OPINION | The Way Forward for the Aussie Millions

There is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the poker industry was off to a flying start in the year 2020.

After a record-setting Aussie Millions, along with the inaugural Super High Roller Bowl and Australian Poker Open on the Gold Coast, plus a string of highly successful mid-tier series (APL Million in Sydney, APT Brisbane and the WPT League QPC in Tweed Heads), the future of poker in this country was looking as strong as ever.

All this and more to look forward to, made even more impressive that it was achieved without a regulated online poker presence.  It is simply from the relentless dedication, passion, and hard yakka from so many people in the industry – at all levels – finding innovative ways to keep the game alive and well.

Joel Williams (Director of Poker Operations, Crown Melbourne) with 2020 Aussie Millions Main Event Champion, Vincent “Wonky” Wan.
IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

Suffice it to say, poker may never reach the peak first experienced after the Great Australian Poker Boom of 2005.  It is hard enough to catch lightning in a bottle the first time around.

But all of that no longer matters, because our focus now is on rebuilding the industry after the impact of COVID-19; while several states and territories have already begun to pick up the pieces, the same cannot be said for Victoria, which is understandable, given that it is only today that marks the first time in four months that zero cases have been recorded.

As of now, we are yet to see any major resurgence of the game in the Garden State due to ongoing restrictions, although to my knowledge, there are reports of at least one pub league franchisee in regional Victoria who has found a way to run games in an outdoor setting (although as to whom they sought approval from in regards to this remains to be seen and I invite them to contact me to clarify this matter).

Assuming the numbers continue to move in the right direction, we can expect to see plenty of movement from Victorian operators from early next year, however, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the 2021 Aussie Millions – originally scheduled from January 12 to February 1 – will not be going ahead.

Since the Southern Hemisphere’s largest casino shut its main gaming floor and private gaming areas on March 23, there has been almost complete radio silence in regards to poker operations on social media; the last post on the Crown Poker Facebook page and Twitter account was on the 8th of September, when staff paid tribute to the late, great Mike Sexton.

Most recently, the Australian Poker Tour revealed the dates for its Season 4 launch in Brisbane, which will run across six days from January 19-24 – a clear indicator that the major operators have been watching developments closely and have now seized their chance in filling what will be a huge gap on our country’s poker calendar.

Despite a most recent announcement on Crown Melbourne’s website advising that “select restaurants will recommence operations in a limited capacity, as well as Crown Towers and Crown Spa” from November 2, a return to all gaming operations, let alone poker, would likely not begin until at least the criteria of the Victorian Government’s “Last Step” on their coronavirus roadmap is met – zero new cases in the community for more than 14 days.

Victoria may very well reach that goal before Christmas (which would certainly liven up festivities, to say the least), but for Joel Williams and his dedicated team in the Crown Poker Room, it will still be a sombre return.

The Aussie Millions has been long regarded as one of the biggest poker brands globally, along with the WSOP and WPT. IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

It’s no secret that the success of the Aussie Millions – especially the Main Event – relies heavily on two things.

The first is international presence.  With the exception of New Zealand (and possibly other travellers from parts of Asia, where the pandemic is under control), there is little to no hope of marquee players from Europe and North America being able to enter the country for any reason, let alone play in the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest poker series.

There’s also the matter of local Main Event qualifiers, which over the last few years, have made up at least 40% of the total number of entries, courtesy of Crown Poker’s robust and highly successful year-long satellite programme.

Theoretically, there could be a chance of generating a field of 800+ if Crown Melbourne were to consider moving the 2021 Aussie Millions to a late November/December timeslot, however that would all depend on whether or not The Star Sydney host the WSOP International Circuit series again at the same time.

That’s a tough ask.

It would be safe to assume then – at least, for the short term after Crown Melbourne’s gaming facilities reopen – that executives would already have planned ahead to recuperate some of their losses by reconfiguring the Crown Poker Room and implementing more electronic gaming machines and other table games such as roulette, blackjack and baccarat.

Best-case scenario: all poker tables currently occupying the space closest to the Vegas Bar and up to the big screens would be ripped out, leaving only the tables on the other side of the walkway around the feature table (PK 31) and up in the High Limit Area (about 20 in total).

