped playing. Unfortunately such a practice is fairly commonplace in the online poker world and is not a recent phenomenon. The same model has been used by online sports betting sites to combat huge winners that use online computer modeling to give them an edge in placing wagers. Players on these sites are limited in how much they can bet, sometimes as low as $5 per wager, or they are banned altogether outright.
The other solution has seen its employment in the live poker scene as well as online sites. In this method rooms do not kick out nor ban winning players, but they rather adjust the rake and/or their rewards system in order to detract professionals who are more likely to play on low rake, high rakeback sites. There is no better example of this than what has occurred at Poker Stars and the changes they have made to their rake and VIP system over the last few years. Stars was at one point the friendliest site towards regular players who put in a high amount of volume. Their VIP system was well known in the industry as those who generated the most rake were dubbed "Super Nova Elite." I had a friend back in Las Vegas who had obtained such a status playing 20+ tables of $1-$2 NLH daily. When the calendar year was done and he had put in that much volume over the entire 12 months, he had amassed over $100K in bonuses alone. But seeing as how he had generated at least twice that amount in rake, it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement between both sides. But just as with other things being discussed in this article, all of this was during a time when poker was a much more popular game and there was no shortage of new players. But as this situation changed so did Poker Stars and a couple of years back Daniel Negreanu infamously stated in his defense of Stars' change in policy that higher rake was actually better for players. In his YouTube video Negreanu stated the logic of this action declaring that higher rake and a near non-existent VIP system would deter grinders from playing on the site and would make their games much softer. And while they did not outright ban winning players, their desired aim was the same namely to get these players off of their site.
Much of what we have discussed thus far lies in the world of online poker. That being the case it might be easy for some to conclude that the solution is to simply play live. But live rake is already worse than their online counterpart and is also trending upward. Outside of a few places such as Vegas where rake has remained largely static throughout the years, other parts of the world are employing systems of commission that seek to increase the amount taken in by the house. I have already discussed in past articles how in Asia the rake cap has steadily increased over the past 2-3 years. Factoring in the other costs of playing live, bad beat jackpot drops and the lack of rakeback live poker at many blind levels basically becomes unbeatable. Once again they are not banning players nor preventing anyone from joining their tables. But many live operators are now manipulating the rake in a manner that would deter any professional from playing and creating an ecology of those that play in a game they cannot possibly beat. Casinos and online operators are of course private entities and are free to run their businesses in any legal manner they see fit. But are these sites and rooms benefitting themselves in the long run or are they rather creating an environment in which the game cannot possibly survive in the long term?
Let us first tackle the issue of banning winning players. I think that sites overplayed their hand a bit on this issue with the recent worldwide corona pandemic. The truth of the matter is that online traffic soared during this time as players were forced to stay home and live venues remained closed. It was only natural that more would play online and this could have inflated the confidence of those that run these sites. It is easier to ban certain types of players in such an environment in which the player base is growing. But corona will not last forever and many live venues have already reopened with numbers once again taking a dip online. If the logic of banning winning players is that the operators would prefer an ecology of recreational players, the simple truth is that there just are not enough of the latter to justify such a strategy. Winning players are beneficial to online sites because they generate the bulk of the rake and because they can sustain themselves they continue to play. Losing players by nature are transitory and do not sustain the same consistency when playing online. In the end such players have to be constantly replenished in order to maintain the aforementioned balance between those that win and those that lose. But outside of a system in which a pandemic is forcing people to play online, these types of player are lacking in number in a manner that will not allow for such a replenishment.
For the same reason any manipulation of the rake in order to deter winning players will not work either. Any solution that seeks to eliminate or highly limit one important segment of the playing population will not work simply because there are not enough of the other segment. But beyond this there lies a fundamental and philosophical reason for why these solutions go against the very nature of the game of poker. The reason so many of us play this game is that it is supposed to be different from all the other games in a casino and the gambling realm. Whereas the house always has an edge in all pit games and players cannot win in the long run, poker is played against one another and potentially can be beaten by those who know the game well. But if winning players are being banned outright and systems are being put in place that make the game unbeatable, then poker degrades into a game that is no different nor better than any other casino game such as Black Jack or Baccarat. In fact I would argue that is exactly the point of these changes and implementations, namely to transform the game of poker into a casino game. I had the opportunity to run a game in the city of Sihanoukville here in Cambodia and there the casinos did not even hide the fact that this was exactly what they were doing. Unlike casinos in the West, venues in this city did not run their own tables. Rather they rented the tables to outside third parties and charged them rent in order to generate revenue. The casinos were nothing more than glorified landlords and it was those that rented these tables that really ran the games and dictated policy. The rents on these tables were often high but still appropriate for games like Baccarat as players had no chance of winning in the long run and thus they were able to generate a high revenue stream. Poker was often treated by the casinos in the same manner, as if they were just another table game. And so the rent on these tables were also exorbitantly high but revenue is generated much differently on a poker table. But in order to meet their monthly rent live room operators in Sihanoukville were forced to charge a very high rake to have any hope of making any money for themselves. Recreational players are not expected to beat the game of course, but in this scenario neither could a professional given the high amount of commission they were being charged. The fundamental problem with this is of course that the house, whether that be those that actually run the table or the casino that rents the table, are the only ones that generate a true revenue. And that is the very definition of a house game, where no one can win regardless of ability. Both good and bad players are melded together as one entity and the only one left standing to make money is the house.
So what then is the solution? Mason Malmuth, one of the founders of the popular 2+2 online poker forum, said something interesting many years back regarding live poker room promotions. He declared that running a successful promotion was not that difficult. A room should simply look around town, see what other promotions are running well in other places and then simply copy them. For this we do not have to look very far as a working model seemingly exists in the realm of online poker apps that have rose to prominence in the last few years. These apps run very differently from traditional sites and for them the key element to their success seems to be decentralization. Instead of being a monolithic entity these apps are divided up into unions, which themselves are comprised of several clubs who then employ agents to recruit players. And while some may scoff at this structuring system as some sort of pyramid or Ponzi scheme, I rather look at it as a much more efficient system in which new players can be recruited and money moved much easier. I mention the latter because that is a huge issue in the world of online poker and often a hinderance to the growth of this game. If a recreational player cannot get money in and out of a site, that player simply will not bother to play. But with the agent system matters are handled on a much more localized and personal level. Money is often handled in person or in close proximity, thus facilitating the entry of new and recreational players by making the entire process much easier. There is some risk of course to this model as the more levels there are to a structure, the potential for fraud exists at each level. But much like how the money is moved, such issues and threats are localized in this structure and does not involve every player. If a club goes under or if an agent decides to run off with player funds, only those that are directly under those specific entities are affected instead of every single player. We have seen too many times in the past when a monolithic and centralized site such as Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet go under and are not able to pay out the entirety of their player pool. But under a decentralized system such as the one employed by the apps, the damage is limited to a certain segment only and the remainder of the base remains unaffected.
