Tournament coverage Poker

Behind the stars: Danny McDonagh

Written by Pai Yao

This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.

The name Danny McDonagh is synonomous with poker in the Asia Pacific region. From his earliest days as a croupier at Crown Melbourne 17 years ago to being headhunted by PokerStars to run their APPT and ANZPT tournaments and more recently heading up the PokerStars Macau poker room, it’s more than fair to say that Danny is very well placed to comment on poker’s growth throughout Asia . WGM caught up with Danny to chat about his career, poker’s continuing growth across Asia and the recent move to the new home of PokerStars Macau at City of Dreams.

City of Dreams in Macau

City of Dreams in Macau

World Gaming magazine: Being a tournament director is an unusual occupation. How did you find yourself in this profession?

Danny McDonagh: It was kind of in a roundabout way. I was in banking for 11 years and took the opportunity of a redundancy with two major banks merging in Australia. I then travelled overseas for nine months and the day I arrived back home, Crown Melbourne was advertising for croupiers. I became a Day 1 dealer, then supervisor and then pit boss within a couple of years.

Crown then decided to introduce poker and the day before applications closed for the initial poker room management team, a fellow employee convinced me to apply for poker. That was back in 1996. I had no idea about poker other than 5-card draw played at home for fun. Eight months later the Crown poker room opened in June 1997 and later that year I became Crown Casino Poker Tournament Director, which I remained for nearly 10 years.

WGM: Was it an easy decision to pack your bags and move to Asia?

DM: It was a gradual move so quite easy. Six months after leaving Crown Casino in March 2007 to run a private poker club in Sydney, PokerStars approached me to be Tournament Director for APPT Season 1. I took this on a part time basis and then with the success of the first poker tournament in Macau, PokerStars went on to open PokerStars Macau in May 2008. By early 2009 I made the decision to move across to Macau for 12 months. With an equal number of events in Asia and Australia either place could realistically have been home. In early 2011 I took the plunge and formally relocated to Macau.

WGM: When you first arrived in Asia, what were some of the problems you faced in bringing the game of poker to a fledgling market?

DM: Wow. Day 1 of the PokerStars Macau room was our first problem. We decided to go no smoking for cash games – the first three poker players walked in and immediately walked out once they found out they couldn’t smoke. Welcome to Macau casinos in 2008!

I also quickly found out that people frequent a poker room a lot later than they would in Australia so we needed to adjust our weekend tournaments accordingly.

While APPT Macau produced big numbers in the early days it was a real struggle to build weekly and Macau Poker Cup numbers. Firstly we tapped into the Hong Kong market and that helped to build the player database. Taiwan was the next market to move with a poker show on TV there but in China, there was very little interest in poker.

If anything, PokerStars Macau started too early so it was a very slow build in the first 12 months but we learnt from the various mistakes we made.

WGM: Asia is considered by many to be the final frontier for poker. Is the market starting to mature or have we just scratched the surface?

DM: 12 months ago I would have said we have just scratched the surface, but since then the game has become very popular in China which has quickly become the largest base of players for our tournaments. And Indian player numbers, albeit lower actual numbers, surged percentage wise at April’s Macau Poker Cup indicating that market could well pick up considerably in the next couple of years.

Despite that, the market is not yet starting to mature which makes it scary thinking about the 891 players we had for our opening Red Dragon at City of Dreams (COD) and how to logistically cope with further increases in players – but that’s really a great problem for our team to tackle.

WGM: How does the average poker player in and around Asia compare to the average player in the Unites States or Europe?

DM: Definitely on the big improve from APPT Season 1 in 2007 which was literally a bloodbath for players from Asia. As of mid last year I felt Asian players were holding their own on average against USA and Europe players but since then there has been a wave of “new” Asian players, predominantly from China, that are relatively inexperienced. So the average has dropped back down again but at the top, I expect to see more breakthroughs from Asian players as was demonstrated at this year’s Aussie Millions.

WGM: PokerStars Macau’s home base has moved around a little. Can you run us through a few of the ups and downs you’ve experienced over the years before finding your current home at COD?

DM: Yes, we’ve certainly been active with COD being our fourth venue since 2008! When we first made plans to begin operations at Grand Waldo Casino late in 2007, the Venetian was the only other casino open on Cotai but construction was underway for Galaxy Macau, Sands Cotai Central (then known as Lot 5 and 6) and COD. However, the Asian economic crisis came along and construction was stalled or delayed at all major casino sites and we found ourselves positioned on Cotai too early.

Also, the supply of poker tables in Macau moved ahead of the demand with Grand Lisboa, Starworld and Wynn also opening poker rooms in 2008, so competition was tough.

In March 2009, we moved to Grand Lisboa as a three year agreement and our time there coincided with a steady growth in poker. Our special event tournaments produced excellent growth with the Red Dragon increasing from 112 players for our opening event at Grand Lisboa to 635 players in February 2012 three years later. APPT Macau in November 2011 was another very big one with 575 players. Those last two special events I have mentioned were huge highlights during our time at Grand Lisboa.

