A winning hand

Tim Chen, CEO of Macau Billionaire Poker

Macau-based poker tournament organiser, Macau Billionaire Poker (MBP) seems to have been dealt a good hand, having recently signed an agreement with major Asia-Pacific poker tour Asia Poker Tour (APT), for an exclusive agreement to bring a minimum of two international poker events per year to Macau for the next five years. Business Daily spoke with the CEO of MBP, Tim Chen (pictured), at Babylon Casino where the company’s tournaments take place, to discuss the evolution of the poker market in mainland China and Macau and its contribution to the local economy.
How did you become interested in poker?
I’m originally from Guangzhou and met poker during my studies in Michigan in the United States back in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker. It’s a legendary story; he turned a US$40 entry ticket into a US$2.5 million first prize championship, beating one of the best professional players of the world at the time [Sam Farha], being himself a total amateur. At the time, ESPN and other TV channels started making several poker TV shows, such as World Series of Poker (WSOP) live and High Stakes Poker. It was the time of the poker boom with everything from online poker, world series poker and TV shows. It was amazing. That’s how I got into poker and I never got out.

What was your professional background prior to creating MBP?
Before MBP I ran a series of poker operations such as websites, forums, training websites, social and streaming video websites and a poker TV. I established most of my connections operating in mainland China through online means, with some outreach to the Greater China area.

Do you personally play poker?
I used to be one of the best professional poker players in China. I can’t really reveal the highest stakes game I played, since they were all private games, but it was very high stakes.

When did MBP start?
The company was founded in 2010 by Mr. Rono Lo [who is still the company’s partner] and we held a very large tournament in 2012, with a total prize pool of HK$180 million. The first prize of HK$50 million was won by a Hong Kong player named Stanley Choi, a stock trader. We wanted to promote poker in the Greater China area as we recognise the potential of this game.

Did the gaming operators have a positive reception to poker when you first started?
I think during that time gaming operators and junket operators like Suncity Group didn’t really notice the rising trend of poker, since the cash value is nothing compared to VIP Baccarat, where one single player can play HK$20 million in one table in the lobby.

What added value can poker tournaments bring to gaming operators’ properties?
Poker is very recreational and an intelligent game, so it creates a lot of traffic, especially during tournaments. As an example, during our last tournament the normal rate for a room in Harbourview hotel - which can be between HK$600 to HK$700 per day - went up to HK$3,000 or HK$4,000, almost 10 times more.
Maybe the prize pool compared to other games is not that large, but it brings guests to the hotel, into the food and beverage areas, and to all other entertainment offerings. Therefore it’s huge in terms of attached value and social value, it’s huge. It brings attention and exposure and people will come. People will go broke playing baccarat, but in my 15 years of poker experience, nobody ever went broke playing poker, especially in poker tournaments. It’s healthy entertainment and it’s an entertaining game.

Baccarat is king in Macau. Do you think poker has the necessary appeal to the typical Chinese player?
I think baccarat players tend to be older since it is simple and its excitement comes from the possibility of reversing a loss or profit in one or two minutes. In China, poker players tend to be from younger generations. If you go to our tournaments and look around, it’s mainly young faces, around 20 to 30-years old. The oldest guys tend to be foreigners.
However, the young population in mainland China is not that interested in hardcore luck based gaming, they like to think and they like to fight. They like to put a strategy behind it.
There’s two reasons for this; one because younger generations were brought up in a developing China. The Chinese economy is booming right now so they probably have a good income, while they’re mostly only children. They don’t really care about money, they care about title or status.
The other important reason is that baccarat is not allowed in mainland China, but poker can be played in some situations.
Currently in mainland China, there are several very large companies promoting poker such as Tencent or Booya from Hong Kong. Poker can have many forms. It can be illegal if you play large cash games, but there’s one poker game on WeChat that has huge traffic using only play money.
Tencent just signed with WSOP for a ten-year agreement to use their brand in mainland China, together with WSOP Asia.
I think the game will become more and more popular in China, especially with younger generations.

How is the situation of online poker gaming in mainland China?
It is allowed if it uses play money. In the U.S. they had Black Friday [when the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the operations of three of the countries largest poker websites PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker] which hit the American poker market hard. However, I think it was a good thing for the Chinese poker market, since after that a lot of the business focus shifted to the Chinese market. I see players from all social levels coming to the local tournaments, from CEO’s to college students. Everybody loves it.

