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Inaugural WPT Cambodia Championship highlights growth of poker in Asia

16 Jan 2024
Jonathan Raab 16 Jan 2024
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  • WPT Cambodia Championship festival runs from 17-30 January, 2024
  • First WPT Main Tour event in Asia since 2017
  • WPT Live Events Specialist Danny McDonagh answers questions about the tour and poker in Asia
  • Poker growing in many Asian countries
  • Poker becoming more recognised as a skill game in Asia
WPT Cambodia Championship
Photos Courtesy of WPT
Poker is Asia is growing. More and more people in Asian countries are taking up the game and there is beginning to be a shift in the image of poker from being a game of chance to one of skill. There seem to be an increasing number of live events in Asian countries and this is often the litmus test for the health of poker in a particular country or region. From the outside it seems that this test has been passed and poker in Asia is in good health, but rather than taking that for granted, PokerWired talked to tournament director extraordinaire Danny McDonagh, the WPT’s Live Events Specialist in Asia to find out if its true that poker is on the rise in the East. 
Danny McDonagh
WPT Live Events Specialist Danny McDonagh
Hailing from Australia, but well known across Asia as one of the foremost Tournament Directors in the region, McDonagh has been at the forefront of live poker for over two decades. WPT has increased the number of events it runs in Asia in recent years and in 2024, the first WPT Main Tour Championship in Asia since 2017 is about to get underway. We spoke to him on the eve of the WPT Cambodia Championship, which is taking place at NagaWorld Integrated Resort in Phnom Penh. The festival starts on 17th January and concludes on the 30th of the month, with the $3,500 Championship event running from the 25th-29th.

WPT in Asia

PokerWired: It looks like a pretty busy schedule of WPT events in Asia in 2024, what do you consider to be the highlights of the season to look out for?

McDonagh: Last year WPT Prime Vietnam set new country records for the Championship event with 1,151 entries, just missing the international Prime record. Taiwan three months later did in fact set a new Prime record with 1,359 entries.

I am looking forward to the return of these two events but the big highlight for me will be the transition of Cambodia to become a Main Tour stop. It has been more than seven years since Asia has hosted a championship event at the price point of the WPT Cambodia buy-in of $3,500, which will be hosted by NagaWorld the multi-award winning Integrated Resort in Phnom Penh, and is just one of 44 events on offer, priced between $200 and $10,000.

PokerWired: Which are expected to be the busiest events of the year?

McDonagh: Both Cambodia and Taiwan will have over 50 poker tables available for their respective festivals and I expect both will fill up on many days. Our partner venue in Hanoi, Crown Poker Club, is seeking to expand table numbers on the 35 tables last year and come October, WPT will hopefully achieve new records for Vietnam. Total entries for each of these three festivals may give 10,000 a nudge.

WPT Cambodia Championship

PokerWired: What are the key events on the WPT Cambodia schedule?

McDonagh: In addition to the $1 Million guaranteed $3,500 buy-in WPT Cambodia Championship there are four feature side events with guarantees between $150k to $200k starting with the $800 Warm Up Championship from on Jan. 18 to 21, the $800 Mystery Bounty on Jan. 20 to 22, my personal favorite the $1,100 Survivor Bounty on Jan. 22 to 24 and the final $5,000 Two-Day High Roller on Jan 29 to 30. Larger buy-in players will not be disappointed with nine events priced from $2,200 while smaller bankroll players will also not be disappointed with 20 events in the $200 to $400 entry price range.

PokerWired: What player experiences are planned for WPT Cambodia?

McDonagh: A fabulous VIP lounge is planned for pre-arranged groups from various countries and the 50 plus players who signed up for the High Roller free hotel nights deal by Dec 29.

There is also a player party for Championship event players at the exclusive Darlin' Darlin' Music Lounge on the evening of Day 2 of the event.

PokerWired: Following the mid-festival cancellation of the APT Vietnam event, is there anything to be concerned about regarding WPT Passport and WPT Prime events planned for Vietnam in May and October?

McDonagh: It's pleasing to see that poker clubs in Hanoi have continued to run poker tournaments and on that basis I expect our two planned Vietnam events will run as scheduled.

PokerWired: Do you expect further growth of WPT events in Asia beyond 2024?

McDonagh: That's definitely the intention. There are a lot of Asian poker events now being scheduled with an increase particularly over the last year. However, the positive signs are that even with clashes, events are setting new records. Also, travel by Chinese poker players has not yet returned to pre-covid levels, so that's a handy factor to consider when anticipating future growth.
Masato Yokosawa
WPT South Korea 2013 Champion Masato Yokosawa

Growth of Poker in Asia

PokerWired: Is it correct to assume that interest in poker is growing in Asia?