Our relationship with Grand Lisboa was great and the three years proceeded without any hiccups. There was one problem looming for poker though as over the three years at Grand Lisboa, Macau casinos continued to enjoy very strong growth in table game revenues, predominantly from baccarat, placing pressure on poker generally to maintain table numbers. Furthermore, VIP gaming was on the increase with many casinos converting mass market tables to junket rooms.

Grand Lisboa had minimal space to expand on floor operations so not only was there pressure on the casino to convert poker tables to baccarat tables, but also the expansive poker room space at Grand Lisboa was an ideal junket area for one of the numerous junket rooms being opened by them. So it was with regret that we were unable to extend our time at Grand Lisboa, however the Macau team has some great memories there.

2012 was a difficult year and our appreciation goes out to Grand Waldo Casino and the Galaxy Entertainment Group for allowing us to host special events at the Grand Waldo Entertainment Complex. It was tough for players with minimal notice being provided for our special events, however, the inaugural Asia Championship of Poker in November, which saw the first “big buy-in” main event placed on the Macau calendar, made 2012 all worth it.

The Macau team did a great job in establishing the ACOP on the world calendar in its first year. The 184 player HK$100,000 main event number was a solid foundation and I am confident we can go over 300 this year. The title events (US$1,000 and above) were also a success. This event has great potential in my mind.

The new PokerStars LIVE Macau room at City of Dreams in action

The new PokerStars LIVE Macau room at City of Dreams in action

WGM: How did the move to COD come about and what were the benefits that you saw in doing so?

DM: From knowing we needed a new home back in October 2011 until finalizing our agreement with COD we approached a number of venues. Ideally we wanted to be on the Cotai Strip and COD was always considered a very desirable property on Cotai with the best show (House of Dancing Water), Hard Rock Cafe and the best nightclub (Cubic), all very popular destinations for poker players.

Being situated on the main gaming floor was obviously another huge plus and personally I have the advantage of knowing many of the casino management from my days at Crown Melbourne.

WGM: What can poker players expect to find at the new PokerStars LIVE Macau room?

DM: A selection of cash games, daily tournaments, SnGs (sit and go’s) and around five 10 to 16 day special events annually. Plus we will host a super high roller event on behalf of Guangdong Junket each year.

We are seeking to expand the number of cash games available and together with our daily tournaments, the smaller buy-in player now has a home to come and play poker regularly in Macau.

And going on our 891 player Red Dragon opening event at City of Dreams, lots of new tournament records.

Player reaction to the look and feel of the room since opening has been extremely positive. We have a great monitor system that allows us to run four events at once with monitors dedicated to each event. Plus it’s a 100 percent smoke-free poker room.

The PokerStars Macau team with Taiwanese celebrity Alex and hip hop star MC HotDog

The PokerStars Macau team with Taiwanese celebrity Alex and hip hop star MC HotDog

WGM: What is your plan in regards to tournaments schedules for the PokerStars Macau room in the short and long term?

DM: I work closely with Fred Leung and Poker Tournament Manager Hill Alim in putting together our schedules and these are some of our aims in the short to medium term.

  • In conjunction with Guangdong, hosting the biggest high roller ever by player numbers.
  • The ACOP, by 2014, to rival the player fields for other major US$10,000 and €10,000 freezeouts in the world such as the Aussie Millions, EPT Grand Final, LAPC at Commerce and WSOP Europe and Asia Pacific.
  • Break through the magical 1000 unique players for the Red Dragon. And by the way, we have some very big plans for the 20th Macau Poker Cup in early 2014.
  • The return of the Macau Millions!
  • To build our weekly tournaments. While the increase in our special events has been extremely pleasing, we can do more with our regular tournaments to attract the Hong Kong and other neighboring countries’ poker players.
  • Introducing new exciting promotions for our loyal tournament players

WGM: What does the future hold for poker not only in Macau but Asia in general?

DM: With the increase in interest in poker in the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, combined with their increasing wealth, the future for poker is looking very bright both in Macau and Asia.

Macau now commands the biggest cash games and is poised to host the biggest regular high roller tournaments. The long term challenge is to host an event to rival the biggest in the world.

It’s still very early days but if any place can take on the WSOP in Vegas, I’d place my money on Macau giving it a good shake.

WGM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? Are there any more mountains for Danny McDonagh to climb?

DM: That’s a very good question. One thing is for sure and that is I hope I have the same energy as I have now. It is great working events in Macau and socializing with the players who come from all over the world.

The big buzz I still get is our team putting on events in Asia Pacific to the best of our abilities so players want to come back again. I don’t see a particular mountain to climb, but rather further perfecting the Macau team running major poker events. Hats off to the permanent PokerStars LIVE Macau team Fred, Lorie, Hill, Kaka and Rex – they are a fun team to work with.