‘Horse racing and mahjong are for old people’ as Hong Kong’s youth gravitates towards poker 

Players association managing director Stephen Lai says he wants to open dialogue with the government about legalising playing for money

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 10:09pm

Young people are shunning horse racing and mahjong for more inclusive pursuits like poker, says Hong Kong Poker Players Association managing director Stephen Lai.

Lai has seen the game come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, to the point where he hopes the HKPPA can one day open dialogue with the Hong Kong government about playing for money.

“The younger generation feel like horse racing is for old people, same with mahjong, so they look for newer games that will include more people,” Lai said. 

“A lot of kids got into board games and iPhone games – phone games have introduced poker to a lot of young people. Poker is seen as a more fashionable thing than mahjong.”

From as few as 200 players 10 years ago, Lai says there are now more than 5,000 poker players in Hong Kong, with 2,000 of those members of the HKPPA.

While horse racing is as popular as ever in Hong Kong, Lai expects the balance to shift as the population ages at an accelerating rate.

Poker has taken off in China in recent times and Macau is the gambling mecca of Asia, but Lai is confident Hong Kong would offer something different again if playing poker for money was made legal.

“We look forward to having some kind of dialogue with the government about poker being a legal thing in Hong Kong,” he said.

“The biggest case for it is the popularity of the game in mainland China. They call it stationary golf, the game rich people can play without having to move.

“It’s like a status symbol, Jack Ma of Alibaba is obsessed with the game and plays all the time.

“If Hong Kong had poker, they would come to Hong Kong. It has so much to offer as a tourist destination.”

In the meantime, Hong Kong is thriving as a training ground for star players and holds its own on the global poker scene, with the HKPPA hosting regular free tournaments and clinics.

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Having Macau on their doorstep ensures Hong Kong’s best have no shortage of competitions to play in, while they also travel to the Philippines, South Korea, Las Vegas, Australia and Europe.

“I think our current mode of working is grooming a lot of good players who travel to play for big money. Hong Kong is a good training ground for them to move forward,” Lai said.

And while playing poker for money in Hong Kong is some way off, that hasn’t dampened the poker world’s enthusiasm around what the city has to offer.

“We talk to so many operators around the world who want to do exhibition matches in Hong Kong because the backdrop of Victoria Harbour is so stunning,” Lai said. 

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“They want to have a table at the Intercontinental [hotel] or something with the backdrop of Hong Kong. They all have a dream of doing something in Hong Kong.

“But even though it could be 100 per cent legal as an exhibition match because there is no money changing hands, we still don’t want to ruffle too many feathers because we haven’t engaged the government on this yet.”

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.