Level of Asian poker play continues to improve, as events grow: Neil Johnson

More tournaments, increasing offerings, better accessibility, and more online following are all boosting the level of Asian poker play, notes Neil Johnson, President of the Asian Poker Tour.

Ahead of the group’s 12-day event in Taipei, the expert points out the difference between the skill game and casino games, as well as the opportunities and threats from AI and vlogging.

We’re joined today by Neil Johnson, the president of the Asian Poker Tour. Thank you for being with us.

Thank you very much for having me.

You guys have an exciting event which is coming up on the 28th of February, in Taipei. How has the interest been so far ramping up to it?

APT TAIPEI 2024_Asian Poker Play

Everybody’s really excited about it. Taipei was a fantastic launch for our new era last year, had absolutely record numbers for that region. And so coming back this year, we just want to get bigger and better. That’s the goal of every operator everywhere. So, we’ve added a number of tournaments to the schedule, increased our high rollers, buy ins, added in mixed games, things like that.

And our Early Bird high rollers, which is a package we offer, if you basically agree to buy into the high roller, the super high roller, the superstar, things like that, we cut a deal on the hotels with you, and all of those have already sold out. And we’re still a month away. So, it’s absolutely looking like it’s going to be another record-setting event in Taipei. And we’re all really excited about it.

What are the actual buy-ins? What’s the lowest and what’s the highest?

Well, we’re basically down anything from about $150 working all the way up to $25,000. Obviously, it’s in TWD and local currency. But the baseline is: for this event, about $150 all the way up to $25,000.

That opens up the field of play to a lot of players, not only within Asia, but coming from further abroad. I know some people do do the long hauls. So I do want to ask, in regards to your players, where do the majority of them come from?

All over. Southeast Asia and Asia predominantly. I think we had the biggest one last year, almost 80 countries represented overall in front, not necessarily just the main event specifically, but for the entirety of the 10 day festival. It was almost 80 countries.

We get players from the US from the UK, from Europe, and then most of the regions throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, and even a little bit into the Middle East area as well, which is really great to see.

When you experience what people are putting on the ground, that’s what lets you know, if “Oh, I want to become a regular player of this tour, look at look at the party that they throw look at the plethora of events that they have on the schedule”.

As you mentioned, on the buy-ins, is “Okay, I can play at $200, and I can go and I can be a part of it, and potentially win one of those awesome trophies. But also if I’m someone who plays $5,000, or $10,000, or something, it is worth my time and energy to come because there’s a high roller every day.

So, I feel like as a high roller player, I’m supported in the schedule. As a low buying player, I feel like I’m supported in the schedule. And the same with the middle.”

We want the game types for everyone. We want the buy-ins for everyone. Because someone deciding to come from France or from Houston or from Peru or something, they’re making a significant investment, and we want to show them the best time possible.

Makes total sense. But does that then vary between the country that you’re hosting the event in? Does that change the mix up of the players which are interested?

Not so much. From what I’ve seen, we’ve pretty much continued to grow. I’ve only been over here for a year and a half. We’ve pretty much been lucky enough to continue to grow everywhere we’ve been.

And lots of times, I’m sure you know this with poker players is, they really don’t pay attention to the border. They’re like: “Where are we going? Why do I want to be there? What can I do when I’m there? What’s the schedule like? Am I going to know other people?” So maybe if it’s 10 of us who all know each other in Japan or we’re in Vietnam or Thailand, it’s like we’ll just all go and make an excursion of it.

The only thing that really impinges on a poker player is: “Do I need a visa?” That was my experience previously in Europe as well. (Their main questions are) “Can I go? Do I have to pay tax if I win?” Those are the things that kind of hit. But most of the time it’s: “Do I have fun when I go to that tour? Do I have fun when I go to that country?” And that’s what we want everybody to do, is have fun when they come and play with us and have fun at all these amazing destinations that we’re going to as well.

The idea is that it’s meant to be entertainment, it’s always evolved out of an entertainment background. You had mentioned just now that you’re relatively recent within the the Asian market, but you’re drawing from a large amount of experience within the Western market.

Do you think that the Asian market differs greatly from the Western market? And why or why not? Specifically in regards to poker?

There’s a little bit yes and a little bit no. Just because, depending on where you’re at you’re always dealing with the relative maturity or immaturity of the market. Poker is very mature in the United States. But that hasn’t taken the edge off. You’re seeing the WPT championship had this amazing number, the World Series continues to grow every year. So even though you would say: “Oh, that’s a very mature market”, the players’ demand, the desire to play is still there. Whereas Europe is a little bit less mature and Asia is even less mature than that from a casino and poker standpoint.

Are you seeing any change in terms of the demographic of your participants? I mean, sometimes when we’re watching some of these big Las Vegas poker events, you see the grizzled veteran, you see the new upstart, you see the guy with the shiny glasses?

Is there is the younger demographic still interested in participating in these in person events? Or are they switching more to that online side?

The demographics for us, luckily, are pretty much across the spectrum. We even had fantastic participation in our women’s events, which we brought back last year, including getting over 140 in Taipei. We haven’t gone to a senior’s event yet, although that’s coming this year, to try and better serve your old grizzled veteran demographic, as you mentioned. Poker is very fun in the fact that it is universal.

