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High Rollers

Koream Journal, News feature, Kai Ma Posted: Oct 05, 2008

High Rollers
Rising from smoky basements to the most glamorous casinos in the world, the sport of poker now offers fame, prestige and instant millionaire status. But high-stakes gambling always comes with risks, and losing money is only the beginning.

large Steve Sung is so serious about poker that he and his friends rent houses outside the Las Vegas strip, two enormous dual-level abodes that sit in a neighborhood of suburban yuppies. For two months, this is home for Sung, 23, and his young, single, poker-playing comrades, all of whom roll out of bed for one reason only: to call bluffs at a nearby casino.

Both houses have a transitory feel; furniture and dcor are sparse, but the tables and floors are cluttered with packaged food, bottles of Gatorade, laptops and video games. While roommates, donning streetgear and diamond earrings, gather in the kitchen to exchange poker tips, Sung, a boyish and soft-spoken South Korean native, remains outside in the 103-degree swelter, watching even more roommates maneuver a remote-controlled airplane over their luxury SUVs.

If they sound like spoiled rich kids unrestrained by parents, debt or rules, its because they are. But Sung, Nam Le (The Man), Quinn Do (The Mighty) and J.C. Tran arent blowing away an inheritance or trust fund. Rather, theyre professional pokers players whove earned millions off their wins. Sure, as full-time gamblers, they dont have to clock into a 9-to-5 like most Americans, but they still need to be somewhere every day, whether its at the Rio in Vegas or the Venetian in Macau.

Steve Sung, 23 Location: Tustin, Calif. Total winnings: $1,436,681

In early June, Sung arrived in Las Vegas to compete in the 2008 World Series of Poker, held from May to July at the Rio Hotel and Casino (with a final event slated for November). Hed just returned from the Asian Poker Tour in the Philippines a competition that also makes stops in China, Singapore and South Korea and when he isnt jet-setting to tournaments, hes at home in Tustin, Calif., playing online poker eight hours a day (going by the poker screen name MuGGyLiCiOuS).

Sung, who grew up with a gambler father, was exposed to the game as a child. During his rookie years, he practiced at casinos illegally and set a goal to win $100 per day. But that escalated to $10,000, he says. When I started, I would lose hundreds, thousands, adding sheepishly, then hundreds of thousands. A million. Ive gambled more than what a person makes in a lifetime

By the time he was 18, hed gone pro. As of this year, Sung has earned more than $1.4 million, and is known in the poker world for an ultra-aggressive technique thats resulted in wins and losses amounting to a million dollars in one day.

Im not just a high roller, Sung says. Im the highest.

The World Series of Poker, held annually since 1970, is arguably how poker transformed from a seedy, smoke-filled distraction into a legitimate and thriving spectator sport. As one of the best Korean American players out there, Sung perhaps exemplifies what the new face of poker is all about: young, successful and filthy rich. In joining the rapidly-growing population of celebrity pros, he hopes to stimulate a positive image of the still-stigmatized sport. I want poker to get bigger, to get nationalized, he says. To help people see that its more than a gambling game, but a game that requires skill. When it comes down to it, poker isnt about luck at all.

Still, Sung rolled his eyes earlier in the day when he realized he was joining 256 players in the first portion of a three-day heads up no-limit hold em tournament on Friday the 13th. Players from around the world, each assigned to an oval-shaped table, gathered in a large conference room as the sound of clacking chips on green felt permeated throughout the room. As his dealer shuffled and distributed the cards, Sung had a black hoodie pulled low over his shaved head, his fair, handsome poker face partially obscured by Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses. White iPod headphones were plugged into his ears.

Poker can be really boring so I always listen to my own music, he says in a deep voice thats prone to mumbling. Most of the time, I dont even want to play, but I have to make a living somehow.
Despite his tedious task, Sungs face was flushed with relief after winning the first portion of the tournament, allowing him to advance to the next round.

People think that poker is so easy; they see people winning all the time, says Sung. What they dont see is how often were losing. I still go back and forth. In the beginning [of my career], I was like, man, what am I doing? he mutters, with a nervous chuckle. Could I do this as a living? Like, this cant really be good, you know?

