The China Poker Boom That Never Was

By in Poker on
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Poker growth has slowed in many parts of the world. The US, which experienced a boom from 2003 through 2006, hasn’t seen the game grow much in years.

Europe, which featured many people taking up poker in the late 2000s, also hasn’t seen much new blood enter the game. However, other countries and continents are just now discovering the joys of poker. China is one such nation.

The Sleeping Giant missed out on the US and European booms. However, many have long expected China to experience their own rapid poker growth period. Still, this boom has never happened to date. I’ll explain why by looking back at the original poker boom and how the same event has never transpired in China.

A Look Back at the Poker Boom

The United States was a perfect breeding grounds for poker’s quick growth in the mid-2000s. After all, Americans invented the game on Mississippi riverboats in the 1800s and cultivated it for well over a century afterward.

The US also has the world’s third-largest population (327.2 million) and the top economy ($21.35 trillion). These conditions laid the framework for the poker boom.

However, a mixture of other factors actually started the game’s accelerated growth in 2003:

  • Players began trusting online poker.
  • Multiple poker sites began offering seats to the WSOP Main Event.
  • The World Poker Tour (WPT) started in 2002.
  • Poker TV shows were becoming more popular.
  • Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event and $2.5 million.

The last factor is what gave the boom its biggest kickstart. Moneymaker, an account and amateur player from Tennessee, ran through a field of pros and on towards the Main Event title.

But Moneymaker receives too much credit for the boom. Instead, several factors combined to increase public interest in the game.

Moneymaker’s win did coincide with peak poker mania, though. Everybody from middle-aged doctors to unemployed college students rushed to the game.

Before long, millions of new players found their way to the online and land-based felts. Internet poker sites and live tournaments grew at a dizzying pace.

More amateur champions followed Moneymaker, including Jamie Gold, Joe Hachem, and Jerry Yang. High-stakes cash players, such as Dan “Jungleman” Cates, Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, and Tom Dwan, also became quite famous.

The boom ended in late 2006, when the U.S. signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) into effect.

This law makes it tougher for poker sites to accept payments from American players. Nevertheless, some internet poker rooms soldiered on with the help of shady payment processors.

Black Friday (April 15th, 2011) dealt the final blow to online poker growth. This legal event saw a US District Attorney indict figureheads at prominent poker sites for money laundering and bank fraud.

Live tournaments are still as popular as ever following the UIGEA and Black Friday. However, internet poker is a shell of what it used to be.

The Poker Promise of China

Poker has spread across the globe since the boom years. It’s hard to find an area of the world that’s not aware of the game.

China is no exception. Many Chinese citizens at least know of poker and possibly play it.

The Middle Kingdom offers tremendous potential as far as poker growth goes. It features the world’s largest population (1.42 billion) and second-largest economy ($14.24 trillion).

If ever there were a country left that could spark a second poker boom, it’s China. This nation not only features four times the amount of people as the US but also is fairly wealthy by global standards.

China’s economy is also growing at a tremendous pace. Its economy is projected to grow by 6.1% in 2020.

By comparison, America’s GDP is only projected to grow by 1.7% next year. Only India (7.4%) figures to experience faster growth out of the world’s top 10 economies.

Besides its impressive financial and population figures, China simply likes to gamble. The stereotype that high-stakes baccarat and mahjong tables are filled with Chinese businessmen exists for a reason.

Wealthy Chinese moguls have also fueled Asia’s high-stakes poker scene. The Macau “Big Game” is legendary for featuring the world’s biggest poker stakes.

What Has Held Poker Back in China?

Everything covered before adds up to China being fertile grounds for online and live poker. However, just one problem exists… Gambling is illegal in the mainland.

Gambling has been outlawed throughout China since 1949 when the Communist Party took over. People violate the law anytime they play a poker hand, bet on sports, or wager in any other form (besides lotteries).

Skill-based games aren’t exempt from the gambling ban. China views poker, sports betting, esports betting, and every skillful gamble to be illegal.

Of course, Chinese citizens float these laws every day. Poker is among the most-popular forms of gambling throughout the mainland.

Many people log on internet poker sites on a daily basis. In turn, certain online poker rooms illegally accept payments from Chinese players and offer the Renminbi as a currency option.

The Key Word Here, Though, Is Illegal

Chinese poker players must resort to unsanctioned offshore sites and underground cash games. Hong Kong and Macau are the only territories where poker and other gambling are legal. Hong Kong has allowed gambling since 1977 (under British rule), while Macau has done so since the 1850s (under Portuguese rule).

Players who don’t live in or travel to these locations have few options. Most turn to offshore poker sites that are licensed in Central America and the Caribbean.

Forays Into the Chinese Market

Illegal online poker rooms aren’t the only entities that have tried pushing this game across the Middle Kingdom.

In 2002, the Chinese State Sports Administration dubbed tractor poker as a mind sport. Tractor poker is a card game that’s very similar to Texas Hold’em. In 2007, the WPT purchased a license to cover tractor poker tournaments.

PokerStars made the boldest move yet when they held Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) events in China. They limited the prize money and made other modifications in an attempt to take advantage of legal loopholes.

However, Xi Jinping ramped up his crusade against gambling in the mid-2010s. This crusade eventually resulted in the APPT Nanjing tournament being shut down and certain PokerStars employees being arrested.

Other tournament organizations haven’t let the APPT incident scare them off. The WPT stated a 2016 tournament on the island of Sanya.

The International Poker League (IPL) and Asian Poker League (APL) hold tourneys in China. They make sure to stay within the parameters of the law.

The Tencent Group, a Chinese entertainment company, has licensed the WSOP name. They now run Chinese-based tournaments under the WSOP brand.

Is There Still Time for a China Poker Boom?

China features too many restrictive gambling laws for a widespread boom to take place. After all, the average person isn’t willing to risk jail time to grind in $5 sit and gos.

But every poker tournament that’s held within the country generates significant interest. These tourneys aren’t even allowed to offer big prize pools either.

Some citizens of the People’s Republic are also playing at offshore poker rooms. They feel confident that they can gamble at these sites without getting busted. The poker interest is there. The only thing holding the game back in China is the legal situation. Assuming the laws change, then poker growth would explode.

Whether this explosion would be enough to spark a massive boom remains to be seen. After all, the US boom required several factors to create the conditions for unparalleled growth.

In any case, Chinese poker popularity is bubbling on the surface. It just needs certain laws lifted to burst through and generate interest among the mainstream population.


Along with India, China represents the next big frontier for poker. In fact, China appears to be a much more lucrative spot for the game when comparing their economy ($14.24 trillion) to India’s ($3.30 trillion).

Whether China can spark the kind of poker interest that the US did is a mystery. After all, the American boom happened when online poker and multimillion-dollar prizes were newer concepts.

Nevertheless, 18.4% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to legal poker. 1.42 billion Chinese citizens can’t even legally use offshore sites like most Americans can.

The big hurdle remains the country’s strict anti-gambling laws. Most Chinese citizens are turned off by the thought of being arrested for playing poker.

The country’s police don’t exactly bust down doors to find online grinders. But they could if they felt like doing so.

Recent signs show that the government could be lightening up on poker. The APL, IPL, WPT, and Tencent (under WSOP) have successfully held tournaments in the country.

China could still be years away from reducing/eliminating their gambling ban and allowing poker to expand. But assuming they ever lift the gambling ban, then a Chinese poker boom is very likely.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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