Another Bric in poker’s wall

BRIC flags

Talk to anyone involved with global marketing strategies, in any industry, and, provided you have matchsticks strong enough to prop open your eyelids, you’ll likely hear reference to the so-called “Bric” nations.

“Bric” is an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China (sometimes rendered “Brics”, to include South Africa) and these are the countries whose vast populations and recent economic development make them a marketeer’s holy grail. If you can break your company into a Bric nation, the potential riches on offer should secure you a decent Christmas bonus every year for life.

As much as we perhaps like to forget it, poker is an industry just like any other and over the past few years – in what we might call the post-post-Moneymaker era – poker operators have also set their sights on the Bric nations in the hope of prompting an aftershock to the western global boom. The past year has brought significant evidence that their efforts have not gone to waste.

In Prague, last week, where the European Poker Tour made its annual pre-Christmas jaunt, a record number of players showed up for both the Eureka Poker Tour event and that of the EPT. Analysing the nationality breakdown of the field made for some interesting reading.

While Czechs comprised 3 per cent of the 1,008-player Μain Εvent field (about par through six iterations of the tournament in Prague), Russians appeared in their droves. There were 127 Russian players in the Czech capital, which is all the more remarkable when you glance back to December 2007, the first time the EPT went to Prague. Back then, there were six.

In the continued absence of an EPT festival actually in a former Soviet state, Prague has become the de facto “home” stop for players from the former Eastern Bloc. The precipitous increase of high stakes live players mirrors the extraordinary swarms of Russians at the online tables too, where they are the dominant nationality in pretty much all games.

Across the other side of the globe, it is also going nuts in Brazil. In the week before the EPT landed in Prague, the biggest field of any tournament outside of Las Vegas – bigger even than the PCA – was assembling in Sao Paolo. There were 2,131 unique players (plus more than 300 re-entries) to the Brazil Series of Poker (BSOP) Main Event. It capped a remarkable few years for Brazilian poker.

I was in Rio de Janeiro in May 2008 for the first tournament on what became the Latin America Poker Tour (LAPT). Despite only the scantest of advertising, the $2,500 buy-in tournament attracted 315 entries and set an unprecedented word-of-mouth buzz across the densest of cities.

On final table day, the then-country manager for Brazil intimated that he would give away a bunch of merchandise to anyone appearing at the tournament venue to sample the action, and by mid-afternoon there was a huge line of people outside the Intercontinental Hotel. Over the next couple of days, a flood of branded T-shirts, baseball caps and zip-up tops made its way across Rio as online poker found a place in the public’s psyche.

During that trip, I was among a handful of reporters and staff invited to play a game in a private poker club in a gated community somewhere in Rio. We were treated like celebrities in what was already a well-organised (if legally dubious) operation. It reminded me of the early days of the British poker boom, where enthusiasts opened poker clubs across London, daring the law to prosecute them and scooping the spoils in the meantime.

With a couple of World Series bracelets strapped to the wrists of Brazilians since then, the game is nothing short of a national phenomenon. Even Ronaldo, the former international footballer, is now a PokerStars brand ambassador and the curve shows no signs of flattening out.

There was also a significant moment this year for poker in China. Although the Asia Pacific Poker Tour is now seven seasons old, it wasn’t until Alexandre Chieng beat Ken Leong in Macau in June that China named its first champion. Chieng’s name appears on some poker databases beside the Tricolore of France, but he is Chinese and has the potential to become quite the Asian poker star.

The facilities for poker in Macau are now among some of the best in the world, and with some of the big junket operators now encouraging their customers towards the poker room from the baccarat tables, the game’s influence will only spread. It’s still an uncertain market for online poker in China, but the cavalry appears to be in place should negotiations yield some kind of breakthrough.

It leaves only India as a nut un-cracked, but moves are of course afoot to address the situation. According to a CNN article from 2011, the Indian poker boom is about five years away. Watch this space.