Risky business

In 1998, John Dahls film Rounders exposed the world of high-stakes poker, becoming a cult classic among Texas hold em enthusiasts and igniting a revamped interest in betting on cards.
Poker is not a fad anymore, says Bernard Lee, poker pro and author of The Final Table, a compilation of poker columns. Its part of not only pop culture, but a part of Americana.
But the big boom is often credited to Chris Moneymaker, an amateur who nonetheless won the 2003 World Series of Poker title by knocking out legendary pros such as Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey, walking away with $2.5 million. Says Lee, All of a sudden, the world went, Holy Christ, I can do that! After that, the finals went from 839 players to 8,700 in three years. Tack on ESPNs coverage of all of this, put it all together: Poker just exploded.

More Korean Americans are rising to prominence in the poker domain, pulling in serious cash, receiving sponsorships and enjoying their unique status as sports celebrities despite never having to hit the gym. Douglas Technologic Kim, 24, earned $2.4 million after coming in seventh place in the 2006 World Series main event, and the year before, Lee, 38, rose to prominence after finishing 13th, winning $400,000.

When I was young, recalls Lee, my father and his brothers would come over, and they would be downstairs screaming at each other, saying, I won, you idiot! I would sit at the top of the stairs, thinking, Oh my God, this is so cool. If this is what its like to be a Korean man, sign me up.

Yet as poker is becoming increasingly legitimate, widespread and celebrated, there is a growing anxiety among mental health and substance abuse providers over the fate of gamblers in Asian American communities.

To be fair, poker is unlike blackjack, craps or the lottery in that its a game more based on skill and acuity than pure, dumb luck. But for Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLAs Gambling Studies Program, poker is problematic and dangerous if the desire to play compromises or disrupts the basic needs and functions of an individual. I know poker players that I dont see as gamblers, he says. I see them as businessmen. But if they live in a flophouse, are in debt, dont talk to friends and family or dont have relationships, thats different. The question is: How much impact does the gambling have on a persons behavior? Does it add to life, or take away?

The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as a mental illness, an impulse control disorder that can result in unemployment, bankruptcy, criminal activity, divorce, suicide even murder.

In the recent past, violent deaths have been linked to gambling addictions among Korean American fathers. In 2006, Dae Kwon Yun of Los Angeles, who reportedly gambled, was charged with murder after locking himself and his two children in his SUV and setting it on fire. The same week, Bong Joo Lee of Fontana fatally shot his daughter with a 9-millimeter handgun before taking his own life. According to police, Lee was distraught over a gambling debt of $200,000.

Many of these cases are not traced back to the root cause, which is gambling addiction, Fong says.
In 2005, the Korea Daily reported that roughly 7 percent of South Koreans are addicted to online gambling, and according to a 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, recent surveys have suggested that 20 percent of South Korean adults are problem or pathological gamblers. Data remains scarce and inconsistent, and theres even less on the rates of gambling disorders among Asian Americans.

There arent any statistics because gambling is private and there is a stigma against counseling, says Hyun Hwang of the Asian Counseling Services in Tacoma. But I would say 4 to 5 percent [of the Korean population] has a problem in the United States, and 10 to 20 percent have a problem in South Korea.

The most commonly-cited numbers for Asians in the United States is a decade-old study conducted in San Franciscos Chinatown by the NICOS Chinese Gambling Project, which revealed that 70 percent of 1,808 respondents placed gambling as the communitys primary problem. Fong replicated the study in Los Angeles, and found that the majority of Asians were aware that gambling could lead to addiction, but didnt know where to seek help or found the problem untreatable. A common belief, says Fong, is that gamblers are predestined to lose and should not be helped.

There hasnt been a pull to get rid of [gambling], says Fong. Koreans, for the most part, are suffering quietly or saying, We accept it. But this an unrecognized, undertreated and underdiagnosed condition.
We know that treatment works. Theres just a lack of it.

