A little under three years ago I returned to Phnom Penh after an unsuccessful stint running a poker room in a Cambodian beach town called Sihanoukville. There was a mass migration of Chinese who had moved into the city that created an uptick in the poker industry but the situation was very new, unstable and volatile. Our room lasted only six months, which was actually longer than most of the games that had also started in town around this time. In either case I returned to the capital city without much prospects towards working in another live room and was at a bit of a crossroads in my life. Managing rooms had basically replaced having to play for a living but now I was faced with having to play again. But the truth of the matter during this time was that I no longer enjoyed the same level of success in poker as I had previously. While it was a painful truth, I had to admit to myself that I could no longer beat no limit hold’em which had been my main game up to this point. So I had a decision to make to either leave the game completely and do something different or to make changes in my game to get better in my current game or to play a different one altogether. Regarding the first option I had played poker for nearly 15 years at this point and had a near two decade black hole in my resume. The prospects for starting a new career were not great. I also concluded that I was just too far behind in hold’em to catch up to any sort of meaningful level. So I essentially decided to start all over, but within the game of poker, and play an entirely new game in pot limit omaha. I realized that such an endeavor would take a great amount of time and that I would not be making any money for a while, but I truly do love this game and it was something that I was not ready to leave yet.
I lived and played poker in Las Vegas from 2006 to 2011, a tenure that ended with me going broke. When I returned to Los Angeles my game was stagnant, a state that would continue for the next few years. I never moved neither forward nor backward in my game as I admit now that I had not mentally recovered from going broke. The game was changing rapidly as heads up displays (HUDs) and other software were near ubiquitous by this point and while I did put in significant volume, I did very little to keep up to date on the latest trends of the game. This continued into my time in Cambodia when I arrived in 2014 as I did play often but spent little time studying. By this time there were more resources available than ever before with books, online articles and the beginnings of the online academies and training sites we see so much of today. Fortunately for myself my life would soon change as I would come to jump to the management side of things in poker and playing became less important. When I did play it was to help start games or keep games alive and my results took a backseat to the health of the poker room that I was managing. But I was still able to notice a trend in the game that was unmistakable, mainly that it became increasingly difficult to have fun while playing. As we moved further away from the poker boom and the game was maturing, it was undeniable that a fewer number of people were winning most of the money and that more players were either losing or at best breaking even. Never was this more apparent than when I was working to keep a room alive in Sihanoukville as most of the managers and I had to play in the game for many hours every day in order to keep it going. There were days and nights in which the three of us would have to play over ten hours each. It might have been bearable but the experience and environment of the game was growing more miserable by the day. And with trends in the live game to constantly raise the rake burden, most of the players were taking quite a beating every day. For all of the action that the Chinese were providing, the circumstances of the games would create very few winners and those that would emerge and remain successfully in the game when the entire experience was over. When I returned to Phnom Penh, the last thing that I wanted to do was play hold’em and I did not want to see two cards thrown at me by a dealer for quite some time.
It was more apparent than ever before that I was no longer beating this game, but more importantly I did not wish to try and learn to get better. If I was going to continue and progress in the game of poker it was to be something that would keep my interest and retain what was originally a deep love for the game. When the poker room closed in Sihanoukville I took my wife for a quick holiday in the quiet Cambodian city of Kampot. There I had a chance to clear my mind and thus made the decision to change my game to pot limit omaha. This was a game that I had some experience with, but nothing that I would consider extensive. I did briefly think of switching to even more exotic mix games but I concluded that such were not popular enough for me to put in the amount of volume that I would need to begin anew. I did not have much of a bankroll at this time so I would have to start at the micro level. I remember posting about this in the 2+2 online poker forum and someone replying that there was no way that I would make a living playing so small. This I already knew and such was not my intent as it was rather to learn the game to the point that I could play higher and earn significant money. At this time I had a small online poker agency that was somewhat keeping me afloat, but my financial situation was not great. I reached out to a few friends to borrow money to help me on my journey and I was grateful that they were able to oblige. I realize that as poker players we often talk about never lending other players money, but my friends were all confident that I would do everything in my power to pay them back. I still had some money saved and with what my friends were able to lend me along with the small amount I was making with the online agency I was able to provide for my family and to try and learn this new game. Every day I would wake up and then head over to my friend’s apartment who was also playing omaha and trying to progress in the game. We played in the same online club but played different stakes so we would spend hours in his apartment each day, both grinding away on our respective laptops.