So, given the most likely set of circumstances, in that the 2021 Aussie Millions is a write-off and that we’ll see limited availability in the next 6-12 months – what must Crown Poker do in order to not only rebuild the brand, but also reclaim its position as the number one poker destination in the country?

To start, the satellite campaign for the 2022 Aussie Millions would need to commence almost immediately upon the casino reopening, building towards a schedule which should run for at least four to five weeks, with at least 30 events.

As well as a primary focus on Main Event qualifiers, there should also be a further push into other marquee tournaments on the schedule, such as the $1150 Opening Event and other High Roller tournaments.

Crown Poker would also have to consider other options in terms of major scheduled series; based on the fact that tournaments of equivalent value are readily available through other mid-tier organisations interstate, they will have to consider either working with them to co-host a series in Melbourne, or set up its own like-for-like schedule, as they have done so successfully in the past with events such as the Joe Hachem Deep Stack Series, in lieu of either or both the Victorian and Melbourne Championships.

Further mainstream sponsorship opportunities – such as those with ANTON Jewellers and V Energy Drink in Aussie Millions past – will be vital to the process.  Marketing and promotion, media coverage, televised broadcasts and affiliation deals exclusively with Australian companies, including the offering of Aussie Millions event packages through the major pub leagues, will be more important than ever for the economy (subject to regulatory approval).

Improving player comfort, ease of access and offering substantially better rewards will also lead to increased player acquisition and retention.  The new poker room at The Star Gold Coast, unveiled during the inaugural WPT Australia series in September last year, now sets the gold standard for casino poker rooms in this country (e.g. more comfortable chairs, improved lighting, USB ports embedded in the tables for charging devices, etc.).

Substantial investment into advanced registration and payment technology must also be considered – case in point, the QR code system paired with a customised app that was trialled at the most recent APT Brisbane series, which not only vastly reduced waiting times for games, but also contributed to a COVID Safe environment through contactless interaction at key touch points and data retention for contact tracing purposes, which will be all the more important for all businesses and industries in the wake of the pandemic.

The 2020 Aussie Millions Main Event players see red as RFID feature table is lit up for an all-in showdown. IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

Finally, Crown Poker must, and without further delay, invest in its own permanently fixed RFID feature table system and set up a broadcast schedule of both major tournaments and high stakes cash games, bringing it up to par with other renowned international card rooms such as the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles.

With the technology being relatively inexpensive and easy to install within the existing scaffolding around table 31, there shouldn’t be any reason why they can’t justify the cost, especially given that they have become a staple at pub league events throughout Australia in recent years.

Ultimately, the decisions that are to be made by Crown Melbourne must be in the best interests of not only themselves, but for the good of the game.

Crown Poker and the Aussie Millions have, until now, been strong standalone brands in their own right, but with COVID-19 shaking things up, they will need to work more cohesively with the entire poker community and be prepared to invest long term so that we can all rebuild, together.

And come January 2022, the Aussie Millions will be recognised as a true celebration of poker in this part of the world, with all of us ready and waiting for the cards to be launched into the air.

It’s now up to them to decide whether or not they go all in. 

An Urgent Message to the Australian Poker Industry

Wow. Where do I begin?

It’s been a crazy couple of days, to say the least.

Since publishing Episode 2 of the PMA Podcast, myself, Ben Blaschke and Tom Bower been inundated with feedback about what was discussed.

For the most part, it’s been extremely encouraging.

Many people have already openly declared their support and congratulated us for coming out in the open to start a conversation that needed to be had (and one that is far from over).

I’d be lying, however, if I said there wasn’t at least one person who has approached us in confidence to voice their opposition to our views on the subject.

They’ve outlined their opinion and the reasons why they do what they do. Try as they might to convince us otherwise, the fact remains: the ends don’t justify the means.

There’s no doubt that times are tough for everybody. The drastic changes we’ve had to make in how we live our lives because of COVID-19 have deeply impacted us all.

