Tue, Jun 09, 2009
The New Paper
Secret poker games at empty condo units

DURING the day, it looks like an unoccupied condo apartment.

But at night, it is transformed into a private poker room, with a casino poker table and a hired card dealer.

Inside, thousands of dollars can change hands as players raise, fold and bluff their way through each round.

When daylight arrives, the tables disappear and the poker room reverts to an empty condo apartment awaiting a full-time tenant.

Welcome to Singapore's underground poker network, where fans of the game organise secret home games, often in empty condo apartments.

Those familiar with the poker scene here say this is a growing trend, with up to three games being organised each week.

While most players in Singapore play for social reasons, there are some who win or lose thousands of dollars in a single night.

And they aren't usually wealthy businessmen, but university students or those fresh in the workforce.

Shawn (not his real name), a 28-year-old undergraduate and avid poker fan, said these organised home games can require buy-ins of $200 and upwards if you want to play.

Shawn did not want to reveal his real name as he does not want his family to know about his poker nights.

These games typically take place after school or work, starting around 9pm and lasting until the wee hours of the morning, said Shawn, who plays at least twice a week.

Most players are national servicemen, students or young working adults aged between 18 and 30, those familiar with these games said.

By invite only

Getting a spot at one of these home games is not easy. Entry is by invitation only.

The games are hosted at an unoccupied condo apartment, which the hosts rent for the night through private contacts. Players are either close friends of the host or people they trust.

And even the invited players will not know the location of the apartment until the night of game, when they receive an SMS message with the address.

'One particular place was raided because they let people in without knowing their backgrounds,' Shawn said.

'That's why they are cautious.'

Although it may be a hush-hush affair, some of the players' girlfriends go to watch.

Once everyone arrives, they exchange their cash for chips, and the betting begins.

Bets can go anywhere from 20 cents to $60 in these home games.

Shawn said a small portion of the pot from each round goes to the hosts to cover the rental of the venue, the dealer's fees and miscellaneous costs like snacks.

Sometimes the games are held not in vacant condo units but in private homes.

Fans of the game who want to enjoy the action and make some money without the risk of gambling sometimes end up as paid dealers for these games.

One dealer, John (not his real name), 26, gets paid about $200 for each poker session - more if you include the tips he gets from the players.

And the undergraduate gets to meet poker buddies and have a few laughs.

John said that dealing cards isn't as easy as it looks.

'You need knowledge of the game, speed in dealing, control of table dynamics and stamina,' he explained.

The games usually go on for a long time and, unlike the players, dealers can't take breaks or step out of a game.

While most players seem to just want to make a quick buck, others like Mr Vincent Ho and his friends try to do some good with the money raised at their games.

Funds for charity

'Our poker buddy and host James didn't want our sessions to be a place to earn money,' says Mr Ho, 25, referring to the organiser of the weekly affair who declined to be interviewed.

'To him, the main purpose should be leisure.'

So on Valentine's Day this year, the group took children at a home on an excursion. They used the $400 raised from their games to pay for the kayak rental, refreshments and chartered buses.

The group is now raising funds to hold another charity event.

Most of these players, he said, come from well-off families and those who are working hold respectable jobs, and are engineers, banking associates, consultants and so on.

Industry observers said that while poker has been played socially here for some time, it started growing in popularity two years ago after Singapore hosted the Asian Poker Tour in 2006.

Mr Ramachandar Siva, chief executive officer at the Singapore-based International Club Games Training Centre, which offers courses in casino games, said the reason poker is so hot with the university crowd is that it is seen more as a game of skill than luck.

'Champions are celebrated and well known in the circle of players,' he said. 'Thus, a sense of keen competition to be recognised is the true driver of interest in the game.'

Home poker games could be illegal if...

THE host of poker games held at unoccupied condo apartments may be breaking the law.

Lawyer Luke Lee told The New Paper on Sunday that while gambling itself is not an offence, it would become illegal if it was held in public or at a common gaming house.

Mr Lee explained: 'If the condominium is used primarily for gambling, it can at a certain point become a common gaming house.'

Under the Common Gaming Houses act, a common gaming house is defined as any place used for gaming, kept for habitual gaming or used for the purpose of public lottery, all of which the public or any class of the public has access to.

However, if the host can prove that the players involved all know each other, he may get himself off the hook.

Mr Lee explained that if the card players are all friends, then the poker session is technically not open to members of the public, and thus may not be illegal.

In 2000, then Chief Justice Yong Pung How said it was not illegal for a group of friends to come together to gamble, even if the gambling sessions were frequent.

It would however become an offence if one's home or office is turned into premises used solely for gambling.

Mr Lee added that police would usually step in to conduct surveillance if they receive information that a place was used as a common gaming house.

Under the Common Gaming Houses act, the penalty for the owner or occupier of a common gaming house is a fine of $5,000 to $50,000. The occupant can also be imprisoned for up to three years.

Anyone who is caught gaming in a common gaming house can be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned up to six months or both.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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