One of my favorite films of all time is 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, which tells the story of a couple working as private investigators in the city of Boston to find a missing baby. The film begins with shots from the poorer sides of Boston, depicting the harsh realities of life in these parts and yet still romanticizing the virtues of such hardship. And over these shots the main character begins a narration in which he talks about how one can survive in these difficult surroundings while still remaining innocent. He then recounts of how his priest quoted for him a verse from the bible, “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.” I often think of both this movie and the passage itself when pondering over the poker scene here in Cambodia. I am not sure if I am a dove or if I am wise, but certainly we are all surrounded by wolves.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates this more than what occurred recently in the tiny little town of Kampot, Cambodia. This is the city that many expats relocated to when Sihanoukville became inhospitable for foreigners after the Chinese had moved in. And with so many of those that moved being poker players, one man thought it would be a good idea to start a poker room. Of course there were already a couple of games running in town, small affairs in which games were self dealt and no rake was taken. Thus not everyone wanted a game in town in which a commission was taken and customers were invited to play in order to turn a profit. But nonetheless one man pressed forward and started a small $0.25-$0.50 game that managed to run daily from the start. It picked up quite a bit of momentum after a few months, to the point that a second table was needed and additional staff required. Games would often run late with player splashing the pots with chips late into the night or even early into the morning hours.
Of course all this perceived success caught the attention of others and soon enough more people set their eyes on the small town of Kampot. Some were players obviously who were looking for an alternative to playing in either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Obviously a game of this size could not provide anyone a living, but for those who wanted to play for fun the city was very attractive with its scenic rivers and affordable living. But it was not just players who were eyeing the game but also room operators who somehow saw a fortune in the hourly drop of a game in which the big blind was only half of a dollar. What ensued over the next few months can only be described as tragic farce of epic proportions in which many would come to fight over the game and force it to change managerial hands several times. Sometimes those who ran it left of their own accord, while others were forced out in favor of someone else or some other group. It got to the point that those who ran it were paying visits to the small $0.10 games that were self dealt among friends and threatening them to stop their game or else… All this over a game that on a good night, took in about $25 per hour in commission.
I lived in Kampot during some of this time and I quite enjoyed it there. I played in the game on most nights and also helped my two friends run it during their tenure as managers. I do not write this to denigrate anyone else who ran this game nor am I trying to make myself and my friends look like the innocent victims in all of this. Instead I have come to a realization that none of us were innocent during this time. My friends were not the first to run this game and in fact they took it from someone else. I helped them run it for a while but those that would come after us took the game in the same manner, and those that came after them and so forth. But even the one who started the game originally is not free of blame here. I have always said that once you drop that first dollar into the rake box the game is forever changed and will head down a path similar to the one in Kampot. This is Cambodia and whether it is foreigners or locals, people will not idly stand by while others make a profit running a business of this nature. I would like to remind everyone at this point that this was a $0.25-$0.50 game. It should have been just a friendly game that ran out of some guy’s house, garage or attic. But that first person had the idea to drop that first dollar into the box and before everyone knew it entire houses were being rented out to run this game with players being promised rakeback and all sorts of benefits. Once again, this was a $0.25-$0.50 game.
We were all bad actors on this stage and here we are now months later and there is no game in the city of Kampot. Every once in a while we will hear whispers of someone else trying to open a new game, but I do not think anyone would dare at this point. It will take some time before these wounds heal and there can be another game in this small town. But of course we are not really talking about just a small town here because Kampot was really just a microcosm for what goes on in the poker scenes of other cities, the entire country and even all around Asia. Someone recently asked me what I would do if I had the chance to run another room and do it exactly the way I wanted to. I am secretly hopeful that I will never find out for I fear that I will remain a wolf and never become the dove that I strive to be.