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‘Casinos offer services not sleaze’

The real life character of hit casino drama ‘All-in’ pushes to boost the industry


He has made as much as $370,000 in one day, ranking third in the world poker rankings with $20 million in earnings as a poker player. In Las Vegas, he is considered one of the top three cash game experts with Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson.

Jimmy Cha won his first $1 million in 1986 and maintained high earnings for 11 years until 1996.

But the avid former pro-gambler gave up all that wealth and fame to help Korea’s Casino industry. He now settles for an annual salary of 100 million won working in Korea as a professor at Sejong University and consultant for the nation’s casino industry development, as chairman of Casino International group.

“In life, there are more significant things than earning money. There are places that need me, and that’s why I am here today,” he told The Korea Herald.

Cha says he feels a duty to transform the disreputable image of the gambling industry here.

His decision to return to Korea was suggested by an executive at the Korea Tourism Organization who visited Cha in Las Vegas in 2005. The executive asked Cha help lead the way in “properly laying out the structure for the casino industry in Korea.”

Ever since the proposal, he has devoted himself solely to taking the nation’s casino industry to a new world-class level.

Growing up privileged, Cha was given extensive training many activities, such as piano, violin, swimming, table tennis, martial arts, Kung fu, taekwondo, pool. Among his lessons included baduk, which he started learning at age 8. In 11th grade he had become a fourth-dan amateur and was already good enough to pass the preliminary stages of the pro admissions test. By the time he entered college as an economics major, he was arguably the strongest amateur in the nation, winning several tournaments and representing Korea in amateur championships.

“I am no genius, I don’t even have a high IQ level. However, the vast range of talents I have are good enough to become a professional. That really helped me in becoming who I am today, as a poker champion and a casino expert.” 
Former world poker champion Jimmy Cha scatters a deck of cards at his Casino International Group office in Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Former world poker champion Jimmy Cha scatters a deck of cards at his Casino International Group office in Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

His master level in martial arts saved him when he arrived in the U.S. While working as an employee at a local gas station, he found three gang members trying to avoid paying their bill. Cha approached their car and confronted them and eventually they paid for their gas.

A week later, a group of thirty gang members, including the three involved in the incident, marched into the gas station looking for Cha. He walked out front and knocked two of them out.

It was such do-or-die situations that enabled Cha to train himself to act calm and confident, as skill which later helped him to become world poker champion.

After the incident, Cha quit his job at the gas station. He spent a considerable amount of his time learning how to play poker professionally with Chip Johnson, a renowned poker theorist in southern California. Combining game theory with his instinct from playing baduk to a professional level, he became a poker player to be feared. Throughout the ’80s to ’90s, Cha earned his reputation as one of the most successful pro gamblers in the U.S.

His story was picked up by prominent baduk journalist Noh Seung-il and developed into a novel and TV series here. The title fits his dramatic life and career as a quintessential professional, and is simply titled, “All In.”

“The TV drama is 90 percent true, and 10 percent fiction. The three main characters from the drama all depict me, the wealthy son character, a poor orphan that depicts my days of adversity, and the bodyguard at the casino ― I also worked as a body guard at the casino before I became a champion.”

The famous poker champion however, says his 11-year winning spree was not mere luck, but a product of working flat-out.

“You need to have a comprehensive understanding about mathematics from probability, to calculation but the most important factor is to have somewhat of an innate ability,” he said. “I call this the ‘card sense’ you are born with.”

It seems that he tried everything to become the best. He studied his opponent players by analyzing every move, characteristic, personality, and practiced what he calls a “card reading ability.”

Learning probability, techniques in calculation, however was only the basics of becoming a champion. He said “poker facing” was the critical factor to winning or losing in a poker game. “Your opponent knows every bit about your moves, the change of color in your face, they are watching every bit of your move at the poker table.”