The most important aspect of the agent system is that it seems largely successful in the recruitment of new players as the playing population on these apps have exploded in the last few years. Whichever method is employed, the goal of any operator should be the entry and inclusion of new players, not the exclusion of current ones. Other than the solution I have already proposed, both operators and players should work together to seek out new and creative solutions. I am a big proponent of more players promoting both the game of poker itself and the lifestyle associated with it on social media outlets such as Facebook and vlogging on public and popular mediums such as YouTube. As I previously mentioned the relationship between operators and players should be a mutually beneficial one and I do not see the game prospering in the future for either party if they cannot work together.
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It is not difficult to pinpoint the beginning of what most call the poker boom. In the minds of nearly every poker player, the genesis can be linked to Chris Moneymaker winning the Main Event of the World Series of Poker on a $40 satellite back in 2003. But what proves more difficult is just when the boom ended. For some it never has and these people would say we are still in a state of growth. When considering tournament numbers pre-covid and the totality of those that now play online I can understand why some would say that. But if we are to consider the health of the game, I do not think it can be denied that the game has long passed its apex. Without doing a ten page dissertation on the subject I think it would be easy to associate the end of the poker boom with Black Friday, the day that the FBI seized the domains for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. Ever since online poker was made illegal in America the game has certainly been in a state of decline in the States and such has had ramifications for the rest of the world. So will there be a second poker boom? I would argue that there has been already, or at least a preview of how another one can begin.
I would categorize the history of poker into several eras or ages. I would name everything prior to 2003 as the pre-boom era, 2003 to 2011 as the boom proper, 2011 to 2016 as the dark age and 2016 to present as the era of the mobile apps. We have already discussed the first era, bookmarked by Chris Moneymaker and Black Friday. The second era is characterized by the exit of America from the online market and the overall decline of the game. While many would argue that overall numbers grew during this time, I would point out that such was done at the expense of the overall ecosystem. By this time heads up displays (HUDs) were near ubiquitous and we also saw the beginnings of what would eventually become solvers in programs such as Poker Stove and Flopzilla. Also by this time high speed internet was near ubiquitous as well and in more homes than ever before. With this training sites, YouTube channels and generally a wealth of information were available to more prospective players. Although the game was continuing to grow in numbers, players were entering with much more knowledge than previously. With a vast population and the availability of online poker for most players, America previously served as a feeding system of recreational players into the poker ecosystem. With this system now gone, less recreational players were piped into both live casinos and online poker rooms and were replaced by those who studied the game for hours on end, making the game a much more hostile environment. There have been attempts during this stage to legalize online poker in America and reintroduce the game to a more recreational player base. And while some states have brought it back in some form, the ability to play is restricted to local residents of that state and has not been able to impact the rest of the world.
Some semblance of online poker still did exist in America during this time, with some sites choosing to still serve the market. But these sites were not as reputable as those previously mentioned and would often fold without paying players out. Money also became very difficult to move as the depositing process was hard enough. But getting money out for winning players was even more difficult with some players having to wait months on end in order to receive a check. I remember playing on the Cake Network during this era and checks would sometimes take 4-6 months to arrive. One such check I waited for many months, only to have it bounce once I tried to cash it. The situation became so desperate that I resorted to selling my chips on online poker forums at $0.75 to $1. It was during this time that many players decided to travel in order to play from areas where online poker was still allowed. All of this is to say that those in America who still went through all this trouble just to continue playing online was not the average and casual player. After recs were basically kicked off due to the lack of availability, what was left was a less friendly environment in which fewer and fewer players won most of the money.
It was during this time when I started to travel as well, having moved to Cambodia in 2014. The original intent was to reopen my Poker Stars account and start grinding online again, but I actually started to play live near exclusively once I arrived. As online games became tougher more players also started to travel for the purposes of seeking out softer live games in foreign lands. It was during this time around 2016 when a new era in poker would be ushered in which I like to call the age of the mobile apps. New apps were being developed out of Asia during this time, especially out of China, that were designed to be played on smart phones and tablets. On the surface these apps looked like any other play money app, and perhaps they were. But beneath the surface an independent group of people started devising a system in which games on these platforms could be played for real money. Groups started to form clubs within these apps and would employ agents that would recruit players for games that were basically a virtual version of a home game. These agents were very effective in recruiting recreational fish and whales and soon enough a multitude of them were popping up in the live rooms of Asia trying to recruit every player possible. This is what led many players to believe that a second poker boom was imminent and that China was the key as these apps were being developed out of that country and also many of the players were from that market. But even though the apps and player base grew in number, and China certainly played a role in this growth, nothing close to what anyone would consider a boom truly occurred. It was not until a new development that such would even come close to fruition.
Two events would then occur that would change the landscape of poker and greatly increase the growth of these mobile apps. Around 2018 apps were developed with an eye specifically on the American market, spurring clubs to form in that country with agents that would recruit players starving for online poker. With this reintroduction of the American player base, other players started to join these clubs on the new apps in droves. But things would not reach a critical mass until a tragic event occurred world wide far bigger than the scope of the poker world. The corona virus originated out of China in late 2019 and began its meteoric rise as a world wide pandemic. It reached America in early 2020 and once shutdown orders began and people were forced to stay home, the landscape of online poker as a whole changed dramatically. With only a few options for online poker in America, the nature of the local agent model made it easier for players to deposit into real money games and play their favorite poker games online. And once again with the influx of even more American players, the rest of the world would join in. I would argue that this is at least the beginning of a second poker boom, or rather a preview and an indication that America is the key element for such to take place. It is no accident that numbers started to decline and most associate the end of the boom right around the same time as Black Friday in America and once again it does not seem coincidental that the numbers are on the rise now that American players are being reintroduced to the ecosystem via these new apps.
I realize that many would scoff at my hypothesis and point out that these apps exist in a legally grey area at best and that more than a few players have lost their funds to illegitimate clubs and agencies. To this I would like to point out that the first boom had many, if not all, of the same characteristics. The sites during the initial boom were never considered legal in the United States and players lost their funds many times when sites or payment processors folded. Bank accounts of these entities were seized multiple times and most of us are too familiar with scandals linked to Ultimate Bet and Full Tilt. But all of this was coupled with unparalleled growth in the industry and it is this same type of growth that we are experiencing today. I do think that online poker will be legalized in the fullest sense in America in the near future and with that will come what everyone can consider a true second boom. But I remain unsure as to whether or not it will the app model that will survive to see it as the first ones through the door always get bloodied. What I do know is that both the U.S and online poker will be at the forefront of what will propel this game into the future.
