This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Wally Sombero is Asia’s most recognizable poker icon. Forget the likes of Scotty Nguyen (who is a champion nonetheless), Wally is a born and bred local who learnt his trade in this part of the world. Like most card champions who honed their skills on poker tables rather than the internet, he has a colourful and interesting history which makes Wally the man even more interesting than Wally the poker player.
I remember the first time I met Sir Wally. I’ve always called him Sir Wally – I thought the name suited him well as he is a man that deserves respect. My introduction to him came in the mid 2000s when I was still a sponsored poker pro spending much of my time on the road. The Asian poker scene was just starting to emerge and I often found myself in this part of the world having grown tired of the US and the Las Vegas poker scene. A friend told me that I must meet Wally, whose poker nickname was “The Dream”. I had heard of the legendary Wally Sombero, but boy was I in for a shock! Wally was everything I imagined and a whole lot more. Nearly a decade later I still call him Sir Wally, but most importantly, I call him a friend.
Colonel Wenceslao Azarcon Sombero Junior was born on 17 June 1956. Together with his six siblings, he was effectively raised in the residential district of Camp Crame in Quezon City, the national headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary, subsequently transformed into the Philippine National Police. Like most children of soldiers living in military camps, he joined the military service in the Philippine Army at the age of 18. Starting as a trainee, the lowest entry position in the military service, he climbed the ranks to Staff Sergeant. While in the service, he studied and earned his college degree qualifying him for the Basic Officers Course.
Wally continued his meteoric rise in his public roles in the Philippines. During this time he was posted to Moro rebel areas of the country in both Visayas and Mindanao. He was also given various sensitive positions such as chief of the anti-bank robbery, anti-kidnapping and anti-smuggling sections, as well as the anti-hijacking and other high profile units fighting syndicated crime. Wally has received numerous awards including: • the highly prestigious millennium “Dangal ng Bayan” (Honor of the Country) award in 2000
- a Congressional Award from the 11th Congress
- Dangal ng PNP-CIDG (Honor of the Police) award
- PNP-CIDG Senior Field Officer of the Year
- ABS-CBN Bayaning Pulis (Heroic Policeman)
- many heroism medals along with around 40 other commendations and decorations
Wally was entitled to various financial benefits from his service but was notable for donating cash rewards to the PNP General Hospital. He was only 44 years old in September 2000 when he chose to retire with a retirement rank of Chief Superintendent, the equivalent of a one star general. He had served the government for almost 27 years. Wally, although at the height of his police career, had a dream and moved to Las Vegas to pursue his passion for gaming and investigative writing.
Before you understand Wally you have to understand both the history of the Philippines and the history of poker. Wally is a proud man, loyal to his country and committed to the sport of poker both at home and abroad.
The Philippines is one of the most interesting countries in the world. Its unique history features Spanish settlement and rule, American rule and a period of imperial rule at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War. This rich history influences the country we know today. Comprising 7,107 islands, it is predominantly a Catholic country and nearly everyone speaks English as well as the country’s native tongue, Tagalog.
The country also has a rich history in individual sports that challenge man to battle and overcome both their own and their opponent’s minds.
Boxing is the Philippines’ national sport with Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao being the most iconic and sought-after personality in the country. The Philippines also excels in all forms of cue sports, especially 9-ball. With chess and darts also much loved, it came as no surprise that the country took to the poker boom faster than any of its Asian counterparts.
Although poker is a game played with cards, it requires a special set of skills and a little luck to really master the game. Gambling, on the other hand, requires plenty of luck and just a little skill. Another significant feature of poker being a mind sport is that players engaged in tournaments are simply paying buy-ins that are like entry fees in golf, billiards, chess and other sporting contests. – Wally Sombero
We tend to view poker in two distinct phases: pre and post the 2003 World Series of Poker. Post 2003 has seen a new breed of younger internet-schooled poker players who tend to be as bland as a bowl of gruel. They don their hoodies and baseball caps and try to hide their plastic personalities with wild and frivolous lifestyles. Most come and go like the breeze, replaced by another batch of equally unimpressive soulless robots.
Pre 2003 the game was usually played by people with big personalities. Poker tended to be a hobby and a passion. Of course while at the table it was, and always will be, about winning. But off the table, there was community. Playing poker was about friendship. Nearly all poker players outside Las Vegas, although they played regularly, did not play all day, every day. They had lives, jobs, careers and families and got together when they could to unwind, have a drink and a laugh, and play some cards.
In the Philippines there was a large group of respected businessmen who came together to play poker. In those early days of poker, particularly in Manila, there was one man who stood above the rest – Wally Sombero. Tom Hall, founder of the Asian Poker Tour remembers the good old days of poker in the Philippines:
Even before we started hosting poker tournaments in Manila many years ago, I knew Wally from some of the Manila cash games. In those days, he was the only Manila based player known to the international poker community and back then I nicknamed him the “godfather of Philippines poker”.
