A cashless, members-only club offering live poker games is getting ready to open in Beijing, but questions are already being raised as to how long the local authorities will allow it to remain open. Forbes Asia reporter Simon Montlake took a peek inside the Goldfish Club, an $8m renovated restaurant space in the nightlife district near Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium. Set to open its doors this April, the Goldfish Club is backed by a company called iTOP, which has grand plans to open 10 or more such clubs by 2017. That is, if the authorities don’t shut the first one down.
Businessman Shen Jian, one of three partners behind iTOP, takes pains to stress that the object of the clubs is not to facilitate gambling. A winning player’s reward “might be a bottle of wine … it’s a form of exchange.” The plan is to charge memberships ranging from the introductory rate of $16k all the way up to VIP packages priced at $320k. The deep-pocketed clients the Goldfish hopes to attract are intellectual elites who enjoy playing poker and other card and board games (chess, bridge, checkers, etc.) and are eager to meet similarly minded men and women. Shen’s goal for the club’s first year is to attract 500 such individuals and expand from there.
But that’s only if the club’s doors remain free from padlocks. The other two iTOP partners are Shen’s older brother and a state security official who didn’t want to be identified. The official’s caution is understandable. While the authorities have occasionally given their blessing to invite-only non-buy-in poker tournaments such as the WPT Grand Sanya in December, the past two weeks have seen the authorities react quite negatively to attempts to expand the boundaries of what’s permissible on the Chinese mainland.
The first of these attempts, a ‘cashless casino’ at a resort on Hainan, was shut down just two days after Reuters published an interview with its owner describing it as “a test” by mainland authorities for expanding the reach of casino gambling outside Macau. Not long after that, a loose-lipped Taiwanese official incurred the wrath of Fuzhou City officials by suggesting the mainlanders would participate in a “cross-Taiwan strait gaming zone.” That prompted the mainland government to threaten to ban locals from traveling to Taiwan to gamble, which would effectively cripple the Matsu Island casino project before it even got off the ground.
Only time will tell if Forbes’ spotlight results in this Goldfish being flushed down the toilet. Not for nothing, but The Goldfish Club is also the name of a non-fiction book by Danny Danziger about World War II aviators who were shot down and forced to bail out over large bodies of water. Hope those cards are water-resistant.