Which is why Tony L., a 50-year-old recovering gambler who asked his last name not be published, helps run a Korean-language intervention program in Atlanta, Ga. During college, L. visited Atlantic City and got hooked on blackjack, but is now in recovery.

Gambling was like cancer to me, he says in Korean. Its an invisible addiction, unlike drugs and alcohol. You keep trying to borrow money from everyone around you, making up any and every lie you can. And you always promise to pay them back, but you never do.

World Series finalist Douglas Kim, who bets only within a margin of safety, doesnt worry about addiction, but admits to feeling conflicted about his profession. Poker is a zero-sum game, he says. People have to lose for others to win. Ive heard stories of guys chasing losses, losing four, five thousand and trying to rob a bank [to pay off their debt]. A part of me thinks about that from time to time.

After Kim, a devout Christian, won $2.4 million in the 2006 World Series, he donated a chunk to various churches, including his own, RemnantWestsideChurch in Manhattan.

But, my church didnt take the money, he says. The pastor said he wouldnt feel comfortable using it.


Las Vegas, as one of the most visited places on Earth, is a city of contradictions, a sprawling desert sliced by a strip of manufactured gloss. There is little refuge from the perennial ding of slot machines, or the gaudy, crystal chandeliers that bloom like jellyfish. Aptly known as Lost Wages, its a place that draws the rich and the wretched, the glamorous and the tawdry, where freakishly tall sequined-and-feathered strippers roam with suburban grandmas in fanny packs.

Everything, from the frat boys roaring around a roulette table, to the old ladies hypnotized by spinning numbers, exposes all that is enticing and wrong about American extravagance.

Even the floor of the McCarran International Airport is speckled with bleeping engines beckoning players as soon as they tumble out from their planes. On the second floor, Senior Pastor Paul Chong of the Las Vegas Presbyterian Church emerges, a composed minority in SinCitys sea of sun-kissed tourists and party animals.

On this June afternoon, he is picking up Elizabeth Bae, a former pathological gambler who is flying in from Los Angeles to help launch a support program for Korean problem gamblers in the area.
Gambling is a problem for Koreans in all parts of America, says Chong. Immigrants have an American Dream. They want to succeed, and they think that the jackpot will change everything. But gamblers will lose everything. They will even lose their lives.

Yet as a pastor in Las Vegas, Chong finds himself re-evaluating much of what hes learned about Christian theology, particularly how it pertains to the $90 billion gaming industry. More than half of his Korean-language congregation are employed as dealers for casinos such as the MGM Grand and Caesars Palace, and also partake in gambling while off the clock. Is gambling a sin? Yes and no. As a pastor, should I say to my members that it is a sin, so they must change their jobs? Or not? I dont know. Its really hard to define so-called Christian ethics here in Las Vegas.

Chong began a ministry-based recovery program, modeled after Gamblers Anonymous, as part of a broader shoestring network of recovery programs for Korean gamblers nationwide. In the past three years, Korean churches have hosted meetings in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Atlanta. To help with the Las Vegas arm, Chong enlisted Bae earlier this year, and later in the day, the two will conduct their first meeting.

When Bae arrives, the 78-year-old embraces the pastor, her wild, curly hair billowing from behind an enormous visor. She is dressed in a bright canary blazer, white pants and sneaker sandals, and on her finger is an emerald ring the size of a radish.

In the past decade, casinos and card rooms have multiplied in the West Coast, paving the way for more senior citizens to socialize through gambling. On any weekend, popular Korean-language tour buses can transport California-based elders to Las Vegas, Reno and Palm Springs, unleashing them in casinos for 24 hours plus. Does Bae ever feel the urge?

No, she says, with unapologetic frankness. I dont gamble, not even the $1 lottery. No more. Because I am going to lose. I know that now. I dont gamble nothing.

Bae gambled for nearly two decades, and her toxic past still haunts her. It was killing me so good, she says, her face crinkling up with disgust. I felt numb. I spent days gambling, without sleeping. I was that compulsive.

