This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of World Gaming magazine.
The Poker King Club at StarWorld casino seems to go from strength to strength. The Club’s relationship with the resurgent Asian Poker Tour (APT) is strong, and there’s talk of more Poker King branded rooms in Macau and across Asia. The Poker King Club is managed by King’s Consulting, whose President is Winfred Yu. Our CEO Andrew W Scott sat down with Winfred at StarWorld casino to discuss Poker King, the Asian poker scene and Winfred’s recent runner-up finish in the Asian Poker Tour Macau main event.
Andrew W Scott: Poker King has been open since 2009 and was famously introduced to Chinese poker players through the Poker King movie. What changes has Poker King seen over the last three years?
Winfred Yu: First of all I’d like to say it is a great honor for World Gaming magazine to be talking about Poker King. We have been here at StarWorld for almost three years, and our business model is that of a VIP junket room combined with poker. We are the first room like that in Macau and we’re probably the first in the world. We now have more than 9,000 members and we hold the highest stakes cash game in the world, the Big Game, which runs four to five nights a week.
We are on the 3rd floor of StarWorld, not on the mass gaming floor, so we have had to conduct many marketing promotions to bring people here. Our growth is positive and we’ve seen a lot of smaller game players getting comfortable with moving up in stakes. The players like our environment here: we have chip runners, a reward program where they can receive gifts, hotel rooms, ferry tickets and so on. I think this model of giving a lot of things to the players has helped generate more business.
AWS: Congratulations on coming second in the APT Macau main event held in August. It is often said that every player in a tournament other than the winner is disappointed. With the many second places I’ve achieved over the years, I couldn’t agree more! Coming second in any tournament is very painful, but after that pain subsides you look back and obviously it is a fantastic achievement. Tell us a little about your emotions along the journey of the tournament.
WY: We put a team of 11 players in this event. Two cashed and two came very close to cashing. Definitely coming second is painful, as you well know! [laughs] Day 1 played normally, I didn’t do anything crazy and I ended tenth in chips. My day 2 starting stack of 54,000 chips jumped to 90,000 quickly, but then I went card dead the rest of the day. Day 3 I doubled up my short stack and from then on I was confident. I started the final table second right behind Richard Zhu who was my teammate in Team China [in the 2010 World Team Poker Championship in Las Vegas].
The final table was tough with a mixture of players and of course the winner Carlos [Chang] is a young, aggressive and pretty tricky player, he mixed up his game very well. A couple of hands I didn’t play my best, I think I played pretty bad in one three-handed situation and as a result ended up playing the heads-up very short. Another factor was the pressure on me, because it was like I was the home team. All my staff were watching along with customers and friends. But overall, I feel I played one of my best poker tournaments so far. We didn’t have too many international big names in this tournament, but I saw a lot of new faces from Japan and across Asia taking the tournament very seriously.
AWS: AJ Brock has now been appointed COO of Poker King. AJ was of course the driving force behind the success of the Wynn poker room. How were you able to get AJ to jump ship and what will his role at Poker King entail?
WY: I am so glad that AJ came over here as our COO. AJ and I have been friends for three and a half years, even before Poker King opened. I saw him lead the maturing of poker at Wynn Macau, growing it into a very successful room. He is from Las Vegas, knows the game well and his ambition was not just to have the 8-hour shift job of being a poker room manager. His heart is in poker and he wants to take the game to the next level in Asia. AJ’s contract with Wynn ended in March, so we got him here to sharpen up my staff and patch a few holes that we have encountered over the years. His role is not only to make our operations smooth but also in the business development area as well, regarding other projects that we have planned for our expansion in Asia.
AWS: We’ve heard Poker King is opening a new room at Resorts World Manila. What can you tell us about that?
WY: We’ve got a verbal agreement with Resorts World and we are still working on this. We have always supported their tournaments and promotions because we have a good relationship with the APT over there, thanks to the APT’s Jeff Mann and Tom Hall.
One of my regular VIP players, Richard Yong, has a junket room with Resort World. As you know Richard came eighth in the WSOP One Drop event. He is very keen not only to be a winning tournament player, but also to build poker. We helped Resorts World organize the Manila Millions. Richard and I took Macau VIPs over there, and Resorts World realized there are many Chinese VIP poker players interested in tournaments, and who are willing to travel within Asia to places like Resorts World.