While I had hoped in the back of my mind that I would win right away, it became apparent very quickly that would not be the case. I struggled greatly during this time but I would soon get two welcomed distractions shortly that would help me financially in the short term. The first distraction came in the form of a small $0.25-$0.50 no limit hold’em game that a couple of my friends were running in the aforementioned quiet city of Kampot. I was asked to come down to the city to help them run and play in the game, an opportunity that I am very grateful for to this day. It was a game that I could afford and beat and the additional salary that I received for my assistance was exactly what the doctor ordered to help me push through a difficult period in my life. So I was playing no limit hold’em again, albeit in a very recreational game with a soft field. I was able to beat the game for about $600 per month and with an additional $800 that I was getting paid monthly, it was enough to maintain a life in a very inexpensive city and to have some left over for my family. I even moved the entire family down there after a couple of months and we ended up staying for what was a very enjoyable few months.
I say only a few months because like a lot of live games in this country this one did not have a long shelf life. But then a second distraction would come in the form of a new poker room opening up in the city of Sihanoukville. Some people were set to open a lavish room with eleven tables and they needed someone to market the room to the poker players in the country. I had done extensive marketing through social media of the rooms I had worked in and they were impressed with my efforts. They asked if I could move back to the city and not only help with their marketing but also to serve as a house player with an hourly salary. My confidence was higher in no limit hold’em after my stint in Kampot and while this was a higher game at $2-$5, it would be another soft field with mostly recreational Chinese players. I absolutely crushed in this game and was the second most successful among the stable of house players.
I was able to set some more aside and even send some back each week to the family who had stayed behind in Kampot. But once again the situation in Sihanoukville did not last long, the parameters of the deal changed and I decided to leave and head back to Phnom Penh with the family as the game in Kampot was over as well. With what had happened to both rooms I was more convinced than ever before that live poker would not be the appropriate route and I was more convinced to resume my PLO journey online.
One thing did change though once I returned to Phnom Penh, namely that I was not as sure about PLO4. There were other no limit hold’em players that were converting over, the games were a bit more reg filled than I originally thought and more of the action seemed to be on PLO5 games. So I made the decision to switch again to a similar game, but with one more card that would make a world of difference. I was surprised to see good results immediately in PLO5 as something with the extra card seemed to agree with me. I was able to maintain a certain level of success and I even received a staking offer from someone who was monitoring my progress as I was posting about it on social media quite often. I initially did well on the stake and was able to move up in blinds a couple of times. But then the app I was playing on made the decision to open up PLO6 tables and much of the action on PLO5 dried up as many of the whales and fish preferred a game with even more cards. I was forced to switch games once again, this time during the stake and my results this time around were quite erratic. There were weeks I did well and others during which I did quite poorly. It all culminated on one weekend when I lost a considerable number of buy-ins. My benefactor offered to continue the stake as he was confident I would bounce back. But I thought to myself that it might take some time to get comfortable in the game and decided that it was more appropriate to return to playing on my own money. Certainly continuing the stake would have provided me with a safety net, but I felt that it was a bit disingenuous towards my staker. Two things would happen at this point that would really help me survive and push through. The first was that my best friend Thomas agreed to a $6K loan to help me grow the online agency and also to provide monetary support while I tried to progress in PLO6. The second event was that a new poker app was introduced in the form of PokerBros, one that would prove to be very popular with players and help grow my agency immensely. Here is where I would love to say that I crushed PLO6 from the beginning and it was solely due to my play that I was able to rise up from the ashes. But seldom do any player’s story go this way and in truth most of us need some help along the way. For myself it came in the form of the growth of my online agency and I cannot emphasize enough at this point how important a source of actual income was to this process. With growth in the agency and a level of security that I had not enjoyed in a while, I was able to learn the game at a reasonable pace and play with more confidence without a worry of risk of ruin with every big pot. The new financial stability in my life did wonders for my game and it showed in my results. The better my results the more I would play and my bankroll was the beneficiary. As I was playing in a club I was agenting for I was able to give myself a generous rakeback and the fact that I was playing in a low rake club to begin with did not hurt either.
