I drove to Poipet searching for legal poker games. The internet hinted at their existence, a couple of posts on the poker forums from 2 years ago, but the casino websites were silent. If you’re a poker player looking for action, I’ll cut right to the chase. There is no poker in Poipet.
Poipet is an easy 3 hour drive from Bangkok. You leave the city on the brand new Chon buri expressway which is 6 to 8 lanes wide and free flowing. The road up to Aranyaprayet is not heavily travelled and relaxing to drive. At the border there is a protected parking lot where you can park your car under an awning for 100 baht per day. From the parking lot it is a 100 meters to Thai immigration.
I canvassed all the casinos and only the Golden Diamond had two poker tables stashed in the back of the VIP room. In a long conversation with the pit bosses, they explained the game only goes when a group of people who know each other want to spread a game. They spread any game and limit the players wish and rake 5% of the pot over 2000 THB with no cap. This is a horrendous rake that makes any game unbeatable.
To put the rake into perspective, the Los Angeles casinos, which are more expensive than the Las Vegas ones, charge each player a $26 hourly fee in a $100-$200 game. With 9 players, $254 is taken per hour. The Poipet casinos charge a rake instead of time. With a rake, money is taken out of each pot so the amount charged by the casino grows as the stakes increase and as pots get larger.
A typical game gets about 20 hands an hour and at significant stakes a single pot’s rake can exceed the hourly charge in a Los Angeles casino. What the Poipet casino takes out of a single 25 big bet $5080 pot is what a L.A. casino charges 9 players for an hour of play. Playing 20 hands per hour, the casino would rake over a thousand dollars per hour in a $100-$200 game. No player, no matter how dominant, can beat the Poipet rake which means the Poipet casinos could never spread games for significant money that would last for any reasonable period of time. With their rake, professionals wouldn’t play and recreational players would quickly bleed their bankrolls to the house.
I can only surmise that no one in the Grand Diamond has any experience running a real poker room and no thought has been put into setting one up where the rake is reasonable and the goal is building daily action and laying down multiple games at various limits — not the short term fleecing of inexperienced uneducated rubes too naïve to understand the implications of a high rake.
The profitable long standing card rooms in the U.S. make money by relying on a pool of regular lifelong players, many of whom are long term winners, who play continuously, pay thousands of dollars in rake each year, and keep multiple tables going 24/7 365 days a year. Building this kind of action takes knowledgeable experienced management that will keep the games clean, provides amenities like free food, develops relationships with the regular players and insures that there are games spread everyday.
If you are not a poker player searching for action, here is some information on the Poipet casinos.
Legal casinos are not allowed in Thailand and the Poipet ones exist in a legal and locational no man’s land. To get to the casinos, you drive to the Aranyaprathet border crossing, pass through Thai immigration, and exit Thailand into a 200 meter wide strip of land owned by neither Thailand or Cambodia. In this strip of land, you have exited Thailand but haven’t entered Cambodia yet. You can play and stay in the casinos without formally entering Cambodia, without getting a Cambodian visa, or being forced to go through the Cambodian immigration process.
This 200 meter wide strip of land is where the casinos are. Foreigners must have a passport and all visas and permits must be in order to cross into the casino zone from Thailand. Thais can enter the casino zone and return to Thailand with just regular ID. The police who patrol the casino zone are Cambodian.
So technically, the Poipet casinos are outside of Thailand, evade the Thai legal restrictions on gambling and are not subject to Thai laws and police. Because Cambodians have to exit their country to enter the casino zone, their access is controlled and they are effectively prevented from gambling. The casinos prevent Cambodians from entering or betting. Functionally, it is a pretty neat arrangement that end runs laws and regulations in both countries and could be a case study of how business is conducted and how money is made in Southeast Asia.
Casino gambling represents an opportunity to make a ton of money. The elites and government insiders find an extra-legal way to tap that money by devising a setup where the police, army, and other government insiders get their cut and connected individuals get a gambling monopoly which allows them to run a profitable business without having to compete with better financed, more skilled outsiders, i.e. the big American casinos like Wynn, Bellagio, MGM, etc.
The local elites have no special skills or comparative advantage and without protection from outsiders they would be competed out of business in a fair market. The elites and government insiders create a monopoly and shield themselves from the market forces of competition. This is how connected Asians get rich and stay rich and it’s the same story repeated throughout the Asian dictatorships.