He compared poker to baseball. “In baseball, the players analyze every move of the opponent’s team, they remember every part of their strength and weaknesses. It’s the same when playing poker, in this sense, poker is a bit like sports.”

He trained like any other sports players. He did everything to strengthen his cardio ― affecting the control of blood circulation in the body ― for a perfect “poker face.” He trained in mountains, went rock climbing, and spent hours in saunas.

“The world of gaming is merciless,” he said “You’ve got to try doing everything to win, losing is not an option when you become a professional.”

He commented about the recent case on singer Shin Jung-hwan, who has been accused of gambling hundreds of millions of won at a hotel casino in the Philippines last August.

“People need to learn that this is also some sort of a sport, hence, you have got to keep in mind that once you walk out the door, you have to leave what happened at the table. Dragging the feelings to work, home, and elsewhere is a bad idea, and that is what distinguishes a gambling addict from a professional ― I left whatever feelings I had at the table.”

Cha says, entering the Casino, without strategy “would be like a prep doctor in an operation room, not knowing what to do with his mass ― they are likely going to fail.”

“You can’t just rely on ‘luck,’ that is nonsense, even for me, It took exactly three years to become a millionaire ― and I tell you it wasn’t easy.”

It was hard to understand when Cha said that he “had never gambled in his life,” but it all seemed to make sense after he explained the difference between “gambling” and “playing for a living.”

He defined “gambling” as more of a reckless challenge. “Gambling, is when you go beyond your affordable budget.” However, he said that ‘playing for living’ is different. ”The difference between the two is that when you are playing for a living, ‘losing’ is not an option.“

He acknowledged the recent increase in suicides that have drawn attention to the problem of gambling addiction and he called for tougher regulations by the government.

However, he said that illegal gambling was different from what happens in a casino, as the former was constructed to purposely deceive people. He emphasized that illegal gambling including that done by video slot machines such as those at “Bada Iyagi” should be penalized. He said the government could prompt measures to regulate entrance numbers in casinos, allowing up to 20 days a month for ordinary visitors.

“You can’t really see the casino industry as a mere gambling industry, rather it should be distinguished as a service industry. According to Cha, if the Casino industry were to be sectored as gambling, the stock-market should be as well.

“The concept of the stock market is no different, in fact that is the biggest form of gambling, within the idea of capitalism.”

“As government oppresses the casino industry, and continues to formulate negative ideas about the industry, Koreans will hemorrhage money off in Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines, or elsewhere anyway, it’s a loss to our country anyway.”

The government must come up with social measures, he believes. “I believe this only comes through social education. Schools should teach the younger generation about the industry, as a healthy service that creates jobs and boosts the economy.

“Just like finance, hotel, insurance, banking ― the casino is just another service industry in the U.S. When I pay tax in the states, I write ‘Poker Player Jimmy Cha’ as my profession. It’s hard to understand why I have to be called a gambler in Korea, so much because they think of gambling as illegal, it just sounds wrong.”

According to Cha, the government should take in the fact that the casino industry can bring positive economic benefits to citizens.

“The casino industry feeds its people,” he explained. “Did you know that more than 10 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product comes from the casino industry?”

Ninety percent of Macao’s income comes from the casino industry. “We shouldn’t miss out on this huge opportunity,” he said.

He sees a boost in the casino industry in the next four to five years and calls in all the support possible from the government in repositioning the image of the casino industry.

In 1995, the government enacted a law on developing abandoned mine areas. Kangwon Land was established in order to invigorate the economy in one of these areas. Kangwon Land’s monopoly on gambling for Koreans ends in 2015.

“When the monopoly ends, other cities and provinces will be heaving to establish their own local allowed casinos in places like Busan, Saemangum, Youngjongdo, Pyeongtaek, Yeosu, and Jeju. I’m expecting a great deal of full-scale casino consulting to start around the start of 2013. I’m going all-in.”

By Hwang Jurie (jurie777@heraldcorp.com)
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