It’s not exactly that we are getting a poker room there; rather they’re giving us a two-table VIP area of the poker room. There will still be the regular poker room, which will be managed by Resorts World.
The two tables will probably play a higher stakes game and will be branded Poker King and also branded APT as a sponsor. They will cater to the Chinese, Hong Kong and Macau players. Instead of using Philippines pesos, they will play in Hong Kong dollars, which is more familiar to them, and this way they don’t lose on the exchange rate. They’ll be able to use their reward points from here in StarWorld in the Philippines for getting hotel rooms and so on.
AWS: We’ve heard that Poker King is opening a new room in Cambodia. It’s great to see poker expanding to such an exotic destination. How did that come about and what can you tell us about the room?
WY: It will be in Cambodia’s Las Vegas Sun Casino in Bavet. There will be an APT Cambodia event there starting November 14. A good friend of mine who I believe you know, Mr Sang Park, who is also Johnny Chan’s friend, contacted me and he hooked us up with this deal. The APT went there first, [APT Tournament Director] Lloyd [Fontillas] and his crew went over there to see the area and study Cambodia’s market a little bit. We all decided it would be a good stop for the APT. It is right on the Vietnamese border, about one and a half hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam has no casinos or poker rooms right now, so I think we will drive a lot of traffic from Vietnam as well as Cambodia.
AWS: Do these new rooms signal ongoing expansion plans for Poker King? Can we expect to see more Poker King rooms opening in the future, and if so where?
WY: Some of the future casinos in Manila [at PAGCOR Entertainment City] have approached us, and also other places in Vietnam and also Jeju [island] in Korea have approached us and they have approached the APT as well. The APT is close to finalizing having a stop in Jeju. Whether we are going to Jeju is still being decided. My biggest goal right now is to open a second and third poker room in Macau.
AWS: Can you elaborate on which casinos in Macau might get Poker King rooms?
WY: We don’t think that we have any political limitations stopping us going to any casino. With our mother group here at StarWorld being Galaxy, we would hope we can be in Galaxy Macau too as it is a beautiful new resort. But just like Starbucks I think we can go to any casino.AWS: Will players be able to deposit funds in one Poker King room and withdraw them in another room in a different country?
WY: I think one of the major reasons casinos approach us is because we have a very good deposit system. Yes, players will be allowed to deposit in one country and withdraw in another but there will be a limit and the final decision on that limit belongs to our mother company, just as with any junket room. There will be no need to worry about carrying money across borders or worrying about where to change money or where to change it back. And they don’t have to worry about how much money they are allowed to take in or out of the country. At the last Manila tournament, I saw people didn’t understand the law, and they might have taken too many pesos out of the country. Our system will make it more attractive for them to play the tournaments.
AWS: You must have noticed the developments at PokerStars Macau (PSM). Do you see PSM as competition? What do you feel about the changes with PSM and tournament poker in Macau generally?
WY: First of all, PokerStars Macau did a very good job in Asia with Danny [McDonagh] and Fred [Leung] running their organization here. Their hearts are right into poker. They are building poker across Asia, not only in Macau. I have never looked at PokerStars as a competitor because I think building a pie is more important than fighting each other to eat that pie. PokerStars’ major tournaments like the Red Dragon and Macau Millions have helped build poker in Asia dramatically because they are not concentrating on cash games, which can sometimes been seen as gambling. Tournaments help people in China to have the right idea that a poker competition is a sport, not gambling. PokerStars has been very successful and set new records for player numbers every year, and I see you there all the time! [laughs] I think nobody so far in Asia has done such a fantastic job regarding tournaments.
I would definitely like to have the chance to work with PokerStars. They are now at the Grand Waldo under the same Galaxy group as we are. I hope they can continue to concentrate on tournaments, and we can concentrate on building cash games. We can develop poker in Macau together.
It was disappointing they left Grand Lisboa because they were here with Wynn and us in a little triangle that was convenient for the players. But now we are separated and some players feel uncomfortable about travelling that far.
AWS: We’ve heard about changes in the Macau table cap rules to allow more poker tables without casinos necessarily having to close baccarat tables. Does this mean Poker King will be able to increase the number of tables in its room in the future?
