Do you feel lucky, punk?

Tales of Macau, the biggest poker game in the world

By Thomas Levene

This article is, in part, my personal poker journey and, partly, an insight into the mysterious and secretive world of nose-bleed cash games that just get bigger and bigger.

The elegant Wynn, in Macau Cilade de Sintra, Macau, overlooking Nam Van Lake, is where the biggest poker cash games in the world took place over the last decade. Vegas doesn’t even come close to the legendary stakes at the Wynn. Even on a Monday, the Wynn had bigger games than in the famous Bobby’s Room in Las Vegas!

The elegant Wynn, in Macau Cilade de Sintra, Macau, overlooking Nam Van Lake

For the sake of privacy, I have changed some names. All else is based on real events; stories that I have gathered over the years. I played at the same card room for over a decade – mainly at the $1000 table. Sadly for me, at of the time of writing, poker is not available in Macau. The general feeling is that those Uber high stakes games are a thing of the past.

nose-bleed cash games that just get bigger and bigger

Although Macau is officially part of China, its more recent historical roots are in Portuguese colonialism. The street names are Portuguese and the architectural style of the churches and houses. Even the food has a strong Portuguese flavour. Macau feels more laid-back, and safer, than Hong Kong. Hong Kong is just a ferry ride away. 

My friend Cody, a long-term crusher in the Pot Limit Omaha game, claims Macau is the only place in the world where he feels comfortable when his wife goes grocery shopping, without worrying about her safety.

The reason Macau became the host for Big games in the first place, is that after three decades, a few Chinese people from China have accumulated enormous wealth and nearly all of them love to gamble. We call them whales.

The whole poker economy revolves around these whales

The whole poker economy revolves around these whales. Each VIP is assigned a handler by the casino. The handlers are there to serve the VIPs and satisfy their every whim both inside and outside the casino.

A whale is easily spotted by his, or her, chips. These are horizontal elegant, thick plaques, with HKD100,000 or HKD$50,000 embossed onto a marble like surface. The majority of whales have a private junket table cordoned off so they can’t be spotted. But some are still seen from time to time, especially in the yellow room. This was a public Baccarat room within the Wynn complex known for its high stakes.

The game of choice for the whales is Baccarat. When you are at the poker table, you can hear the people in the private junket rooms shriek with excitement, or moan in disgust. The sound carries across the gaming floor. The shouts interrupt the serene background music. The casino plays songs like Sade’s Smooth Operator.

But, the VIPs sometimes also wish to play poker with the pros. In the poker room, a VIP seat is always left open. One of these wealthy players can join in at any time in the big game. The poker players are for them. Games are specifically set up around the Big Whale. Regulars may set up the biggest stakes games and play for hours amongst themselves, until the VIP eventually decides to show up, if at all.

Games are specifically set up around the Big Whale

The usual advertised highest stake game is 1000/2000 Hong Kong Dollars with players buying into the poker games with a stake of up to three million HKD. That’s equivalent to from $120,000 to $400,000. They get 10 shiny 100,000 HKD to start with as a minimum.

But of course the whales come in different shapes and sizes. There are different tables to suit each wealth bracket and bankroll. For example, whenever the Chinese entrepreneur, known as The Unicorn plays, he likes to play with 10,000 HKD big blind chips and a straddle* of HKD$20,000.

But the biggest electrical supplier in China, plays 10,000 – 20,000HKD blinds. At these levels, the lowest buy-ins would be around $US1 million. That’s a lot to lose on a single hand. Nevertheless, a seat or two will always be open, waiting to tempt a VIP onto the top two tables.

the lowest buy-ins would be around $US1 million. That’s a lot to lose on a single hand.

 The enormous flow of wealth was the reason why the very best online and live cash game players in the world stayed to play poker in Macau; from the phenomenally good online Russian, Tomofey Kuznetsov, Trueteller, widely acknowledged as the best online cash player in the world, to the famous TV American poker star and the most feared live player in the world at the time, Tom Durr Dwan, who regularly played at the Wynn and at private games around town.