That was about one year ago from the time of this writing and I currently play $100 and $200 PLO6 and sometimes I take shots at $400. I have paid everyone back, save one person, who I just made arrangements with today on a payment schedule to begin next month. I was even able to pay back the $6K loan my best friend gave me, something that he admits that he never expected to see again. I am not sure that I would recommend to others the route that I chose, but I can say through all this that perseverance does pay off with enough dedication. I have worked harder in these past two years than I ever have and it has easily been the most difficult period of my life. I often forget that all of this happened while my family was growing in number and my first child was being introduced into this world. If nothing else perhaps my story can serve as inspiration and as a model for other players who might be struggling in their own poker journey or more specifically having a difficult time with no limit hold’em. Some decisions I made were rightly questioned, it was certainly a struggle and I definitely got lucky in more than a few instances. But then again I do not believe in such a thing as luck as it is really just a byproduct of hard work.
News broke a couple of days ago that the GG Poker Network had decided to bring on the notorious Dan Bilzerian as their new ambassador for online poker. Those of you who are active on social media should be no stranger to Bilzerian whose antics with women, degeneracy and firearms has made him a polarizing figure in today's pop culture.; there is no middle ground as most either love him or hate him. And this is largely what GG is counting on as on one side he is massively popular with their core male audience who idolize his lavish lifestyle filled with beautiful women. But the decision has thus proven to be massively unpopular with female players and women in general. And while GG is betting on the notion that those who approve of this decision far outweigh the detractors, this may yet prove to be another short term gain that may have more negative effects on the game of poker in the long run.
Allow me to begin by stating that I do not oppose this decision by GG. As a conservative and a capitalist I do not consider corporate entities the same as individuals and thus do not expectations that they behave "morally" as long as they act within the bounds of the law. In the end they should be able to make whatever decision they choose that will help their bottom line. And that it definitely will as there can be no doubt that sex sells as proven by the massive popularity of Bilzerian on social media. I would have to be a hypocrite to oppose this move as I have employed a similar marketing tactic in the past and still do to this present day to a certain extent. I live in an area where the sexual aspect of the nightlife is a huge attraction among male players and I have used it to its full capacity to bring many to the country and also push forward my own brand. But unlike an online network, my audience was limited and confined to a physical locale for the majority of my time here in Southeast Asia. The number of male visitors to the Kingdom far outweigh that of females and this is even more the case when considering poker players. I was looking at one audience only and knew that the minority I might offend was far outnumbered by those who might be attracted to what I had to sell.
I am certain that GG has had similar considerations when coming to their decision to hire Bilzerian. There is no doubt that the majority of their clientele is male and that most of them would not be offended by such a decision. And even if a considerable number of males were to disagree with it, forming a bigger faction with women who most certainly would be offended, they have most likely concluded that not enough of them would leave due to their current offerings in terms of the World Series of Poker. It can be best summed up perhaps by the movie Fight Club in which Edward Norton's character explains how a decision is made to recall certain cars after a major malfunction:
If this is in fact their reasoning, it is one I happen to agree with. Knowing many poker players myself, this decision will prove to be a popular one with a largely male playing audience. And in the worst case scenario most will prove to be indifferent meaning that they do not stand to lose what is the core of their paying clientele. Once again I reiterate that I do not think morality should play a role in this decision as their responsibility is to their shareholders and to grow their bottom line. If it is GG's belief that this decision will move their company towards this end, they should be left alone to do so. And I think that those who oppose this decision have to realize that victory does not only come in the form of forcing GG to reverse their decision. Many female players, and those amongst the male playing population that support them, have flocked to social media and have filled the pages of Twitter and the like to voice their displeasure of this hiring. If enough momentum is developed on this side, it may very well lead to a competing platform to hire their own ambassador, one that does not offend the audience in question but rather courts them. In a free society and market the end goal should not be to force any entity into a decision, but rather to have the ability to freely voice opposition and to develop choices and options for who we can do business with.
