Poker, for many, has become a gambling sport that has seen its peak. The online poker industry has become so saturated that experts claim it will soon die out. Still many are optimistic that Asia will be the next top destination for a poker boom. In recent years, Malaysia has played an important role in the gaming industry, allowing it to produce a number of homegrown talents.
A closer look at the growing number of successful Malaysian poker players will give outsiders the notion that the card game has long been popular in the country. But, it is not necessarily true, particularly because the only legal way for Malaysians to play poker is at Casino de Genting, the sole casino in the country. Add to it that most Malaysians, especially the ethnic Malays, are barred from any form of gambling. It is not unusual to see the poker scenes dominated by the Chinese, ethnic minorities, and tourists or in short, non-Muslims.
It is interesting to actually know Malaysian poker personalities because of the limited poker games hosted in the country. Aside from few annual major tournaments, only a number of mini weekly events are held in Malaysia.
Given the circumstances, one may ask – How did poker become so famous among the Malaysians?
Malaysia is a tourist magnet. Many foreigners come to the country to experience its beauty and exploit its gambling industry. Part of what makes poker popular in Malaysia is largely due to the heavy influence of these foreigners and the locals who travelled to Macau, Hong Kong, and the Philippines where Omaha and Texas Hold’em poker. The availability and accessibility of online poker made it easier to fuel the popularity of poker in Malaysia.
The only reason why Malaysia took on poker quite late in the game was due to the country’s restricting laws. Aside from Casino de Genting, poker enthusiasts do not have any other venue to play poker. Many of them resort to playing online poker, which does not readily allow them to become famous outside of the internet sphere. Playing online poker has the same competitiveness as playing in land-based casinos. They can easily do so by playing at the comforts of their home, without having to worry about authorities monitoring them.
Top Poker Players in Malaysia
Malaysia has become a great country to find avid poker players that have made their name in the industry. Here are some of the outstanding poker players in Malaysia.
Yong is a Malaysian businessman who became famous after joining several of the world’s prestigious and biggest poker tournaments and cash games. He is often seen playing the tables of Macau where he earned millions of dollars in prizes. Yong is also a constant fixture in high-roller poker tournaments held worldwide. He also has numerous appearances together with Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey in televised poker cash games.
Yong also became extremely popular when he won 8th place in the 2012 World Series of Poker Big One for One Drop Charity, winning US$1,237,333. He won his first major tournament in 2015 Aussie Millions $100,000 Challenge where he earned a whopping US$1,477,560 beating Scott Seiver, Erik Seidel, and Ole Schemion. Yong currently ranks as the #1 Malaysian poker player in terms of cash earnings with a total of US$9,353,776 from live poker tournaments.
In 2014, the senior junket operator was released from prison after posting a US$1.5 million bail after he was arrested for allegedly being part of an alleged Paul Phua-led sports betting ring. The said case is now dismissed.
Chan Wai Leong
Another notable player hailing from Malaysia is the young Chan Wai Leong. He ranks second in Malaysia’s all-time money list with total live earnings of US$5,996,197. He currently ranks 949th in the Global Poker Index Ranking and 165th in the All-Time Money List. He recently finished the $2,000,000 HKD No-Limit Hold’em at the 2018 Triton Super High Roller Series Jeju in second place, earning a hefty sum of US$3,251,141, his biggest cash winning, so far. Chan had to give Mikita Badziakouski the win in a classic preflop coinflip situation, where Badziakouski won win an ace pair.
Probably one of the most famous poker players hailing from Malaysia, Phua is a 54-year old casino VIP junket operator known to regularly hold high-stakes gambling activities in Macau. Dubbed as the “World’s Biggest Bookie” and “A Legend in the Gambling World,” Phua hailed from northeastern Sarawak and eventually moved to Singapore to attend school.
In 2006, Phua partnered with Steve Wynn to expand the casino business. Phua’s role centered on the marketing operations, coming up with enticing offers to draw more high rollers to the casino. Through hosting many high-stakes tournaments, he built his net worth to about US$400 million.
