What goes on at the Macau poker tables stayed in Macau – until now. Michael Kaplan brings you the truth about the biggest game in the world
It is 3:00 on a Wednesday morning in Macau. Inside StarWorld casino, a multi-storied operation that feels a bit like a department store – albeit, with high-stakes baccarat and chandeliers – escalators transport gamblers from landing to landing. The air resonates with chatter, synthesized Chinese music, mingling scents of Asian food from a corner restaurant, and the continuous percussion of chips hitting chips across green baize.
Tucked away, against a back wall decorated with a shower of playing cards, the world’s richest no-limit hold’em game unfolds. Johnny Chan, looking cockily confident, sits at the head of the table. Millions in plaques and chips are stacked all around him. Off to the side, out of the action, famous Malaysian high-roller Richard Yong chats up a leggy brunette. His son bounces in and out of the game and business-partner Paul Phua scrutinises a fresh pair of hole cards. Bodyguards and hangers-on half-watch the poker while half-watching each other. Partially finished bowls of noodles and cups of tea cover knee-high side-tables. This is the Macau Big Game, where no-limit stakes go as high as HK$100k/$200k (about £7.5k/£15k) and Tom Dwan burnished his sick reputation with a multi-million dollar bluff. The other guy called and won with Aces. It is where the likes of Sam Trickett, Phil Ivey, Andrew Robl and Gus Hansen rank as welcome visitors. They give action and always comport themselves appropriately. Erik Seidel and Patrik Antonius? Not so much action and not especially welcome.
Watching it all go down, standing at a bit of a remove, is the dapperly-dressed Winfred Yu. Born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, a former running buddy of Daniel Negreanu and Evelyn Ng, he currently reigns as the God of high-stakes poker in Macau. Yu’s the guy who runs the Big Game there, decides who will play and who won’t, scrapes together contenders when nobody with a couple-million dollars seems to be around, and takes pieces of favourites like Ivey and Chan as a sort of gratuity. He told me the story about Dwan and his ill-fated bluff. I wonder how durrrr handled the loss. ‘You know how Tom is: Ooops!’ says Yu, showing a crooked smile. ‘He never gets mad. He’s a super nice guy. My VIPs always let him play in the big game. You can’t expect him to always have $5 or $6m to sit in here, but the VIPs always back him up.’ VIP, by the way, is a Macau euphemism for casino fish, a guy who plays high-stakes baccarat in the pit and dabbles in nosebleed poker as well. The casino loves him and so do the poker pros.
In referencing the buy-in, I assume that Yu is talking Hong Kong dollars (currently 7.75 to 1 US dollar), but who knows. This is, after all, Macau, a strange island where casinos out-earn those in Vegas by about seven times and everything is not always as it seems. If you believe what you read online, Macau comes off as a place where the casinos are paved in gold and Western pros need to merely show up in order to make millions. Before going there, I had the impression that a poker pro’s biggest problem would be figuring out how to get all of the Macau currency back into the United States or Europe.
It’s the kind of takeaway that’s easy to accept as gospel when Yu points out one Asian sad sack who he describes as ‘the second biggest poker loser in Macau, down HK$400m over the years.’ As the man waves around his cards and yucks it up with other players, Yu shakes his head and adds, ‘He’s the one guy here who never improved. But he loves the action. Every day, he plays across the street, at Wynn for HK$1k/$2k. Then he comes here at night and looks for a bigger game. He just likes to gamble.’ And he’s only the second biggest loser!
It’s players like him who keep enticing the Western pros to Macau – a clutch of them lease apartments at the luxurious One Central, adjacent to Mandarin Oriental and a short walk to Wynn and StarWorld. It’s a virtual dorm for top pros, with Ivey reigning supreme in an expansive top-floor lair that reportedly combines several apartments into Ivey-worthy digs.
But then Ivey moves in the kind of atmosphere where he can earn a year’s rent in a matter of minutes. ‘Once a guy called me to arrange a heads-up game against Phil for one hour,’ remembers Yu. ‘He said he wanted to learn by playing the best. The guy brought HK$5m and told Phil, ‘This is [the] tuition fee. Come and get it.’ He lost the money in less than an hour. He got another HK$5m and started a ring game. He didn’t learn much. But he wanted to beat Phil for just one hand and brag about it to his friends.’ If only everyone in Macau had the same proclivities.
