POKER

Winning and losing millions playing poker with Elton Tsang (part 1)

TAGs: Elton Tsang

In this two-parter, Lee Davy, sits down with the 2016 One Drop Monte Carlo Extravaganza winner, Elton Tsang, to talk about his poker career, his One Drop experience, and the biggest bad beat he has ever suffered at the tables. 

I stand in the lobby of the Metropolitan Hotel, London.

I feel out of place, like the only school kid without a tie.

I’m here to meet Elton Tsang, the winner of the 2016 Monte Carlo One Drop Extravaganza, and €11,111,111.

I should have looked at his photo before I left. I have no idea what he looks like, because One Drop Extravaganza apart, Tsang is a young man who has chosen to remain in the shadows of the poker world.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with Tom “Durrrr” Dwan. The once revered online cash game legend is standing at reception, looking like your stereotypical hoody wearing poker player.

Winning and losing millions playing poker with Elton Tsang (Part 1)I don’t feel out of place any longer.

I see a young Asian man approach, Dwan, exchanging trivialities.

“Call me later if you want to do something,” says the young man before our eyeballs meet for the first time and I realise that it’s him, and he realises that it’s me. 

Do something? 

Why do I get the impression that something is winning or losing millions of dollars?

Elton Tsang is diminutive in stature, smartly dressed in expensive, but fashionable attire, including those spiky black shoes you see catwalk models wearing. He wears a t-shirt covered in dollar signs, quite apt, methinks.

Tsang leads me to Nobu. It’s an expensive restaurant, I can tell because when I went to the toilet, they didn’t provide paper towels to dry your hands, they give you proper towels.

I order a Tofu steak.

Tsang orders a bento box.

I place my Dictaphone in front of him look around for God knows what, and ask him if he is ready.

“Where shall we begin?” Asks Tsang. “Do you want to start with the biggest bad beat I have ever had?”

“Let’s begin at the beginning,” I say in between sips of sparkling water. “Who is Elton Tsang?”

“I was born and raised in Vancouver. I graduated from the University of British Colombia. I started playing poker when I was in University when partypoker first came out. I started about 2001, playing $2/$4 Limit Hold’em on partypoker. I was a small winning poker player without much knowledge. We would have home games with friends, and I always came out a winner. I was good at math, and that helped.  

“After I graduated, I decided to come back to Hong Kong to explore what opportunities there were. I went to Macau to look for a poker game and couldn’t find one. I thought the Chinese would love poker in Macau, and because they would be new to it, they would lose a lot of money playing the game.

“I was looking for business opportunities. I saw an opportunity and thought in my head there could be a boom in Asia. At the same time, they had the very first tournament in Asia. It was in Singapore. I came fourth. I was pretty happy with the result. I felt everyone was going to Asia to try and play poker at this time. 

“I went around asking people, and somehow found out that my Dad’s second cousin was the owner of the Grand Waldo Casino in Macau. I was trying to present to him my idea of running a poker tournament. I told them if we did a tournament we would attract a lot of people to their casino; they would stay for the week and gamble on the floor. 

“They liked the idea. It was a niche casino at the time. They wanted new business. I convinced them of the idea, but then I had to get regulatory approval and license from the DRCJ, and so we had to write out rules for the games, translate into Chinese. They also needed someone with recognition and authority in the field. I turned to Matt Savage, and he flew in to help. When he became the Tournament Director, it brought some authority to the event. 

“Afterwards, I thought it would sell, and I would make a lot of money through sponsorship. I felt PokerStars would pay me a million USD or something. I didn’t know how to capitalise upon it, but I was sure it would sell. Macau was starting to be recognised at this time. It was an opportunity for everyone.  

“Eventually, PokerStars did sponsor us and handled everything from organising the event, marketing, and attracting the players. We called it the Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) Macau. I didn’t make as much money as I thought.  

Winning and losing millions playing poker with Elton Tsang (Part 1)“I met a lot of professional poker players during the tournament. Before that, I never considered playing poker full time. But upon meeting them, the idea of being a pro poker player appealed to me: they didn’t have fixed working hours, they travelled around the world, and played when they wanted to.  

“I only signed a one time deal with PokerStars and the casino. It was my first business deal; I should have agreed a long term deal. Both of them decided to move forward without me. I brought no value to the table, and PokerStars was able to handle everything themselves. So I left the poker business.” 

