On 5 August 2014, international bookie and high-stakes gambler Paul Phua (pronounced “Pwa”) appeared in a Las Vegas federal court to answer to charges of running an illegal sports betting enterprise—a “wire room”—out of a Caesars Palace villa during the 2014 World Cup and 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP).
Phua pled not guilty and walked away a free man.
Paul Phua in Malaysia: Humble beginnings
(Paul) Phua Wei Seng was born in 1964 in Miri on the island of Borneo in eastern Malaysia. As a child, he enjoyed all sports and mathematics. As an adult, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and began working construction. However, Phua began associating with small-time Chinese gamblers from whom he learned how to set lines on soccer games.
His reputation grew via word of mouth and, before long, Phua became a rather successful bookmaker.
Advances in technology expanded the bookmaking market to a global scale. Whereas some bookies were able to maintain their clientele, others needed more capital to invest in the new internet-dominated world. Following evidence of English Premier League soccer match-fixing incident in 1997, Phua—who was never linked to the crime but is believed to have been behind the so-called “Floodlights Affair”—made a hefty sum of money. This money spurred his rise in the international bookmaking world. With enough capital to fund his entrance into the IT world, Phua put IBCBet online.
During his rise, Phua partnered with another Kuala Lumpur gambling regular Seng Chen “Richard” Yong. He had numerous contacts across Asia. Yong helped Phua expand his company into Vietnam and then the Philippines.
Today, IBCBet handles $60 billion in betting funds, accounting for nearly $600 million in revenue. Phua is the majority owner at 70 percent.
The Vegas-Macau-Phua connection
The small 11-square-mile town of Macau on China’s southern coast eventually became a hub of international gaming. Following the opening of Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands casino, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International followed. Investors recouped their initial investments quickly thanks to Phua. He directed his VIP gamblers to the new casinos—for a price, of course. Phua and Jong ultimately opened Sat Ieng Company Limited. This new enterprise ran junkets transporting mainland Chinese high rollers to Macau and extending them credit. Accordingly, Macau casino revenue exploded to $45 billion annually making it the world’s largest gambling market. Phua was smack dab in the middle of it all, watching his wealth and reputation balloon.
At the same time, Phua had been linked to the Hong Kong crime syndicate 14K Triad. This group is responsible for large-scale heroin and opium trafficking, illegal gambling, arms and human trafficking, prostitution, loan sharking, money laundering, and murder. Phua’s interactions with members of the 14K Triad piqued the curiosity of law enforcement agencies in Macau and the US.
Then, in 2008, everything changed.
Poker comes to Macau
Baccarat has long been highly popular in Asia. After all, it is a game of luck—something in which the Chinese have considerable faith. Poker, on the other hand, is a game of strategy and skill. In 2008, AsianLogic purchased the Asian Poker Tour (APT). English-Chinese bookmaker Tom Hall owned a stake in AsianLogic and also worked with a company that contracted with IBCBet. Hall suggested that Phua and Yong leave baccarat and try poker. The gentlemen proved to be quick studies, and Phua credits his business savvy and patience with his impressive poker success.
Hall eventually went to Las Vegas where he mingled with Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey and told the two pros about Macau’s poker opportunities and the abundance of inexperienced players. They—and other high-stakes players like Johnny Chan and John Juanda—often traveled to Macau to play at Phua’s very high-stakes private game.
Fall of online poker
Following Black Friday and the collapse of US online poker, many online players transitioned to live games. Consequently, Las Vegas saw its market decrease as people began to look for other countries in which to play poker. Macau was very inviting—especially games at Phua’s private table at the Wynn.
As international poker grew, buy-ins for high-profile tournaments grew as well. Even the biggest pros often look for financial backing to enter tournaments for a split of the winnings. The 2012 Big One for One Drop was the WSOP’s first $1 million buy-in tournament that featured many WSOP bracelet holders, poker hall of famers—and Phua and Yong. Yong finished eighth and snagged a hefty $1.2 million. Despite Phua busting out early, he managed to win millions at other tournaments, continued to grow his impressive funds, and ultimately helped push global, high-stakes poker beyond anything anyone could have imagined.
The very long arm of the law
That is, anyone except US federal officials. This team was led by Jennifer Shasky-Calvery, director of the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Shasky-Calvery had considerable experience in organized crime and money laundering and was interested in the increase in Vegas baccarat revenue that accounted for 36.4 percent of all table game revenue in Nevada.
