I wrote in a previous blog post that for the most part it was business as usual in Cambodia during this coronavirus pandemic. While a few businesses shut down, most shops and markets continued doing commerce and all casinos in the country were still operational. Concerning that last point I recently spoke to a Khmer friend who I had asked if he ever thought Nagaworld would shut operations temporarily during this crisis. He unequivocally stated that the casino would never shut and even laughed while giving me his reply. Today all that has changed and the unthinkable has happened as the Prime Minister has announced today that all casinos throughout the country are ordered to cease operations temporarily starting on April 1, 2020. This is nothing short of a stunning announcement as it signifies that the government considers this pandemic to be a real and serious health threat, something it had not necessarily done prior.
This will no doubt affect the poker community here in Phnom Penh as Nagaworld houses the biggest poker room in town, running 4-6 tables nightly before this crisis. There are other live venues in town currently and it remains to be seen whether or not they will stay open. It will be interesting to see the result of all this as if any one of the other rooms decide to continue operations, they either face criticism for remaining open during a health threat or will be a haven for those who wish to continue playing live poker. No doubt many will also find a haven in online poker as some actually need to keep playing for their income. As an agent of online poker clubs, I can say that a shift has already occurred in the number of players jumping online as they prepare to socially distance themselves in their homes in cities all around the world. Back here in Cambodia, this essentially puts the death nail on the poker scene in Sihanoukville, which was struggling already after the ban on online gambling that caused the Chinese to flee the city in droves. There is no word on how long this order will last as the wording simply states that the closures are "temporary."
More importantly this order will affect the country on a much larger scale beyond poker. Along with the previous order to close KTVs, cinemas, clubs and hostess bars thousands will lose what are some of the highest paying jobs for locals in this country. The country is even considering declaring a state of emergency as the PM also stated during his press conference this morning that the government will convene a special meeting to work on a state of emergency draft on Friday before forwarding it to the National Assembly. I am not sure what this would entail as he said in the same breath that none of the markets, restaurants or shops would be ordered to close during this time. I imagine then the biggest impact such a declaration may have is the imposing of a curfew on the city and country at large that would keep everyone at home during the late hours. If the intention is to keep businesses open, it is unlikely that a complete lock down where everyone would have to self quarantine would be in order.
I have to admit that prior to today I was even feeling optimistic about the state of things here in Cambodia during this crisis. Reported cases of infections were low and life in Phnom Penh was hardly affected. But everything has changed today and for the first time I am thinking about things such as stocking up on food, baby formula, diapers and whatever else my family may need during this period. The closure of casinos happens in two days from the time of this writing and two days after that will be the draft on the state of emergency. No doubt I will be heading to the market tomorrow and I would advise everyone else to do the same. Even for those who still do not believe that this threat is serious, such may become irrelevant when the world around you believes it is. I did not want to interject too much of my own thoughts or judgments on this matter, but rather wanted to provide a quick update of the state of things here in Cambodia. Here's to hoping for the world to run good and quickly heal from this pandemic and wishing everyone to stay safe.
Cambodia provides an interesting and unique perspective in regards to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. As the rest of the world shuts down and isolates itself both as nation states and as individuals, it has largely been business as usual for most here in the Kingdom of Wonder. Things have started to slowly turn in terms of precautions and even closures of certain businesses, but the reaction thus far seems to be vastly understated in relation to other parts of the world. I write this not to speculate on the reasons for such a muted reaction, but rather just to offer a glimpse into a society that has thus far reacted quite differently than the rest of the world.
The first thing that should be addressed in a blog of this nature is of course the state of poker in the country and how the virus has affected the game. My friends on Facebook have been circulating screenshots of the Bravo poker app that show that not a single game was running last night in both Las Vegas and Los Angeles; an amazing fact when considering the sheer number of rooms and the popularity of the game in both cities. But here in Phnom Penh both rooms continue to run, while not necessarily business as usual. People entering Nagaworld have been stopped for a temperature check for a few weeks now and anyone exhibiting a high temperature is not allowed entrance. An interesting aside to this is that during the beginning stages of this virus there was a clear bias towards those entering who appeared Chinese. During this time my friends and I went to 2Pangea, the buffet at Naga 2 several times. When entering I was asked for my Passport every single instance as I am a Korean-American and I assume that to the casino staff I looked Chinese enough. But no one even looked at my white foreign friends once as they entered without hardly a hindrance. It is interesting how that focus has now shifted to other countries as Cambodia has restricted entry into the country from several states, but not China strangely enough. The Riverking continues to run their games as well, although with more precaution than before. Like the casino, everyone is stopped for a temperature check before entering and there are hand sanitizers at every corner. Both rooms have slowed to be sure, but continue to run their games and have not given any indication that will change.