GG has an audience that is wide, varied and certainly exists on a global level. And while they have to concern themselves with potentially offending any segment of that audience with every decision, it seems that they have still concluded that Bilzerian's hiring will prove to be a positive decision for their interests moving forward. In the end those who try and force corporations to behave morally will find such to be a futile endeavor. Individuals must ultimately also consider their own bottom line and decide whether to abstain from a certain business on moral grounds. For those who play the game recreationally and for fun, there is less of a bottom line to consider and it may be easier to stand on a higher plain. But for those who play the game for income, choices of where one can make money are becoming less in number and thus the choice becomes more difficult. And one's location may also come into play as not every platform is available in all areas. I once made a public decision to no longer play in a certain Vegas poker room due to their treatment of their staff. But my decision was easy in that I had over 50 other rooms to choose from on a daily basis. But if one lives in an area without physical card rooms or in a country where only one or a few sites are available, I think it would be unfair to criticize those who may struggle with any decision to abstain over moral grounds. In fact it is very difficult to discern what exactly is "moral" in that issues are rarely so clear cut nor are they black and white. It may be easy for us from Western and developed countries to consider options such as being able to abstain from certain businesses and corporations. But for those in areas or life situations where such choices are not afforded to them the issue is much more grey. If any one group wishes to exert their own sense of what is right and wrong over others, it may rob some of any choice altogether and end up stifling the very persons that such a group sought to foster and nurture in the first place.
Speaking from a personal standpoint I do hope that the female segment of the playing population does grow as the game of poker moves forward. For the most part my experiences with female players has been positive, both on and off the felt. I recently had the privilege of serving as co-host for a podcast that is hosted by two women and I came away from the experience thinking how different the interaction was from my normal ones with male players. I have met many great friends on the poker table over the years, but generally speaking spending 8-10 hours on a poker table with 8-9 other players is not an experience I would wish on my own worst enemy. In an era of the game in which its popularity is declining and there is less of an influx of new players, I often feel as if we are being left with the worst of what remains. I do not mean to generalize towards either sex, but the standard douchey behavior I experience on most live tables appear to be absent when playing with a female crowd. I am sure that women are just as capable of acting like jerks on the felt, but perhaps the absence of this behavior has much to do with the fact that the game is not as popular with this segment and that they are not as familiar with such antics. But no matter the reason, if there is a new segment of the population that has a desire to play they should certainly be encouraged to do so as the game badly needs and injection of new life. The current player base should go out of their way to help foster growth in this segment, not because they are women, but rather simply because they are new.
The decision to hire Dan Bilzerian is a bit of a gamble for the GG Network. Imagine if you will a woman winning this year's Main Event of the WSOP online, which at least in part is being held on GG's platform. The decision to use Bilzerian as an ambassador at that point might look very foolish and at the least very awkward. And even if that does not prove to be the case, their decision still seems very short sighted. A woman winning the Main Event would go a long way towards propelling the game into the future and perhaps even starting a second boom, having an impact similar to the Moneymaker effect of 2003. Back in 2009 when both Elizabeth Hille and Gaelle Bauman made deep runs in the Main Event, I thought to myself how great it would be for the game should one of them win. I understand the reasoning of what GG did, thinking that a player known to surround himself with beautiful young women and plays poker would do much to promote the game. And while this decision may not result in enough of the current player base leaving GG, it may serve to alienate future players in the female playing population should that segment continue to grow in numbers. A woman winning and succeeding in the game would stand to attract not only future female players but would also go a long way towards growing the male population of players as well.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.