To be completely honest, I did not think much of a new poker room opening up in Sihanoukville. I thought to myself, just one more entry in a long line of failed attempts to have a sustainable poker room in this city. But having arrived and seen for myself, the group that has set up the Top-Pot Poker Club inside the WM Casino has me at least thinking about whether or not it can be done. There are still many challenges ahead in a town that has undergone so much change in just a couple of years. But if intent and effort counts for anything then the room will have more than a chance to succeed.
The first couple of weeks of any new poker room is going to be a honeymoon period. The room held an inaugural $3K freeroll and are having a daily guarantee freeroll of $400 for the first couple of weeks. Literally everything is free in the room right now. They have a buffet in the room like most other casinos, but for the moment they are letting all players order off of the regular menu for free and also order top shelf alcohol. And this does not even speak to the room itself as only one word can really describe it, luxury. They spared no expense in opening this room as I have already mentioned they have 11 tables plus three additional rooms for VIP's that play $10-$20 and higher. They have televisions over nearly every table, a full wait staff and more than enough dealers. If I were to design a room without any concern for cost, it would look very much like the Top-Pot Poker Club.
That having been said, not everything is ideal. Their rake employs the same low percentage, high cap model that so many other rooms use throughout Asia. But I have been thinking as of late that perhaps my way of doing things is a bit outdated, or at least difficult to apply here in Cambodia. The fact is that the poker culture has changed a great deal in the last decade. Players just do not act as quickly as they once did, as evidenced by the fact that there has been increased discussion of using a shot clock of sorts in at least tournament play. While good dealers can command a table and keep a game moving, at the end of the day there is only so much they can do. And with features of the game here in Asia such as insurance and running boards multiple times, trying to keep dealers to a high quota of hands per hour may be unrealistic. The income of a poker room is basically determined by how many hands dealers can get out. But if that slows and nothing can be done to reverse that, then rooms have to make up that difference by charging a higher rake. The Top-Pot Club does seem to be offering an aggressive rakeback plan where players can earn cash by swiping in their player's card whenever they play. And with so many things being free in the room I can see why they may need to charge more. I used to think that to charge a lot and to give away a lot was just a more complicated way of charging less. But players do not seem to mind a higher rake if they feel like they are getting a big return in terms of comps and amenities. I am still not sure though if this model is sustainable over time. If they figure this out, they would have accomplished something that no other room in this town has yet to do.
For all of this to work of course the room has to do one basic thing and that is to offer good games. On this end they seem to have succeeded, at least in the opening few days. The $1-$1 game has run with deep stacks most of the time and has played bigger. The $1-$2 game has been decent, but not great as one would expect when the room runs a $1-$1 game concurrently. The games are really too close for both games to be very healthy. Either the $1-$2 game has to be ditched entirely and the next game be $2-$5, or they have to run some modified version such as $1-$3. Speaking of the $2-$5 game, that has been absolutely crazy thus far with action I have seldom seen in games of these blinds. They have some sort of association with the shareholders of the casino at large and when these guys show up, the action is quite good. I was initially worried about how many games they would have, but last night they had all three ($1-$1, $1-$2 and $2-$5) and so this may not be an issue.
But the bigger challenge lies in the city of Sihanoukville itself. The infrastructure has worsened quite a bit as more construction projects are started. More roads are blocked or in terrible condition, there is traffic everywhere and most do not drive in what I call a safe manner. And it is very difficult to find accommodations as prices have risen dramatically in the last couple of years. In thinking about moving back here, I have had great difficulty in securing accommodations for any length of time. One bedroom apartments are going for around $700 and monthly guesthouses at an affordable rate or far and few in between. I have managed to find some decently priced rooms, but they are outside of town and given the road conditions the travel would prove to be too difficult. There is no doubt about it that if all things were equal I would come back to Sihanoukville to play in these games and take advantage of the aggressive benefits the room has for players. But right now I am finding challenges that the poker room nor I have any control over to be too difficult.
So in my final conclusion, the Top-Pot Club is doing nearly everything right and they certainly have the drive and ambition to make this work. If one is coming to Sihanoukville for a holiday, this poker room is definitely worth a visit as a player. But for grinders looking for a permanent home or at least a lengthy stay, some assistance is required to overcome the challenges that this city presents to those that want to live here.