The story has been quite different for hostess bars on the riverside as things have turned in the last few days. Three nights ago I was with some friends on street 130 at a bar when the police came around ordering all the bars shut. The white/foreign owners complied almost immediately whereas the Khmer owners protested, pointing out that the decree to shut shown by the police only included KTVs, cinemas and nightclubs but not bars. Since then bars have shut down more and more, with many of the girls deciding to return to their home provinces to wait out the virus. Some bars have decided to continue running as they have shut their lights off outside, but still operate inside with hostesses in the waiting. It is unclear if these establishments face any possible consequences from the authorities if they decide to continue to run their businesses. Indeed all of the KTVs, cinemas and clubs have shut including the two clubs inside the Nagaworld Casino, namely Darling Darling and F-Club. The interesting fact about that is while the two entities inside have shut down, the larger entity housing them have not as other parts of the casino continue to run business as usual.
For businesses continuing to run I would not haste to judgement and say that the motivations for the decision are necessarily greed or money related. Entities such as casinos and poker rooms employ a vast number of people and loss of jobs for so many would not only be devastating to the overall economy but also for the individual lives involved. While it may be easy to judge, I personally know many people who work in this industry and I am certain that most, if not all, would prefer to continue on working as they may be the only ones in their families who are allowed to do so. Personally I still debate within my own mind what the right thing to do is as I do realize that in most other countries lives have come to a halt as both individuals and institutions have voluntarily suspended their activities. I was at a Western Union today and saw many people in line as they attempt to still send their families money, while desperately trying to keep what little they can for themselves. A friend back in the States texted me today and said that Americans would be receiving a stimulus package in the amount of $600 during this crisis. Perhaps the government here should consider a similar measure so that people would not have to make the difficult choice between trying to remain uninfected and having to work.
Recent events and closures here in Cambodia may have something to do with the fact that the figures on the number of infections have been updated. While different outlets are reporting varying numbers, it does seem that from the original number of 12 reported cases, the number at least doubled to 24 in just one day. Currently the number stands at 37 and with all this in mind I finally started to think that it would be a good idea to stock up on some food and supplies. So I took a long Pass App ride to several different venues to get some baby formula, diapers, water and food. The baby store was near empty, like they are on most days and the markets I went to were a bit busier than normal but every item was fully stocked and I did not even have to wait one minute in line at the checker. On my way home I stopped at Carl's Jr to grab a burger and the restaurant seemed normally busy, with all staff wearing masks while the patrons were a mixed bag with some donning the mask and others going without one. While things are slowly starting to turn in terms of precautions and closures, a general panic has still not yet set in and I do not feel the need at this point to fill my apartment from floor to ceiling with water and toilet paper.
As previously mentioned I will be staying home today and for the foreseeable future. I still continue to work and meet friends and players to process deposits and withdraws, but have limited other activities. But if things turn for the worse I may send my family back to the province where they have had limited contact with foreigners, while I remain in Phnom Penh in order to continue working. Here is to hoping such a decision does not have to be made.
I recently played in a live game of no limit hold'em where the number of players had reduced from 6 to 5. I called the floor manager over and asked for a reduction in rake and while he did grant one it was insignificant at best for a game so short handed. I then told my friend who was also seated at the table that I would do everyone a favor by leaving and making the game 4 handed, to essentially force the floor's hand to give a further reduction. But as I cashed out and started to leave the room my friend informed me that the floor had not granted another reduction. I told him that the game would not last another 30 minutes and wished him good luck as I walked out. All too predictably the game broke about 20 minutes later and the whole episode left me very frustrated. I should point out here that I left the game at approximately 4:30 AM and so the floor manager was essentially punishing the very players that were keeping his single $1-$3 NLH game alive at this late hour. I did not understand the logic of this decision and wondered if there could be a better way for poker rooms to grant reductions in situations such as this.
