The fun rises in the East: Inside a record-breaking year for the APT

A poker table featuring the APT logo
Author Adam Hampton
Adam Hampton
Posted on: November 15, 2023 02:05 PST

More players than ever before; the biggest guaranteed prize pools; gleaming golden trophies and brand new facilities. There’s a poker boom going on right now, and it’s happening on the Asian Poker Tour, which is celebrating its best ever year.

Just how good have things been going this year? The spring’s APT Taipei events took place in the brand new, custom-built CTP Asia Poker Arena, the largest permanent poker room in the continent. They attracted more entries than 2017 and 2018 combined (almost 10,000), including over 300 for the APT’s biggest ever high-roller. The Main Event beat its guarantee by over 100%, awarding US $365k to first place to claim the record for biggest ever prize in Taiwan.

Moving on to Incheon, South Korea this summer, the APT put together its biggest ever schedule, again blowing its Main Event guarantee out of the water and awarding over US $6.5 million in prizes, not to mention 69 newly designed trophies.

Now, on the eve of the APT Hanoi Billions, December 1-10, Vietnam is preparing to host the biggest poker event the country has ever seen. How has this explosion in poker’s popularity come about?

New owners, new era

Asian Poker Tour President Neil Johnson APT President Neil Johnson watches the action at Incheon

“There's a little bit of a post-Covid, pent-up desire that comes from all the players, but also, I think, since the ownership change, players are seeing the commitment.”

Neil Johnson, President of the APT, has a track record as long as any in the modern poker industry. When ownership of the tour changed hands in 2022, his was a key appointment. With experience running some of the biggest poker tours around the world, Johnson knows better than most how to put on a successful event, but his prior experience with the APT is a little more hands-on than many would guess.

“I actually dealt at the very first Asian Poker Tour in Singapore back in 2006,” Johnson recalls, “and, you know, the fact that it exists years later is a testament to all of the people who worked on it over the years. And we now want to be able to expand it and grow it and take it to that next level.”

That next level seems to be arriving sooner than anticipated. The APT may be experiencing a ‘new era’, but that doesn’t mean the people making the decisions and putting the show together are new to the business. Fred Leung, the tour’s CEO, has a long history in the Asian poker market, having been integral to developing previous events such as the Macau Poker Cup and the Asia Championship of Poker. Co-owner Michael Soyza brings passion and experience from a player's perspective, having been a regular on the high-roller circuit for years (as well as a star of Game of Gold), while long-serving Executive Tournament Director Lloyd Fontillas remains in his key role.

“Fred Leung’s name and reputation are well-known throughout the region,” Johnson explains, “and for him to step into the role here…I hope the players can see the commitments that ownership is willing to make: the commitment to the high-roller demographic, the mixed-game demographic, the smaller buy-ins, the overall expansion. We want the players to see that and go, ‘OK, these guys are serious’.”

The Asian Poker Tour and that ‘kitchen table’ feel

A poker player at ATP Taipei Poker players across Asia are buying in, in more ways than one

While the commitments to players and the wider poker ecosystem may be serious, that doesn’t mean the events have to be. On the contrary, APT events are becoming known for their fun and often rambunctious atmosphere.

“There's a level of camaraderie and enjoyment of the social aspects of the game that has faded a little bit, I would say, in the Western Hemisphere,” notes Johnson. “On the Asian Poker Tour there are fewer, you know, sunglasses, hat, hoodie-wearing robots, which always helps with the game.” And while one might expect the range of disparate languages used across the world’s largest continent to create division, that’s not what Johnson is seeing on the tournament floor.

“In Asia, there's a lot of people who speak English, but you usually end up a lot more defaulted to the local language. But then you might get a group of Indians in Vietnam, or Taiwanese in Japan, or Japanese in Korea, these social groupings of people speaking the same language. That leads to a little bit more of a kitchen-table-poker feel than you would necessarily find at your average Western tournament.” And presumably some noisy and partisan rails? “Oh yeah, If a Thai guy wins, the Thai guys get really excited; if an Indian guy wins, the Indian guys get really excited. Watching the rails is awesome. And when you get an exciting rail that's just going absolutely nuts, it energizes a room like crazy.”

Proof of that was there for all to see when Punnat Punsri won the APT Taipei Main Event in May. Number one on Thailand’s all-time money list, Punsri added another APT title to a resume that already included a WPT Prime victory, a Triton Super High Roller win and the $25k event at the 2023 PokerGo Cup. His rail of predominantly Thai supporters went predictably nuts as he took down the largest poker prize ever awarded in Taiwan, in the biggest poker room ever built in the country.

If it’s possible to pinpoint a moment the new era really dawned for the Asian Poker Tour, it may just have been then.