The host with the most
To fully understand Macau poker, it’s necessary to understand Macau itself, a casino city that functions like no other in the West. Visit Las Vegas, for example, with a desire to gamble, and you will most likely be dealing with a casino host. He’s the guy who figures out the likelihood of you giving the casino a shot at your money, how credit-worthy you may be, and what your action is worth. That will factor into the comps you receive – whether it’s a suite or a room, a line-pass to the buffet or all the Joël Robuchon creaminess you can stomach – and, most importantly for some, the line of credit that will be extended. It’s essentially a loan in the form of chips. You take the funds and agree to settle up, interest free, within 30 days.
In Macau, casinos usually do not extend credit. It comes via a so-called junket operator who functions as, more or less, a super host: providing rooms, food comps, transportation, and the all-important line of credit. In exchange, the casino allows him to take up to 60% of his player’s action. In the unlikely event the player wins, then the junket operator covers 60% of that money. In the more likely scenario he loses, the operator receives 60% of those losses.
To give an idea of how profitable the junket business can be, Winfred Yu references his employer Suncity, which, he says, is the top junket operator in town, and force behind the poker room at StarWorld. ‘We turnover HK$18bn per month,’ he says. ‘That’s US$2.5bn.’ It’s worth noting that all of Las Vegas netted $6.5bn in gaming revenue last year. And while turnover is not the same as revenue, it’s still a hell of a lot of money. Additionally, you don’t have to be Alvin Chau, the CEO of Suncity, to make a fortune in the junket game. But you do have to be smart, shrewd, and tough. You need to be able to collect money from degenerate gamblers and negotiate with the likes of Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.
Run it once
When Western poker pros refer to the ‘Chinese businessmen’ who play the Macau Big Game, they are usually talking about junket operators – who definitely are not suckers. And when people discuss what it takes for a Westerner to be invited to the game and mention the need to give action and be fun to play with, the fun part is not for the junket operators. It’s for the so-called VIPs, who the junket operators bring to Macau and often build the game around, creating a situation that suddenly starts to look a bit like the famous Executive Game depicted in The Sopranos. ‘There might be three baccarat players from the pit, one or two pros, and four or five junket operators,’ says Winfred Yu, explaining how he composes things. ‘But the games are semi-private. If a VIP says that he does not want to play with a certain guy [generally, a Western pro], we accommodate him. We will not piss him off.’ Then the ostracised pro can sit around and wait for a seat to open up. ‘But,’ continues Yu, ‘[when the game is good], the seat only opens up after the VIP leaves. Then, at that point, the game ends. There is no more action.’
So, really, the junket operators are there to beat the casino fish – potentially their customers – and the selected pro gets invited to play as window dressing and an attraction to the fish. While the junket operators may not be good enough to beat the pros, they manage to tax the game in other ways. ‘There is no running it twice in Macau, but there is insurance,’ says a Russian player who’s a veteran of high stakes cash games in the East and West. ‘The junket operators sell insurance to whoever has the strongest hand in a showdown. When it’s offered, you are pretty much obligated to take it. It’s part of the cost of playing in the game. Mathematically, it’s never a very good deal for the player.’
No wonder then that action guys like Tom Dwan are always welcome to play. Not only do they keep the game entertaining for the fish, but their propensity for wild bluffs benefits the junket operators who push insurance. Plus, the Big Game plays a little differently in Macau. Hong Kong-based Tom Hall, who’s made many millions by investing in and owning various online gambling sites, has established himself as a keen observer of the Macau poker scene. He knows how ugly it can get for unprepared Westerners playing in a game where raising preflop brings an unexpectedly high number of callers; together, of course, they dilute the value of premium hands and semi-bluffs. Hall remembers the online crusher Di ‘Urindanger’ Dang losing a bundle before adjusting to the Macau style of play. ‘He was used to calling a lot preflop; that does not necessarily work here,’ says Hall. ‘Then there was the Scandinavian pro who lost all of his team’s money to a fish in just two days. Very quickly, all the other players took it off of the fish.’ Presumably, there was nothing left for the Scandies.
