Tournament coverage Poker

Poker’s Asian invasion

Written by Pai Yao

This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.

The jury is out as to whether the poker boom has really started yet in Asia. But there is no doubt the impact Asian players have made on the game is huge.

The game of poker is finally starting to grow in the Asian region despite the fact it has long had to fight against games steeped in local culture and heritage. While champion Asian poker players have traveled the circuit for many years now and more than held their own, we are still some years away from seeing the boom truly explode in this part of the world. But we do have a strong group of ambassadors whose faces will front the revolution in years to come.

Poker is a massive global industry these days and is widely considered to be a sport as well as a gaming pastime. Its best players are genuine champions and in many parts of the world are mobbed by paparazzi and autograph hunters much like movie or rock stars. They are the face of the game and there is no doubting their importance in further promoting poker’s growth.

When it comes to well-known Asian poker players, there are two very distinct groups. Firstly, we have players of Asian heritage who have spent much (or even all) of their lives outside the region. This is a particularly large group and easily the better known of the two given their accomplishments have come in countries where poker was already a significant part of the gaming landscape. The lion’s share of these players are based in the United States.

The second group is comprised of generally younger faces of poker who call Asia home. This is going to be the most important group in the years to come as they are going to be the ones competing for the pots of gold offered in major poker tournaments and cash games in this part of the world.

The Ex-Pats

Johnny Chan (USA – China)

Forget being simply an Asian champion … Johnny Chan is right up there with the greatest to ever play the game – no matter where they came from. This guy has done it all. He is both a tournament and cash game player, which is quite rare, and has played against and beaten the best in the business. He is a world champion whose career has stood the test of time while other “one hit wonders” have come and gone.

Chan was born in Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong at the tender age of five, then to the US when he was 10. After winning the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in 1987, he famously made it back to back titles in 1988 and went agonizingly close to a historic third win in a row when he finished second to Phil Hellmuth in 1989.

His accomplishments are many – in 2005 he became the first man in history to win 10 WSOP bracelets and to this day remains one of only three to have done so alongside fellow legends Doyle Brunson (10) and Phil Hellmuth (13). He is a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2002, but ironically it was his appearance in the cult poker movie Rounders (starring Matt Damon) in 1998 that has seen him immortalized in the minds of many.

Chan remains proud of his heritage and although he resides in America he spends a lot of time in Asia every year both playing and promoting poker.

Men “The Master” Nguyen (USA – Vietnam)

Men Nguyen has long been considered one of the most knowledgeable tournament players going around. From humble beginnings that saw him flee Vietnam in 1978 at the age of 24, he was granted political asylum by the US later that year and didn’t play his first game of poker for another six years. But he quickly adapted, winning his first tournament in 1987 and soon establishing himself as a fierce – if sometimes controversial – combatant.

In particular, Nguyen is known for his phenomenal success rate in coaching other players and it was one of his many students that gave him his nickname “The Master”. He was the first of the Vietnamese legends and his list of achievements is quite remarkable – seven WSOP bracelets and over US$10 million in career earnings speaks for itself.

John Juanda (USA – Indonesia)

Juanda was born in Indonesia in 1971 and moved to the US to study in 1990. He was a gifted athlete and has an MBA from Seattle University but it is at the poker tables where he has really made his mark.

Close friends with Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and Allen Cunningham before any of them became household names, the ability to discuss poker strategy with three guys that would become greats of the game served Juanda well. He was named tournament player of the year by Card Player magazine in 2001 and again in 2002, the year he collected the first of his five WSOP titles. In all he has amassed well over US$11 million in tournament earnings including 30 WSOP final table appearances. Among his WSOP bracelets, Juanda’s 2008 WSOP Europe Main Event victory remains his greatest moment.

JC Tran (USA – Vietnam)

A freakish talent, it could be argued that at just 36 years of age the best is yet to come from this amazing card player. Just like the best in the business, Phil Ivey, Tran has an uncanny ability to read his opponents and also boasts a winning personality that has made him one of the most popular players on the international circuit.

Tran was born in Vietnam and moved to the US when he was just two years old. One of eight children, he is well educated and holds a degree in Business Management. His accomplishments include two WSOP bracelets and a US$670,000 victory in Pokerstars’ World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) main event – the world’s most prestigious online tournament. He has made five WPT final tables for one title.

Jerry Yang (USA – Laos)

Yang’s story is one of those fairytales everyone dreams about. A complete unknown when he won a $225 satellite into the 2007 WSOP Main Event, the then 40-year-old stunned the poker world as he stormed through the field of 6,358 players to be crowned champion and take home a cool US$8.25 million in the process.

But it was his background as much as his success that made headlines. Born in Laos in 1967, he fled the country with his family in the 1970s and spent four years living in a refugee camp in Thailand where both a brother and a sister passed away. Moving to the US aged 13, he went on to obtain a Master’s degree in health psychology and worked as a social worker before his WSOP adventure changed his life. In a strange twist of irony, Yang is one of the few WSOP champions to shy away from playing regular poker since his big win.

Scotty Nguyen (USA – Vietnam)

Scotty Nguyen is one of the most charismatic players to ever sit at a poker table. A polarizing character that is widely loved yet occasionally criticized for his love of a drink or three while playing, one thing for sure is there is never a dull moment with Nguyen sitting at the table.

