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Singapore’s finest at the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour, Macau 2008

Posted by : DM101 on Tuesday, September 09, 2008 permalink
Singapore’s finest at the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour, Macau 2008

Several weeks ago, the local news daily MyPaper ran a feature on some of Singapore’s most prominent poker personalities. Enclosed was a picture of Joshua Ang, the runner-up in what was then known as the Betfair Asian Poker Tour; Ivan Tan, runner-up in the inaugural APPT in 2007; Bryan Huang, champion of the Ladbrokes Caribbean adventure, and Nathaniel Seet, arguably Singapore’s most successful cash game player. Sadly, another enormously successful cash game player – widely known by his online nickname PokerArt - was absent from the feature. Collectively, they represent a growing breed of young, intelligent, and educated Singaporeans who have chosen to treat the game as more than a pastime, and who have become immensely successful at it.

Shortly after the article was published, this writer had the opportunity to join these players in Macau for the’s Asia-Pacific Poker Tour 2008. I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the psychology, mathematics and risk-management skills these young Singaporeans brought to a game most people believe identical to throwing dice or purchasing a lottery ticket. In another life, there is little doubt that these young men would have excelled as investment bankers, traders, accountants etc. They have chosen not to for very simple reasons. No office hours, no bosses; and the money is much, much better.

The Grand Waldo Hotel and Casino was the designated venue for the 14 day event. The ground level of the casino would host the Main Event, as well as the assorted side tournaments that were offered every day. Cash games would run 24/7 on the second floor of the casino, inside the Pokerstars’ card room. For the duration of the event, the card room and tournament floor swelled with a heady mix of professional poker players, degenerate gamblers, and tourists from across the world. Of course, quite a few individuals there would fit all three descriptions.

How fun is poker? It’s a lot of fun if you know what you’re doing. The dozens of extremely skilled players who extracted money from me whenever I sat down are no doubt nodding their heads in agreement as they read this. Another writer (whose name I forget) beautifully summarizes my own thoughts on poker: Hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

One Singaporean who clearly did not share my terror was seated several tables away in the Pokerstars card room. Nathaniel Seet was playing at a table that featured the legendary Johnny Chan, 2005 WSOP Main Event Champion Joe Hachem, and several other high stakes notables in the poker world. Nat was easily the tiniest fellow seated at this table. What he lacked in stature however, he made up for with an intense, unwavering glare, along with the uncanny ability to make optimal decisions on the turn. If there was a single trait that most accurately described the attitude and mentality he brought to the table, fearlessness would come closest. It’s the same type of fearlessness that allows the best traders and fund managers to pull the trigger under severe pressure, with large amounts of money at stake. Nat finished the session a big winner. Although he never discloses exact figures, reliable sources indicate that he won more in that 4 hour stretch than most Singaporeans make in 3 years.

The next few days were spent following the progress of the many Singaporeans who played the HKD$25,000 entry fee Main Event. After registrations closed, it was announced that the tournament drew a record 538 entrants, making it the largest poker tournament ever held in Asia. With just 10 Singaporeans playing the Main Event, it seemed mathematically unlikely that one of them would run deep into a tournament with such a large, experienced field.

Over the first 2 days of the Main Event, this was exactly what happened. Some lasted 10 hours, some lasted half an hour, some ran Kings into Aces, some ran implausible bluffs and were called down, some had Aces beaten by Queens, some had seemingly invincible hands cracked by cruel river cards; all of which would be shared over comradely and commiserating beers. Like poker players anywhere else, Singaporean players enjoy retelling their bad beat stories to anyone who will listen. Hang around and I’ll tell you some of mine in a moment.

By the end of day 3, only one Singaporean player would remain standing. Bryan Huang had been gradually accumulating chips throughout the tournament, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that the hopes of a nation were resting on him, the small but loud Singaporean contingent in Macau was actively cheering his every play. That actually meant a whole lot more cheering than the contingent was prepared for, since Bryan was taking down pot after pot after pot. At some point, it seemed as if players were actively donating chips to him.

