My best friend, who is also a poker player, often accuses me of being a form over function guy. Basically what he means by this is that often I will stubbornly stick to an ideal even when practicality dictates that I should do otherwise. This can be seen in the decisions I have made over the years, managing the various poker rooms that I have been involved with. While some customary practices from the West may be unfamiliar in a place like Cambodia, I have nonetheless hung onto certain ideals in my philosophy towards running a poker room.
• Complete transparency
• High percentage, low cap rake
• Dealers govern the table
• Promotions via a bonus drop
• Culture vs quality of game
My first ideal is a rather tough one in that many of the rooms that I have been involved with through the years have been those that are underground. When you are running what is basically an illegal entity, it can be difficult to practice complete transparency with your players. Nonetheless, I have always been of the mind that any such room should be run as legitimately as possible. And one can argue that this should be even more the case for an underground room. What this ideal can be summed up as is that there should not be a single dollar that comes off of a poker table or leaves the room that players do not know about. Rakes should be clearly posted both physically in the room and online for players to access at any point; dealers when taking the rake should "stage" it before they drop it in the box so that players can visually see what is being taken; and when running tournaments and any special event, all fees should be precisely stated and made known to the players. In a private game, it is very easy for players to question the practices of such a room. One's reputation has to be so above board as to overcome such questions and have such voices be a minority rather than the prevalent thinking.
The second ideal is one that I often have trouble convincing players of. I played and lived in Las Vegas for five years and in Sin City rake is fairly simple. All rooms employ, with minimal variation, a 10% rake with a cap of $5. This means that whether they play $1-$2 or $5-$10, the players all pay the same amount. In fact, above $5-$10 the commission is even better as players only pay time rake. In other words, players are rewarded as they play higher as contribution to the rake shrinks in proportion to the stakes played. Here in Cambodia the thinking is quite opposite. In this country most poker rooms utilize a 5% rake but cap the maximum at a higher point. So for example a $1-$2 game may have a rake of only 5%, but will cap the rake as high as $35. And as the games go higher, so do the caps. I have seen $5-$10 games in certain cities where the cap exceeds $100. This is the case for several reasons. Unlike Vegas, the poker rooms in Cambodia are not run by the casino. In fact they are run by third parties that rent the space from the casino and usually have to pay a high rent. This is due to the fact that the country charges a $2,000 per month tax for any gaming table that is operational. So in order for any group that is running a poker room to overcome the high rent they are often paying, they have to generate more revenue by increasing the rake taken. Regular players will often complain about this practice and to compensate the room will offer promotions in the form of rakeback, free food or perhaps game related promos such as high hands or bad beat jackpots. But that reduces the amount of profit the room will make and they just end up where they began. In other words, the model is completely unsustainable. One of my dealers who worked for me in the last room I managed commented once that she has been employed by twelve different poker rooms in the city of Sihanoukville over the years, none of which survive today. In contrast, there is no expectation in a city like Vegas that poker rooms will make a lot of money. Thus the burden of having to carry a high rent is not passed onto the players and they are even able to reward those that play higher stakes. Besides the 10% rake with a lower cap is much more beneficial for players as it heavily taxes the small pots and encourages games to play bigger. With over $100 coming out of big pots in some games here in Cambodia, one almost has to wish that the games play smaller in order to avoid the heavy burden that is the commission system here.
As to my third ideal, I should first state that 99% of the dealers here in Cambodia are women and that there exists a patriarchal structure in the country. That having been said, dealers are not given much power on the table. Whenever a dispute arises, a manager has to come over to the table and basically listens to every single player on the table that has an opinion. I even heard one manager say to the table, "What do you guys think happened?" Rarely is the dealer ever consulted on the matter and her word is certainly never final. Where I come from things are certainly different and I have always adopted my approach from how I was taught. When there is a dispute on the table, I politely ask the players to stop talking and then I ask the dealer what happened and what their ruling is. That last part is key because that is an important function of a poker dealer, to make rulings. The manager's should not be the one to come over to make the first ruling as that should have been done by the dealer. Only when the players cannot accept it and absolutely need a manager should I come over. And when I do ask the dealer what the ruling is, their word is not only final but also gospel. And that's 99% of my job right there; to make the initial rules by which the room is governed by and to back up the dealer 100% when they do make said rulings. The most difficult part of all this is getting the dealers used to such a practice. They are not used to being given this much power and often shy away from it when given the opportunity. I have been lucky to work with some of the best dealers in the country and over time they all came to accept this as a responsibility of their job. And over time players begin to understand it as well and such allows for a more efficient running of a poker room.