I have now been playing poker for a little over 17 years, creating a near 2 decade black hole in my resume. And although not every one of those years has been profitable, it remains a passion in my life and something that I will continue to pursue in the future. Having said this I am very realistic about my results as for most of my years playing I have kept accurate and faithful records of my winnings. I have certainly performed better in the first half of the 17 years I have played than the second part. I am fairly certain at this point that I can no longer beat no limit hold’em online and I also realized that I was not winning enough in live games that I made the switch to omaha two years ago. And while I no longer claim to be a “professional” player, I can still look people in the eye with a straight face and declare that overall I am a winning player. This is not something many people can say and I hold it as a sort of badge of honor. The reality is that if we polled 100 random regular poker players, at most 10 are winning ones. And if we restricted the criteria to those who won enough to exceed their expenditures that number would most likely shrink to less than 5. And yet if you hang out at enough poker rooms and speak with other players it seems that everyone and their uncle plays for a living. This sort of thing is of course universal and not only relegated to poker. It would be too strong of a word to say that people were outright lying about their prowess as a poker player. People in other professions exaggerate all the time regarding how much money they earn. But in such cases, they still make something and are able to live. It is rarely the case that a poker player who oversell their results still wins but just at a lower rate as it is more likely the case that they are just losing players. So what is it about this game that allows so many to try and fool others or rather more importantly, themselves?
I noticed an interesting phenomenon a few years back here in Cambodia in regards to those who came here to play poker. For most that come here for such a purpose they start their play at one of the local card clubs instead of the casino. Such places get advertised more on online poker forums and there is a certain mythos to the whole idea of playing in an underground club in a third world country. For those that lost in this club, and this was the case with most players, they always had the option of trying their luck at a different location and playing at the casino. What I noticed was that of this group, they would almost universally report back with better results. Some of this can of course be attributed to the notion that the casino probably had better games. It is reasonable to think that a place with revolving foot traffic will have more recreational punters than a local’s card club. But having said that, with the passage of time I still did not observe anyone who was winning and saving any sort of significant money. As time passed, whatever these players won did not exceed their expenses and they stopped playing, started to play smaller elsewhere or just went home. I do not recount this phenomenon simply to malign these players as liars or speak of them in any sort of negative light. In fact I fell victim to the same thinking as when I first arrived I too started my play at a local card club, did not have good results, started to play at the casino and immediately saw better results and felt that I could sustain some sort of prolonged state of winning. This was during my first year in Cambodia and while I was fortunate enough to not go broke, when I did return home it was certainly with far less money than I arrived with. So what happened?
I should mention at this point that the caliber of the dealers in the two locations were quite different. In the local card club the dealers were more than competent and some were even on the level of the Vegas dealers that I had played with in the past. A few of them easily got out 20 hands or more in a 30 minute shift but the same could not be said of their counterparts at the casino, who got out about half as many hands. I can only conclude from this is that what all of us did not realize at the time was that we were simply losing slower rather than winning. In this one example exists the biggest issue with live poker in regards to trying to play this game for a living, namely its pace. To give a real life example, there was a week recently in which I played 12,000 hands online. Let us consider for a moment how long it would take to play these many hands in a live game. When I lived in Vegas the dealers in the casinos were of course of varying competence. But in a city such as this where poker is so important I would state confidently that most were able to get out 20 hands in a 30 minute shift. If we can assume a 40 hour play week then we arrive at the following:
By this calculation we can observe that it would take nearly 2 months to play the same amount of hands in a live game that I was able to play during 1 week. My point in formulating all this is to make the point that whatever happens in a live game can often feel like the norm, that such will always be the case or just feel like it will last forever. It is often said that the worst thing that can happen to someone who plays poker for the first time is win. Put that player on a 5 day heater and he will feel like he can quit his day job and become a full time professional poker player. Live players tend to measure the game in a manner that belies what is needed to develop a true sample size. If one plays in a live game for a week and absolutely crushes, that person tends to oversell in their own mind how much it is they truly played because they look back upon their week as 40-50 hours over 7 grueling sessions. All of this can seem like a lot to most reasonable people, when in reality it comes nowhere close to determining where one is truly in regards to winning or losing long term in this game. This effect can have many ramifications as those who win a lot in the short run can often deem themselves better than they really are, thus ignoring other important factors of the game such as studying and staying ahead of the curve and recent trends. Of course the exact opposite is true for those that play online as playing 24,000 hands over two weeks will easily enable most players to determine whether or not they are winning. It will also help them make adjustments and try to improve their game as results come in much faster, allowing more concrete conclusions to be reached.
Of course the opposite can happen to a player in live games as they can simply lose during what they perceive to be a duration of time sufficient for a good sample size. But as much as good results are not an indication of anything significant in the short term, the same can be said for bad results. But the player may not see it that way and simply give up playing, reasoning in their mind that they had failed at the game. All of this is to say that if one were to solely play live poker, it would take a long time for them to truly realize whether or not they were winning players. But in this scenario time is often the enemy as factors that weigh in on the ability to win only magnify and have greater impact over a longer stretch of time. The most obvious issue, as with most cases, is the rake. I have already covered in previous articles how the rake in certain games can make it nearly impossible for players to beat the game. But there are other issues as well such as the cost of travel, food and of course tipping. Having determined previously that a regular $1-$3 player pays approximately $23,000 in one year in rake, if we add the cost of food, travel and tipping we can easily estimate that a player who sits regularly in a game as small as $1-$3 is paying north of $30,000 USD in one year.
Regardless of the title that I have given this blog post, I do not mean to say that the notion of a live pro is entirely a myth. Rather I am arguing that the whole idea is largely a myth and that it is much more difficult than how it sounds from seemingly every single poker player who claims to be a professional. There are of course live pros and if there are those reading this who would venture to follow in their footsteps, certain conditions and criteria need to be met:
To the first point I will just say now that in my opinion there is no such thing as a $1-$2 or $1-$3 professional. The money is too small, cost of living too high in most areas and the rake factors in too much to allow players to win at a rate that exceeds their expenses. One simply must play higher in order to not only win more money, but also to play in a game where the rake taxes them less. This is of course unless you play in many regions of Asia where rake goes higher the bigger one plays. This leads to the next point of choosing to play and live in an area where the rake is equitable to the stakes that are being played. I have mentioned in previous articles of how in cities like Las Vegas the rake remains the same going from $1-$2 to $2-$5 and are even better for bigger games such as $5-$10 that charge only a time rake. And playing in a city like Vegas will allow players to table select where even for games such as $2-$5 there are multiple venues to choose from. Minimizing one’s cost is also very important in order to play poker for a living. As much as I love the dealers that have worked for me in the past, players need to remember that tipping is completely optional. And while I am not a proponent of not tipping at all, still the task of paying for a suitable living for their staff should be on the casino or poker room and not the player, with tips serving only as a compliment to their salaries. In some rooms in Cambodia dealers are paid as little as $100 per month, meaning the onus of providing for their living is on the player via their tipping. As harsh as this sounds, players who endeavor to play professionally must worry about their own living as their primary concern before anyone else’s.