Like so many of you, I am longing for the day that we’re able to get back to the tables, but it’s not just the shutdown of the live poker scene that’s keeping me up at night.

Many poker players in Australia are now willingly engaged in unregulated web and app-based sites in order to get their fix.

In turn, this has attributed to an estimated 67% rise in online gambling expenditure, according to a recent article published in the 𝘚𝘺𝘥𝘯𝘦𝘺 𝘔𝘰𝘳𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘏𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘭𝘥.

As Tom made clear during our broadcast: players are not guaranteed consumer protections on these sites, especially when it comes to things such as game integrity, responsible gambling and self-exclusion practices, as well as safe and secure financial transactions.

What’s even more frightening is that many operators of these clubs and sites are openly defying the law by advertising, promoting and even going as far as live streaming their games through social media.

Despite what they may tell you, the people involved in these poker sites – almost all of which are based off-shore – are in clear violation of the 𝘐𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘎𝘢𝘮𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘈𝘤𝘵 2001.

If prosecuted, the financial consequences are massive. Fines range from tens of thousands (for individuals) to millions of dollars (for companies) 𝗽𝗲𝗿 𝗱𝗮𝘆 for each offence committed.

Not only that, but the potential fallout from all of this reaching mainstream media and subsequently damaging our industry’s collective reputation is – to put it bluntly – catastrophic.

What is abundantly clear based on the patterns of behaviour that I’m seeing now, is that many people simply haven’t learned from, or choose to ignore, the harsh lessons of Black Friday.

And if this all goes south – and it’s not a matter of if, but when – all the hard work that we’ve done to legitimise poker in the eyes of the mainstream will be brought undone in a heartbeat.

I’m not saying this to try and scare you, folks. I’m saying this because it’s the truth.
It’s a sentiment that many of my esteemed poker media colleagues share, especially those based in the United States, where this is all playing out on a much larger scale and with many big A-list celebrities involved.

Yes, history has shown us that prohibition doesn’t work, but the problem is that history is repeating itself – and we simply cannot let that happen.

Instead, we have to build and maintain a united front (with proper financial backing) that can help lobby state and federal governments to establish, regulate and tax a legal and regulated online poker market in Australia.

At the same time, we need to have the collective courage and fortitude to hold our industry peers accountable for their wrongdoing.

No more apathy. No more turning a blind eye. No more excuses.

We can – and must – do better as a group to truly clean up our game and secure our industry’s future.

In closing, I leave you with a link to the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) website.

Here, you will be able to see a list of all the licensed and regulated online gambling sites that are able to operate in this country.

You can also submit a complaint to ACMA against sites that you believe are in breach of the legislation.

And in order to make an informed decision before you choose to submit a complaint, just remember:

If it’s not on the list, it’s illegal.

It’s that simple.

And it’s not worth the risk.

Back in the Game

For more than 15 years, poker has been a hobby, a job, a passion and a borderline obsession.

The opportunities that this game has provided have been nothing short of unbelievable.

Travelling the world and being a part of the biggest games on the planet; working and partying with the best in the business as we all chase fame, fortune and glory.

As the kids say these days, “If you know, you know.”

But there are still many who don’t. Or choose not to.

More often than not, I’ve had to pull myself up waxing lyrical on the subject to non-poker friends; even my mother still has no clue as to why I’m so invested in with what she calls “Yahtzee”.

I admit it – I’m a poker fanatic – but certainly not in the conventional sense.

Truthfully, I have never had the time nor the patience (or the bankroll, for that matter) to be a full-time player. I’ve always preferred being on the other side of the table.

My love for poker comes from a different place.

September 2004. Crown Melbourne. Back-of-house.

I’ve hit the midway point of the night shift and it’s been flat out. Having stuffed myself with plate of whatever it was on offer at the cafeteria, I rush downstairs to the staff smoking room, hoping to sneak in a cigarette before the end of my break.

The haze of smoke makes my eyes sting. My palms are itchy and sweaty. My legs are sore.

As I walk into the lounge and light up, I almost fall into a crowd of about 15-20 employees gathered around the TV, watching intently.

I pull out my phone, check the date and then look up at the crowd again.