The truth of the matter is that for the most part, rake reductions are near meaningless and do not alleviate the burden for players in a short handed game. Let us consider a few factors that will help us to come to this conclusion. A competent dealer will get out approximately 20 hands per every 30 minute down or shift. This number only increases when the game is short handed, the very situation that requires a rake reduction. But it is the bottom levels of the rake that are still most likely to get hit regardless of whether or not the game is short handed. In considering a 10% rake system the first dollar is take when the pot reaches $10. Being the first level that is the most likely one to be hit on every hand and that does not change no matter the number of players. In fact a short handed game will dictate that higher levels of the rake are less likely to get hit. So all the poker room is doing when granting a rake reduction is eliminating a level, or levels, that are the least likely to reach in the first place. And although fewer players usually means smaller pots and less rake, the first levels are still being reached frequently enough and since the dealer is now getting out more hands the house is still taking the same amount of rake per hour, if not more. Or to give an example:
• Dealers A and B get out 40 hands total during a one hour span in a full ring game
• They average $3 dropped in rake per hand
• 40 hands x $3 = $120 rake/hour
• Dealers A and B get out 60 hands total during a one hour span in a five handed game
• A rake reduction is in effect
• The dealers average $2 dropped in rake per hand
• 60 hands x $2 = $120 rake/hour
And while the total dollar amount taken in an hour is the same, a closer examination of this scenario reveals that each player is now paying more rake:
• $120 rake/hour taken in a 9-handed full ring game
• $120 / 9 players = $13.33 rake paid per player per hour
• $120 rake/hour taken in a short 5-handed game
• $120 / 5 players = $24 rake paid per player per hour
Having run many hold'em games throughout my life I can say with confidence that $120 dropped in rake per hour for a full or near full $1-$2(3) game is completely appropriate. It certainly is not ideal but at that rate the game is beatable. But when we nearly double the amount that each player is paying from $13.33 to $24, that is an insurmountable amount for a player to have to bear.
As poker is at its core a game that can be beaten, this is a situation that requires correction unless we just assume that short handed games are never to be played live. My proposal would be that rake reductions occur in the reverse order of the traditional method. In other words, instead of cutting the rake at the top simply cut it at the bottom. In most rake systems it is the first couple of levels of rake being taken that are the most punishing as the burden is lessened when pots get bigger and the cap is reached. Let us consider the rake system that is used at the local casino here in Phnom Penh for a $1-$3 game as an example:
• $1 at $10
• $2 at $20
• $3 at $30
• $4 at $40
• $5 at $50
• $10 at $200
So if a rake reduction is granted in this example it would mean that the house would not take $10 when the pot reached $200. Instead they would simply cap it at $5 for pots $50 and larger. But I would contend that $200 pots in a five handed game occur infrequently enough that the gesture is near meaningless. My proposal would therefore be that the reduction take place at the $1 at $10 level so that the house does not take a commission until the pot reaches $20. It would mean less rake per hour for the house, but would maintain the hourly burden for each individual player so that the game remains beatable for the very players that are keeping the game alive. And in the instances where the pot does get large, the house can still maintain the top level to compensate for the reduction at the bottom level(s). And besides, at 4:30 AM it should not be the goal of the poker room to take the same amount of rake as they would in a normally full game. In these instances it should be the goal to just keep the game alive for the next wave of players that may potentially arrive. And even if this does not occur, the good will fostered will be more than worth the reduction in hourly rake in the long run.
The trend in Southeast Asia in regards to rake has been an upward one at an alarming rate to players. Rates and percentages keep rising to meet the demands of casinos that would rather much run other games. On top of this players have to bear the burden other forms of revenue extracted from the game such as bonus drops for various promotions that may or may not be +EV for the players. While all of this is not likely to stop or reverse itself anytime soon, the one concession that the house should make for players is in this area of the rake reduction. Unless they want to start bringing out free food, buffets or at least doughnuts for those keeping the game alive during late hours it should not be a huge ask for poker rooms to make this minor adjustment in how rake reductions are given. By the way, almost every poker room I played in Las Vegas would always bring out free doughnuts for players if the game last until 6:00 AM. I would not mind seeing that either by the way:)
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.