It’s not always plain sailing. Tom Dwan disappeared off the scene while in Macau one time. No one knew what had happened to him. Rumours of multi-million-dollar losses in private games and disgruntled backers with ties to Triads meant concerns were raised for his safety. But he emerged a year later. I guess the rumours were just rumours, after all. Well, probably…

Timofey Kuznetsov, at the top of his game

Most poker players stay in plush, shared, poker-player apartments, overlooking a causeway. They have stellar views. Gyms, pools, spas and even tennis courts are available. Slumming is out of the question. Rent can be paid in poker chips, which helped. Jake Cody was the UK’s most successful tournament player at the time, racking up millions in winnings. Once he turned to me said: You’re staying with Jake this time. Some poker players even set up a side business at the hotel where they operate a revolving door that lets transient players into the action.

As you only have 10 minutes after registering interest for a game level from the time you receive a text to the time you claim your seat. So, poker players must live within 10 minutes of the Wynn.

One Central or the even more luxurious Mandarin Oriental, (which is directly opposite the elegant Wynn Casino) are really the only two choices of hotel available to poker players.

You only have 10 minutes after registering interest for a game from the time you receive a text to the time you claim your seat. So, poker players must live within 10 minutes of the Wynn. If you miss your seat you miss a chance to play with a VIP or a wealthy tourist. If you don’t arrive on time you lose your seat. You are just leaving money on the table, as they say. No one stays at the Wynn itself, for some reason.

It’s important for a poker player’s rating (their expected value) that they participate in those games, come what may. High stakes players sometimes stay up all night because they are on a waiting list, either that or they play for lower stakes, for hours. All this just for the chance to claim their real seat, even if it means starting at 5 or 6am,

If a professional Poker player knows a VIP is playing, it’s worth it to them. One time I saw Trueteller bolt past me sprinting from One Central towards the Wynn, as he obviously had not read his text message on time and was about to miss his seat with a VIP.

Although overall I made good money when I played in Macau, it was never easy or stable

Trueteller was a fast runner, but not faster than Australian Mike. Australian Mike is a tall slim medium to high stakes regular. They once had a bet about who could run the fastest 100 meters by the lake outside. The whole poker community took bets on the outcome. Prop bets were not uncommon. Trueteller was convinced he would win, boasting that he won his school sprint competition. But I had seen Australian Mike train for this event and my money was most definitely on him. Poker players are highly competitive people. It was a forgone conclusion that Australian Mike would win. This begs the question: Why did Trueteller take the bet in the first place?

Trueteller wore normal sports Nikes and a pair of shorts and T-shirt, for the race, while Australian Mike appeared with spiked running shoes. Australian Mike had the outfit and demeanour of a seasoned professional athlete and won, of course. It wasn’t even close. When it came to running, they were in different leagues. Sometimes players’ egos really do get the better of them. Even top pros like Trueteller.

Opposite the dealer

As for me, I came and went for over a decade. In the past, I would only stay around a week or less at the Wynn Macau to play cards.  I had a full-time job in Taiwan as a teacher at a local university. Taking the plunge as a professional card player just wasn’t a step I was ready to take. Although, overall I made good money when I played in Macau, it was never easy or stable. I was always in that predicament; between giving up a stable comfortable job, or going pro and risking bankruptcy.

It’s early 2017. My situation was different. I’d be there for a month. I had been working for 3 years as a teacher in an oil company in the Middle East, so I had a bankroll together, ready to give myself a shot at leaving the teaching world behind.

I had around $75,000. This sounds like a lot but it’s a pittance compared to the real money being wagered. Even for the games I play you need 10,000 HKD to buy in. I should really have had 100 buy-ins ($125,000), in order to deal with the swings in fortune, so was basically under rolled.

I can remember it well: the money has already been wired into the casino and a balance converted into HKD is accessible for me at any time behind the cage. The unnerving thing is, that I can, potentially, lose all of my savings in one hand, if I had a moment of madness and decide to take a shot at the big game.

On the first day a French VIP fish arrives called Jean Pierre (not his real name). Jean-Pierre wanted to play higher stakes PLO (Pot limit Omaha).

He was a successful French garment producer on his way back from mainland China to France. He liked to play all night until his flight back home the next afternoon. I lost $6000 that night to him and decided to quit. So I give my seat away. All the money went in when I had three Aces and by far the best hand with one card to come. He hit.