Immediately, I thought the worst. Surely not, not again? After three years?

No. Instead, I was greeted with a melodic Southern accent emanating from a distinguished silver-haired gent.

Image result for mike sexton world poker tour commentator

“The name of the game is No Limit Texas Hold’em, the Cadillac of poker. It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master …”

I turn from the screen to look at my colleagues – some who I knew dealt poker, which, along with Pai Gow and Craps, was only offered to the best dealers in the casino as a specialist game – and I could see the smiles on their faces as they pointed at the screen, chatting excitedly.

I turn back to the TV and watch as the image cuts to a close-up of a player’s hands, peeling up his cards. A pair of aces.

I was somewhat familiar with poker, having played Five Card Draw with my Dad and my siblings around the kitchen table for bottle caps as kids, but this … this was something else.

This game had everything. Expert commentary, statistics and in-depth analysis of the players and the action. It was a true sporting contest in the form of a game of cards.

We’re all now on the edges of our seats as the players push their chips towards the centre of the table.

“I’m all-in.”


Another dealer’s watch beeps and her brow furrows as she looks down at her wrist. “Shit, we better get back out on the floor!”

A pit boss shushes her loudly. “Just watch this hand play out and then we can run back after!”

It was official. Poker was now the biggest talking point around the office water cooler.

As I walk back to the gaming floor with my supervisor I tell him that hopefully one day, I get to deal poker too.

He smiles.

“Mark my words, kid,” he said, as he put a hand on my shoulder. “What you just saw … that is the start of something big.”

May 2011. US Embassy Office, Melbourne.

“Mr Blackhall? Mr Blackhall to the counter, please.”

Not the most pleasant of accents this time. A Bostonian drawl.

The fluorescent lights are hurting my eyes. My palms are itchy and sweaty. My back is sore.

I’ve been sitting here for six hours now, sitting in the office of the US Embassy and still waiting for approval of my I-Visa, purposed specifically for representatives of foreign media.

“You don’t need to go through all that!” I was told by one of my colleagues. “Save yourself the time and the cash. Just get an ESTA and tell them you’re coming to play.”

I was having none of it – and neither was my boss.

“Don’t listen to them, kid,” he said. “You can’t be too careful these days.”

It wasn’t hard to see why, especially after what had happened just weeks before.

Image result for black friday doj screen

The woman sitting next to me taps me on the shoulder.

“I think that’s you, hun.”

I stand up slowly and make my way over to the counter.

“Mr Blackhall, I just need you to answer a few questions for me, please.”

My gaze moves to the blue form I’ve filled out on top of all my paperwork in front of the clerk, including the letter of employment from PokerNews, a copy of my birth certificate and my passport.

I’ve answered all the questions truthfully and I’ve ticked all the right boxes, but the clerk still reads through them all and I am required to answer each one verbally.

Why are you coming to the United States? Where will you be staying? How long will you be staying for? Are you coming to the US to engage in prostitution? Do you belong to a clan or tribe? Do you have tuberculosis or infectious leprosy? Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offence or crime involving moral turpitude? Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States?

The whole process is ridiculously terrifying. Why did I waste my time? Those hundreds of dollars could have been saved for the tables. I should have just listened to my mate and semi-bluffed my way through Immigration at LAX.

No. That’s not how I roll. I have to play this game straight up. It’s not worth the risk. Not now, not ever.


Suddenly, the sound of a sticker being ripped off its backing and the thump of a stamp breaks me out of my trance.

The clerk slides my passport back into the silver tray under the gap in the glass. I open it up.

There it is.

“Enjoy your time in the United States, sir,” the clerk says, “and good luck.”

January 2019. Carnival Legend Main Stage. Back-of-house.

“Break a leg,” whispers the stage manager before she adjusts her headset. “Standby … lights up … playback … aaaaaaand now.”

She points to the stagehands and they open the doors. I move to my mark.

The spotlights are hurting my eyes. My skin is itchy and sweaty. My feet are sore.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

I can hear my daughter call for me as I walk forward. My wife giggles and shushes her.

