In Macao, Betting on a Poker Boom

In the casinos of Macao, the only city in China with legalized gambling, the most popular games have long been baccarat, blackjack, and roulette. Matt Savage wants to get Chinese betters focusing on straight flushes and full houses instead. Savage is director of the Asian Poker Tour, which recently completed a 12-day poker tournament for local and Western players at Macao's StarWorld Hotel & Casino. He says poker is growing rapidly in the former Portuguese colony—albeit with a different atmosphere. "You see a lot more people jumping up and getting very excited, which you don't see in the U.S. all the time," says Savage. "It has become more exciting for the players to play here."

Think of gambling, and Las Vegas comes first to mind. But recession has hurt America's longtime casino hub: Revenues on the Strip dropped 15% in the first half of the year, following a record-setting 11% drop in 2008. Macao is hurting, too: For the first half of 2009, gaming revenues dropped 12%, to $6.5 billion. But big-name gaming companies like Las Vegas Sands (LVS) and Wynn (WYNN) are counting on Macao for growth. In 2008, the city's casinos reported revenue of $16 billion, compared with $12 billion for Vegas and $5 billion for Atlantic City.

The Asian Poker Tournament, held this year on Aug. 12-23, is Asia's biggest, attracting players as well as Internet qualifiers who join online. The majority of the 350 to 450 players in this pokerfest came from Hong Kong, Macao, mainland China, and other parts of Asia—as well as some from Europe and the U.S. According to the organizers, this year's tournament attracted many more locals compared with a year ago. Eventually, the goal of the Asian Poker Tour is to expand across the region, says Savage. Poker "is really growing globally," he says. "It's an exciting time."

Fast Expansion What seems to be clear is that poker has a huge potential for growth in Asia. Tom Hall, executive vice-chairman and CEO of AsianLogic, the Hong Kong company that owns and operates the Asian tour, recalls how the expansion started in the Philippines and Korea and is now picking up in mainland China as well. "Three years ago there were no poker rooms in Macao," says Hall, who points out that there are now 60 tables at three casinos: the Wynn and Lisboa as well as StarWorld.

During the latest 12-day festival of poker, professional players came to Macao from the U.S. for the first time. Among them was Guangzhou, China-born Johnny Chan, who became the first player to win 10 World Series of Poker titles. Another was J.C. Tran, a 32-year-old pro poker player from Sacramento who has already won more than $8 million during his career. According to Chan, the Asia tour is special because he gets to experience a different type of poker culture. "It's not like a typical tournament in Las Vegas, where you are up against the pros and you know everyone," says Chan. "These players are playing in a totally different way."

The tournament wasn't limited to the pros. Ciaran Carter, 29, is from Sarnia, Ont., and works for the Canadian government but loves poker so much that he spends up to eight hours a day playing online. Carter says the setting and organization of the Macao tournament was impressive. Even so, he adds as he sips some complimentary white wine given out by the organizers, he had expected to see a "bigger number of participants and more of the world's top players."

Poker may eventually become a new source of revenue for Macao's casinos, but a stroll around the city's main gambling halls during weekdays shows how some of these venues are struggling to keep their tables full and their slot machines humming. American-born Savage notes, however, that the economic crisis "hasn't affected us nearly as bad as in other areas…. Even though the game has, in the U.S., maybe plateaued, around the globe it keeps expanding."

Legal Barriers in Much of Asia Along with Macao, another market with potential is the Philippines, where a new poker room opens almost monthly. The Asian Poker Tour's first event of 2009 took place there in January with more than 260 participants from over 30 countries. Of the 27 money finishers, 12 were Asian.

The poker industry seems to recognize the potential for further growth, both for land-based as well as online poker operators. But significant entry barriers remain. One of the biggest: Online gaming is illegal in most Asian countries, making it difficult to show poker tournaments on TV to popularize the game. The Philippines, for instance, has become the fastest-growing poker nation in Asia with about 18 poker rooms around the country, thanks in part to TV broadcasts. In the U.S., televised poker "has led to a growth in poker in the casinos and play in the communities," says Hall.

Language is another stumbling block. But Savage says he's optimistic players in Asia can transcend the language barrier. "Poker is an international game," he says. "People learn very early to say raise, bluff, and call."

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