The waiter arrives at the table with our food. He looks like Lurch from the Addams Family, and Tsang’s bento box is the size of Tyrion Lannister’s coffin. I look down at my bland looking Tofu and want to swap.

I know that Tsang is worth millions of dollars, and am interested to learn where he was, financially, at this period of his life? Was he born into wealth? How do you move from $2/$4 Limit to the biggest game in the world playing for millions of dollars?

“I was kind of broke at this time in my life,” said Tsang. “I invested a lot of money to start the APPT. It was my first entrepreneurial move. I invested about a million HKD ($130k) of my own money which I saved up during University. It was all the money that I had.” 

I used to play $2/$4 Limit Poker, but never had the thought of moving to Asia looking to open a live tournament. Where did that drive come from?

“As a kid, growing up with my family, I always had this thought that working’ for a living would never take me anywhere,” said Tsang. “I always wanted to do my own thing and find ways to make money. It was always in me. I studied business. That was my interest at the time.

“If that tournament didn’t come out as expected, and it was tight. Even though the deal wasn’t good for me, I needed it to make my money back. I made a little bit extra and saved myself.  

“I started to try and play online to copy some of my friends. I played my first Steps Satellite and won a seat to the PCA, and came in 37th. Because it was a satellite, it was a good win for me {Tsang won $32k). That cash boosted my confidence. Then I tried to win a satellite for the Monte Carlo event. I didn’t win a seat, so I bought in for €10k, and then came nowhere so that hurt, especially with the travel expenses. 

“After that, I started playing live cash games in Hong Kong. My parents are from Hong Kong. My Dad moved back at the time, and I had relatives there. I stayed with my Dad, and the first poker house came up called The Hong Kong Poker House – a members only poker place with six-eight tables, rake free, and an HKD$250 entrance fee for two drinks. I thought it was legal because it was open, everyone was there, and police would arrive and carry out random checks. They weren’t trying to shut anything down, so I thought it was legal. We didn’t know the law that well, back then. 

“We played HKD$25/$50 ($3/$6), and that’s when I started playing full time. At the time I was about 28. I wasn’t a great player back then. I grinded slowly. Shortly after that, they started having live cash games in Macau, but Hong Kong was more convenient for me. It was a great social thing. I loved it. I made a lot of friends in that game in Hong Kong.  

“The Poker House was doing very good, so a few of my friends decided to open a similar establishment called The Blue Room. We used the same model, and my friends got me involved in bringing the game together. After the club had run for three months, the police shut it down, and we got charged with running an illegal gambling establishment. I had a suspended sentence, but it was one of the things I sacrificed for poker. 

“I felt pretty shitty because I now had a criminal record, and later it would affect me in a broader sense. It was such a stupid deal to have a criminal record over. We were charging HKD$250 per member, no rake, just trying to create a community. I thought it was completely legal because the Poker House had been running for over a year by this time. 

“Eventually, the Poker House also got shut down after us. By the time we had started our club, I had moved up to HKD$50/$100, building a bankroll, and began to play higher. I was still playing full time, and all my earnings came from poker. 

“I had this legal case, so I was scared to play in Hong Kong again. Soon after I moved to Macau with a couple of Australian room mates, who were pro poker players. That was shortly after the Wynn opened. I was playing HKD$50/100 mostly. Eventually, started playing HKD$100/$200 and it was the most difficult stage to progress through. It was the biggest table at that time. The next stage was the HKD$1000/$2000 level, which was a private game, plus the Big Game at Star World. 

“I kept moving up and then moving back down. Eventually, I managed to play steadily at HKD$100/$200. It took about a year or so to play in the game regularly. There were lots of pros playing in the game at the time. Matt Kirk would come and play games like that, and he was good friends with my Australian buddy David Ewing.  

“There was a US pro called Vietnamese John {John Hoang}, and he used to crush that game real bad. Years later, I played in a small tournament, and I beat Vietnamese John heads-up to win it {Tsang won $71,307 beating 233 entrants, his only tournament win outside of the One Drop}. He was the player who would always kill me and send me back to the lower stakes. I think it was 2010 when I beat him. I won half a million Hong Kong that time, and I was so happy because I outplayed him heads-up. In the last hand of the tournament, there was an AA4 flop. I check-called him with King high {K9}. I knew he was bluffing, and my hand was good. On the turn, I hit a nine. Then I check-called his all-in, he had J6, and I won the tournament. That was the first tournament I ever won.” 