You know, every now and then … you might like to hear something from us, nice and easy …

Things haven’t been easy, and I’ve had to sacrifice so much, but I’ve found a new purpose in life. I have a full-time job. I’m married. I’m a father.

But there’s just one thing … we never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy.

It’s been a struggle. I admit it. I’ve had to constantly grind in order to ends meet and yet, we’ve managed to scrape together enough money to go on this cruise.

And we’re rollin’ … rollin’ … rollin’ on the river.

It’s been an incredible journey, this cruise. Worth every cent. So many happy memories, as well as new and lasting friendships. My joie de vivre rejuvenated.

The river …

Right on cue, I reach down, grab my pants, rip them off and throw them behind me before the dancers reach for my outstretched arms, tearing away my shirt and quickly putting a wig on my head.

If you come down to the river … I bet ya gonna find some people who live …

I am now resplendent in a very short, silver dress adorned with sequins and tassels. My friends in the front row gasp. Thank goodness for bike shorts.

But you don’t have to worry if you got no money, people on the river are happy to give …

I draw on all my years performing on stage and channel my inner diva.

Big wheel keep on turnin’ … Proud Mary keep on burnin’ …

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tina Turner. My mind flashes back to sixth grade, when I was precariously balanced on top of a long bench in front of hundreds of students teaching them how to dance to ‘Nutbush City Limits’.

And we’re rollin’ (ooh)! Rollin’ (yeah)! Rollin’ on the river

I feel the lurch as the stabilisers take effect deep in the bowels of the ship, but I am flying across the stage with the music coursing through my veins. I am unstoppable.

The crescendo hits. I move back to the centre mark and into my finishing pose, both arms raised into the air, wig clenched in my hand as the dancers freeze around me.

The crowd is on their feet. A standing ovation.

Through the commotion, I see my wife struggling to hold the phone steady as tears of joy stream down her face. My daughter is clapping and cheering louder than anyone else.

I blink. I am presented with the ‘Lip Sync Battle’ championship belt.

I blink. I’m now posing for photos and chatting with dozens of people who have stuck around after the show to congratulate me. For a fleeting moment, I’m the biggest celebrity on the ship.

I blink. The theatre is practically empty. My friends and family are patiently waiting for me and I step towards them, but I’m distracted by a tap on the shoulder.

A young girl – no more than about eight or nine, with cochlear implants in both ears – starts signing in Auslan. Her mother interprets.

“I want to thank you for such a wonderful performance …”

I sign back.

“You’re welcome! Did you enjoy the show?”

The young girl and her mother’s jaws drop. At that moment, one of the dancers, also fluent in sign language, joins our conversation.

“Wasn’t he awesome?”

“Hang on,” the young girl exclaims as she points to him, “That’s American Sign Language!”

We stand in a circle for a good 10 minutes, laughing and joking in a mix of Auslan and ASL before we’re eventually ushered off stage. I join my family and friends in the gallery, who are all excitedly chatting about my performance.

“So, what’s the plan?” one of my friends asks. “Celebratory drinks at the cocktail bar?”

“To be honest, I think I’m going to call it a night,” I reply as I take my daughter’s hand, “but let’s make the most of our last day tomorrow.”

And that we did, sipping on fancy drinks and dancing to ‘Nutbush City Limits’.

Tom McEvoy once said, “There is more to poker than life.”

In years past, I took that as gospel. I then came to realise that was a mistake. Thankfully, I was able to take a step back and focus on what mattered most before it was too late.

I’ve since come to realise that in this day and age, more and more people are accepting of the fact that sometimes, you have to do what’s best for you and there is no shame in that.

Times change. Priorities change.

Poker’s not going anywhere. There’ll always be a seat open. If not, you won’t have to wait long to get back into the action, as long as you’ve got what it takes.

But let’s be honest – nobody ever truly ‘retires’ from poker. There is always that niggling feeling, with a little voice inside your head, begging and pleading: “You need to come back.”

When the opportunity presented itself this year, I couldn’t shy away from it any longer.

It was time.

So, here I am – back in the game.

I’ve bought in. I’m seated. I’m ready to play.

Deal me in.