At 39, she started gambling while living in South Korea, playing cards with other wives and neighbors. This quickly morphed into obsessions with baccarat, blackjack, sic bo, pai gow, and poker. I gambled everywhere, she says. I lost about 10 apartments in Korea. I cannot count how much cash I lost. I didnt have any hope [of actually quitting]. I thought I had to kill myself in order to stop; I had to die. I desperately asked God to kill me, or to help me. I was out of my mind already at that time.

For years, Bae reluctantly accepted her costly routine, due to what she describes as the Korean cultural attitude that gamblers are doomed. Koreans believe theres no way for gamblers to stop, that we are gamblers until we die. When she began gambling, her mother urged Bae to throw herself into the Han River [in Seoul]. My mother told me, Kill yourself; whatever it takes. She didnt live long enough to see me stop. That is the most painful.

Bae moved to the United States in 1979, and hit rock bottom in Atlantic Citys Atlantic Palace Hotel. After gambling for days, she lost $16,000.

Id lost everything, she recalls, sighing loudly. All my money was gone, and I was so desperate that I wanted to kill myself, for real. This is the gamblers life. Miserable.

By chance, a security guard at her bank recognized that she had a problem, and passed along a Gamblers Anonymous hotline. In 1986, Bae placed her last bet and made the call. She is now a secretary for an Anaheim chapter for Koreans. I am living proof that even Korean people can stop gambling, she says. Bae credits her family as her saving grace, and when she says, They respect me now, she proudly opens her wallet, smiling down at a photograph of her daughter, now 40, and her husband of 50 years.

All or nothing

On a Saturday morning, Steve Sung is in the pit of the Bellagio, the iconic Las Vegas hotel and casino known for its dancing fountains and rippling, turquoise pond. Near his table, French doors open to a view of the sparkling Planet Hollywood, a faux (and much shorter) Eiffel Tower, and in the distance, a row of mountains parched by sun.

Sung has a room at the hotel, even though his house is a 10-minute drive away. Im just spoiled that way, he says. He sits alone at a blackjack table, watching his dealers fingers fly over a deck of cards like butterflies.

When Sung started gambling, he often fell into the pit, chasing losses and blowing thousands. That really messed me up, he recalls. Id lose $2,000 in poker, and Id be pissed off, so Id try to make it back real fast, and lose more and more and more.

Despite his success in years past, he still cant resist his card-counting pastime.
It calms me, he says, though his actions suggest otherwise. Multicolored, speckled chips each worth thousands click under his nervous, frenetic fingertips, some resting under the small tattoo on his wrist. In minutes, he loses $60,000 at the table, only to seize more chips from a nearby friend playing craps. This is crazy, Sung mutters, walking straight to another table.

Sung does not believe hes addicted to poker though admits to a different type of compulsion. Im addicted to making money, he says.

When asked if hes worried about losing it all, he shakes his head. I dont have fear, whatsoever, he says. Later he admits to knowing poker players whove wiped out their savings. Most of the poker world is broke.

By next week, Sung will cash in for the first time since the series started, collecting $46,001 and $30,738 in two separate tournaments. But today, he remains in the pit, looking fidgety and anxious. Hes hungover, and hasnt eaten all day. His knee is bouncing, and he barks at the cocktail waitress for fresh-squeezed orange juice, rolling his eyes because his dealer is too slow.

Faster, faster, he snaps at her. Just take my money, take it quick.

Im getting crushed, he says, glaring at his chips. Im pretty sick in the head to be doing what I do.

Additional reporting by Lola Pak.

Finishing The Game

On July 15, Korean American professional poker players Kelly Kim and David Chino Rheem topped off as two of the nine finalists of the 2008 World Series main event, receiving $900,670 each and earning a seat at the closing table this November. No matter what happens [in November], Im here and its great, says Kim, 31, from his home in Whittier, Calif. I have everything to gain and nothing to lose. The 11-hour game concluded with Rheem, 26, holding 10.2 million chips, and Kim trailing behind with 2.6 million. The final nine have three months to bag their chips before returning to the Rio Hotel and Casino to compete for the renowned championship title and a hefty $9.12 million prize.

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