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The Asian-American Chris Moneymaker?
There are almost 11 million Asian Americans living in the United States.
They represent close to 5 % of the population and are the third largest minority group in the country.
The Greater Los Angeles Area itself is almost 12% Asian American and one quick look inside local poker rooms like those at The Bicycle and Commerce Casino show an even bigger percentage checking, raising and pushing all in with regularity.
Asia itself is the world's most populated continent, and with approximately 4 billion people, online poker rooms have long looked at the area as the new frontier for gaming.
And as the powers of online poker look to expand East, of this there is little doubt: The Asian-American population is large, growing, poker is a big part of it and it’s getting even bigger.
So, when a 37-year-old Vietnamese-American medical-supply company employee and amateur poker player from Orange County, California, came out of nowhere to book a spot at the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event this summer, certain questions arose.
Could Soi Nguyen create a Chris-Moneymaker-style poker boom in the Asian-American community, the same way the Tennessee accountant did for the rest of America with his 2003 WSOP Main Event win?
“That’s exactly what I am,” Nguyen told PokerListings. “I’m the Asian Chris Moneymaker because I’m not a pro and I don’t really have that much experience.
“I’ve never really had a chance to play that much poker because I’ve been working. But I watched Chris Moneymaker win and I said, ‘Hey, I can do this.’
“Now, everybody I talk to is thinking about playing in the Main Event next year. They see that if I can do it, they can do it too.”
But the Moneymaker boom was born out of more than just his Main Event win. It was driven by online poker's marketing machine.
Moneymaker practically became a household name in the United States, easily recognized almost everywhere he went from the PokerStars TV commercials the site attacked the American market with in the weeks and months following his win.
Plus, a multi-tiered sponsorship deal kept him playing in big-time tournaments and in the public eye.
But Jerry Yang’s experience tells us an Asian-American winner may not get the same kind of push.
Yang won the 2007 WSOP Main Event, and while his commitment to religion and charity work may have been a large part of the equation, he did not become the catalyst for any kind of tangible boom in Asian-American poker.
In fact, outside of a few major tournaments and some charity events, Yang spends most of his time these days running his new sushi restaurant in Merced, California.
All the major marketing plans, television commercials and lucrative sponsorship deals seemed to simply pass him by.
And Yang says he’s not the only one.
“I’d like to know why Asian players don’t get the big sponsorship deals.” Yang asked. “I really would like to know. Being a World Champion, I get that question all the time. Do you know why, because we would like to know and I don’t know the answer?
“I believe, in this country, that everything people do is fair and I hate to bring the race issue into this. I don’t think its racism, but at the same time, we need to figure out what it is. We have to find a way to work together and figure out what this is all about.”
Scotty Nguyen and Johnny Chan are both WSOP Main Event champions and two of the most recognizable names and faces in the game. Neither has a major sponsorship deal in place.
With more than $5 million in career tournament earnings and a WPT Player of the Year title, back in 2007, J.C. Tran was among the hottest poker players on the circuit and widely considered one of the best tournament players on the planet.
Yet the Vietnamese-born and Sacramento-raised Tran was without a major sponsorship deal.
“I think it's mainly because I'm an Asian guy and it's tough to market an Asian guy. I mean, how many Asian guys do you see on TV?” he said in November of that year at a tournament in Lake Tahoe.
“It's kind of not fair that I don't get the recognition and endorsements I deserve and there are players out there who don't do half of what I do and they do.”
Tran said he was considering walking away from tournament poker if a major sponsorship deal did not come his way. Almost three years later, he still has no deal and is playing fewer tournaments than ever before.
As a poker agent and player manager, Eric Brewstein of No-Limit Management is tasked with negotiating sponsorship deals with online poker rooms on behalf of his players.
This summer, he brokered the deal between Full Tilt Poker and the second Asian-American at the 2010 WSOP final table - student-turned-online-poker-pro Joseph “subiime” Cheong.
Brewstein said race was never a factor.
“He got his deal based on chip position, background, historic performance and his accomplishments in poker up to date,” Brewstein explained. “I just don’t think there’s a correlation.
“I know people, other players, who have told me the sites don’t think Asian players are marketable, but I’ve never heard it from anyone directly at the sites and I don’t believe it.”
Brewstein says players like Tran, Chan and Nguyen may be overvaluing themselves in dealings with the various online poker rooms and in the case of Yang he simply didn’t have the right people around him pushing his agenda.
“Look at (2009 WSOP champ) Joe Cada,” he said. “He put himself in a camp with people that were going to drive that engine, a young, hungry agent willing to fight for him and the right kind of marketing people to attack the business with vigor and lofty plans.
"Did Jerry Yang do that? I don’t think he did.”
For his part, Nguyen has been too busy dealing with the fact he’s made the final table to make plans for what he’ll do should he win the world title and $8.9 million first-place prize this November.
Or, if race will play a role in it at all.
“It is a big community and there are a lot of Asian people interested in poker,” he said. “I hope that my experience will benefit the Asian community in some way.
"I hope it really does shine the spotlight on the Asian community and I would love to see more Asian players get sponsorship deals.
“Obviously I’m being sponsored by Full Tilt and I hope more sponsorship deals come down the line for me and others. Some of my closest friends are well-known Asian poker players like Nam Le and Tuan Le.
"Sooner or later they will get their due.
“We are a very close knit community, we all know each other. If one of us makes the final table we root for our teammates and when I say teammates, I mean any member of the Asian community.”