WY: I think this depends on the business needs of both the casinos and Poker King more than the table cap. For table cap purposes one gaming table is now definitely considered equivalent to a multiple number of poker tables. This opens up the door for us to talk to more casinos about having poker. We have no plans of putting more than our current eight tables here [at StarWorld] and I think the revenue generation model is nothing to do with the table cap. It’s more about the tax situation as there’s a 40 percent tax on poker just the same as any gaming in Macau. And the other barrier is simply whether the casinos want to have poker or not.
AWS: Poker is not traditionally an Asian game, but it is slowly becoming so. What do you think Asian poker rooms like Poker King and others need to do to attract more Asian players to play poker?
WY: I think I can only speak for myself on behalf of Poker King. I can’t speak on behalf of others. I think it needs more companies, not just poker rooms, to take an interest in poker. For example companies like yours, World Gaming, have been taking an interest in poker. And I think companies need to focus on the expansion of poker as a goal instead of just looking at short-term profit. Over the past year or two the traffic in Macau poker rooms has been increasing. PokerStars tournaments, our tournaments, APT tournaments and also the cash games have all contributed to this.
Back in the first year of poker in Macau, the players were mostly from Hong Kong, Chinese people from North America who moved back or tourists. Now mainland Chinese people are coming to Macau steadily, and some even moved here to play. More and more players are from Japan, Korea and the Philippines, and these are not Asian players from North America, these are Asian players from Asia. We should definitely build poker across Asia, not only in Macau, by doing international marketing across Asia.
Macau is the gaming capital of Asia. It is pretty much the only place with legal poker rooms with a wide choice of table stakes. Obviously in Manila, they have had poker a long time, but in Macau we can offer a different level of variety, service and facilities. With the convenience of one-card deposit and also our Poker King card, which can be used as a debit card, it’s attractive for international players to come here. They don’t have a Macau bank account, and a lot of them don’t want to carry cash, so they deposit at the Poker King Club and they can use the Poker King card for purchases, to have dinner or to purchase entertainment in many places in Macau. We are working on getting more vendors to accept our card, which will give players more confidence in our card and extra convenience when they are here.
Our TV show will hopefully take the message all over Asia. It goes as far as Melbourne in Australia. We hope it will educate players and interest them in coming to Macau to play their first tournament or to experience a live cash game. My goal is to expand poker and hopefully open two or three more poker rooms in Macau where all players can have the convenience of a one-card deposit. The casinos could share a bigger marketing plan and have more promotions, such as a jackpot promotion. Individual casinos or poker rooms would not have to hire poker management teams, or do their own individual marketing, we can do it all for them.
AWS: Tell us a little more about your TV show.
WY: Our show is called “Poker Secrets” and it shows on Lotus TV once a week. It is a one-hour show on Friday nights, and it goes to many countries across Asia, including China. We have had this program over six months now and we’re very happy to have this kind of media going into China, to show people about the sport of poker tournaments. As well as broadcasting tournaments we also show tutorials and introduce international players. We hope this will open up the awareness of poker tournaments all over Asia.
AWS: Poker King has become synonymous with the so-called Big Game, which sees the absolute best of the best of the world’s super-high stakes cash players (including yourself) duking it out with fabulously wealthy Asian businessman. How did this game get started? How big does it play? Who plays the game regularly?
WY: Definitely I have to thank my Sun City boss Alvin Chau for helping get this game started. He introduced many VIPs who had been learning the game at the Wynn poker room. They played regularly over there at the HK$5k/10k level. Now the Big Game is here and the starting point is HK$20k/40k and as I said earlier the game runs four to five nights a week. The players are Asian businessmen, junket room partners and agents, online gaming business owners, publicly listed company CEOs and of course some local and international pros as well. Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Gus Hansen, Tom Dwan, John Juanda and Sam Trickett are all familiar faces. Tom, Sam and Gus are the VIPs’ favorites due to their aggressive play.
AWS: The Big Game is really a separate story in itself – in fact we’ll be publishing an article in a future issue of World Gaming magazine that will go into detail about the Big Game. I am sure our readers will be fascinated with the stories from the game which I know can play as high as HK$30k/60k and even get up to HK$50k/100k on some occasions! Winfred, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with WGM readers.
WY: It is my pleasure, Andrew.