It may seem like a dumb question, but I wanted to know how that victory felt? Winning €11m in the One Drop may feel like a defining moment, but he was in a stronger financial shape, and more confident in his game. What did it feel like to beat a nemesis that had held on to his coat tails for so long?

“It was a critical moment. I was sure at that time that the win increased my bankroll at least by 50%. It was a big boost to my bankroll, and also defeating the guy who kept beating you – he was a bully. He was always raising, and finally, when I had the hand, he would somehow beat me.  

“Gradually for the next two years or so I lived in  Macau and kept playing. I eventually moved up to HKD$300/$600. There was a big game that at the time HKD$1000/$2000. I wanted to be in that game. That was my goal. Obviously, you need a big bankroll to get into that game.” 

Lurch returns to the table to ask Tsang if he is done eating – he hasn’t eaten anything. Lurch walks off, disappointed that he can’t carry the little coffin. I shout out to him to bring me some green tea, before asking Tsang if his drive at this period in his life was to win as much money as he could, or to be the world’s greatest poker player? 

“To be honest it was more money orientated, that was the driving factor. If I could play in that game, there is a chance I could win good money. I never treated myself as the best in the game because there were always great players. It was about finding a way to survive. I never considered myself the best player at the table during those days. I just needed to find a way to win.” 

I had a vision of a group of Asian fish enjoying themselves playing poker, to escape the kids, and then one day, they are attacked by a bunch of Piranha looking pros, taking chunks out of their rolls and self-esteem with their razor sharp little teeth. 

“Most of the pros were Australian, US, and Europeans. There were hardly any Asian pros. Most of the games revolved around pros. The HKD$100/$200 game was mainly a heavy pro game. There were a lot of VIP regulars that came in and lost a lot of money to keep the pros alive, but most of the time you were looking at 8/9 pros to 1/2 recreational players. You had to arrive, line up, once you had a seat you had to stay as long as you can. We all lived at One Central which was right next to the Wynn Poker Room. It was pretty neat. It was like a poker playing dorm. We all hung out, went drinking when there was no game. I made a lot of friends playing poker.  

“Eventually, I am playing HKD$300/600, and then some HKD$1000/2000. Then they started playing Omaha. I had learned the game online. When they introduced it in Macau, there was an HKD$1000/$2000 game, and my bankroll was solid. I ran well in that game, and I grew my bankroll considerably.  

“When that game died down, in 2012, I started playing the real high stakes game. Which was HKD$10,000/$20,000 (USD 1.25k/$2.5k) & HKD$20,000/$40,000 (USD$2.5k/$5k), and that was the game that all the big pros play, and sometimes there is a good businessman who will play. That was a juicy game.” 

The Big Game.

I had heard about the game on the grapevine but never spoken in depth about the nitty gritty of it. I knew the money was huge but was interested in understanding, who was playing, and how Tsang felt the first couple of times he bumped chests with the heavyweights of the poker world. 

“At that time some of the pros who were playing a lot in the big game were: Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, John Juanda, Tom Dwan, and Johnny Chan. There were some local Chinese pros.  

Winning and losing millions playing poker with Elton Tsang (Part 1)“I was very nervous when I first played. The first Christmas, a few months into me playing in that game, I lost a huge portion of my bankroll, and I went into a stage where I was losing confidence because there were such big swings in the game. The Big Game was No-Limit Hold’em. I started playing more PLO again. PLO was the game I always went back to build my bankroll back up. 

“I built my roll back up; I would take shots now and then. Eventually, I managed to overcome my loss, survive, and after that, I just kept going up all the way, steadily.” 

The green tea arrives.

I finish off some Miso Soup; I’m not sure if it’s mine or Elton’s. I look around the room, there is wealth everywhere, but I doubt anyone has earned their money this way. It seems almost surreal to talk about these sums of money. I feel like I have lost my tie, once again.

I ask Tsang who he learned the most from in that game? 

“Very early in the game, I learned a lot from my room mate David Ewing. I was trying to learn poker tournaments back then. ElkY also gave me a lot of good advice. I would always talk to people about hands. When I started playing high stakes, I talked to Michael Thuritz, and he gave me some good advice. Tommy Le is another outstanding player who had a big influence on my career; it was Tommy who helped me with my PLO game.  

“I tried to dig into Johnny Chan’s mind, but I don’t think he shared much info that was good. I remember Andrew Robl was a real good player. I admired him a lot. He was solid, focused, and had a good read on everyone. He was my idol. I didn’t talk to him much about the game, but I watched him and learned from him. And of course Phil Ivey was much respected by everybody, but I didn’t find his game that interesting. He’s a great player, but I assume everyone has a different view on what’s ‘interesting.’ Before I won that small tournament, I read Gus Hansen’s book, and I thought that was an excellent book, and it helped me a lot.” 