The next one can also be a tough one for certain players to accept and it's the notion that promotions should be paid for by an extra drop taken from the pot. From a room's perspective I do not believe that promotions should be taken out of the general rake, but rather should be separated as an additional drop. While players will argue that this is more money being taken from them and that they are being taxed twice, in reality both methods are the same. If promotions are taken out of the general rake, rooms will often compensate for this by taking a higher commission in the first place. It is the same idea as discounted items and coupons in supermarkets where goods are priced higher to begin with to compensate for the lower price. By taking it as a separate drop rooms can segregate the amounts that belong to the room as commission and the amounts that are to be dispersed back to the players in the form of promotions. In either case, promotions for players are difficult to fund in an underground game. Such a room can publicly tell the players what is being taken and what is being given back out, but as an illegal entity such guarantees are often hollow. In reality they can decide to keep the bulk of it despite what they tell players and basically treat the funds as additional revenue. This is once again an example of how important the reputation is of those that are in charge of such a room. By separating the drops, players can at least see with their own eyes what is being taken and work out roughly a reasonable rate at which funds are being taken to determine whether or not they are giving back what they claim. In Nevada, the state in which Las Vegas is located, gaming commission law states that 100% of the funds taken for a bonus drop must be given back to the players by year's end. This means that if in the course of a year a room takes $50,000 in bonus money, all of it has to come back to the players in the form of promotions such as high hands, a freeroll, bad beat jackpot, etc. This is why whenever a room closes permanently in Vegas, the room has a series of crazy promotions giving away a lot of money in the days leading up to their closure. They absolutely cannot close with bonus money on their books or will be heavily fined by the gaming commission. This is the approach that I take when running a room. I have run two freerolls in two different rooms here in Cambodia, both guaranteeing $10,000 for the prize pool and both times we came up short in the bonus drop we were taking. In the first instance we collected about $8,700 over the qualifying period and the room covered the rest. In the second case, the room I was managing experienced a slowing down of business during the qualifying period and we came up massively short. But even in this case the owner covered it and we still guaranteed the $10,000. In stark contrast, I remember a freeroll being run by one of the rooms in Phnom Penh where they also guaranteed $10K. But in reality this was not a true freeroll as the first entry was only free and they were hoping to fund the guaranteed prize pool with rebuys and addons. They held the same tournament a few days prior and when they fell short of the guarantee, they decided to still run the next event but canceled the prize pool and ran it as a regular tournament. There are key decisions to be made when running a poker room, and not everyone takes the same path I suppose.
All of these ideals can be summed up and is encompassed by my last belief, which is that of a poker room's culture. It can often be difficult to define that word, but everything I have described in this entry is what really makes up a room's culture in the aggregate. A room's reputation and of all those that participate in it's operation; rules and procedures that are not only clearly stated but also dispensed fairly and in the spirit of the game, and a climate of support where staff members are respected and supported by the management and ownership. All of these things contribute to the culture of the room and make it a place where players will want to be. It is easy to advertise yourself as the best game or the lowest rake in town. But even if that were the case, situations often change in a poker climate and what you claimed to be true yesterday may not be so true today. And if one tries to sell a game or room as having the most action or fish, that can often be a slippery slope and a difficult standard to maintain. And besides, the type of players that a room tends to attract with such claims may not be the best thing for the long run health of a poker room anyway. In the end, running a poker room is much like being a chef. Create a menu that you would want to pay to eat yourself and others will most likely want to as well. When working in a poker room, I am usually there more than anyone else. I have always concluded that if I try to create an environment that I enjoy being during the majority of my days, others may not mind too much either spending their time with me.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.