McDonagh: Definitely poker is still on a path of growth in Asia as it has been for the past 15 years.

PokerWired: Which Asian countries are seeing the most growth/interest in poker?

McDonagh: In the past five years poker has exploded in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. During that period poker clubs have emerged in Taiwan and Vietnam running international events, domestic events for Korean players have multiplied while Japan continues to grow as their domestic events. And Malaysia has seen the emergence of regular international poker events just in the last 12 months. Meanwhile China, which began to experience solid growth in poker well over 10 years ago, continues to be a very solid Asia market for poker.

PokerWired: How much awareness does the general population have of poker, has it entered the mainstream consciousness in any meaningful way?

McDonagh: Taiwan is one of the few Asian countries that is producing poker shows accessible on mainstream media. However, WPT now has so many options to access its TV shows, and for sure more awareness about poker is creeping into the general population in those Asian countries with no restrictions on media access.

PokerWired: Which countries have shown the greatest growth in local participation in events you have run in Asia?

McDonagh: Over the last three years, we’ve seen solid participation from India and Japan while the new emerging countries have been Korea and Taiwan. Vietnamese players generate excellent participation in Vietnam and I expect a lot more will travel to other Asian countries in 2024 starting with WPT Cambodia. With Cambodia set to be the first WPT Main Tour event in South East Asia, there is the potential for a lot more European and American players to attend there, especially with the January timing enabling an escape from the depths of winter for players from those regions.

PokerWired: Which is the most fun country in Asia to combine a poker trip with a holiday?

McDonagh: All three Asian countries WPT has already confirmed events for in 2024 have claims on being the most fun country to attend.

Cambodia has the combination of great weather for tourism, very affordable travel costs and the amazing temples such as Angkor Wat if you add a side trip to Siem Reap.

Hanoi, Vietnam is the gateway to both the world heritage listed Halong Bay and Sapa Highlands and like Cambodia is a super affordable travel location.

Taiwan reminds me so much of the magnificent mountains and beaches of the South Island of New Zealand with the added bonus of great culinary delights for foodies. The ease you can travel around this special island destination makes tourism so easy. I even self arranged a fabulous 200 kilometer 4 day bicycle trip with the missus on the East Coast from Hualien to Taitung.

Pete Chen
Pete Chen

Skill Game v Luck?

PokerWired: Is poker considered more of a skill game or a gambling (luck) game in Asian countries?

McDonagh: Countries such as Taiwan have made big inroads into having poker recognized as a skill game through their affiliations with Match Poker and GPI rankings.

For me, some people in Asia newly introduced to the game regard it as a gamble, however, if they stick with the game, they become supporters of the skill game status. The fact that it is now popular in so many Asian countries is testament to the growing acceptance of poker as a skill game.

PokerWired: What’s the overall skill level of Asian players compared with Europe/USA? Are they behind/catching up?

McDonagh: The countries that were the early growth countries for poker in Asia, including China, India, Japan and Taiwan, are now showing they can consistently match it with the best players. Newer countries to poker such as Korea and Vietnam will also follow suit in the coming years given the growth of events in those two countries.

PokerWired: Who are the most famous Asian crushers and players that are respected by their peers in Asia?

McDonagh: Wow, that could get me into trouble stating a preference for certain players. So I am going to give two perfect examples of crushers who also happen to be the only Asian poker players to join the WPT Champions Club through WPT Main Tour events held in Asia. (WPT Cambodia this month may add a third one from Asia to this select club).

Masato Yokosawa was first to join the Champions Club back in 2013 in Jeju, Korea and since then has had numerous world class results. He also has emerged as the most popular YouTuber in Japan.

And Taiwan's Pete Chen triumphed at WPT's richest tournament prizepool for an event in Asia in 2017 in Beijing, China. Pete also has an excellent social media presence and was crowned Asia Player of the Year in 2014.

For sure there are more but let's not go there today.

PokerWired: Name a couple of up-and-coming Asian players to look out for in 2024?

McDonagh: Let's go with the easily recognizable Shimizu Nozomu who cashed at WPT Australia in 2023, is attending WPT Cambodia, and was ranked GPI number 1 for Japan in 2023 following a tremendous year of results.

And an under-the-radar choice is Vietnam’s Huỳnh Ngọc Cường a.k.a. “WinterSea”, who had two tremendous results in feature events at WPT Prime Vietnam 2023 to completely dominate the Player of the Festival competition at that event.

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