Punnat Punsri, left, ahead of his victory in the APT Taipei Main event Punnat Punsri, left, ahead of his victory in the ATP Taipei Main event

A rare chance to play something new

Another contributor to the fun factor is the increased presence of mixed-games, including many you’re unlikely to find on other poker tours. The likes of Super Hold’em (with three hole cards), Badacey and Badeucey are unlikely to be awarding bracelets next summer, but a strong performance in these lesser-known variants can see you pick up an impressive APT Lion trophy.

These less orthodox side events generally feature lower buy-ins, reducing the risk for players, but still carry some level of risk for operators. As Johnson explains, though, it’s a risk worth taking to create the kind of freewheeling atmosphere they’re building.

“As an operator you have to be willing to accept, I wouldn't say a potential loss, but if you ran a no-limit Hold’em tournament and a Super Hold’em tournament, both for $500, you're probably going to get more players for pure Hold’em.” It’s not always about chasing the highest margins, then, but harking back to that kitchen-table feel.

“One thing I love is that there’s no math for Super Hold’em, so there’s no edge for anybody…the first time I was allowed to run a really silly game, it was a Deuce’s Wild tournament in Vienna that got something like 180 people. I’ll always remember the energy in that room because nobody was looking at their phone, nobody had headphones in, because nobody had any idea what the hell anybody had!” Deuces Wild will be returning for the Hanoi Billions, with a buy-in of around $250 (all buy-ins and prizes will be in Vietnamese dong, hence the approximations).

Johnson’s even gone so far as spreading a no-limit H.O.R.S.E tournament, with predictably chaotic - and fun - results. ”It’s true, because something like no-limit Stud 8 is really weird! But a couple of our high roller players, they say ‘Look if I get knocked out of the high roller and I'm a bit bummed, this is the best way to blow off steam’.”

Building big prize pools while building a great atmosphere is a tough act to pull off. “The reality is, no-limit Hold’em is where the money is, for players and operators,” Johnson explains, “We have those events, but we want to make sure that the schedule is catering to everybody. Not only for buy-ins, because you want things for $100 all the way up to $10k, but you also want different game types.”

Next stop, Hanoi...

A selection of APT Lion trophies New trophies were created for the 'new era' of the APT

It’s a philosophy we’ll be able to see in action when Hanoi Billions kicks off next month. Mystery Bounty tourneys, deepstacks, freezeouts and turbos will sit alongside the expected Main Event, High Rollers, and a Vietnam National Cup which offers a guarantee of over $120k for a buy-in just north of $200.

But Johnson is keen to continue looking beyond Hold’em when it comes to engaging players, and not just because, in his own words, he’s “such a nit that me playing Texas Hold’em is a giant waste of time for everybody!”

And so players attending the Hanoi Billions event can look forward to such rare treats as Omaha High Mix (4, 5 or 6-cards), 19-Game Dealer’s Choice, Short Deck, Crazy Pineapple, Deuces Wild, Super Hold’em and even All-in Or Fold tournaments.

Hanoi also marks the first time online partner Natural8 will be running satellites for live tournaments other than the Main Event, so a new influx of online players is expected to join the party. The stated ambition is to put on the largest, most successful and diverse event that Vietnam has ever seen, but while Hanoi Billions may be the last date in the APT’s 2023 calendar, it feels more like the start of something than an ending.

“We’re all poker people,” says Johnson, with a smile. “We all love poker. It's what we've all lived and breathed for 20+ years, and this is why we're doing what we're doing. The goal is to just continue to get bigger and better and make sure that the players have a fantastic experience and the opportunities to play the game that everybody loves, the way they want to be able to play it.”

For more on the new era of the APT, check out the Asian Poker Tour Stories series on YouTube.

Hanoi Billions runs from December 1-10 at the National Convention Center, Hanoi, Vietnam. See below for some selected highlights of the 96-event schedule ( full schedule available here).

Event Dates Buy-in / Guarantee
Vietnam National Cup December 1-2 VND 5m ($206) / VND 3bn ($122K) GTD
Mystery Bounty Hunter December 2-3 VND 11m ($452) / VND 5bn ($204K) GTD
APT Super High Roller December 2-3 VND 120m ($4.9K) / VND 4bn ($163K) GTD
Sunday Super Stack December 3 VND 7.5m ($308) / VND 2bn ($82K) GTD
APT Main Event December 4-9 VND 36m ($1,480) / VND 25bn ($1m) GTD
Superstar Challenge December 4 VND 250m ($10,280) / VND 4bn ($163K) GTD
Zodiac Classic December 7-8 VND 50m ($2,050) / VND 5bn ($204K) GTD
Double Stack December 8-9 VND 11m ($452) / VND 5bn ($204K) GTD
APT Mini Main Event December 9-10 VND 12m ($500) / VND 3.5bn ($143K) GTD
APT High Roller December 9-10 VND 80m ($3.3K) / VND 5bn ($204K) GTD

Photos courtesy of the APT