Poker Pros Flock to Cambodia’s Illegal Poker Scene

Posted on by RTR Dennis

When one thinks of lucrative poker destinations, Las Vegas, London, and Macau come to mind. Cambodia, however, is not one of the first places you’d think would be a poker haven.

But more and more poker players are finding themselves here – even though poker is illegal in Cambodia. Find out why this is the case along with the benefits and challenges of playing poker here.

Cash Game Scene in Phnom Penh is Thriving

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is seeing more and more underground poker clubs spring up every day. But none of these are more significant than the Riverking, which offers the city’s biggest poker action.

The Riverking isn’t what you’d expect from an underground poker room since it offers marble flooring, flatscreen TVs, and plush sofas. It also houses rows of safes, where players can keep bundles of US dollars.

Of course, poker pros don’t come here just for the amenities or conveniences. They come because the Riverking features a large array of poker variants and plenty of fish. The latter is the main draw since the fish are often well-off Cambodians who don’t mind losing big pots.

“These guys are just here to have fun. Even if they lose a massive pot they don’t care,” said Michael Kim, a 42-year-old grinder from the US. “They want to make friends. They are more like whales [than fish]. I don’t mean that with any negative connotations though – they are great guys.”

Luke McCollum, a 26-year-old British poker pro who’s been living in Cambodia for four years, agreed with Kim’s assessment.

“There are some players who just have so much money they really don’t care. They lose $3,000 on a single hand but they’re still laughing,” McCollum told Southeast Asia Globe.

Poker Scene Born out of Gambling Ban

In 1996, the Cambodian government passed the Law on the Suppression of Gambling. While casinos are still allowed under this legislation, locals are banned from playing in them.

This has created the right conditions for underground establishments like the Riverking to thrive. But the clubs’s anonymous manager said that certain factors must be in place before an underground venue can excel. Another aspect is that these places need the right support, or rather people looking away from the illegal gambling going on at these clubs.

“Regulations in this country are pretty relaxed… But for poker, it depends,” said the Riverking’s manager, who uses the name Vi to protect his identify. “You need to have a strong backing to open somewhere like this.”

Riverking has this strong backing because, according to VI, it was set up by an anonymous, senior official in Cambodia’s government. The club draws everybody from politicians to military generals. Players’ identities are guarded because the lone security camera faces the cashier area.

The Riverking is far from the country’s only underground poker room, with a number of smaller venues found throughout Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Given that just six of the country’s licensed casinos offer live poker – places where Cambodians can’t play – it’s little wonder why underground poker clubs are successful.

The World is Taking Notice of Cambodia’s Poker Scene

Again, Cambodia may not be a heralded poker stop, but the world recognizes their passion for the game. The World Poker Tour held two events in Cambodia in December 2016 and January 2017. The Asian Poker Tour held a tournament event here back in 2012.

More important than the tournament action is that the nation’s high stakes scene is drawing players from all over the globe.

Gareth ‘The Nugget’ Jones, a 56-year-old poker pro from Wrexham, England, moved to Cambodia because he loves how soft the games are, compared to the British and Scottish games he’s used to playing.

“The poker is easier and better here – there’s more action. [Moving to Cambodia] was a no-brainer,” said Jones.

Kim likes the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with the hassles of online poker. He also appreciates the lack of taxation.

“Online games are getting more difficult,” said Kim. “When you’re playing online, people use the HUD [heads up display], a software that helps players by providing stats on other people at the table.”

He added, “In America, it [profits from poker] is taxable and should be reported. But here there are no limitations based on tax or anything like that.”

Vi pointed out that the low rake in Cambodia’s poker rooms is another motivation for traveling here.

“The rake in Cambodia is cheaper than in any other Asian country,” Vi claimed. “At certain big casinos here, they take crazy [high] rakes, but in local poker rooms, the rake is actually very small.”

Trading Online Poker for Cambodia’s Live Games

Despite poker pros moving to Cambodia specifically for live games, they still spend some time playing at major sites like PokerStars, 888, and partypoker. However, they spend a lot less time than they used to.

McCollum spoke on this change, noting that he’s cut down from a full-time online grinder to only spending 10% of his time at internet sites.

“Online I’ve played over eight million hands. I used to play 24 or 28 tables at once but have cut it down now to just six or eight,” said McCollum.

One reason why he’s reduced his online play so much is because major sites have cut rewards for high-volume players.

“I lost $900 in 52 hours but gained $1,000 on promotions [special ‘free bet’ deals offered by the site],” McCollum said, regarding a time when he played 52 straight hours. “Overall, I was up $100. I stayed awake with a combination of energy drinks and weed. It’s a great combo for long hours. The weed numbs me down, and I become a bit like a robot, and the energy drinks keep me awake.”

Pros and Cons of Cambodia’s Poker Scene

Many poker pros who’ve moved to Cambodia rave about the live scene. You can count The Nugget Jones as one, because he loves everything from the weather to the women.

“It’s cheap, sunny, the guys are great, the people are great and the girls are great,” said Jones. This room [the Riverking] is buzzing; it’s fantastic.”

Kim seconded this notion, saying, “Even [for] the players who aren’t winning a lot of money, there’s still a lot of opportunity to go out at night and live, if not like a king, then at least live like a duke or something.”

Of course, as with any good thing, there are also downsides. Tom McFaul, another British expat, said that cashouts and internet service are two of the biggest issues.

“Cashing out is a bit of an issue,” McFaul said, regarding transferring money from online poker rooms to a bank account. “To get money from Poker Stars to my Cambodian bank account it takes a couple of weeks, and I get charged about $100. Also, I’ve tried to play online with shitty Wi-Fi and stuff, but that’s a terrible idea.”

Kim noted that family pressure makes a person question moving to Cambodia to play poker. Both in the West and in Cambodia, choosing poker as a career is looked down upon by general society. Specifically, many people worldwide still view poker as pure gambling.

“Poker is a game of strategy,” said Kim. “Similar to a game of chess, players can improve over time and the issue of who wins and loses can change as some improve and others don’t.”
McCollum noted that the Phnom Penh party scene gets the best of players – even leading some to become drug addicts or die.

“Poker can be very swingy,” he explained. “To make a living you need discipline… I don’t know anyone who has done really well here. People can’t control themselves. They end up drinking and spending too much. I’ve known people who were doing well but came here and are now meth heads on the street.”

McCollum added, “Sometimes the involvement of partying and various substances can affect people to the detriment of their health – but I’m not saying that’s why they died. I’m sitting at a poker table every day of my life and that’s why I have a big belly. I’m not very healthy, and I just think [it’s best] to live every day because it could be your last.”

Jones has a brighter look on the matter.

“I come to Southeast Asia and I party. I enjoy myself because what’s the point of not enjoying yourself?” he said. “I have the perfect lifestyle – I just need to keep being able to buy in.”
Given that most of the players whom Southeast Asia Global spoke to plan to stay in Cambodia, it seems that the majority are enjoying their time here.

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