Before visiting Macau, it’s easy to imagine the place as poker paradise, wall to wall with tables. But, actually that is not the case. In fact, there are only 23 poker tables in all of Macau: eight at StarWorld, 13 at Wynn, and two at City of Dreams. This is because the casinos in Macau are each allowed only so many gambling tables and their executives are loathe to devote too many to poker – not when, as Yu puts it, ‘people play baccarat for suitcases of money.’
Lucky for the poker players then, StarWorld is not the only game in town. Across the street, the Wynn Macau has its own game, with its own set of idiosyncratic rules, and stakes usually set at the Macau equivalent of around US$60/$120 no-limit – though, when the right player buys in, things go up considerably. I get to the heart of this after running into professional grinder Josh Tekesky. I had never met him before, but it’s easy to figure that the strapping American dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and pricy golf shirt is not there to play in the pit. He came from America to break the back of poker in Macau. How is life, Josh? ‘There’s nothing to do here but drink and gamble,’ he says. ‘The regulars grind all day and the casino keeps a seat open for its VIP. Everybody sits there, waiting for a VIP to sit down. The worst, though, is when the VIP turns out to be a good poker player. We call them fake VIPs. Sometimes there will be two seats open and we’ll play 11-handed.’ Tekesky shakes his head ruefully and says, ‘The junket bosses here are more powerful than Steve Wynn.’
Back at StarWorld, the bosses do their best against Johnny Chan. He lays back, shows no emotion and doesn’t seem to be suffering too much. In fact, he seems to be rather enjoying himself, knowing that things could be a lot worse, recognising, perhaps, that just being in this game, for a guy like him, is something to value. ‘If this is the only game that a Westerner wants to play, I tell him that it’s not worth his while to come to Macau,’ Winfred Yu tells me as we railbird Chan. ‘We only have nine seats every night and players will block you if you become annoying. The other thing is that this game is not as easy as it looks. Some people come here, get their asses broken, and need money for a plane ticket home.’
At the table, Johnny Chan inspects a dry flop and leads out with a modest bet. He stares into space and seems in no danger of requiring help with his plane-fare home.
Stories from Macau #1: The Ivey dance
It isn’t every day that the Macau poker players get to win a bundle from Phil Ivey. Like the fellow who wanted to play him heads-up for some HK$5m – just so he could maybe win a single a hand against Ivey and brag about it to his friends – players in just about any Macau ring game revel at the sight of Ivey getting hosed.
But sometimes, the celebrating goes over the top, as was the case after Ivey lost around US$3m in an unfortunate pile-up of bad cards and an unlucky prop bet. In response, a middle-aged VIP stood on his chair and began pumping his fists in the air, executing a rave-y looking victory dance. ‘Then,’ remembers a player who was there, ‘a Chinese kid picked up $2m in plaques and started smashing them in front of Phil’s face, like cymbals. They were all so happy to be the guys who got Phil Ivey. He looked like he was going to kill himself. He shipped over [the $3m] and called for a chip runner so he could rebuy.’
Stories from Macau #2: Tales from the pit
No poker pro goes to Macau with the intention of taking up a money-sucking game like baccarat. But there are some who can’t help themselves. Tom Hall cites Andrew Robl as a perfect case in point: ‘Andy came here and he was the tightest nit ever. But then he started playing in the pit and it rubbed off on him in a bad way. I remember seeing him inside a private gaming room in Australia. He had just finished first in a tournament [the $100k challenge for around US$1m] and he lost all his winnings at baccarat. I just sat there, drinking wine and playing low-stakes poker.’
Knowing Robl well enough to be surprised by the story, I call him for confirmation. He tells me it is true. But he remembers the Hall part of it a little differently. ‘Tom was betting right with me,’ says Robl. ‘We were both down the same amount of money. I quit and he decided to make one last bet, double or nothing on his losses. He won, but I didn’t make the bet. I guess I’m a quitter.’