When contemplating the requirements that go into playing live poker for a living, there are really only a few cities that check every box. The reason that I have mentioned Las Vegas so many times in my previous articles is because they are one of the few places that meet most, if not all of them. I have not played in Macau but from what other players tell me it would seem they would fit the bill on most things, although it can be quite expensive to live there and their rake system is different from Vegas. Los Angeles is another great city to play with multiple venues, but the cost of living once again becomes an issue. I am sure there are many other cities that fit the criterias involved that I simply have not listed due to my limited travel experience. But it is cities such as these that one must choose if they endeavor to take on this grandiose task, because to become a live pro is a difficult task that requires commitment. One simply cannot play in an area where they play the same 10-15 locals every single day, no matter how bad they may be. All of this is to say that playing live poker for a living is a very big commitment. I remember an old interview once done with the famous movie director Quentin Tarantino. He had always dreamt of being in show business and so he made the decision to move to Los Angeles, even though that meant he had to work as a clerk in a video rental store for a few years before he got his break. He commented during the interview that this is what it took for him to make it in the business and that others should do the same. I often think of this interview when I think of poker players and playing live for a living. If one wishes to be on stage they must go to Broadway; one wants to be a movie star they have to go to Hollywood and if one wants to make it as a professional poker player they must go to Vegas (or a town just like it).
Love and money, two concepts that often go hand in hand in a place like Cambodia. The latter is a limited resource in the third world and the former is often used to obtain it. Every year many a men come to Cambodia looking for love but the truth of the matter is very few find it. They can find varying degrees of it at times in the form of companionship, and other times they will get scammed outright. But then again, the men in this scenario are not always innocent players either. The point of this article is not to point the finger nor assign blame, but rather to discuss the situation honestly as it exists. I have run the full gamut in my six years living here from first time visitor, to experienced single man to a family man with two children. Having experienced just about everything I question whether or not our Western concept of "love" can exist here, or whether it exists anywhere at all. Nonetheless, the experience of these past few years is one I would never trade in for anything nor everything.
So is it love or is it money? There are plenty of young girls in this country who love to have fun so the opportunity to hook up for an evening or two is certainly plentiful. But for anything long term it is doubtful that any woman in Cambodia is willing to be with a foreigner who cannot support her financially. This is not to cast the Khmer woman as some sort of evil gold digger, but rather because money is a resource that is in limited supply here. A Cambodian female that is looking for a foreign man simply cannot afford to be with one out of love only. There are of course those that marry out of love but in the majority of these cases they tend to marry their own. Foreigners often underestimate how strong ethnic bonds are in Cambodia, thinking that every single woman would prefer a foreign man. All things being equal, I think a woman would prefer to marry and build a family with a fellow Khmer. But when given the chance to be with a foreigner, the opportunity to have a better life, for themselves and their family, becomes the paramount issue. For us foreigners money will always be the thing that opens the door. Whether the open door is to her heart or something else is often a complicated issue.
I have been with my wife for four years, married the last two with two beautiful children. As much as I have no doubt that she truly loves me now, I have no doubt that she did not the first year or so that we were together. I often tell a funny story in which during the first few months that my wife and I lived together she tried to call me to ask if I can get her something from the kitchen. But when she opened her mouth to call out my name, she realized she had no idea what my name was and just froze. After a few awkward seconds she simply blurted out "brother" and then proceeded with her request. I laugh about it now but admit that I was bit offended at the time that a woman who I had been living with for three months did not even know my name. It just goes to show how these types of relationships initially come about. I am a fat hideous C.H.U.D. in his 40's and have no delusion as to why it was my then 22 year old wife initially came to be with me. But four years later we are still together and have two wonderful daughters. This is to say that true love can develop as neither one of us has any doubts presently about how the other feels. But the road to where we are now was a rough one and in many ways continues to be a struggle.
After our initial year together, my wife and I took a bit of a break as I had to return back home to the States. Once I returned I fell upon a financially beneficial situation and our lives seemed very secure. But that did not last forever as I fell on some difficult times about a year and a half later. That time was heart-wrenchingly difficult as there were weeks where I would struggle to buy a single can of milk for my daughter. To her credit my wife refused to leave my side during this entire episode and altered her lifestyle drastically in order to accommodate our new situation. There was a time when she probably did ask for too much, but money was plentiful at that time and I was glad to give it to her. But when all this changed she asked for nothing and even asked her family to stop asking me for money as well. For a period of time I lived in the city of Kampot, basically having begged my friends to let me help in their $0.25-$0.50 game so that I could earn some money. My friend was nice enough to give me a free room on top of his Sports Bar where I would stay with my wife and youngest daughter. All three of us were living together in this one room, but I remember the time fondly not only because my friends were all gracious enough to help me but also because my wife stuck by me during this entire time. Suffice it to say I have dug myself out of that situation and we live very comfortably now. But for what we went through I love my wife dearly, know that she loves me and will never leave her for it.
I do not want to comment on the relationships of others, but for myself it was impossible to truly know whether or not my wife truly loved me until we went through this episode. Now that our lives are much different I find myself struggling as I encounter many women who would want some of what I have for themselves. Once again I am not attempting to portray any of these females in a negative light. They often have their own children to support and give money to help their parents. And for uneducated but young and attractive women they have very limited resources from which to draw from in order to gain a foreign man who can support them. But as much, and often times more, than it is about love this is really a game of resources. As my wife has pointed out to me several times, every time I go out to a bar at night or buy drinks for a girl I am taking resources that could have otherwise gone to her or our children. And herein lies my greatest fault both as a husband and a father. Anyone who has ever hung out with me on the riverside can attest that I am nowhere near perfect in this regard. I contend that it is nearly impossible to stay faithful and true as a foreign man with money in this country. Girls are simply available everywhere and whether you go to a bar or meet a waitress at a restaurant, there are girls at every corner who are more than eager to meet a man who can potentially help them financially. Once again I do not wish to speak for anyone else, but the longer I live here the more I discover about myself that staying true in the past was more about lack of opportunity than anything else.
But I would not do anything in these past six years differently if given the chance as everything has led to the blessings that are my two beautiful daughters. In many ways both the joys and struggles of being in a relationship are similar here as anywhere else. But the issue of money is amplified to a great degree and colors every aspect of relationship life. Since the financial gap that exists between foreigners and many young women in Cambodia is potentially great, it can be difficult to enjoy a relationship with a similar paradigm as those back in our home countries. But at the end of the day you find someone to love, hope they love you back and then travail through both happy and trying times to live a life of true meaning that presents itself to you every morning when they wake you up early screaming for milk ;)
When I lived in Las Vegas many years ago I had a prop bet with a friend and fellow poker player. I forget the exact parameters of the prop but I do remember that I had to play on average of 6 hours of $1-$2 no limit hold'em per day, 6 days per week for 1 month. And after having done this I needed to finish with an hourly win rate of $30 or higher. It did not take long before I quit and bought myself out of the bet as I realized that the likelihood of accomplishing this was very remote. The truth is I did not play a lot of $1-$2 in Los Angeles, where I first began playing poker, nor in the first few years that I lived in Vegas. It is a game that I only played as I started going broke and basically could not afford to play any higher. When I did actually play poker for a living and did not incur an income from any other source, I played mostly $2-$5 NLH and even that I had to supplement with several hours of online play weekly. I do not currently play for a living as I make enough from my online poker agency. But I have played this game long enough and have known enough players over the last two decades to realize one simple truth, the notion of the live pro is largely a myth. Of course I am not speaking of those who have big enough bankrolls to play high and nosebleed stakes, but rather what most of the readers of this post are familiar with in terms of live poker. When considering games such as $1-$1, $1-$2(3) and $2-$5 and especially a scene like the one we have here in Cambodia, there are several factors that make playing live poker for a living nearly impossible.
