Could the World Poker Tour expand its presence in the Asian Pacific Rim with a major poker festival in Macau? According to the WPT Chief Executive Officer Adam Pliska, Macau is in the sights of the WPT as a possible home to future poker tournament series.
“We will get to Macau,” Pliska recently told PokerMedia Australia’s Ben Blaschke in a feature for Inside Asian Gaming. We will work with the government and we’ll work with anyone else to make sure we get a good event.”
Pliska is planning a visit to Macau early in 2024 with plans to speak with unspecified casino and government officials about finding a pathway for the return of poker to Macau. Macau briefly enjoyed prominence as a poker destination in the middle and late 2010s before a series of events pushed the game entirely out of the giant Macau gambling market.
Macau, like Hong Kong, exists today as a special administrative region of the mainland People’s Republic of China under China’s “one country, two system’ governance, which allows for more capitalism while slowly integrating the two island regions into China’s larger governmental vision. Macau has been allowed to continue its development as a global gambling hub, catering both to gamblers from the Chinese mainland and international visitors. However, it’s been a bumpy ride for both Macau and for poker in the region amid factors from gambling crackdowns to the COVID-19 pandemic.
No tournament series in Macau since 2018
Macau’s poker fortunes rode high for most of the mid-2010s, but the enclave hasn’t seen a major tournament series since April 2018, when the last PokerStars-sponsored Macau Millions was held at Macau’s City of Dreams casino. City of Dreams also hosted its own Stars-branded poker room, one of several poker rooms in Macau that were closed in mid-2018 amid a ban on poker apps in mainland China.
Several tour operators had successfully hosted poker series in Macau over several years last decade. Besides PokerStars and the Stars-owned Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT), the Asia Championship of Poker (ACOP) and the Macau Poker Cup festivals ran on multiple occasions.
Cash-game action thrived as well. Macau’s “Big Game” was likely the richest cash game on the planet for several years last decade, drawing a mix of international stars – Tom Dwan, Sam Trickett, Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, and many others – who mixed it up with Asian gambling moguls and high rollers such as Paul Phua and Richard Yong.
The Macau Big Game floated among several casinos during its run, generally being held in private gaming suites rather than on a main casino floor. And of course, the Big Game was invite-only, with only a limited number of seats in any given game allocated to “westerners”, who were chosen both for their willingness to gamble and for their approachability and friendliness at the table.
Multiple crackdowns ended Macau’s poker heyday
Macau’s relative brief run at the top of poker’s fame ended in 2018, the victim of not one, but several crackdowns. Government officials had launched several anti-corruption waves against various elements of the Macau gambling scene, including the operators of VIP junkets that brought high rollers to Macau’s casinos.
The most direct hit, however, was China’s 2017-18 poker crackdown that targeted hold’em apps, which were being used as the gaming engines in vast, underground games employing the club-and-agent model. The games, which were designed for play-money action but, in the clubs, were used as proxies for real-money action, were banned from Chinese social-media platforms such as WeChat.
Gamemakers such as Tencent (which also owned WeChat), Boyaa Interactive, and Ourgame faced a severe government backlash as Chinese officials investigated how the apps were being used in many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of underground clubs. One of the harshest blows landed on Ourgame, where a half dozen of a subsidiary company’s executives were arrested in April 2018 and charged with helping aid the use of its poker apps for gambling purposes.
The WPT’s brief Ourgame era
That posed difficulties for poker in a different way as well. In 2015, Ourgame had acquired a 30% stake in the then-foundering World Poker Tour, and part of that acquisition was the plan to launch the WPT brand into China. Beginning in 2016, the WPT even hosted poker festivals in Sanyu and Beijing, with plans for many more live stops, in addition to Ourgame’s short-lived WPT poker app.
That expansion didn’t happen, but not because of the WPT itself. The arrests of the Ourgame officials that began with a 2016 raid soon opened up a far more sordid window into the company’s affairs, one in which the WPT was viewed as a profitable prize to be liquidated, with the proceeds fought over between rival factions on Ourgame’s board of directors.
In a series of stunning financial filings with Chinese regulators, Ourgame’s leadership detailed fraud and embezzlement by three of its seven board members, who were underwater in other corporate holdings and hoped to loot Ourgame and the WPT. Violent threats were made by that faction, and the three ousted board members launched a hostile attempt to take over Ourgame’s board, which failed.
Amid all that, alongside China’s poker crackdown, it was clear that Ourgame needed to be rid of the WPT as much as the WPT needed to be rid of Ourgame, Ourgame quickly shifted the WPT into a separate corporate entity, Black Ridge Acquisition Corp. On the American side, CEO Pliska rounded up additional investors to acquire Ourgame’s shares. That process took until 2021 to complete, with the WPT now owned by Element Partners, LLC while still being shepherded by Pliska.
Macau as return channel to Chinese sphere, but slowly
All that background helps explain the WPT’s renewed interest in Macau, though it’s been two and a half years since the company had any real connection to China, and it never really had a footprint in Macau itself.
Just as Pliska has revitalized the WPT in recent years, his interest in Macau appears to front his hopes to revitalize the company’s overall Asian fortunes. Macau is all but poker-free at the present time, but after a decade of being cleaned up and with increased regulatory controls in place, it’s the likeliest point of entry for the WPT’s probable longer-term goal, the return of the brand to China itself.
Working through proper channels – meaning establishing that toehold in Macau – is the WPT’s best chance to show that not only can it bring high-profile poker to Macau, but that it has fully sundered its ties to Ourgame’s illicit practices in China.
It’s still an uphill climb, with additional factors to consider. At the present time, Macau’s casinos lack the facilities and trained staff to host any sort of large poker festival, and that the casinos’ allotted number of “gaming positions” (gamblers’ seats) are fully allocated to other gambling forms. Pliska, though, has shown himself capable of meeting daunting challenges in the past, and it would be unwise to bet against him here.