I ask Tsang if he can recollect the largest single loss, or win, of his career. It’s a stupid question, one that I always ask for dramatic effect, but I sense it will be lost on Tsang from the moment it passes the Miso Soup in the corridor of my throat.

“The thing is, now the stakes I play are so huge that I am not sure I want to reveal how big they are? When we play in the very big games, we often sell pieces. The biggest pots I have won and lost are over hundred million Hong Kong dollars (USD$12.7m). The games get pretty big.

I should coco.

But which ones hurt the most? 

“One of the games where I still remember until now. It was a game that would have broke me or made me. I was in Macau playing three-handed with Tom Dwan and the Chairman. That game, we were playing HKD Ten Million dollar buy-in (USD$1.2m) HK$50,000/HK$100,000 (USD$6/$12k) No-Limit. After playing 24-hours, I had lost HKD$60 million (USD$7.6m). That was my stop-limit. I was ready to quit. But then I ended up giving it one more bullet. I bought in for another HKD$20m (USD$2.5m) and had I lost it I would have had to move down in stakes and start all over. I was fortunate enough to win all my money back, and HKD$60m on top of that. It was the most important game of my life. I think that was in about 2014 or 2015.”  

How confident was Tsang, competing in that Big Game? 

“I had a lot of confidence, obviously. But that was the first time I had played that Big Game, so I had a lot of ego to want to play a big game. That was a super, super big game. I wanted to give it a shot, and I must say I had some confidence, but I wanted to excel. That was the turning point for me, big time. Had I lost HKD$80m instead of winning HKD$60m that would have been a big difference for me.” 

Poker starts out as a game but ends up being your life. As Tsang tucked into his bento box, I wondered how his friendships had evolved as he slowly made his way through the rank and file of the Macau cash games. 

“Luckily I didn’t move down after that moment, but every time I moved up, I did start to hang out more with the new players I would play with. I lose a lot of contact with the friends I used to have in the smaller games. It’s a shame. I miss a lot of them, but we don’t have the time. 

“It’s a weird feeling. People see me moving up, and they say things like, ‘I am different now’. I am sure they appreciate how well I am doing, but we aren’t as close anymore. We used to be together for a whole year, but today, I hang out with different people.” 

And if he ever finds himself in another bankroll defining game, only this time loses the lot, would he have the inner reserves to go back and start again, like he did, so many times, on his journey north?

“I would focus on something else. In the past two years I have been focusing a lot on business; everything but poker. I have not been playing nearly enough poker.” 

And then it dawns on me.

Throughout our discussion, Tsang has never mentioned his business involvement. I wanted to make sure, that my feel was correct. Had Tsang made all of his money playing poker.

“Yes.” 

And then my mind races back to an email exchange with Erik Seidel, who told me that the decision to bar professional players from the 2016 One Drop, and then allow Elton to play, was a strange one. I am paraphrasing, but Seidel said that Elton was one of the toughest players in those games.

If he made all of his money playing poker, then surely that makes Tsang a professional poker player, and, therefore, he shouldn’t have been allowed to compete in the One Drop?

“To be honest, I didn’t even know about the One Drop. A week before I learned some of my friends were playing. All these years I never played any tournaments. I wasn’t famous. I was always playing in private games. The public didn’t know me that well. I asked my friend to see if I can play, and somehow he gave my name to Guy {Laliberte}, he asked him, and he said yes. 

“To be honest, I never played tournaments that much. I didn’t think I had a great edge. It was a gamble. Who can say they have a great edge in tournaments? Other than that guy who keeps winning…what’s his name?

I assume he is talking about Fedor? 

“Yeah, that guy’s a genius – I was pretty lucky to get into the tournament, and lucky enough to win it. I try to stay away from tournaments because it’s such a long process, and then get first, which is a swing of a cash game for me, so it puts me on tilt. The One Drop was different as it’s much bigger and means much more to me. It was like hitting the jackpot. I bought in for the whole lot but did sell some shares to my good friends. I didn’t do it because I needed to.” 

It’s strange that a man who chooses to spend his time in the shadows opens himself up to the bright lights of the biggest buy-in event the world has ever seen. How did that transition feel for Tsang? 