Players stay at luxury apartments less than ten minutes away from the tables

When I arrived the next day around 3 pm, Jean Pierre was still playing, although half asleep. Huge stacks of chips were beside the guy who had taken my seat. He only bought in for the minimum and now had around $30,000 US. Jean Pierre had lost it all, and then some. But, unfortunately, he didn’t lose to me.

Nevertheless, I was feeling optimistic, as I had recently won the biggest score of my life in Australia at the Aussie Millions poker festival held in Melbourne. I was hoping that poker would free me from lesson plans, marking homework, and unwilling students.

My gambling chips

The unnerving thing is, that I could potentially lose all of this in one hand if I had a moment of madness

Surprisingly, the casino had a 99 Noodles restaurant that was reasonably priced by Wynn standards. Eating a bowl of noodles and watching a few minutes of the crazy action was a nice diversion.

These large plaques of HKD$100,000 are also the hallmarks of the high stakes poker players, where the very best poker player and the richest people with the deepest pockets in the world duke it out.

It’s one thing to put $10,000 down and win the World series tournament for a few million. It’s quite another to bet $10,000 of your own money on a pure bluff. And that’s only the first round of betting. This is why the Macau tournament players tend to be the biggest fish in the high stakes cash games. And any cash games, come to think of it.

every small mistake on any street is amplified by increments of average yearly western salaries or on the river average lifetime total salaries, for the big games.

Some players may be flush with cash from their recent tournament score, but still be without the finesse needed to play deep stack, where every small mistake on any street is amplified by increments of an average yearly western salary, or the river average of lifetime total salaries.

I’ve added a rare photo down below, as photography is strictly prohibited. It’s a very big game and it has the 100,000HKD plaque that epitomises a high stakes game at its very highest. The players around the table have a combined total in the millions of dollars. The empty seat has well over a million, by the looks of it.

The top table

So, in the photo the man with the glasses and black jacket is Paul Phua, a successful Singaporean businessman turned Uber high stakes pro. Seat 1 next to him is Vietnamnese BB. The older guy in the black shirt on the right photo, is Yang Xa, who, despite his age, was surprisingly  able to play on equal terms with the Western pros.

To the right of the dealer, in the white top, is Pat Pat Panda. Pat Pat Panda, famously, lost millions on Pokerstars online (7-10$M). But he did well in the live games here. Chang Lat Zoo in the black hoodie, out of shot, was a high stakes regular who won frequently. Finally, the western guy in seat number two, is Romain Arnaud. He was one of the first trailblazing poker players from the West to play in Macau. He’s the person sitting opposite, wearing red, nearest to the dealer.

You’d know if the slim figure with black frizzy hair, Israely Efra, was in the poker room, when hearing the strange almost comical outbursts and noises he made. It’s not entirely clear why he did this. Some say it’s a way to put his opponents on tilt and confuse them. Others say he’s just been in Macau too long. Macau can take its mental toll on you, after all.

Full-time poker in Macau wasn’t for me then, although I will go back to it at some point. By the end of that month, I had made just under $5000, but had lost a couple of $5-$12K pots where I was a clear favourite.

It could have been a lot worse. I count myself lucky though, as I decided the better bet for me was to wire 75% of my bankroll back to the UK to buy Bitcoin. This ended up being a great decision as it was mid 2017, midway through Bitcoin’s ride up and the earnings from Bitcoin helped me buy a small flat.

Although the reality and dream of being a professional poker player were not a match for me, that’s okay. Maybe the reason I got into poker was because I just didn’t want to be a full-time teacher anymore.

On that front, mission successful. I no longer teach. But Poker is still a love of mine. That’s not to say I won’t make money from it. In future, perhaps I will, and maybe large amounts of money. But poker is just not something I want to do full time…

Blinds – are the compulsory bets, before any betting.
Straddle – is a voluntary blind that’s added to increase the pot size before betting.

Thomas Levene

Thomas Levene, has been a long-time teacher, and in the last few years, a passionate expert and investor in Bitcoin and Blockchain technology. He has completed, a ‘Blockchain Applications’ course with distinction, from Oxford University Said School of Business in 2018. Tom is also an expert poker player.

Thomas has given presentations on Bitcoin and Blockchain, internationally to young entrepreneurs on the digital Nomad Cruise in Greece and the DNX Digital Nomad Festival in Lisbon. He currently lives in Taiwan.

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