The extra-legal setup means all the normal cash reporting requirements are absent. You can carry up to 500,000 THB (16,000 USD) in cash across the border. A Thai family with 12 people could legally cross the border with 60,000,000 THB in their pockets. The Macau casinos evade reporting large gambling related cash transfers but it is done with middlemen who bring the gamblers to the casinos, privately guarantee all player losses, and arrange payment of winnings in a manner that prevents government tracking. Shielding the gamblers from reporting requirements makes it possible for wealthy Asians whose money came from questionable sources, i.e. corruption, to gamble large sums without being exposed to the press or publicity in their home countries.
When I played in the Poipet Crown casino VIP section no questions were asked and no ID was requested. I bought in for one hundred thousand baht, played baccarat for a couple of hours and the only questions asked where what would I like to drink and what is my first name so a rating card for my cash back from the daily promotion could be kept. I bought chips, played, cashed out and left with no one in the casino knowing my real name, nationality, or other personal details.
The exchange rate in the Crown VIP room cage, as opposed to the street rates, was fair (31 THB per dollar) and you could play in Thai baht or Hong Kong dollars. They had two sets of chips and separate tables for play in each currency. When you cash out they pay in whatever currency you choose even if it is not the one you cashed in with.
With this arrangement, one can only speculate on the casinos being used to launder and move around large amounts of cash from illegal businesses like drugs or money—money that doesn’t want to be recorded like the proceeds from graft and corruption. Because the casinos legally don’t exist they operate free of all the money laundering and tax collection regulations required at legal casinos and banks in Asia and the U.S.
Standard card handling procedures were followed and there was no cheating by the house or players. New cards were brought out in a clear plastic box with an audit tag attached. The cards were pre-shuffled but were taken out and reshuffled at the table with a portable shuffling machine before being cut by a player and placed in a clear plastic shoe. This system prevents cold decks, card substitution, and other types of cheating. It is the same procedure used in Los Angeles except the cards are hand shuffled in L.A.
The selection of games was pretty basic. Every casino had Baccarat with a 5% commission. One casino had pai gow and there was a selection of Asia only games. Most had a 5% house edge. With this size house edge, the casinos are just grind houses that will take the players money in short order. This isn’t Vegas where there is a wide selection of games many of which feature virtual even money bets even when the house edge is included. There were no skill games, such as blackjack, where player knowledge has an effect on the odds or games featuring almost even money bets like craps.
The only interesting thing going on in the casinos was live internet gambling. These were tables, behind a rail, where attractive women dealers in low cut evening wear dealt games in front of a webcam and computer monitor. These are for the casinos web site where Asian players play online. Online the player sees the table, dealer, card shoe and the dealer keeps her hands in plain site during the hand. Webcamming a live game and putting them out in the open where anyone can watch is way of insuring a fair game to the internet players. The girls were chosen for sexual appeal, you can stand behind them, and watch the computer monitor in front of them. The internet dealers were about the only decent whiff of girl action in Poipet. Some of the online casinos feature topless and naked female dealers but none of these were in evidence in Poipet. 🙁
The casinos themselves were dumpy and run down—not surprising given the economics. With their extra legal status, the casinos could be shut down and put out of business with a simple change of leadership in either Thailand or Cambodia. No courts or democratically elected bodies need be involved. One day, the government, in either country, changes hands and the casino zone could be shut down and the casino buildings become worthless and left to rot like the temples of Angor Wat. No investor will spend money building Las Vegas quality facilities under these conditions and their construction evidenced this.
There wasn’t any first class dining in town either. The casinos had low grade buffets mostly featuring fried rice and soup — not that much different from a 60 THB plate of Bangkok street food. The Holiday Palace had a decent Japanese Buffet but it cost 450 THB. There is an outside dining/shopping area with a food court that serves rice, somtan, etc. at Bangkok street prices. None of the casinos had any Vegas type shows or entertainment. There were no discos, in or out of the casino’s and, as far as I could tell, no girl action whatsoever.
These are some pictures of my room. This room was the most expensive featured on Agoda.com and very low quality. The furniture was banged up, the floors had water damage, the TV was from the 1980’s, and the air con was barely able to cool the room. There were a few tiny flies buzzing around the room that might have been from unidentified spores breeding in the mattress. The bathroom was the same as you would get in a 500THB room in up country Thailand.
Executive summary — From a financial and entertainment point of view, the Poipet casinos are a waste of time