There were many reasons why this was happening, and I’ll venture a few of my own here. Bryan resembles a large teddy bear in both manner and appearance, which lulls opponents into a false sense of security when playing against him. Underneath the cuddly exterior however, lies an extremely competitive psyche that will contest the pot on every street. Equally adept at the pre-flop 3-bet or the turn mini-raise bluff, Bryan picks up a lot of pots simply by forcing an opponent to fold, and somehow manages to extract maximum value with a winning hand most of the time.

Bryan eventually clawed his way to the final table as chip leader, and began wielding his chip stack like a bludgeon. He raised and re-raised his way past 6 other players before he found himself 3-handed with the colourful Malaysian Charles ‘The Chuck Truck’ Chua, an astute tournament veteran with amazing table feel, and the wonderfully gifted Eddie Sabat, who bamboozled all and sundry with his unpredictable post-flop, small-pot play. Each time Bryan got into a showdown, the Singapore contingent would leap to their feet and call for the cards he needed in Hokkien( sa pi! sa pi!), to the complete bemusement of the foreign media and attendees. Tragically, Bryan was eliminated in third place, but thankfully, pocketed USD$154,000 for his troubles.

The closing days of APPT Macau 2008 saw the commencement of the High Rollers Event. The event drew 61 starters, partly because of the HKD$150,000 entry fee, but also because of the extremely strong field scheduled to play this event. Almost the entire field consisted of big name players at the peak of their poker professions, many of whom have won a list of titles longer than this article.

Only 1 Singaporean threw his hat into the ring for this event. Ivan Tan, who finished runner-up in the Main Event here in Macau last year, joined some of the best No-Limit Texas Hold’em tournament players in the world for a crack at the 3.7 million HKD championship prize. With extremely deep starting stacks and a crawling blind structure, there was ample opportunity to take lots of flops, or sit around waiting for premium hands, depending on your preferred style of play. While this permits players a larger margin of error, it also becomes considerably more difficult to rebuild a depleted chip stack. All factors considered, the prospect of Ivan reaching a final table in Macau in consecutive years looked understandably bleak.

Ivan plays a markedly individual style of tournament poker. Some players will aggressively attack you on every street, while others will engage in you in an elegant post-flop dance for small pots. Ivan’s style could be characterized as (deep breath) selective positional preflop aggression. What this roughly means is he plays a very small number of hands, most of which are either won or lost pre-flop. In the event he finds himself playing a flop, he will almost always have position on his opponent. It’s an uncomplicated, economical, effective style of play that allows him to slowly accumulate chips, retain them, and pull off convincing bluffs when he elects to. To paraphrase Dan Harrington, Ivan makes decisions on early streets that permit him easy decisions on later streets.

The High Roller Event saw Ivan deploy this strategy to optimal effect. After 2 days of intense psychological pressure and tortuous mental concentration, Ivan sailed into the final table and into the money, with many world renowned professionals already fallen by the wayside. Short-stacked, he found his all-in re-raise bested by an opponent’s Ace King. Consolation for Ivan came in the form USD$38,461, the prize money for his very respectable 8th place finish.

Poker in Singapore continues to grow in popularity. The recent successes of the Singaporeans mentioned above will no doubt contribute further to this. The last two weeks have definitively demonstrated that Singaporeans have the technical ability and mental tenacity to take on the very best players in the world. Increasingly, many Singaporeans will no doubt follow in the footsteps of Ivan, Bryan and Nat and achieve considerable success at the game. Unfortunately, the stigma of being a poker professional is still prevalent in Singapore, as most of the population still cannot distinguish poker and pontoon. As some of the front-runners, these players now have the unique opportunity to alter public perception of the game, and to lend poker a credible, respectable face.

© Terry Tay 2008.

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