It’s a mind sport, or a skill game, whatever definition you choose to use on it. It means everybody can compete with everyone. Even beyond traditional mind sports, like chess, or something like that. If you’re a grandmaster, and I’m not, yes, I can play with you, I’m never going to win, but I can play a game of chess with you and lose, you know, comfortably.

Whereas in this, there will always be a bit of a randomizing factor to that. So when you start dividing a little bit, saying, “Oh, we’re gonna let the you know, the under-25s play, or we’re gonna let the women play, or we’re gonna let the seniors play” and stuff, you’re almost making the prize pool smaller.

But those demographics also have shared experiences, and they enjoy. It’s why you wouldn’t make every tournament a women’s event, or every tournament a seniors event, but having that one gives people with shared life experiences, this shared hobby, a chance to play together and enjoy it in a way that they might not in other circumstances.

Interesting that you mentioned that, as it is a skill game. But would you classify poker as a casino game?

I wouldn’t. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. And it’s such a distinct difference. I think back to when all the legalization efforts were going strong, PokerStars commissioned a study of – I can’t remember the exact numbers, this was like 2010, 2011. But it was i millions of hands that were studyied to see if the actual best hand won.

Their study said that 78% of the time, the best hand preflop didn’t win. And that shows you the significant amount of skill involved.

And there was another percentage, it was in the 70s as well, of a hand that didn’t go to the river. Which also means that you and I determined the end of that hand before we got to the end to find out who actually would have won because we never saw a river card.

What are your views on how AI is being implemented within poker? And how do you try and make sure that there’s that there’s still an even playing field for everyone involved.

When it comes to AI, from a land-based perspective and not an online perspective, the goal is to just make it so difficult that it’s not worthwhile doing. There are a number of ways you can do that. Obviously, I can’t go into too many specifics, because it’s how we’re actually trying to combat it and stuff like that. But you saw it very early on, as soon as Google Glass was announced, I believe it was MGM and Caesars who instantly banned it – said you cannot bring it into our property.

I was actually working for (Poker)Stars at the time, and we instantly did the same thing. We put a rule into our tournament rules that was like, no electronic devices of this kind, no of this kind. You see it in discussions around RTAs, real time assistance in live tables and stuff like that, and that it comes down to how good your enforcement can be. You want to have good dealers, you want to have good floor.

Because I’m sure everybody’s been in a situation where you’re sitting in a cash game or sitting in a tournament and the guy’s like, he’s doing his thing on his phone, and he’s just like dun da dun. He’s like, “raise” and he’s going back. And you need a dealer who’s like, “sir, I’m sorry, you cannot be on your phone during the hand”. And you need people who are strong enough to take control of their table.

Now there is a bit of a star factor when it comes down to it, when some of these guys show up for tournaments, the whole media kerfuffle happens around that. How important is that to try and attract these key players towards you to your events?

And how does that then mean that you can try and beat out the competition to be the best and have these big players coming in?

Well, it’s always very helpful. That’s the whole influencer market. Really, whether it applies to poker, or anything else, is, being able to get people to support. That’s why one of the biggest innovations, and irritations depending on if you’re an operator or a player, is vlogging from the tables over these last five years.

And they also just allowed that in Las Vegas recently, right? Wasn’t it?

I believe this was the first year where the WSOP allowed vlogging. And we had to have a huge discussion about it. Because there’s one, there’s anonymity. In my previous existence, we basically put a rule that you couldn’t do it, I don’t know if it’s actually changed for them now or not, but you couldn’t do it at the time, because we couldn’t secure the image rights for everybody at your table, for you to then be able to just put them on Twitch or put them or your blog, or whatever you were doing.

And that’s always one of the headaches. Lots of times how a blogger wants to set up is they want the camera behind you. So it’s shooting at me, I’m the vlogger and I want the camera over there so we can see everything that I’m doing. But the problem is now you almost have to camp a floor guy to make sure that that camera doesn’t ever tip down to see the whole cards of the person here.

And if anybody at the table was like “Yo, I don’t know, I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t wanna have to look at my cards like this all day, because this is here”. So you have to balance it but the ability for everybody. Kind of a bit like what I said earlier, the more people who can experience it and even if that’s virtually by watching somebody’s vlog who shows up or watching our live stream or something like that. The hope is that they see that wow, look at how much fun that is look at all of those people.

This next event is going to be the 28th of February in Taipei. Let’s stay in touch. Like, let’s make sure that we can hear more about you know, people delving in, they’re getting their skill set even more improved and, and making that money.

I think Taipei is going to be an absolute blast with there’s 113 tournaments, over 12 days, and turbos, hyper turbos, all of this stuff. So I’m really looking forward to seeing the player reaction to that level of festival.

I mean, it’s a very, very large-scale event. It’s your return to Taipei as well. We look forward to seeing what’s happening within the rest of the year. Obviously, we’ll keep our ears tuned towards the rest of the schedule throughout the year. Thank you again for your time, Neil Johnson, the President of the Asian Poker Tour.

Thank you very much, man. I had a really good time. I look forward to doing this again.