Wally is a humble man and doesn’t necessarily warm to the notion of being a godfather. He first threw himself passionately into the local poker community before broadening his commitment to spreading the game throughout Asia.
I am proud to know that I have been instrumental in the birth of modern poker in Asia. In 2005, then PAGCOR Chairman Genuino asked me to accompany the Filipino delegation to G2E, a major gaming convention in Las Vegas. During this time, I introduced Genuino and his Directors to Mayor Goodman. I was able to convince the PAGCOR Chairman to support my vision of elevating PAGCOR casinos to an international level by introducing modern poker to the country. As a result, we opened the first poker room in Parañaque Airport Casino in 2005. That led in February 2006 to the fulfilment of my dream to conduct the first poker tournament in Asia. It was the PAGCOR World Celebrity Charity Poker Tournament. The tournament was one of the highlights of the first Asia Gaming and Entertainment Plus Leisure Expo Manila, in line with the PAGCOR vision to create a poker city within the thenproposed PAGCOR Entertainment City in Manila. – Wally Sombero
Wally had travelled to the US and played with, and beaten up on, the best. Wally is what the younger generation refers to as “old school”. Wally classes people like Benny Binion and Doyle Brunson as close personal friends. Back in the old days, Wally was one of the new kids on the block and his wonderful warmth, honesty and respect for others immediately endeared him to the poker playing community. It had to be like this. The poker world was no place for arrogant and unlikable personalities, just as it wasn’t a place for cowards. Wally played a great game of cards, as he understood what poker was all about. He also understood what was expected of a poker player:
I believe that a good poker player treats fellow players with respect. Ethical standards must be upheld at all times, and this includes abiding by the house rules that may vary from one poker room to another. I don’t really believe that trash talk on the table makes the game more exciting but witty remarks make it truly enjoyable. I am always too willing to share my knowledge with other players. Whenever I play, I am actually recruiting more supporters in my advocacy of promoting poker as a mind sport. – Wally Sombero
So where to now for poker in Asia? It has been fast to take off in some countries, but slower in others. Both on and off the table Wally Sombero will continue to help shape the game in this part of the world.
As a Filipino gaming investigative writer, I actually cover many aspects of gaming, not only poker. I am also active in promoting the Philippines as a tourism and investment growth area. As a result, I am often engaged as a gaming consultant by gaming groups interested in establishing footholds in the Philippines. In the Philippines, the popularity of poker is still increasing but the local poker industry itself is slowly dying. I am afraid this will be hastened if the poker rooms will be required to pay additional taxes. The new PAGCOR management must save the industry by clearly defining the tax situation and maintaining a sharing scheme friendly to poker room proponents. – Wally Sombero
Sir Wally is a leader. He is enthusiastic and well informed, and people listen to him. My respect for him as a player is very high. On the table Wally is a tough opponent. He is hard to read and mixes up his game, and that is precisely what makes a great poker player. Off the table he is passionate about his country, family and music. I can remember hearing him sing a song I call the “Hero Song”, clearly a patriotic song from Wally’s country. It was a moving moment and one I will never forget. If you get the chance to say hello to Sir Wally, please take it. He is a great guy, knows his poker, and let’s face it – it’s not every day you get to meet a true living legend of the game.
What people have to say about Wally Sombero
If one looks back at the history of modern, international-style poker in [the Philippines], the name and figure of Wally would be among the first things that come to mind. I remember him in early 2005 tirelessly working and pretty much evangelizing the game to government regulators, the media and of course players. Poker simply could not have happened in the Philippines without him. The man is a force of nature. – Nick Galan, President, Metro Card Club
He’s tough. From his police days to his time at the poker table Wally is nearly impossible to stop. I have seen Wally do very well in tournaments over the years. He’s a tricky player to play against and I see he has now introduced his musically gifted son to the game of poker and they often travel together. He always has a smile and a story to tell and I am sure he will be heavily involved in poker in Asia for many years to come. – Tom Hall, founder of the Asian Poker Tour (APT)
I first met Wally Sombero at the inaugural APPT tournament in Manila, August 2007. Wally at that time was described to me as the “godfather of poker in the Philippines”, a very fitting description for the man who I have come to know quite well through his support of major poker tournaments in Asia. Wally is a gentleman and has a great passion for poker – undoubtedly he is a key player in the growth of the game in the Philippines. – Danny McDonagh, Director of Live Poker Events, Asia Pacific
I have known Wally for many years and he is one of those amazing characters you come across in the poker community. Wherever he goes he is well known and hugely respected both on and off the tables. He has been an enormous supporter of poker in his home country of the Philippines and has also been active in supporting and helping the game grow here in Macau. One of the things people don’t know about Wally is that he not only knows his poker, but has an excellent broad knowledge of the casino industry in general, and even the online gaming industry. – Andrew W Scott, CEO, World Gaming Consultants