The first factor is one that I have already written about several times on this site and that is the issue of rake. While casual players do not generally concern themselves over this topic, for those that play for a living it is of paramount importance. Since we are mainly focused with the scene here in Cambodia, let us consider a typical $1-$3 NLH game. For most poker rooms, whether inside of a casino or otherwise, it is generally not worth the effort of running a game unless it takes in rake at least $100 per hour. In fact a "typical" game will take about $110/hour assuming the dealers are at least semi-competent. In the case of my aforementioned prop bet I had to play 6 hours daily, 36 hours per week, 152 hours per month and 1,872 hours in a 12 month year. Knowing what we do about the rake in a $1-$2 or $1-$3 game, let us consider just exactly how much that costs a regular player:
• $110 per hour of rake in a 9 handed game
• $110 / 9 players = $12.22 paid by each player hourly in rake
• $12.22 x 6 hours per day = $73.32 paid in rake per day
• $73.32 x 6 days = $439.92 paid in rake per week
• $439.92 x 52 weeks = $22,875.84 paid in rake per year
• $22,875.84 / 12 months = $1,906.32 paid in rake per month
From the above we can see that for anyone planning to play regularly, they face the daunting task of having pay over $20K per year and nearly $2K every month before they can start turning a profit. Throw on top of all this the cost of travel, eating, bad beat drops and tips and the task becomes that much more difficult. Personally my own win rate at $1-$2 and $1-$3 games has hovered around the $15/hour mark throughout my playing career. Assuming that I played 40 hours per week that means that I made about $2,600 per month on average. I can speak with great confidence that such an amount is not enough to live on in a city like Las Vegas. It certainly is possible but the lifestyle for such an amount is not one that I would wish on anyone. The weight of such an amount gets much bigger in a place like Cambodia obviously, but even in a third world country I would contend that it is not enough. I made about $16 per hour playing at Nagaworld my first couple of years in Cambodia as they easily have the best hold'em game in town, and that was great while I was single and was still making my way around getting to know the country. But as I have stayed here longer and had a family, developed friends and a larger lifestyle in general, how far such an amount took me shortened considerably.
Up to this point we have only discussed $1-$2 and $1-$3 so one can easily think then that the solution would be to play higher. I would contend that in a city like Las Vegas playing $2-$5 live is where one can start the discussion of playing for a living. The matter is a bit more difficult in a city like Los Angeles where the cost of living is much higher. Turning our attention back to Cambodia, poker players may seek to play higher but the issue of rake once again rears its ugly head. In Las Vegas players are rewarded for playing higher as the rake for $1-$2 and $2-$5 are exactly the same. In fact, games of $5-$10 and higher are even better as they charge only time rake and take a fixed amount from each player every 30 minutes. But of course the exact opposite is true here in Asia as players are punished with higher rake caps as the game escalates. The casino here in Phnom Penh is the only room to run a $2-$5 and $5-$10 game and while the caps do escalate, the rake burden does become better as one goes higher. But if one were to travel to a city like Sihanoukville and play similar games the situation becomes rather ridiculous as I have known rooms to charge as much as $75 for a $2-$5 game. There are some factors that can mitigate the cost as poker rooms are known to have more than a few promotions. Some rooms will offer free food, some form of rakeback and I have known others to even offer airfare and accommodations for those playing high enough. But it is usually the case that the more is offered the rake will be higher as well. Ironically enough, it is often the rooms that offer the least in terms promotions that are the most equitable.
The one "X" factor in this discussion is of course the game of pot limit omaha. The way this game is played it is often done so much bigger in relation to the blinds and the opportunity to make more money is certainly possible. In fact the live players that I have known throughout the years here in Cambodia that have had the most success were all omaha players. But of course this requires a much bigger bankroll and as I just finished a stint playing live $2-$5 PLO I needed someone to take a piece of my action in order to play in the game daily. But when playing a game like live PLO here in the Kingdom, players must then take into consideration another important factor, namely that of game selection. There is currently one live PLO game here in Phnom Penh, the aforementioned $2-$5 game at the Triple Seven Club. And while this game is fantastic, it is just one game and that raises a few issues. One is that it can be difficult to get a seat on a consistent basis and another is that one is playing basically the same 10 to 15 people that cycle in through the game on a daily basis. No matter how much a bad player punts, nearly all of them will get relatively better over time. The challenge of such a room is of course to keep the player base fresh and get as many new players as possible, a difficult feat for every room during these times. And while the situation becomes a bit better when playing no limit hold'em, we are still just talking about a totality of 4 tables, maybe a few more if we include the city of Sihanoukville 5 hours away. There are certainly times of the year when live games here in Phnom Penh are fantastic and a great number of pros have come through to take advantage. But they almost never stay, mostly leaving when the games stabilize or when the rainy season arrives. For us players who continually live here the challenge of playing live is quite different.
On a more personal note, the greatest challenge for myself playing live was the fact that I was hardly ever home. Whenever I would leave the house to go play live, my 2 year old daughter would often stand against the door in her attempt to not let me leave. I usually have my wife take her and I will give the both of them a kiss goodbye for a few hours. But the other week my youngest was so angry at my leaving that she refused my kiss goodbye. As a first time father it absolutely broke my heart and affected me profoundly. I often wondered how I would fare as a father seeing as how I do not have a great relationship with my own. It turns out that I have turned out to be just like him in every single way, save two things. I am absolutely certain that I could never lift my hand in anger at my wife or children so I am not really concerned with the first thing. But the other thing was that my father was just never around and while I have always admired his work ethic, his lack of presence in my formative years surely had a great and negative impact on my life. When I previously ran poker rooms before having children I always spoke of community, culture and how everyone in the poker room were part of a "family." And while I still love the people I have worked with dearly, that word "family" has taken on an entirely different meaning since I now have my own. As long as I can still win online and make money from my agency that is what I will continue to do. I am not a perfect father by any means, but the fact that I want to see my kids as much as I do hopefully means that I am on my way towards being a better one.
I have lived in Cambodia for 6 years now and have had the privilege of knowing many poker players and being associated with some great people and poker rooms. What I have noticed over the years is that most are passers by and those of us that end up staying for the long term are fewer in number. I write this in the hopes that it serves as a road map for those that want to play poker professionally, especially here in Cambodia. I already mentioned that most of the successful players I have known here are omaha players. One other important distinction that nearly all of them also have in common is that they play online. My advice to players would be to learn the game of omaha and even if they prefer not to, at least get a good agent that will give a high rakeback deal and offer many clubs to solve the issue of game selection. Having a number of the winning players in the country in my own agency, I can speak with great authority that it is no accident that nearly every player that has survived the entirety of the 6 years that I have lived in Cambodia play predominantly online. Most of the live rooms here in Phnom Penh are run by some good people and certainly deserve the support of the playing community. I have spoken previously in other blog posts how there is a synergy between live and online poker. And while I still believe this, I also believe that the latter should hold preeminence in both the player's mind and time.
