Mark Blake is currently the PokerStars Head of Live Events, Asia Pacific. Somuchpoker caught up with him during the APPT Manila to talk about the future of PokerStars live events in Asia.
Somuchpoker: The APPT Manila is a massive success in terms of attendance. According to you what are the different factors that explain this success?
Mark Blake: Since last year we have been anticipating some natural growth for the APPT in Manila, so we already expected the numbers to be up, but there were some other factors playing into that. Due to the lack of activities in Macau, players are a lot more hungry for events. A lot of the markets turning up here are the markets we saw in Macau. For example, the Japanese market that used to split between Manila and Macau is now all here. The Chinese too, if we break down the participants by country we expect China’s growth to be very significant for this event.
With the number growth the rewards tend to grow as well, with players obviously chasing the prizes on offer. The Platinum Pass has been a big one. We initially announced 4 but then we were able to secure the next one so we ended up with 5. Adding the Platinum Pass to the opening event really made the Kickoff event huge, and I knew from that point that we were going to be in for a big event overall, but even with that performance at the Kickoff I had no idea that this Main Event number was coming. This has just been an absolute shock.
Nb: The APPT Manila Main Event attracted a total of 1,364 entries.
SMP: For a lot of players the question now is what’s next? With no upcoming events announced in Macau and Manila players are wondering when they will be able to play their next APPT event.
M.B: I guess there are quite a few factors in that answer. Perhaps you are already aware of the recent deal between PokerStars and Stanley Choi’s IEC. At the moment IEC is looking for a new home in Macau, and until they secure that they can’t formally announce any new events. That being said I do expect there will be a full calendar of APPT events next year, plus some major events here in Manila this year as well. It just requires a bit of a waiting game though for this to be all sorted out before announcements can be made.
Nb: Details of the deal between PokerStars and IEC can be found here in this article
SMP: We saw the APPT brand disappearing for nearly a year and then restored. Can you give us your personal view on these changes?
M.B: I guess the thing we lost with the PokerStars Championship & Festival was the regional nature. The APPT is a very established brand in the Asia – Pacific region. It has been in Australia in the past and throughout Asia. It’s identified very differently from the EPT or LAPT brand, as there are differences between the products that are offered. The change to the PokerStars Championship & Festival branding was for the purpose of having everything consistent so the players travelling internationally will have carbon-copy experience wherever they go, and know what they’re going to expect.
However, the lesson that we learnt is players don’t necessarily expect that. They travel to Asia to play an APPT event, they travel to Europe to play an EPT event and they’re comfortable with them being slightly different products. We were lucky in Asia that we didn’t lose much with that one year away from the APPT, and people still recognize the brand. The company learnt the lesson and shifted back to the APPT, acknowledging that it’s a brand which is recognized and one that we should continue to grow.
SMP: Like you mentioned, the Platinum Pass promotion was one big contributor to the success of this event. Can players expect to win more of them in Asia this year?
M.B: It’s possible, depending on the timing happening in the next few weeks and the formalities that are required. In terms of timing as you can imagine, if it’s awarded too late in the year, it will be too difficult for players to plan their trip to the Bahamas, so we will need to announce the events soon enough. At the moment all I can say is that there’s a possibility that there will be more of those rewards in Asia, but I can’t give assurance on that yet.
SMP: There are rumors that PokerStars Live Manila is looking for a new home, so can you share with us any details about that?
M.B: Yes it’s well known that we are looking to find a new home for PokerStars in Manila. We’ve had very positive interactions, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have an announcement within the coming 6 weeks, but this process unfortunately needs to go through certain stages and we can’t give details now before anything is confirmed.
I was hoping we could use this event APPT Manila as the broadcast station to announce this news, but as is the case these things don’t happen quickly. All I can say is that things are on the right track.
SMP: Stanley Choi has acquired the right to operate land-based live events and poker rooms under the branding of PokerStars. This agreement covers most of the Asian countries except Philippines. This announcement came has a big surprise for the community and no announcements about upcoming event or new live poker rooms have been made so far.
What can players expect from this new “era” of PokerStars Live Asia under Stanley Choi?
M.B: I’m curious myself as well. I know Stanley is a professional poker player, he understands the game of poker and he’s obviously very passionate about it. He has purchased the rights to host PokerStars live events throughout Asia except Manila. However, unfortunately I’m not in the position to answer on his behalf in terms of what players can expect.
SMP: As we know both you and Fred Leung are leaving PokerStars for new ventures. Overall it’s a lot of changes for PokerStars Live Asia in a single year. What are your personal feelings on that? What’s next for you?
M.B: For Manila, I don’t think Fred and I leaving will have a big impact. Manila is on a very good trajectory. The growth has been strong for years, and this year has been explosive. The Megastack events and now the APPT too were big success and we expect that to continue no matter who runs it. Lorie Lagrosas will take over the Manila operation; she has been with PokerStars for many years, maybe 10. So in terms of Manila, the poker room is in good hands and I don’t think that players will see any huge difference in terms of our activities.
About the wider Asia operation, I’m excited to see what comes from now. I think with Stanley taking over and Fred and I leaving the company, there are going to be a fresh set of eyes and a fresh approach for the Asian market.
In terms of me and my future, at this stage I have no concrete plans except to take a break first. I’ve been with PokerStars for 12 years and during the time I’ve never had a significant break, so I’m gonna start with a bit of time on the beach and we’ll see what goes from there (laugh).
SMP: From a more general point of view, what are your thoughts on the Asian Poker scene? What about the potential of China after the crackdown on online applications, and markets like Vietnam or Japan?
M.B: In China I don’t see the appetite changing. It’s gonna grow, so what happens there next will depend on the legalities and how that play out. The Chinese continue to prove they are willing to travel for poker. At events like the Macau Poker Cup, we have seen great participation from Mainland China, and now for this event in Manila they were prepared to travel even a little further. With the crackdown in China, perhaps that will bring a slowdown in the short or medium term, I’m not sure. On the other hand, the wider Asian market as I’ve said in previous interviews is still very much untapped. The Philippines is having a solid growth and a lot of the neighboring countries and markets such as Vietnam, Japan, India are really showing market traction now. In my personal view, Asia and maybe the Pacific included is pretty much the last bastion for Poker.
I would like to add that this current APPT Manila performance also shows Manila having great potential as a perfect poker destination. The operation here offers many different price points: the Super Series is targeted more at the local market, the Megastack attracts a lot of international participation, and the APPT is, as you can see, the highlights. Those are well-established products, and the environment here is a lot more stable than what we see in Macau. It will depend on how the next year or two play out, but I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger. I’d like to see this potential fulfilled, maybe even as a player in the future (laugh)
Thank you for your time Mr. Blake!