How has the Macau poker scene evolved since 2010?
If you look at the history of poker development in Macau, around 2010 until 2013 actually a lot of casinos were holding poker tournaments in Galaxy, Wynn Macau, The Venetian. However after 2013, many of these casinos closed their poker tables because they would calculate the average profit of a poker table, which is calculated as an average gambling table having to pay the same fee to the government. They realised they couldn’t get the same level of value as baccarat tables.
In the last two years there are again more and more poker tables, which I believe is due to the micro-economy adjustment. The Chief Executive said that in the next 10 years, Macau will turn into the entertainment and recreational capital of Asia, away from the gaming capital of Asia.
I totally agree with this direction because if people just come here every year to go broke, it’s not really good. Gaming revenues declined in the last years and I think more and more casino operators are going in the same direction, with poker being a perfect game for recreation and entertainment.
You can bring your family during a tournament and they just go somewhere for fine dining or The Venetian to get a boat. You can spend MOP40,000 and be able to win a prize of MOP4.2 million. In our tournament, you can spend only MOP28,000 and get four days of enjoyment.
Do you know how many people go to the WSOP in Las Vegas? Around 120,000 people, just for one event, with an average buy-in of MOP5,000, so you can see how much it can generate in one city for one month. Not to mention accommodation, dining and other expenses.
I really think Macau has the potential to be the poker capital in Asia.

Do you believe Macau manages to attract the most important world players like Las Vegas does?
I think we already do in Wynn Macau and City of Dreams, where they run very high stakes tables. Plenty of famous professional players play there such as Tom Duong, Phil Ivy or Daniel Negreanu. We invited three champions to our last event, such as Jonny Chan and Martin Jacobson the 2014 WSOP champion.

Have your events always been held at Babylon Casino?
We used Galaxy and Wynn Macau once before, but since 2015 Babylon became our permanent home. I think it will be our headquarters for at least the next five years, since it has the space and all the equipment and staff to hold very large tournaments. We’ve been in a very long and good business relationship with Macau Legend and SJM, they’re very supportive towards us.
The casino is also close to Fisherman’s Wharf, with a nice sea view, good restaurants and most importantly, being isolated from other large casinos. So people who come here, they just come for the poker. Normally poker players don’t play other games. I’ve been in Macau hundreds of times and I don’t even know the rules to baccarat. I’m just not interested.

Have you partnered with any junket operators?
Not for now. It just hasn’t crossed our line, since the customers they try to cater to are totally different from our target. My aim is middle class players, we have side events with HK$3,500 buy-ins. We have HK$500,000 tables for VIP’s but it’s not our focus right now. I want larger and well-organised tournaments with brand value.

How have the MBP tournaments changed over the years?
They grew very fast. Just as an example, in March of this year we had a poker event with a guarantee of HK$2 million, with 397 people showing up.
In our recent MBP Summer Showdown in June, the prize pool was ten times larger with 826 players showing up for the main event.
This tournament was held between July 27 and August 3 with a record breaking [for Asia] HK$20 million prize pool. The whole organisation went very smoothly, laying down the basis for our future tournaments. We’ll have an even larger one at the end of the year.
MBP operates two kinds of tournaments, some just with our one brand and others in partnership. With our own brand, we have three events in Spring, Summer and the end of the year. The others are with other organisations like Asia Poker Tour (APT) and the Booya Poker Tour (BPT). We are looking to host one tournament monthly.
Also, we don’t associate with any gaming platforms or organisations. For example, City of Dreams can only organise tournaments by PokerStars, but we don’t have that burden, we welcome any valuable and reliable brand. We’re also in talks with Tencent.
We had to adjust our direction in the last two years, because online poker grew up so much in mainland China.

You just partnered with APT. How did that partnership come about?
APT’s CEO, Jeff Man, is one of our very old friends, having operated APT for almost 10 years. The company has become very famous, with a unique brand value across Asia. They have a site in Manila, Jeju Island and events in Cambodia, but they were always looking for a stable home in Macau, so here we are.
They will hold at least two annual events here, with the one in the end of the year being the largest of their series, like a closing ceremony. We also agreed to cooperate in staff training and mutual promotions.

Do most tournament players come from mainland China?
Yeah, I would say 70 per cent or 80 per cent.

What is the process of hosting a tournament?
It’s exhausting and it’s absolutely a team effort. For just a one week tournament we need to begin preparing four or five months before. With pre-game promotions, preparing all the tables and all the computer systems, training staff. For a tournament like Summer Showdown, we need to train a lot of new dealers or get professional dealers to do it part-time. They make good pay, and if we make a monthly tournament, they can get more than in a full-time job.

What future tournaments are being planned?
We have already set up for three in the second half of this year, one just us in October, one with APT in November, another one to be held in September or October, and another at the end of December or in the beginning of next year.

What differentiates MBP tournaments from other local tournaments?
I think we partner with China a lot, so we have the largest percentage of Chinese players, attracting a lot of fans. Foreign players tend to play very seriously, with shades and all, while in our tournament it is more like a Carnival. It’s very entertaining.

Have you had any issues with gaming regulators in Macau?
We work closely together with the Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau (DICJ), and in every tournament we need to submit a very detailed application such as the table layouts, staff work permits, tournament structure. It’s a good thing about Macau, everything is examined closely, giving the game more fairness. In mainland China there’s incidents of tournament organisers just bailing with the money or the police calling off tournaments one day before it starts. It’s why the largest poker tournaments will be held in Macau, the government is supportive and it has great economic and social value.

Prize pool - amount of money collected to award as prizes to players in a tournament
Straight Flush - five cards in numerical order, all of identical suits.
Royal flush - best possible straight flush consisting of the ace, king, queen, jack and ten of a suit