The last time I have played a significant amount of hands in no limit hold'em was about 1 year ago when I was a house player for the WM Casino in Sihanoukville. Except for this stint, I have consistently been an omaha player when playing online for the past year. And while I do have over 100K hands in this game thus far, I have yet to experience the game live for any extended amount of time. Having been involved with the Triple Seven Club here in Phnom Penh for the past 1.5 months, this has given me an opportunity to test my PLO skills in a live setting as for the moment it is an all omaha room. While the overall results are very positive, the variance has certainly been greater than any of my hold'em charts would show. There were some adjustments that needed to be made but the results thus far have been positive and one that I hope to continue moving forward.
I should first mention that the minimum buy in for the $2-$5 PLO game at the Triple Seven is only $200. I buy in for this amount as nearly everyone else does the same when the game opens daily at 2:00 PM. One might initially think that the game might play tight given these circumstances, but it is quite the contrary. It actually reminds me of a $5-$10 NLH game they used to have in the state of Florida when the laws there dictated that the maximum buy in can be only $100. It was always a frenzied and frenetic game in the beginning of each day as everyone tried to build up a stack. After a couple of hours a few players would have a proper stack and then the "actual" game would begin. The PLO game here is quite similar in that everyone tries to double or triple up in the first couple of hours with their $200 stack. Then when the big whales show up a few hours in they can play back at them with a proper stack. It is an ideal spot to pick up $200-$300 easily as players pot and go all in very light.
But it certainly did not start that way as I had difficulty adjusting to this short stack strategy early on. In fact by looking at the provided spreadsheet one can see that I lost in 11 of my first 17 sessions. I was playing a very odd tight-passive style in which I was so conscious of my small stack that I was fearful of raising or going all in. Instead I would call everything down and every time I missed the flop I would bleed off $25 each time. Before I knew it I was staring down at a $100 stack and I would go all in light or have to rebuy to top back up to $200. I started to buy in deeper as an attempt to adjust but that did not seem to make much sense in that no one else was and to be quite honest I felt even less comfortable risking more with a bigger stack.
I quickly returned to a short stack strategy and eventually started to feel more comfortable. The game became much simpler at this point as I realized that in most situations where I was involved in a pot, the stack to pot size ratio usually dictated that all of my chips had to get in the pot. I started to be more selective in my preflop hand selection and began to execute bluffs and squeezes to give myself the best pot odds. I would go on to win in the next 11 out of 12 sessions, when I would have what is easily my best live single night's result.
There is a Chinese boss who plays in our game about twice per week and when I say "boss", I really do mean it as he is the boss of everything. He usually does not play long, maybe for a couple of hours on his most active nights, but punts at an unbelievable rate. It is a common occurrence in which he will play for only 1 hour and still lose $10K+. Of course I never get to play in this particular lineup with him as I have to give up my seat for a customer and no one else dare leave when the boss is on the table. But on this night a seat became available in the most unusual way. Another Chinese boss was playing on the table but he had a quick meeting to attend and asked that his chips be left on the table. But as we did not want any waiting players fighting or arguing over what appeared to be an open seat, I was asked to go into the game and occupy the seat until this boss returned. He never did return and I ended up playing with the big boss for over 2 hours. I had already turned my $200 buy in into $1,000 earlier but had sat out when the game got full. So when I re-entered the game with the big boss I did not want to risk my entire stack and thus I bought in only for $300. I was down to about $250 when I decided to limp in with a hand of KQT9 double suited. Normally I would raise with this hand but the general strategy when the boss is on the table is to let him do the initial raise then see what everyone else does or perhaps put in a re-raise in order to isolate. As fortune would have it, the latter scenario is exactly what happened in this hand as he potted to which most players were comfortable calling. But when I re-pot shoved, the boss then raised again to $1K and got everyone else out. He did me a huge favor as I was able to take the hand down heads up with a single pair of Kings. I would have two more big hands with the boss, one in which I flopped top set and then rivered the nuts with a straight and another in which my aces full of kings bested his kings full of aces. When it was all said and done I looked down upon a stack of $6,450, all of which was built from my initial buy in of $200.
I am not sure if variance kicked back in over the next few days or perhaps I played badly, but I went on to lose in the next 7 out of 10 days including one in which I dropped $2,300. I remember this particular session well as it was one of those nights in which I lost every flip and got out drawn on every flop. Buying in for only $200 it is easy to get into multiple all in situations and while buying in for the minimum grants many opportunities to double or triple up, other nights can be nightmarish as your AAxx or KKxx gets outdrawn by multiple players seeking to hit their second pair or chase whatever draw they may be seeking.
But things can turn around for the better just as quickly as I then went on to win the next 7 days in a row which enabled me to finish the week up $2,451.
Overall I am up $8,626.00 over the past 1.5 months but it can be difficult to ascertain just how well I am doing given my results. On the one hand being up this much in the amount of time I have played should be a reason to remain positive regarding the direction of the game. While I have not tracked the number of hours I have played during this time, given the nature of each day and how my sessions are mostly similar in terms of time I can surmise that I have played 250 hours in these past 1.5 months.
• $8,626 / 48 days = $172.13 per day
• ($172.13 per day * 7 days * 52 weeks) / 12 months = $5,221.13 per month
• $8,626 / 250 hours = $34.5 per hour
I suppose there are several ways of looking at this. One is to just look at the results straight forward and conclude that winning $172 per day and $34 per hour are all good results. But looking at the results closer one might point out that 75% of my winnings came on one session while the other ones provide a more ambiguous conclusion. While this may be true I have decided to approach my results from a different perspective. As I technically work for the room I am not allowed to keep my seat when the game fills up and players are waiting. This means that I play at the start of the game and also at the end when players start dropping out, but hardly ever in the middle when the games are best and multiple action players are sitting on huge stacks. I do not think it would be unreasonable to conclude that if I were given the opportunity to play during these parts of the game that my results would at least be comparable to my current numbers, if not better. In fact the one time I was given a chance to play in the best game when the boss showed up, I had my best day ever in a live poker game.
This is more live poker than I have played in a long time. I still play online but not as much as playing live has taken up a good portion of my available time. But as long as my online win rate and totals do not suffer too much I will continue to do both as I need to win and save as much money as possible. I have two young daughters and I have to put the oldest in school next year. It is rather ironic as I am quite active in the nightlife here in Phnom Penh, but my main goal in life at this point is to make sure that neither of my daughters ever see the inside of a hostess bar in their lifetime. I just turned 46 years old a couple of months ago and while that is not necessarily old, I have come to realize that there is a chance that I will be around for the adult years of my daughters' lives. That being said I have to do as much as I can now to ensure that they have a good future. For that I am grateful that online games are still good and that I found this $2-$5 omaha game.
