Asian Gambling Rings, M88 and ‘Mahjong Poker’

Among this week’s stranger headlines peripherally connected to online poker was the announcement by Vietnamese officials that they’ve cracked an online gambling ring — the world’s largest, if you believe the badly translated stories proclaiming the arrests.  Let’s look into it, for it’s a good look into how the rest of the world reacts to online-gambling matters.  The bust itself is relatively unimportant, but it’s a good way to lead into an East-meets-West tale, with online poker somewhere out there in the middle.

Seven Vietnamese men were arrested, aged 22 to 50, most with upscale business ties.  Those arrested included two brothers and at least one bank executive.  What Vietnam’s “Criminal Police Department,” part of the country’s Ministry of Public Security, stumbled into was apparently the bet-collecting face of a large Vietnamese bookmaking ring, with sportsbetting (including the World Cup), seemingly a good chunk of the illicit action.

The Vietnamese authorities seized the following list of property, which seems about average: “VND (Vietnamese Dong) 565 million in cash, one seven-seater car, eight laptops, 21 cell phones and 32 ATM cards of various banks and some incriminating documents.”  The cash equals about $27,000 USD, according to currency-equivalency site, which means this was probably your run-of-the-mill online bookie operation.

But wait, that makes for boring headlines.  It seems other business people connected to those running the ring included some wealthy folks and corporate entities, with some accounts — probably of these bookies’ customers — adding up to… well, here’s how the Saigon paper reported it: “Notably, the bank accounts of related persons include one that is VND10 trillion (US$480 million)!”

Well, yeah… no.

That’s called spinning up a middlin’ crackdown and trying to make it into an earth-shattering bust, in classic Ministry of Disinformation style.  Take all those “world’s biggest online gambling bust” headlines associated with this story with a grain of salt or rice or whatever, because it ain’t even close.

m88The site implicated here is, an Asia-centric site which operates at least three related gambling domains (M88, aM88, and M88Bet).  They offer literally tons of online betting opportunities catering to the Asian gambling market, and it’s here where the story actually gets interesting for Western readers, because it’s a reminder that our Euro-Western focus on poker and casino games (slots, etc.) and sportsbetting is really only one part of the worldwide gambling equation.

The Asian market is every bit as big, and with the exception of some crossover in certain sports, it’s every bit as big in a whole different family of games, meaning usually not poker, usually not blackjack, and so on.  If you’re looking for game information portals like are also available.

M88 is in turn one of about a dozen skins on an extensive gaming network created by Opus Gaming, which is best described as an Asian version of 888 Holdings or PartyGaming or the like.  It’s not nearly as big as those players, but the fact that they offer tons of games, take sportsbets on just about everything, and can handle millions in action from individual bettors suggest they’ve got pretty good penetration in the Asian market.

They’ve got some “Western” offerings as well, such as traditional poker…

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… baccarat and blackjack…

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… along with more Asia-centric offerings such as Dragon Tiger and Sic Bo:

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Yes, “Dices and numbers never gets more fabulous than this.”  If you’re wondering where all the “Engrish” writers who used to work on Konami video games have found new work, it’s probably Opus Gaming, where they’ve joined forces with graphic artists whose vision of the perfect online gambling den is something close to a sexed-up Asian version of The Stepford Wives.

All in good fun, of course.  And then there’s Mahjong Poker, a new hybrid game being heavily marketed across the Pacific Rim, in which up to six players wield mahjong tiles under a system of betting rules similar to no-limit poker, including small and big blinds and all-in jams.

Here’s a look at a Mahjong Poker table:

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Wacky stuff.  There’s even an interactive video on the OpusGaming site.  If you’re curious about the rules, you can search for them via Google; Opus Gaming is not the only online network marketing such a product, nor is M88 the only one selling it.  Nor are these the only Eastern version of attempted crossovers.  Just a couple of years back, some India-based programmers formerly associated with PartyGaming launched a major site for a card game called teen patti, which is a crazy action game, the India equivalent of PLO.

The reason for heading off on this tangent?  Here in the West, we realize that our online games and markets are established and maturing, and the major corporate players are always searching for the next big thing.  Everyone eyes Asia as some sort of untapped gambling market, when nothing could be further from the truth.  A better read is that the same process taking place in our portion of the global market is also taking place in Asia, and they’re looking at Western games such as poker and blackjack and sportsbetting as their version of the next big thing as well.

Toss in the whole gambling-den crackdown story, which could just as easily been a tale of New Jersey mob guys running a numbers racket, and the story is exactly the same.  The names and headlines are different, but the forces are the same.  It’s East meets West, alright, and it makes for entertaining fare.

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