“It’s good because it’s a weird mix. The One Drop event made me recognised by the public, and most importantly my family. They can brag about this to their friends. This event made my family realise the accomplishment I have made. When I tell them about playing cash games, they don’t know what’s going on. Being on the news is different. It was in the newspapers in Hong Kong, so I was happy that my family got to recognise ten years of hard work.”

And how did this adulation make Tsang feel?

Are we going to see him competing in more tournaments? Was Tsang bitten by the need to be important bug that lives dormant in all of our minds? 

“When I won the first small tournament I was still playing in some small private cash games. Eventually, they banned me from playing. I started to realise that when you get recognised as a good player, people in the private games start banning you. So in my mind, playing tournaments wasn’t worth it. 

“The One Drop was good timing. All the time before that I wanted to stay low profile. Before that tournament happened, people in the poker world already know me. It doesn’t matter anymore. I am already getting the feeling people didn’t want me to play anyway. So it was good timing to win it. When I first started playing poker I wanted to win a bracelet, I wanted the first place; I wanted to be the champion. All the big players already knew about me, and how good I am, so I can’t hide that anymore. 

“I think I have reached my peak in my poker career. I don’t think I can accelerate anymore like I used to. I can continue to stay at this level, but there aren’t any bigger games I can play in. I have been focusing on business, and I want to continue working on business, and charity.” 

It’s incredulous to believe that this young man, sitting in front of me, has likely made more money than anyone sitting on the Hendon Mob Top 10 All Time Money list, and yet, we haven’t heard about him in the public until he won the One Drop in 2016.

Are there any more people like Tsang cleaning up in the shadows?

Paul Phua is, of course, a big businessman, very rich. I don’t think people consider him a pro, as poker not his primary source of income. He plays as good as any pro. He plays all the time, even in small games. He loves it. He is one guy who is just as good as any top pros in the world. 

“Another guy is Shanghai Wong. Nobody sees him much, nobody knows him. But this guy is a genius. He is probably one of the best players in the world.” 

Poker is poker, right?

In one corner of the world, there is a $1/$1 Dealers Choice cash game that runs weekly. The participants are plumbers, painters, and local drug dealers. They lose or win upwards of a grand a night. And to keep everyone in the game, loans are regularly passed from friend to friend, in the region of $500 – $1,000. Sometimes these loans aren’t returned. Skulls are cracked.

Winning and losing millions playing poker with Elton Tsang (Part 1)In another corner of the world, the one where Elton Tsang, hangs out. They play in a cash game where millions of dollars pass hands in winning and losing bets. But the same framework exists as the $1/$1 cash game. To keep the heart beating, loans have to change hands – for millions of dollars.

I can’t wrap my head around it.

“It happens all the time. Throughout the years I have had poker players borrow from me, lose, and haven’t paid; probably will never pay. It happens a lot.”

How much money do people owe Elton Tsang? 

“I would say at one point the debts reached over a hundred million Hong Kong dollar (USD$12.7m).” 

I feel like every conversation in Nobu has just screeched to a halt, and they are all towering over our table, like players waiting for a showdown during the money bubble.

I ask him if he keeps a book, and the silhouettes, retreat. 

“I still have a book. Some of the players I know are broke and used to be friends with me, so I don’t go after them. We aren’t friends anymore because they owe me money. Some face me; I’m not a pain in the ass. If I know they are having a difficult time; then I give them a break. There are others who have lost a lot of money with me, and I am ok with it because I know they are having a difficult time.” 

But how does that sit with Tsang?

That kind of money can help save the lives of so many people in the world.  

“I give them a call. I try to get them to give me a payment plan. It gets annoying. Some people don’t want to pay back. I have met people who will simply not pay me because they are angry that I have won so much from them. I know it. I hear things. Then there are those who have lost and have a difficult time, and I understand them more. It always sucks to have people owe you money.” 

I can understand the tales of people struggling to pay back a debt, but it doesn’t sit well with me to hear that there are people taking loans with no intention of paying the money back. I ask Tsang to name some of these people.

“Oh…you want to hear about the biggest bad beat I have ever had.” Replied Tsang. 

“Yes.” 

“It was August, at EPT Barcelona…” 

And with that, Lurch comes over for one final check to see if Tsang had carved out his coffin.

I had the feeling; we may have to order another one, as Tsang shuffled in his seat and began telling me about the biggest bad beat he had ever experienced.

“Nobody wanted this story,” said Tsang. 

Did nobody want it?

Why?

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