Although I consider myself an American, I am actually of Korean descent and spent the first six years of my life in that country. I flew over with my family in 1981, the very first time I ever rode in an airplane. Little did I know at the time that would be the only time I flew for over three decades. Once in America our family was fairly poor and we could not afford the type of vacations that would require air travel. And once we did have some money, my studies became the preoccupation of my life and I did not find occasion to travel anywhere. So it can be considered fairly unusual that after so many years of not having traveled anywhere, that the very first stamp on my passport would be en route to Cambodia, a third world country nearly 9,000 miles from home. In fact I remember the very words my mother said to me when I informed her of my travel plans; "Why Cambodia?"
Some of you may already know that I lived and played poker in Las Vegas from 2006 to 2011. During that time I met a fellow player from the state of Kentucky who would become a very close friend. I went broke at the end of my tenure in Sin City and returned to Los Angeles but had told my friend that I would come visit him once my life was stable again and I had gathered together some funds. Once I was able to accomplish these objectives, I indeed booked a flight to land in Cincinnati airport, just a few minutes from where my friend lived in the neighboring state of Kentucky. This was in 2013 and would mark the first time I had boarded an airplane in 32 years. I remember being very calm and not nervous at all during the boarding stage. But once the plane hit the air and started to shake, I remember being very confused as I had no idea as to whether or not this was normal. Since everyone else on the flight seemed calm I figured there was not anything to worry about and flew the rest of the way without incident. It was snowing in Cincinnati the day that I landed and I patiently waited for my friend to pick me up from the airport. Although I could have done so inside, it had been a long time since I had experienced snow so I decided to wait outside in the cold weather in order to take in the moment. It was not long before my friend picked me up and we spent the night grabbing dinner, drinks and catching up. I was staying in his house and when I awoke the next morning I remember seeing something that I had not seen in a very long time. My friend lived in a rural area and his "backyard" was really a vast field and on this day it was entirely covered in snow.
It snowed intermittently over the next few days as I finished out my trip and then I headed back to the Cincinnati airport to fly back home to Los Angeles. I had a connecting flight this time around and had a brief stay in the city of Philadelphia. Although I did not have enough time to see the entire city, I was still amazed by the fact that this metropolitan city existed on the other side of the country and that this nor many other cities just like it were places that I had never experienced before. I realize that this must seem rather odd or perhaps even silly to those who have traveled extensively. But for someone who had barely ever driven five hours past his home during an entire lifetime, the experience was quite life changing. When I reached back home I had decided that it was time to travel and that I had lived too long without experiencing other people and cultures. I started to slowly map out places I wanted to visit and began researching online where it is that I could relocate to and start my life anew. I was playing poker both online and live at that time and so that was an important consideration. I first considered Central and South America as the cost of living and the ability to play online might make such a destination ideal. But I decided that to travel to such a place would be the easy choice as it was the closest to home and had many similarities to the culture in which I already lived. Having grown up in Los Angeles I was very familiar with Latin people and was already semi fluent in Spanish. I wanted a bigger challenge and thus started to set my sights on Southeast Asia.
As I previously stated poker was an important factor for me so I headed to the travel section in the 2+2 poker forums and began to post questions about moving to and living in the Philippines and Thailand. I first considered the former but then I heard that Manila was quite busy and polluted and that the cost of living was not as inexpensive as I initially thought. Although there would be a plethora of live poker options in the city, I still decided against it and began to focus on the more remote areas of the country. I always wanted to live right on the beach so I started to look very closely at a city called Boracay, also known as White Beach. Although the situation seemed ideal from a distance, a closer inspection made me conclude that this was more of a vacation spot and that it would be difficult to settle there permanently, especially as a poker player. I then shifted my focus to Thailand and began to examine the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya. I focused more on the latter due to my previously stated desire to live on the beach. This is where I have to interrupt my narrative for a moment and admit that there were other elements and reasons as to why I wanted to travel. I am a degenerate at heart and the nightlife in a city such as Pattaya was very appealing. Although I had many friends back home in the States, I was by no means anything close to a ladies man. The thought of go go bars, short time bars, walking street and being able to duplicate my entire life's sexual output in a week swayed me heavily toward Pattaya. There is of course no live poker option there, at least not a legal one. But even with that being the case, I really do believe I would have chosen Thailand had it not been for another thread I would soon discover on the 2+2 forums.
I am of course speaking of the thread belonging to the infamous broke brothers, also known as Yazzx and Izzit that can be found here:
Their story is infamous by now as it has been covered on other sites and the two brothers have even been interviewed regarding their tales of drunkenness and degeneracy. But to briefly summarize here the thread recounts the story of how they came to the city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia intending on playing online poker but instead getting sucked up into the party scene in the beach city. From crushing 25 NL on Poker Stars, they went completely broke and having to grind 28 tables of 2 and 5 NL in order to survive. Of course I did not want to end up with the same result but nonetheless their stories sucked me in and made Cambodia a very intriguing place to visit. I should say that both brothers are fine now with Izzit back in England and Yazzx still grinding both live and online games, but now in Phnom Penh and bigger than 2 NL. Although I would initially settle in Phnom Penh, I did follow in their footsteps a bit and moved to Sihanoukville a couple of years into my stay in Cambodia. I even met the brothers in a local casino and we have remained close friends ever since. I remember the day that I met Yazzx as it was on a $1-$1 NLH game in a casino called Lion City. When I found out that it was indeed him I introduced myself and told him that I was rather surprised as I thought he would look very different. When pressed for what I thought he would look like, I told him I thought he would have many less teeth judging by the many stories I had read about their drug induced nights of partying.
So after reading their epic thread and then coming across another thread about living in Cambodia in the travel section of the forum, I booked my ticket and hotel and decided to move 9,000 miles from home. When asked by my family why I was moving to such a place I told them it was to do some volunteering work and to seek out business opportunities, neither of which I did of course. The truth was I wanted to play poker all day, drink all night and party with young and attractive girls, the kind of which I could not pay enough to even give me a second look back home. And while I did live in Las Vegas, known as Sin City, and enjoyed my time there the truth is the lifestyle is much more tame then what many imagine. Yes we did play poker all night, eat at really nice restaurants and live a fairly easy lifestyle. But it's not as if I was playing nose bleeds in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio and pulling hot girls nightly from night clubs. In short I was a small fish in a really big pond back in the States and I wanted to go to a place where I could be a much bigger fish in a very small pond. So I gathered all the money that I had saved since going broke, which was about $32,000, packed my bags and set out to start a new life in the country known as the Kingdom of Wonder.
As excited as I was about the trip, that would die down quickly once I began the ordeal that were my flights to Cambodia. And ordeal is an appropriate word, especially for someone who had hardly ever flown before when having to endure a 24 hour experience to reach my destination; 12 hours from Los Angeles to Inchon South Korea, then a 6 hour layover in that city's airport and then another 6 hour flight to Phnom Penh. I made the mistake of choosing a middle seat which made the entire experience very unpleasant as something as simple as going to the restroom was quite difficult. I did not upload any music nor movies to my mobile devices so I was basically stuck watching every terrible in flight movie they had to offer. I was so tired by the time I reached Korea that I even thought about upgrading my last flight to business class for an additional $1,500 just so I can ride in a bit of extra comfort. But given that I only had six more hours to go I felt such would be frivolous and just pressed on. I was in for quite the rude awakening when I landed because the scene at the Phom Penh airport was something out of a post apocalyptic movie. First of all, there are just tons of local Cambodian people at the airport. Most of them are not traveling anywhere, nor are they picking anyone up. I still am not quite sure why, but Cambodians just hang out at the airport for some reason and this was especially the case in the parking lot. I had to move past a throng of people just to get to the taxi that my hotel was nice enough to send for me. There were tons of people drinking beers, sitting on motorcycles and even playing music loudly from boom boxes. I am sure that this next memory is just a figment of my imagination, but I could have sworn that I saw a trash can in the parking lot with a fire started inside and people huddled around it.
