I ran across an article titled “Thai Poker” in Poker Player Magazine. The author, Michael Kaplan, profiles what he called “the thriving Thailand poker scene.” Most expats living in Thailand don’t talk about the poker scene because, well, gambling is illegal in Thailand. But based on the number of people who have told me in whispered tones that they make their living in Thailand by playing online poker it’s more common that most people realize.
In fact, there’s many posts on the popular 2+2 website from people who have left the US and Europe for places like Thailand, Costa Rica, Brazil and other spots with warm weather, a low cost of living, and semi-reliable internet service.
The most obvious reason that people would move to Thailand to make a living playing poker is that the climate is much more agreeable to Americans and Europeans who have grown weary of cold winters back home. As one of the peopleKaplan interviews, Ron F (nobody wanted to give their full names for the interview) comments:
“I was sitting in my house in New Jersey, freezing my bollocks off and wondering what this bullshit is. I knew I could be in paradise instead of Jersey.”
Because if you’re making your living playing online poker it really doesn’t matter where in the world you do it from. All you need to make money is a computer, an internet connection, and your poker skills. There’s no advantage to living somewhere with a high cost of living if you’re the adventurous sort who doesn’t mind relocating.
But the lower cost of living means that even players who were squeaking out a small profit playing the game could be making enough to live off of in a lower cost of living locale. Someone playing stakes as low as .50/$1 could potentially be making $2000 – $3000 a month playing 8 or 10 tables at a time. That’s a nice 70,000 – 105,000 baht per month which would buy you a pretty nice lifestyle in Thailand. But back at home, $24,000 – $36,000 a year is barely getting by.
On top of that many players are able to take advantage of bonuses paid out by the online card rooms to entice players to keep playing, loyalty programs, and something called rakeback to make a very substantial living. For instance, some online poker sites will offer the player a certain amount of money if he plays a specific number of hands. So let’s say that an online poker site has made you an offer that if you deposit $100 they will match the $100 if you earn 800 points. The math on converting points to hands will vary from online poker site to online poker site but let’s just say that in this example, to keep the math simple – the player needs to play 400 hands of poker to receive the extra $100. So after 400 hands the online poker site makes a $100 deposit into his account regardless of whether or not he wins or loses.
Like I said, we’re trying to keep the math simple but some online poker sites offer bonuses like these frequently. Some might even offer them once a month to their players. And the amounts can be up to $1000 or more. Some players open accounts at many different online poker sites and just bounce from site to site collecting the bonuses.
And in addition to the bonuses most sites have a loyalty points system and the player is accumulating points as they play. Players can then cash in these loyalty points for goods and services like hats, t-shirts, and other items. However some rooms also allow players to cash in their points for, well, cash.
Lastly, many of the more savvy players have begun to get something called rakeback. Rake is what is paid to the casino as a fee for providing the game. Unlike other casino games like blackjack or roulette, poker players don’t play against the casino. They compete against each other. So, in order to compensate the online poker site for providing the service they collect a percentage of each pot as a fee called “the rake.” The rake can amount to up to 5% of the total pot. It doesn’t seem like a lot but when you consider that these rooms are dealing millions of hands a day they don’t need to take a lot from each pot to make a significant amount of money. Just to give you an idea of how much money we’re talking about, thepublicly traded PartyGaming reports over $300 million a year from their poker operations.
So, how the rakeback works is that online poker sites pay publishers and websites a percentage of the money generated by the players who they refer (also see this article What is Rakeback). And those payments are for life! So, if a website refers a player to an online poker site and that player generates $1000 in rake the online poker site pays the website anywhere from 25% – 50% of the $1000. The average is about 35% but $350 is still a nice commission for the website. And as long as the player keeps playing the website keeps getting their commission. So one player could potentially be worth thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in commissions.
Well, the players started to catch on to this and they didn’t think it was fair that some website was making such a large amount of money for doing essentially nothing but running ads and hoping people would click on them (though many do provide very valuable services like sending reporters to cover tournaments and advice on how to become a better player). Some started demanding to be cut in on the action so rakeback affiliates were born. They essentially work under the same system but if we go back to our previous example of a player generating $1000 in rake and the website making $350, the rakeback site might give the player back $300 and keep only $50.
As this rakeback site points out in an article titled How to Make a Living Playing Online Poker, a player who plays $1/$2 6-max (only six seats at the table) NL Hold’em, playing 4 tables at a time, six hours a day, on a 27% rakeback scheme, can make $5,202 (over 182,000 baht) a month without winning a single penny on the tables.
So there is yet another revenue stream for these poker players. Some don’t even need to make money playing poker. As long as they don’t lose money playing poker, between bonuses, points, and rakeback they can be making thousands of dollars every month.
The typical demographic of these adventerous players is male, in their 20’s or early 30’s, and single. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what kind of trouble someone fitting that profile could get into in Thailand on 182,000 baht a month.
Many of them relocate in groups or solicit their friends to come join them and they chip in together and rent out mansions in Thailand. I know this because I’ve seen many posting pictures of their group houses on popular poker websites. This Thailand Chatter thread on the before mentioned popular 2+2 poker website has over 5600 replies.
They might have between 3 – 5 twenty-something males each chipping in a $1000 or so a month for rent. 100,000 – 200,000 baht a month will buy a pretty nice pad.
All in all, I would say it’s a pretty nice lifestyle if:
a) you’re good enough at poker to be able to play 160 – 180 hours a month and either make money or break even
b) you can live with the potential fallout of getting busted by the Thai police for gambling
Point “b” is where some of these players may eventually run into some problems. Most aren’t aware that the Thai government has the ability to monitor and block internet traffic. These young-guns come to Thailand and think it has the same freedoms that they experience back home. Even if gambling was illegal back in their home countries governments tend to go after the online poker site rather than the players since locking up citizens for playing poker is bad PR. But in Thailand, all it would take is for one of these players to start shooting his mouth off and for someone out to get him to rat him out to the police. Thailand makes its own PR 🙂
Granted, most cops would ask for a payoff first and I have my doubts as to whether or not the Thai police could ever actually prove that you were playing online poker or even care but it is a risk.
So the next time you’re out in Phuket, Pattaya, Samui, Bangkok or Chiang Mai and you see some young expat throwing around cash like it was toilet paper you might want to ask him what site he’s playing at.