Born in Vietnam before moving to the US at the age of 14, Nguyen endured plenty of financial highs and lows before breaking through to win the 1998 WSOP Main Event title and US$1 million in the process. He is the only player to have won both the WSOP main event and the WSOP $50,000 Players’ Championship – the two most sought after titles in world poker.

Despite his usually friendly table banter, Nguyen has endured tremendous tragedy in his life including the death of his brother in a car accident the day after he won the WSOP Main Event in 1998. As a mark of respect, Nguyen never wears the bracelet he won the day before this tragic loss.

Renowned for his constant use of the word “baby” when conversing with pretty much anyone, Nguyen boasts a total of five WSOP bracelets plus a World Poker Tour (WPT) title and has won more than US$11 million in career prize money. He remains one of the most loved players on the circuit and has done as much as anyone for boosting the profile of poker across the Asian region.

The Locals

Winfred Yu (Macau)

A high stakes cash game player not afraid to take on the very best in the business, it is his work promoting poker away from the felt that makes Macau’s Winfred Yu such a key figure in the Asian poker community.

Much of Yu’s work has revolved around boosting the game’s profile by luring the likes of Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius and Sam Trickett from all four corners of the globe to the Big Game at the Poker King Club at Macau’s StarWorld Hotel and Casino.

In these nosebleed games, the blinds have been as high as HK$50,000/100,000 while last August the Poker King Club hosted the biggest ever single-day tournament with the Macau High Stakes Challenge. This HK$2 million buy-in event (with re-buys!) saw 73 players combine to create a stunning HK$182.36 million prize pool.

Yu was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada with his family when he was 14. After completing a degree in mathematics, he stumbled across Texas Hold’em by accident at a casino launch, began dabbling in a few small tournaments and his love affair with the game was born.

Known as a highly intelligent and analytical thinker at the poker table, he has expressed a desire to become a successful tournament player and is a regular in APPT and APT events across Asia. His most recent success was picking up 3rd place in the inaugural WSOP APAC Main Event (and AU$423,225 in the process) by impressively nursing a short stack for almost the entire duration of the final table.

His richest cash to date is a third-place finish in a £100,000 High Roller event in London last year for £330,000.

Wally Sombero (Philippines)

There isn’t a lot more we can say about Sir Wally that we didn’t cover in the Jan/Feb 2013 Issue of World Gaming magazine (you can view our article at Wally Sombero has been playing with the best in the world for decades.

A highly decorated member of the Philippine Police Force before retiring in 2000 at just 44, Sombero then committed himself to fulfilling his poker dreams. Best known as a cash game player, he was by far the most easily recognized Asian-based player around the world before the global poker boom and has worked tirelessly to spread the word throughout the region for well over a decade.

Renowned for his incredibly vibrant personality, the man known as “The Dream” will go down as the first genuine legend of the Asian poker scene.

Kenny Wong (Hong Kong)

There wasn’t a whole lot to note about Kenny Wong’s poker career when he landed in Melbourne to contest the 2012 Aussie Millions. A week later he was AU$1 million richer after finishing runner-up to Oliver Speidel in the Main Event.

Known in some circles as “Hong Kong” Kenny Wong, the rising star has become a regular on the local poker scene over the past few years and backed up his deep run at the 2012 Aussie Millions with another this year – ultimately falling in 28th place.

Along with girlfriend Jay Tan, who finished seventh at this year’s Aussie Millions, he is quickly establishing himself as a player to watch with his relentlessly aggressive style.

Jay Tan (Australia)

A rising star on the Australasian poker scene, Tan found herself jet-setting from a young age. The daughter of a Chinese father and Taiwanese mother, she was born in the US before briefly moving to Hong Kong at the age of four, although she spent the majority of her formative years in Sydney, Australia.

At 25 she returned to Hong Kong to pursue a career as an investment banker but by then her love for poker had been well and truly piqued.

Her breakout year came in 2012 with two final table finishes at the Macau Poker Cup for a combined HK$435,000 – her achievements earning her sponsorship with online poker site Bodog. But it was her deep run at this year’s Aussie Millions that really caught the eye as she finished seventh for AU$150,000 – just a few places shy of boyfriend Kenny Wong’s runner-up finish 12 months earlier.

Mervin Chan (Malaysia)

What can you say about the poker fairytale that Mervin Chan lived at this year’s Aussie Millions? The Malaysian amateur sat down to play just his sixth live poker tournament in the main event and walked away with AU$1.6 million, a gold bracelet, a new car and a place in poker history as the first Asian to win one of the world’s most prestigious events.

His feat was even more im-pressive given that the seven-man final table featured highly respected veteran Dan Shak and one of the world’s most feared players in Patrik Antonius.

Who knows what the future might hold for this young man but as Chan rightly pointed out “everyone is dealt two cards, everyone has the same opportunity”.

Bryan Huang (Singapore)

One of the nice guys on the Asian poker circuit, Huang is a fierce competitor at the tables but is always happy to share a beer after a long day’s play. He is a member of Team PokerStars: Asia and a regular in the biggest tournaments throughout the region.

In 2008, Huang was voted Rookie of the Year by Bluff Australasia magazine after finishing third at APPT Macau and cashing in the following two APPT events in Seoul and Auckland. In 2010 he was named Asia Player of the year after another string of impressive results. An accomplished online player, he has traveled the world on the back of his earnings from online tournaments.

Although he is yet to break through for that career-defining live tournament win, he is already the highest earning player from Singapore and is considered one of the hottest young talents in the region.