Because of the game’s popularity in Asia, FinCEN officials concluded that the increase must be from gamblers coming to Vegas on junkets from Macau. Of course, where junkets were, organized crime wasn’t usually far behind. Coupled with the growing desperation of the American gambling market that was increasingly dependent on Asian clientele, Treasury officials realized that billions of dollars were wired into Las Vegas casinos with minimal if any knowledge of their origins. They also realized that Phua would be coming to town, and Shasky-Calvery was interested to see what he would do.
Why would Phua come to Las Vegas at the start of the biggest gambling tournament in the world? Quite simply, greed. The World Cup began the day before the start of the WSOP—11 June—and there was far too much money being made, both legally and illegally.
Caesars Palace and the Paul Phua raid
Phua, Yong, and seven other associates occupied three of Caesars Palace’s new spacious and elegant villas. They requested desktop computers, monitors, laptops, multiple DSL lines, and access to several television providers.
On 18 June, Phua returned to Macau where he was arrested at the Wynn casino as part of the largest bookmaking bust in Macau history. Phua was charged with promoting illegal gambling and criminal association. After posting bail, he returned to Las Vegas where he planned to stay until the day after the World Cup ended.
While in Las Vegas, Phua hit the high-stakes poker tables inside Caesars Palace’s Salon 7 room. Along with Yong and the other Macau junket businessmen, Caesars extended more than $93 million in credit which Phua and Yong transferred to their associates’ casino accounts.
Finding the evidence
During a routine inspection, Caesars Palace’s Director of Luxury Hotel Operations Christian Brosius noticed a row of computers and phone lines which he promptly photographed. After meeting with Caesars Entertainment’s investigators and president, the men determined that illegal sports betting was going on inside the villas. Hotel officials traced the transfer activity and found additional questionable transfers during December 2013 and January 2014—also when Phua was visiting. Long story short, after communication and collaboration with other law enforcement and gaming officials, federal law enforcement officials concluded that Phua was running an illicit wire room from Caesars, and the FBI opened its case.
FBI agents posed as technicians in order to obtain the necessary evidence to obtain a search warrant. Coupled with other sworn statements used to obtain the warrant which were determined to be “false and misleading,” the entire case was fatally flawed.
On 9 July 2014, 23 armed FBI agents raided Phua’s villa. Phua, Yong, both of their sons, and four other Chinese and Malaysian nationals were arrested and charged with operating an illicit gambling business and transmitting betting information; each of which carries a seven-year maximum prison sentence.
Paul Phua hired famed attorney David Chesnoff along with prolific attorney and Dwan’s poker acquaintance Tom Goldstein. Phua’s co-defendants either pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or had their charges dismissed. Phua remained, and Chesnoff filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of the FBI’s search warrant of the Caesars villas. Nine months later, US District Judge Andrew Gordon ruled the FBI’s villa search unconstitutional.
Then, on 1 June, Gordon dismissed Phua’s case. Phua left for Montenegro—one of his few remaining friendly ports.
The ESPN story
How Phua evolved from a small bookie and numbers runner to the largest bookmaker in the world—and the most powerful figure in poker—is a truly fascinating story. In 2015, ESPN published a long and rather informative piece on billionaire Paul Phua.
Paul Phua has always asserted that he is not the person the media alleges him to be. In a 2016 interview with PokerNews at the Solaire Resort and Casino in Manila, Philippines—Phua’s first public interview—he tells all.
Phua does not deny that sports betting makes him who he is today; however, he is adamant that he is only an investor, gambler, and risk taker—not an operator. Well, at least not for the past seven years where he has devoted his time to family, poker, and real estate investments. He denies being either the “ringleader” during the “Floodlights Affair” or a member of the 14K Triad Chinese organized crime syndicate. In fact, Phua claims that any high-stakes gambler in Asia will interact with triad members, but that does not mean that person is a member. He also vehemently asserts that the Caesars gambling operation occurred in a villa he neither visited nor took any bets from. In his eyes, he is simply Paul Phua businessperson.
Where is he now
The WSOP has since deleted Phua’s player profile; however, you can still see the man formerly known as “The Shot” in video footage.
What do you think about the quite incredible Paul Phua story? Do you believe him—or the evidence against him?
Until next time.
Read more from Upswing Poker:
- Stu Ungar: A Legendary Poker Player and His Demons
- Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker: What Happened?
- Best Poker Tournaments in Las Vegas
Natalie Faulk is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer/blogger and the author of several books. She is an avid low-stakes (for now) poker player and huge Vegas Golden Knights fan.