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A player checks his cards during this week’s poker tournament
A player checks his cards during this week’s poker tournament Eddie Morton

The lure of beaches, bars and betting

Sihanoukville this week hosted its first ever APT professional poker tournament, and Queenco Casino is going all in on a strategy to attract gamblers on holiday

Baseball caps pulled low, mirrored sunglasses, scantily-clad hostesses and the chatter of casino chips being juggled between the fingertips of sunburnt and cashed-up tourists. The world of professional poker has arrived at Victory Beach, Sihanoukville.

It’s the eve of the final in the Asian Poker Tour’s (APT) first Cambodian tournament at the Queenco Casino. The sixth day’s play has just ended, leaving eight from a field of 120 to compete in the main event, which has a $1,100 buy-in and a $28,000 prize.

As tensions from the day subside, the atmosphere in the casino’s gaming room quickly shifts to a ruckus. The players toast their winnings, rib each other for losses and negotiate loans to help others play on into the night.

If Queenco’s chief operations officer Meni Akunis has his way, this week-long tournament that wound up on Wednesday, will spell the future for Sihanoukville’s tourism industry.

Confident after seeing 120 players from 40 nations show up to the first event, Akunis is betting the province will become Cambodia’s most lucrative, “resort-style” gambling hub.

“We agreed with the APT officials that Queenco would host at least two more tour events in 2015 alone, and then each year after,” said Akunis.

“The decision to host the APT event was firstly to promote Sihanoukville as a future gaming destination.”

A roulette wheel
A roulette wheel Eddie Morton

The APT first came to Cambodia in 2012 with an event at the Last Vegas Sun casino in the Vietnamese border town of Bavet, which was quickly labelled a failure.

This time around, Akunis is confident that Queenco can put Cambodia on the map for professional poker.

“Look at the surroundings. We’re in a beautiful spot,” he said.

“The players want more than just a ‘casino town’ to gamble in. They need a place where there are other things to do like sit on the beach, a lively bar scene and lots of restaurants.”

Queenco has a lot riding on this gambit.

Since opening in 2012, the casino has continued to post significant losses. At the end of 2013, it recorded more than $2 million in negative cash flow, which prompted a call for additional investors amid concerns for the Sihanoukville operation’s future.

“Accordingly, there are substantial doubts as to the ability of the project in Cambodia to continue its operations as a ‘going concern’,” Israeli parent company, Queenco Leisure International states in its (QLI) 2013 annual report.

“It’s a process, and yes it is going to take time,” Akunis insists, arguing that the Sihanoukville International Airport’s lack of infrastructure to accommodate international flights was a major deterrent.

“When the airport opens up, it will certainly be a game changer. But for now, we are forced to create the market for gaming holiday-makers, for example, this tournament.”

Sihanoukville Airport welcomed its first ever international flight from South Korea on Tuesday and is seeing an increase in air travellers.

But of the 764,000 tourists who visited the province during the first six months of 2014, only 24,000 arrived through the airport, according to provincial tourism department data.

Sam Razavi, a UK national who now lives in the Philippines and is ATP’s reigning player of the year, was not one of them.

A player kitted out with shades and a cap
A player kitted out with shades and a cap Eddie Morton

“This place is nice, what with its beaches, but it’s just so much more difficult to get to because no international flights go to the airport,” he said, a few minutes after busting out of Queenco’s APT event on day six.

“Forget the glamorous, James Bond-ish image you have in your mind. Poker players spend weeks on end in hotels... packing and unpacking, and always sleeping in a different bed. They need somewhere easy to get in and out of.”

But flights, layovers and a four-hour drive hasn’t stopped Razavi viewing Sihanoukville as a gaming hot-spot. He’s even keen to return next year.

“I thought they would have had it at Naga, to be honest. But sure, this works too. They just need a bloody airport,” he laughed.

On the morning of the final, the players gradually stumbled down from their rooms to the breakfast buffet. Over eggs and coffee, they mulled over the previous night’s carousing.

“It’s the last place in the world I would ever think would have a casino, let alone a tournament,” said Jeff Tims, a professional poker player from the US, and one of the final eight players who competed for the title.

“It’s too hard to get to and there is too little money here. I mean, s--t, I was shocked to hear the people who work here only earn, like, five bucks a day. It’s unsustainable and I am doubtful that Sihanoukville as a destination has any real future in bringing over a lucrative gaming or tourism industry.”

While industry-wide earnings figures are not available, Cambodia’s gaming industry remains the Asian region’s most crowded with some 56 casino operators comprising 7,660 slot machines and 2,568 gaming tables nationwide. The government generates some $22 million in tax revenue from the gaming sector every year.

The tourism industry, meanwhile, is one of the country’s most lucrative, valued at more than $2.5 billion.

But the two industries should rarely mix, said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the Private and Public Sector Tourism Working Group, who fears an increased gaming market in Sihanoukville could encroach on the town’s backpacker culture.

“Cambodians by law are not allowed to gamble and by encouraging Westerners to gamble, of course, it could have a knock-on effect to the local community.”

As Queenco’s first ever APT event drew to a close late Wednesday night, it was not without a sense of irony.

Just as Queenco and Sihanoukville might play a winning hand and become Cambodia’s new gaming hub, the $27,500 prize went to a traveller from Denmark, Michael Lindstrom, who rolled the dice and entered the competition on a whim.

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