I quickly got into my taxi and just wanted to get to the hotel, although it took us nearly 20 minutes just to get out of the parking lot. And once outside the airport it would be another 45 minute drive until we reached the city center, something I did not know at the time. I remember the taxi reaching the first intersection when I noticed that there were not any traffic lights nor any stop signs. My taxi just headed straight into the intersection without slowing down, which was the exact same thing a car from the other street was doing as it heading straight towards us. I literally put my arms up over my face in anticipation of a crash, but such an event never came. Instead I drew down my arms about five seconds later to discover that we were fine and still driving. This is a lesson about life in Cambodia that I quickly learned, that people often just dive straight into things without much consideration of anything and things just somehow work and figure themselves out.
I finally reached the hotel around 1:00 AM and was shown to my room which was actually quite nice. I dropped my bags and then reached for the TV remote to try and find something familiar and comforting. When I cycled through about one hundred Khmer channels I gave up, sat down on the bed and muttered out loud, "What have I done?" Although I was tired I did not want to sleep, but I could not stand the thought of just sitting in that hotel room for the next few hours so I went downstairs, woke up the staff so they can find me a tuk tuk and headed to the Nagaworld Casino. A casino is a very familiar surrounding for me so I immediately felt better after I was sat in a $1-$2 no limit hold'em game. I felt even better after winning $200 in about an hour. I head down to the one restaurant I could find that was still open, a Chinese place called Chopsticks that is still running to this very day. I got a plate of fried rice, got what I thought was a taxi, got ripped off for $7 just for a short ride then fell asleep finally after getting back to my room.
The story gets much better from here and I shall write about it in the future. But this was the inauspicious beginning to my journey to Cambodia, a very daunting and even frightening experience initially. After all as the title of this blog entry states Cambodia was the very first stamp on my passport. I had come to a country that I knew nothing about, did not know a single soul nor did I speak a single word of the language. It is actually quite the feat that things worked out as well as they did in the subsequent months. But this is after all what I had signed up for, an adventure in a completely foreign place that was almost the furthest I could travel without starting to come back. Six years, one wife and two children later I am still here. Many element of my life have remained the same while others have drastically changed. I hope to write in the next few weeks and going forward about all that has occurred between then and now to take my life in the direction it has taken.
I stated in a previous blog that I believed that poker in the city of Las Vegas was dead as we knew it in light of the Corona pandemic. As gaming regulators had initially stated that poker tables could not accommodate more than 4 players per table, I felt the game could not survive under those conditions. But games in Sin City have already allowed for 5 or 6 players and it probably will not be too long until they are back to full ring. And as countries like America reopen and casinos come back, poker may have found a second life yet. The game has continued to grow online during this time and even live games have managed to survive in certain parts of the world, including here in Cambodia. If a certain amount of momentum can be built going forward, there may be a road map for poker to make a big comeback.
As casinos all around the world closed during the pandemic, poker rooms went dark and ceased operations. With no other options left players flocked to online sites, both traditional and also new platforms that have arisen in the last few years. Mobile apps originating from Asia have gained in popularity and with players having to quarantine the world over, traffic on these networks soared. And while the initial bump in traffic was largely comprised of regular players and grinders, the tables soon were filled also with recreational players who all of a sudden found themselves with more time. Games online grew softer, leading to a revival in the popularity of the game and has created a bit of a second boom. In the first boom it was a man by the name of Moneymaker and a $40 online satellite the created the circumstances of the first explosion of poker back in 2003. This led to the popularity and growth of sites such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt and the game of poker reached heights never seen before. And while the names and actors may be different this time around, the growth and survival of the game goes on in online platforms and is once again leading the charge into a second revival.
Of course not all live poker rooms were closed during this time. While the Nagaworld Casino here in Phnom Penh has been closed for a few months, games have continued in a couple of private poker clubs in town. But while games live on, they have not necessarily thrived during the pandemic. Businesses for the most part remain open and life is close to normal in Cambodia. But the country does remain closed to the rest of the world and this has meant there has not been an influx of new players into Cambodia. Thus the remaining games have had to compete and survive with remaining players that are basically stuck as they cannot fly into their home countries. Omaha games have remained soft but hold'em games have struggled to maintain consistent games above the smallest of stakes. The fact that the most popular game in town is a $1-$1 hold'em game is very telling, even though the rake for that game is capped at an astounding $10! Businesses outside of poker have remained open in Phnom Penh for the most part and life has remained close to normal. Such a situation remains attractive to potential tourists but as they cannot enter the country easily at the moment means games will continue to be in survival mode for the time being. But when airports and borders do open back up, Cambodia should once again be an attractive option for those looking to play live poker.
There does appear to be a plethora of indications outside of Cambodia that live poker will make a comeback. As casinos and poker rooms slowly start to reopen all around the world many rooms are reporting full tables and long waiting lists as those who have longed for the live game come back in droves. In Las Vegas rooms will have to remain open if for no other reason to pay back to players the bonus money they collected previous to the covid closure. And while games there are coming back slowly, they still have the potential of a rescheduled World Series of Poker to look forward to. If the poker rooms in Vegas are able to maintain any sort of momentum heading towards the event's potential return, it can build on this to further propel itself towards future growth. But not all is good news as recent reports have stated that not all Genting casinos in England will be reopening and of those that do not all will bring back poker. And even for those casinos that do decide to reopen their poker rooms, they will be acutely aware of the revenue they missed out on during the closure and also of how little poker rooms make in comparison to other games on the floor. This may lead casinos to use their floor space for more profitable games, or bring poker back but with a rake that might prove prohibitively high for players to overcome. I have already mentioned that a poker club here in Phnom Penh has decided to increase their rake in a game as small as $1-$1 to a $10 cap. It will be interesting to see what the rake in the casino game will be here once it reopens.
As I stated earlier there does exist a road map for live poker to make a comeback. But much will depend on whether or not those operating live rooms remain on course with said map. It is often said that poker is a game of skill as it remains for the most part beatable by those who can become adept at the game. But this does not necessarily have to be the case as this notion largely depends on how much players are charged to play. For example in Los Angeles, the rake for games below $5-$10 is so high that players are basically no better off than if they were playing blackjack or baccarat. While games continue to run in my region of the world, the trend has become one of alarming increases in the commission charged to players. In Vegas poker rooms have decided to discount the rake as they make their way back slowly. It will be interesting to see if live rooms in this and other parts of the world follow suit or decided to head in the opposite direction.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.