He dashes parents’ dreams to play poker

September 28, 2006

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THE organisers are calling it the ‘return of the prodigal… poker son’.
Most people here would not have heard of 65-year-old Singapore-born Willie Tann – one of world poker’s famous faces – simply because there have been no legal card game events here before.

Mr Tann has been in the restaurant business, the hot towel business and a bookmaker, but he has made a better living as a poker player

But this could soon change with the first Asian Poker Tour here from 12-17 Nov.

Singapore’s first legal high-stakes poker tournament will be held at the Meritus Mandarin Singapore, with a guaranteed prize pool of at least US$1 million (S$1.6m), to be shared by the final six players..

It is organised by a local company, Capital Events, in conjunction with Betfair (a London-based registered bookmaker and betting exchange) and the Singapore Tourism Board. (See report on facing page.)

For Mr Tann, who’s based in England but still visits Singapore once in a while, it will be a chance to finally showcase the skill and stone-cold ‘poker face’ he has honed over 46 years of playing the game to a Singaporean audience.

Last year, in poker’s version of football’s World Cup – the World Series of Poker – he won US$188,335 and an 18-carat gold bracelet from a one-day event with a buy-in of US$1,000 (the fee players have to pay to enter the main event).

A professional, now sponsored by Betfair, he couldn’t be contacted last night.

But in an interview with UK betting magazine Inside Edge last month, he talked about his life.

He was born in Singapore in 1941, and gambling was not in his parents’ plans for him.

They had high hopes when they sent him to London in 1960 to study law.

But law wasn’t exactly on his mind as he gambled often, and then tried becoming a bookmaker.

He owned a Chinese restaurant in Soho for a couple of years in the 1970s and ran a company supplying hot towels to Chinese restaurants all over London.

But poker was his calling.


With a total career earnings of almost US$1 million from poker, he lives comfortably some distance out of London in a small village in Hertfordshire called Bovingdon.

There, tudor houses, churches and greenery are more common than casinos.

It’s a world away from London, and definitely from Singapore.

He also has a family away from poker.

As the former law school dropout told Betfair Poker’s website: ‘I’ve been married for almost 30 years now. I have one son who went through Westminster and Oxford, and is now a lawyer himself.’

Well, at least he fulfilled his parents’ dream… through his son.

Mr Tann told the same website: ‘I started playing poker with my fellow students in house games.

‘I was winning a lot of money and so I stopped playing with them, and started playing in ‘spielers’ (casinos) all over London.

‘I thought I could make a better living playing poker. I’ve been in a few other businesses, the restaurant business, the hot towel business, and I’ve been a bookmaker at the race tracks.

‘But poker had always kept me going.’

But it also ‘broke’ him many times as he would spend his ‘earnings’ to enter tournaments and lose.

Once known as the Dice Man, then The Governor, the former No 1 European poker player in 2004 now prefers the nickname Mr Miyagi.

Mr Miyagi, from the 1980s movie The Karate Kid, was the wise old trainer and mentor of young Daniel-san, who spoke philosophically while maintaining a humble profile.

Mr Tann banks on his experience to offer advice on Betfair’s poker website.

Mr Oliver Bowen, 23, Betfair Games’ press officer, said: ‘Willie Tann is famous and respected here in the UK gaming scene. So I guess many Singaporeans will now start to hear more about him and recognise him as the face of the Asian Poker Tour, since he was born in Singapore.’

Mr Joseph Wong, 39, a businessman and director of Capital Events, was the prime mover behind the idea for Singapore’s first legal poker tournament.

He told The New Paper last night: ‘This has nothing to do with the upcoming integrated resort plans for Singapore. This poker tournament will be independent, an annual event.

‘I travel overseas often, and I realise poker’s exploded in the West. Gone is the seedy image associated with it as there’s more emphasis on the skill and psychology of pitting a player against another, as opposed to you playing against the house, which almost always wins.

‘And it’s great that Willie Tann will be returning to Singapore to play the game he could never play here legally all those years.

‘The return of the prodigal poker son after 46 years, I guess…’

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