Phua’s career in playing professional poker started late. He was in his 40s when he learned from pro players who moved from Las Vegas to Macau. By 2012, Phua clinched the top prize in the Aspers £100K High Roller in London when defeated good friend and fellow Malaysian Richard Yong in the heads up play, where he earned his biggest cash of US$1,621,297. He was also able to beat Mikita Badziakouski in the heads-up play of the One Drop Extravaganza €100,000 Super High Roller, where he took home US$827,722.
Phua’s career in poker is not always smooth sailing. He is known in the industry as someone who should not be messed with as pieces of evidence showed his involvement with the 14K triads. On July 9, Phua, along with his colleagues, was arrested by the FBI for allegedly running an illegal sports betting ring during the World Cup. The said case was eventually dismissed and Phua is now a free man.
Currently, Phua is the third in rank in Malaysia’s All-Time Money List. He has total live tournament earnings of US$5,116,041.
Ivan Leow or Seng Yee Leow
Ranking 4th in Malaysia’s All-Time Money List, Ivan Leow has one of the best poker stories. A young super high roller on the road to poker stardom. He is not a professional player and is not known to have any experience in playing a cash game tournament of Triton Hold’em when he played and won his first live tournament title in the 2018 Triton Super High Roller Series Jeju $500,000 HKD No Limit Hold’Em Short Deck Event, which earned him total of US$1,079,209. He then again found himself going home with another title after two weeks when he defeated 29 entries to earn the top spot in the Triton Poker High Roller Series Sochi ₽6,000,000 No Limit Hold’Em Event. He earned US$1,080,000 in winnings from this event, achieving total live tournament earnings of $3,162,172.
Leow also received 306 Card Player Player of the Year points for his title run. Just starting in the field of poker industry, the 36-year old Leow is sure to experience more success in the near future, particularly that he is now just outside the top 100 in the overall POY race standings.
Ranking 6th in Malaysia’s All-Time Money List, Michael Soyza is a young gun making a good name for himself in the professional poker industry. He has won several major tournaments finishing first in 2012 APT Asian Series in Macau HK$3,000 + 300 Pot Limit Omaha, 2012 APT Asian Poker Series Manila ₱ 5,000 + 500 No Limit Hold'em – Deep Stack Turbo, 2015 Aussie Millions Poker Championship A$ 1,025 + 125 #6 No Limit Holdem Accumulator, 2016 Aussie Millions Poker Championship A$1,025 + 125 No Limit Hold’em Accumulator, 2017 Macau Poker Cup 27, 2017 Suncity Cup Macau HK$ 43,000 + 2,000 No Limit Hold'em – High Roller, 2018 APPT KRW 1,800,000 No Limit Hold'em and APPT Main Event (Event #13) and KRW 900,000 + 100,000 No Limit Hold'em/Pot Limit Omaha (Event #15), 2018 APT Championships HK$ 1,500 No Limit Hold'em – Ante Up for Charity (Event 2), 2018 DeepStack Championship Poker Series $ 1,600 + 55 No Limit Hold'em – MSPT #75, 2018 APPT Manila ₱ 138,000 + 12,000 No Limit Hold'em – High Roller Shot Clock & BB Ante (Event #12), and the 2018 EPT € 10,300 No Limit Hold'em (Event #5). His winnings have earned him total live earnings of US$2,374,905.
Winning the 2013 Aussie Millions Championship propelled Mervin Chan to poker stardom. Surprising fans and even himself, Chan outlasted a number of world’s top professional poker players and emerged as the winner to earn the AU$1.6 million grand prize, and a Chrysler 300C car. Also known as Mervin “The Cat” Chan, the 29-year old player proved that amateurs can also win big in poker.
He has total live earnings of US$1,697,793 making him 7th in Malaysia’s All-Time Money List. Although new in the professional poker industry, Chan admitted that poker has always been his passion when he discovered and learned about it in 2005. He started off playing small-scale poker, mostly through online poker sites.
Inspiring players like these men have fuelled the popularity of poker in Malaysia. Add to it the fact that many of the locals now have access to internationally licensed poker websites. The future of poker in Asia, particularly in Malaysia will now be brighter.