We arrived in Sihanoukville yesterday to attend the $3,000 Freeroll today at the Top-Pot Poker Club in the WM Casino. As I mentioned in my previous post, the poker room provided for us a free taxi and what has now turned into five free nights at a resort in Otres 1 Beach called the Sea Breeze. I have expressed my reservations about another poker room opening in Sihanoukville, but I also had some excitement over the potential such a room holds. I had a chance to meet with the poker room manager yesterday and we had a lengthy discussion regarding his vision for this new endeavor. What I came away with was what I can best call nervous excitement.
First off I should mention that all of the reports are true about the room. What they have managed to set up is very impressive. They have taken the entire second floor of the casino and are opening with eleven tables, three VIP rooms for games $10-$20 and above and a restaurant area where players can enjoy free food. They are issuing out VIP cards for players that will record their rakeback determined by how many hours they play. And today's freeroll for a guaranteed prize pool of $3,000 is just the first even in a whole series of events throughout the first two weeks, including a daily freeroll that guarantees $400 every day. They have various promotions planned and are providing for players just about every convenience imaginable, including rides back and forth to the poker room.
No matter how all of this turns out, this is a very ambitious undertaking. And I realized something else this morning; as soon as they flip on the switch today and officially open, Top-Pot will be the largest poker room in all of Cambodia. With eleven tables, not even Nagaworld approaches the number of tables and the amount of real estate that Top-Pot has managed to secure. From all this it seems clear to me what they are attempting. They are trying to move the epicenter of poker from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. While much of the action has moved here already since the migration of the Chinese, they are looking to complete this transition and set up Sihanoukville as THE poker destination in Cambodia. With partners within the WM Casino itself that will play in the games and groups coming in from Macau and other parts of China every month, the poker room is looking forward to spreading some great action games.
The biggest issue in Sihanoukville remains that of accommodations. Ever since the influx of the Chinese there have not been many available rentals and what remains has risen in price greatly. To this the poker room manager has informed me that they are working on the building of a facility that will house poker players. As I said, this undertaking is both aggressive and ambitious. I may have to start looking for accommodations myself as the new poker room shows great potential. A lot more will be known over the next few days, but if things go according to plan I may have to think about moving back here. That is something I thought I would never say and there would be some challenges to living in Sihanoukville again. But the group running the Top-Pot Poker Club is both highly motivated and organized. I have yet to see a poker room in Cambodia built out on this level and scale. For the moment I will say that it is something I would want to be a part of, even if just as a player.
My poker playing friends and I have noticed a bit of activity on Facebook lately and it seemed like something was brewing up in Sihanoukville. Our senses proved correct as the WM Casino is reopening their poker room under the name of Top-Pot Poker Club. Judging by their advertisements it looks to be an aggressive attempt on their part to get this off the ground as they have planned a $3,000 free entry tournament on the 22nd of June and they have a slew of events, including a daily freeroll for the first two weeks. This plan is really ambitious as we have heard reports that they are planning to open with eleven tables. I have been invited by the room manager to come up and cover the event on my social media accounts. He's given me a free hotel room at a lovely place called the Sea Breeze in Otres 1 Beach, along with a free taxi ride. I managed to get pops and another friend included in the deal and so we will all be going this Friday. Obviously I have yet to see the room and I do not know all of the details of the opening. I find myself in an interesting position now having received benefit from the room. Their generosity makes me hesitant in being too critical but then again I don't want to be a mouthpiece for them either. There are some questions to be asked with the opening of this room and I hope to be at least one of the people asking them and finding answers in an objective fashion.
For those that do not know, I actually ran a poker room in Sihanoukville. It was located in the Bao Mai Casino and it barely lasted six months. It was incredibly difficult to run a room there and we certainly were not alone in our lack of success. At the time of our opening there were about fourteen other poker rooms in town. By the time we closed, there were only three. Several have come and go since, but something that a dealer of mine here in Kampot said is telling. She remarked the other week that she had been employed by twelve poker rooms in her time in Sihanoukville, and not a single one of them is still operational. This makes me wonder where this room is going to find the players for an eleven table room. Many of the expats have moved out of town already and it will be difficult to attract players in the long term from cities like Phnom Penh as the rental prices in Sihanoukville are so high ever since the Chinese migration. There has been a game at the WM prior to all this and it's what one would call the bosses' game. It's a big game and I'm sure it will still go after the official opening of the room. And I suppose it is their plan to build around this game, but they seem to be using the same high rake, high benefit model that others have used prior such as free food and rakeback. As it has yet to work for any other room in the long run, I wonder about the prospects of it working here.
