Some of the biggest stars in the NBA are lined up to play a hand or two of poker at one of Jeju’s top casinos later this month. Phoenix Entertainment are spearheading the project, part of a wider drive to integrate the gambling industry with tourism and leisure on Jeju.
Sang H. Park, CEO of Phoenix Entertainment, spelt it out.
“Our goal is to make Jeju a gambling mecca…we want to bring the biggest tournaments here…WSOP [World Series of Poker], Poker Stars, Red Dragon, we already signed up WPT [World Poker Tour] and ATP [Asian Poker Tour]. We want to bring the big tournaments to Jeju.”
This may be Greek to you or me, but Park says these represent the top of the poker world.
'“We already signed a major deal with Beijing Ourgame Ltd – they took over from Hangame in China with over 300 million users. They held the first China WPT tournament last year and they are going to hold another one in Hainan this October. The top 250 people [from there] will come to Jeju to compete in the first Jeju tour event [in December],” said Park.
This would normally not attract the interest of your average Kim on the street, but Park has an ace up his sleeve to get the international community interested.
“With that in mind we are going to open our first small tournament on May 30 at the Ramada Casino – The Phoenix Game – and invite Dennis Rodman and eight other NBA players,” he said. Non-Korean poker punters are free to “buy in.”
“You have to buy in so whatever their needs, they can complete. 150 people will be the max…we are building a special casino room for the event,” he said.
Park says the NBA stars include: Gary Payton, Horace Grant, Charles Oakley, Nick Van Exel, Trevor Davis, and Dale Evans. Although the stars are contracted to the WPT, Park reminded us more than once that multi-millionaires are very independent-minded people. He is confident Rodman et al. will "do him a solid" and attend.
“With those guys you never know until the last minute, but they are doing a reality show in China [with FOX TV and WPT] so we feel very confident.. but you never know with the top guys, they might change their mind on the last day,” Park said with a laugh.
The Phoenix Open will be held on May 30 and it will be an exclusive event – just 150 will enter with a small number of spectators at the Ramada Casino – “the best on Jeju…look at the view,” said Park.
The event will serve as promotion for the main event in December. Park might be keeping his hand close to his chest, but he still couldn’t mask his excitement at seeing the world stars at the Ramada.
“We have already talked to the governor and discussed about…holding some events for the kids and the Jeju people [if they come],” he said.
Park, who made his fortune in the US building a monopoly of health clubs among other ventures, returned to the country of his birth and always harbored a soft spot for Jeju.
“I always had a dream to make Jeju more known throughout the world and I think that poker can be one event to do that…for the WPT event [in December] we will have around 1500 people coming – 600 players plus wives, girlfriends.”
Park estimates 300 players from China, 100 from Japan, 30 to 40 non-Koreans from the Seoul area and others from Macau, Hong Kong, Philippines and Malaysia. Koreans citizens will be barred from the event due to legal restrictions. I asked if this might mean little benefit goes to the Jeju people.
“Bringing the poker to Jeju brings attention to Jeju. We are bringing foreign dollars and foreign people. Will it benefit people here? Absolutely. The dollars they bring here they will use here,” he said.
“Our affiliated company, Ourgame, did a survey of 120 people…believe it or not, not one person had heard of Jeju. That shows how much potential there is for growth…The infrastructure, the weather, the environment are all here…it is still very inexpensive…,” he said. “Jeju is within a two-hour flight of around 500 million people…Jeju has so many beautiful things to offer.”
Park recognizes that public perception of poker in Korea represents an obstacle to growth. His mission is to to change this. “I think that poker is a game…a sport. In the US poker is on ESPN and there are 27 countries at the Mind Olympics where poker is played. It cannot be called gambling, it is a sport,” he said.
Despite the challenge, poker is rising fast in Asia, not least in China: “it is booming, it is huge.” There is an effort industry-wide to change the perception of poker, from gambling to leisure: “it is a family attraction…it leaves a bad image, but bringing families…and making a tourist destination, that’s what we need to accomplish…as CEO that’s my goal.”
Whether Rodman is the right man to paint a family-centric picture of gambling is yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure – he is a headline act. The NBA stars visit to Jeju will set the stage nicely for the WPT event in December: “We think Jeju will be bigger than the other tournaments.”
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