Call my bluff

Is poker a ‘sport of the mind’, or just gambling?

Call my bluff

Hong Kong jewellery retailer Chow Tai Fook must have thought it had pulled off a marketing masterstroke by sponsoring the Nanjing Millions event, a poker tournament organised by the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (ATTP) in Jiangsu province late last month.

Promoted locally as the “2015 Chow Tai Fook China Poker Championship”, the Chinese leg of the ATTP tour attracted a host of star names such as rock singer Wang Feng (the fiancé of Zhang Ziyi, who he reportedly got to know at the poker table), ping pong champ Chen Qi, as well as Celina Lin, dubbed China’s Queen of Poker after becoming the first woman to win the Macau Poker Cup in 2009.

Nanjing Millions looked to be on the right side of the country’s reform movement too. Last year a sweeping policy document published by the State Council sought to elevate sport to a “national strategy”. One of its objectives was to phase out most of the administrative approvals needed to host commercial sporting competitions.

Perhaps this helps to explain why the official media had helped to promote the poker event too. “This tournament (Nanjing Millions) is a signature event for the chess-and-cards games sector in Jiangsu, with an objective to promote the mind sports, and a healthy, civilised living style,” Xinhua announced last month.

One of the local organisers also said that part of player winnings would be donated to charities in Jiangsu too. “Poker lovers would like to join hands with other caring people to help conduct more positive energy to our society,” the promotional statement read.

The week-long event kicked off last week. More than 2,000 players registered to take part in the tournament, lured by Rmb8 million ($1.29 million) in prize money.

The result? An anti-climax of royal flush proportions. Owing to a regulatory crackdown, the Nanjing Millions might be remembered as one of the highest-profile raids on illegal gaming in Chinese history.

According to the state broadcaster CCTV, police raided the sports centre where the tournament was taking place, shutting down tables just a couple of days into what was scheduled to be a six -day event.

Betting is illegal in mainland China, although it is permitted in the offshore enclave of Macau. Police said the tournament constituted illegal gambling, the Global Times has reported, because the competition allowed players to buy themselves back into the game as many times as they wanted. (The event charged each player Rmb3,000 as an entrance fee. The same amount was charged on every new buy-in once players were eliminated.)

This created much confusion. “We’re hearing that the tournament organisers’ office has been seized and surrounded by police,” the World Gaming Magazine reported, adding that many players were still trying to contact event organisers for information on how to proceed. “There seems to be plenty of dispute about exactly what went down as well as who was responsible for what was likely the most ambitious poker event ever attempted in China to date,” said, a news portal.

Several other poker news sites noted that similar events have been held in China before.

According to the chess and card games division of the General Administration of Sport of China, the government has never officially sanctioned poker competitions, and poker is not officially recognised as a card sport or a ‘mind sport’.

Amid all the confusion, poker promoters now want regulators to come up with a clearer definition of the differences between ‘sports of the mind’ and gambling.

The singer Wang Feng wants himself cleared of any wrongdoing too. “I really don’t understand how a charity event would turn into illegal gambling,” he wrote angrily on his weibo.

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