High Stakes Poker in Macau – Pt. 2: Gambling

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After a few hours of sleep I took a taxi over to the Wynn Macau. It was early in the day but I heard the game filled up fast, so I put my name on the list and shortly after I was playing $300/$600 (Hong Kong dollars) No Limit Hold’em with the worst case of jet lag I’ve ever experienced.

A few hours later I was out $10,000 US. It’s hard for me to walk away from a table when I’m down, but I knew it was time to quit and go back to bed when I flipped over my cards at the end of a hand and they were completely different from the ones I remembered from a couple minutes ago.

It was a Saturday night but despite being a large city, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on. I passed a few people on the streets on my way back to the hotel, but for the most part things were pretty quiet.

Rear view, getting on the bridge back to Cotai

When I got back to the hotel, I realized I hadn’t checked out the casino yet, so I walked past the privacy wall in the lobby onto the casino floor.

Lobby of the Sheraton Grand Macau

There were hundreds of tables and thousands of chinese gamblers packed wall-to-wall. Everything from Roulette to Caribbean Stud Poker was running with full tables, but the most popular by far was Baccarat. There was a small stadium build around a large screen running three games of video Baccarat. The crowd could bet on any of the games from their seats.

I’d found the party.


The Parisian, in Cotai, Macau (across from the Sheraton)

Macau is the only place in China were casinos are legal, so citizens of the world’s second largest economy only have one place to gamble. The law also restricts how long Chinese mainlanders can stay in Macau. This has given Macau a reputation among poker players as a great place to find high stakes games against low skilled players. Times are changing though, as China adds more travel restrictions and a lot of the poker clientele now consists of westerners who came to Macau in hopes of taking money from wealthy Chinese businessmen.

While gambling has been allowed in Macau since 1850, most of the mega casinos have sprung up in just the past 15 years, after the government ended the previous monopoly system and allowed outside companies to build casinos on the islands. In addition to the Wynn, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation built several casinos including a copy of the Venetian from Las Vegas (though the Macau property is much larger).

Grand Canal, Venetian Macau

Even though they have their own currency, the Macanese pataca (MOP), gambling in Macau is done in Hong Kong dollars (HKD). Since HKDs are worth slightly more than MOPs, it’s easy for a tourist to get by in Macau using only HKD as most vendors and taxi drivers are more than happy to be overpaid.

Despite being an eastern version of Las Vegas, Macau doesn’t seem to have imported the “fun.” Vegas is a party town with a gambling problem. Macau is a place to gamble like you mean it.

Another difference between Macau and Vegas is that Las Vegas was built from the ground up to be an adult playground. Macau was already a large city well before the mega-casinos showed up – in fact, Macau is the world’s most densely populated region. It’s hard to get lost in the fantasy of it all when you’ve got office buildings and high rise condos as far as the eye can see.

Venetian, in Cotai, Taipa in the background

While waiting for a big poker game to start the next day I walked into the high stakes area of the Wynn casino. In Vegas, these areas are semi-secluded rooms that are almost always empty aside from the half a dozen dealers waiting around for whale to walk in.

In Macau, the room was packed in the middle of the afternoon. The entire room was playing Baccarat. I nudged my way up to a table where I watched an elderly Chinese man place an $600,000 HKD bet (almost $80,000 US dollars) on a single hand.

He barely squeaked out a win and the room went wild. I had my phone out and snapped a picture of the giant stack of chips the dealer slid over to him, but the moment the shutter closed I felt a tap on my shoulder. A rather large man in suit with a security badge made me delete the picture while he watched over my shoulder, then made me go into my phone’s ‘deleted’ folder and erase it again. He was nice enough about it, and it was my fault for breaking the rules.

It was a beautiful day so I grabbed lunch at an outdoor cafe near the casino floor. There was plenty of Cantonese and Portuguese food on the menu.


Some kind of Portuguese hash – can’t remember the name – delicious, though.

I got a text message that the $100/$200 HK game was starting so I went back to the poker room and took my seat.

The poker room at the Wynn Macau looks like any fancy casino in Vegas. The flat screen TVs were all tuned to NBA basketball (with local favorite Yao Ming getting plenty of air time). It’s easy to forget you’re in China, especially when you’re playing high stakes. While the low stakes tables are almost exclusively Chinese players, as you move up the ranks you’ll see a higher ratio of caucasians. I played with Canadian, American, Spanish, Portuguese, Ukrainian and Russian players in my short time in Macau, including one Canadian whose height, physique and long blonde hair made him look almost exactly like Chris Hemsworth playing Thor. For the most part everyone was friendly, though I did notice several Chinese players were openly rude to the one Japanese player at the table. He was a good sport and laughed off the insults.

$100/200 HK is more of a mid-range game at the Wynn Macau, but I was playing it while waited for the $300/$600 HK game to open up again. There seemed to be a lot of regulars at the table but fewer professionals. Despite this, I had another bad afternoon. I wasn’t tired or playing poorly, I was just having the worst luck I’ve ever had at the poker table. My hole cards were terrible. Everyone kept hitting their flush and straight draws against me. After a few hours I was down $21,000 overall.

While I wired myself $90,000, I was hoping I’d only need to play with $30,000 of it. Unfortunately by this point I had to dip a little deeper. I pulled out another $100,000 HK and went back to work.

Poker is a boring game. The better you are at it, the less of your time you spend actively playing. The first thing someone studying poker learns is  to fold early and fold often. Usually this means I’m on my phone a lot while at the poker table, whether I’m texting, playing a game or even getting some work done. When I play at the Bellagio in Vegas the rest of the table is doing the same thing, and half of them are wearing headphones.

At the Wynn Macau, you can’t use your phone at the table even if you don’t have cards. You have to physically stand up and walk away from the table any time you want to check your email or text messages. The only upside was that it made me more focused on the game. When I’m not playing at higher stakes I get impatient and play poorly. Fear of losing a lot of money keeps me at the top of my game.

My luck began to turn around and I took down a big pot.

“Good hand,” said the Spaniard to my left. I thanked him and he asked where I was from. He was shocked when I told him.

“You had to come all the way from Texas to play Hold’em?” he laughed.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but he had a point. There’s a card house in Austin but it seldom has games higher than $1/$2. There are a handful of indian reservation casinos, but they’re all hours away and the stakes are still small.

If you don’t have connections to private house games, there are only a handful of places in the world that consistently have $10/$20 games or higher.

Casinos don’t have much incentive to promote poker. It’s the only game where you lose money to other players, not the casino itself. Because of this, it’s also the only game where a good player can consistently make money. It’s not easy though – besides travel expenses, the casino still finds a way to take a cut, usually taking a rake (a percentage of each pot) or charges for your seat (up to $10/half hour, depending on the game). Very few people can make a living playing poker professionally.

Casinos are also very stingy with comps when it comes to poker players. Free rooms and extravagant rewards are out of the question, though many casinos will still give you free food if the stakes are high enough.

The Wynn Macau offers free drinks, but the food is full price. Poker players don’t earn any reward points – in fact, even if you have a Wynn rewards card there’s nowhere to scan it at the poker tables. That didn’t stop me from pigging out, though.

Pork dumplings. Almost worth the trip.

I had much better after joining the $300/$600 HK table. The pots are bigger and so are the ups and downs. Over the next few hours I got back to break-even for the trip, then made another $12,000 US on top.

It was much easier to walk away from the table this time. I took a cab back to the Sheraton and decided to explore and grab a drink before bed.

Conrad Macau lobby
Grabbing a drink at Conrad the Lounge

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