What they do have going for them is a manager who appears to be working very hard to ensure the success of the room. I'm sure that I am not the only one that he has reached out to in his attempts to market the room. From my efforts alone I know that at least five players will be attending the inaugural tournament, a number I am sure will be higher by the date of the event. From looking at their tournament schedule for the first two weeks, they have several events slated with guaranteed prize pools. While it can prove difficult to convert tournament players and freeroll chasers into playing cash, it should garner a great deal of exposure for the room. And whether or not the room can be sustained after the initial promotional period is one that should be left to be answered once the room opens. What can be said for now is that they are giving away a ton in the form of daily freerolls and other promos during this initial stage. It would probably behoove players to come and at least take advantage of all the giveaways and see for themselves if they can contribute towards the long term sustainability of a cash game.
My best friend, who is also a poker player, often accuses me of being a form over function guy. Basically what he means by this is that often I will stubbornly stick to an ideal even when practicality dictates that I should do otherwise. This can be seen in the decisions I have made over the years, managing the various poker rooms that I have been involved with. While some customary practices from the West may be unfamiliar in a place like Cambodia, I have nonetheless hung onto certain ideals in my philosophy towards running a poker room.
• Complete transparency
• High percentage, low cap rake
• Dealers govern the table
• Promotions via a bonus drop
• Culture vs quality of game
My first ideal is a rather tough one in that many of the rooms that I have been involved with through the years have been those that are underground. When you are running what is basically an illegal entity, it can be difficult to practice complete transparency with your players. Nonetheless, I have always been of the mind that any such room should be run as legitimately as possible. And one can argue that this should be even more the case for an underground room. What this ideal can be summed up as is that there should not be a single dollar that comes off of a poker table or leaves the room that players do not know about. Rakes should be clearly posted both physically in the room and online for players to access at any point; dealers when taking the rake should "stage" it before they drop it in the box so that players can visually see what is being taken; and when running tournaments and any special event, all fees should be precisely stated and made known to the players. In a private game, it is very easy for players to question the practices of such a room. One's reputation has to be so above board as to overcome such questions and have such voices be a minority rather than the prevalent thinking.
The second ideal is one that I often have trouble convincing players of. I played and lived in Las Vegas for five years and in Sin City rake is fairly simple. All rooms employ, with minimal variation, a 10% rake with a cap of $5. This means that whether they play $1-$2 or $5-$10, the players all pay the same amount. In fact, above $5-$10 the commission is even better as players only pay time rake. In other words, players are rewarded as they play higher as contribution to the rake shrinks in proportion to the stakes played. Here in Cambodia the thinking is quite opposite. In this country most poker rooms utilize a 5% rake but cap the maximum at a higher point. So for example a $1-$2 game may have a rake of only 5%, but will cap the rake as high as $35. And as the games go higher, so do the caps. I have seen $5-$10 games in certain cities where the cap exceeds $100. This is the case for several reasons. Unlike Vegas, the poker rooms in Cambodia are not run by the casino. In fact they are run by third parties that rent the space from the casino and usually have to pay a high rent. This is due to the fact that the country charges a $2,000 per month tax for any gaming table that is operational. So in order for any group that is running a poker room to overcome the high rent they are often paying, they have to generate more revenue by increasing the rake taken. Regular players will often complain about this practice and to compensate the room will offer promotions in the form of rakeback, free food or perhaps game related promos such as high hands or bad beat jackpots. But that reduces the amount of profit the room will make and they just end up where they began. In other words, the model is completely unsustainable. One of my dealers who worked for me in the last room I managed commented once that she has been employed by twelve different poker rooms in the city of Sihanoukville over the years, none of which survive today. In contrast, there is no expectation in a city like Vegas that poker rooms will make a lot of money. Thus the burden of having to carry a high rent is not passed onto the players and they are even able to reward those that play higher stakes. Besides the 10% rake with a lower cap is much more beneficial for players as it heavily taxes the small pots and encourages games to play bigger. With over $100 coming out of big pots in some games here in Cambodia, one almost has to wish that the games play smaller in order to avoid the heavy burden that is the commission system here.
As to my third ideal, I should first state that 99% of the dealers here in Cambodia are women and that there exists a patriarchal structure in the country. That having been said, dealers are not given much power on the table. Whenever a dispute arises, a manager has to come over to the table and basically listens to every single player on the table that has an opinion. I even heard one manager say to the table, "What do you guys think happened?" Rarely is the dealer ever consulted on the matter and her word is certainly never final. Where I come from things are certainly different and I have always adopted my approach from how I was taught. When there is a dispute on the table, I politely ask the players to stop talking and then I ask the dealer what happened and what their ruling is. That last part is key because that is an important function of a poker dealer, to make rulings. The manager's should not be the one to come over to make the first ruling as that should have been done by the dealer. Only when the players cannot accept it and absolutely need a manager should I come over. And when I do ask the dealer what the ruling is, their word is not only final but also gospel. And that's 99% of my job right there; to make the initial rules by which the room is governed by and to back up the dealer 100% when they do make said rulings. The most difficult part of all this is getting the dealers used to such a practice. They are not used to being given this much power and often shy away from it when given the opportunity. I have been lucky to work with some of the best dealers in the country and over time they all came to accept this as a responsibility of their job. And over time players begin to understand it as well and such allows for a more efficient running of a poker room.
The next one can also be a tough one for certain players to accept and it's the notion that promotions should be paid for by an extra drop taken from the pot. From a room's perspective I do not believe that promotions should be taken out of the general rake, but rather should be separated as an additional drop. While players will argue that this is more money being taken from them and that they are being taxed twice, in reality both methods are the same. If promotions are taken out of the general rake, rooms will often compensate for this by taking a higher commission in the first place. It is the same idea as discounted items and coupons in supermarkets where goods are priced higher to begin with to compensate for the lower price. By taking it as a separate drop rooms can segregate the amounts that belong to the room as commission and the amounts that are to be dispersed back to the players in the form of promotions. In either case, promotions for players are difficult to fund in an underground game. Such a room can publicly tell the players what is being taken and what is being given back out, but as an illegal entity such guarantees are often hollow. In reality they can decide to keep the bulk of it despite what they tell players and basically treat the funds as additional revenue. This is once again an example of how important the reputation is of those that are in charge of such a room. By separating the drops, players can at least see with their own eyes what is being taken and work out roughly a reasonable rate at which funds are being taken to determine whether or not they are giving back what they claim. In Nevada, the state in which Las Vegas is located, gaming commission law states that 100% of the funds taken for a bonus drop must be given back to the players by year's end. This means that if in the course of a year a room takes $50,000 in bonus money, all of it has to come back to the players in the form of promotions such as high hands, a freeroll, bad beat jackpot, etc. This is why whenever a room closes permanently in Vegas, the room has a series of crazy promotions giving away a lot of money in the days leading up to their closure. They absolutely cannot close with bonus money on their books or will be heavily fined by the gaming commission. This is the approach that I take when running a room. I have run two freerolls in two different rooms here in Cambodia, both guaranteeing $10,000 for the prize pool and both times we came up short in the bonus drop we were taking. In the first instance we collected about $8,700 over the qualifying period and the room covered the rest. In the second case, the room I was managing experienced a slowing down of business during the qualifying period and we came up massively short. But even in this case the owner covered it and we still guaranteed the $10,000. In stark contrast, I remember a freeroll being run by one of the rooms in Phnom Penh where they also guaranteed $10K. But in reality this was not a true freeroll as the first entry was only free and they were hoping to fund the guaranteed prize pool with rebuys and addons. They held the same tournament a few days prior and when they fell short of the guarantee, they decided to still run the next event but canceled the prize pool and ran it as a regular tournament. There are key decisions to be made when running a poker room, and not everyone takes the same path I suppose.
All of these ideals can be summed up and is encompassed by my last belief, which is that of a poker room's culture. It can often be difficult to define that word, but everything I have described in this entry is what really makes up a room's culture in the aggregate. A room's reputation and of all those that participate in it's operation; rules and procedures that are not only clearly stated but also dispensed fairly and in the spirit of the game, and a climate of support where staff members are respected and supported by the management and ownership. All of these things contribute to the culture of the room and make it a place where players will want to be. It is easy to advertise yourself as the best game or the lowest rake in town. But even if that were the case, situations often change in a poker climate and what you claimed to be true yesterday may not be so true today. And if one tries to sell a game or room as having the most action or fish, that can often be a slippery slope and a difficult standard to maintain. And besides, the type of players that a room tends to attract with such claims may not be the best thing for the long run health of a poker room anyway. In the end, running a poker room is much like being a chef. Create a menu that you would want to pay to eat yourself and others will most likely want to as well. When working in a poker room, I am usually there more than anyone else. I have always concluded that if I try to create an environment that I enjoy being during the majority of my days, others may not mind too much either spending their time with me.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.