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Among the overseas events will be seven tournaments in Chinese cities, the first of which will be held at an unspecified date in Shanghai. First prize will be guaranteed at around $200,000 with a total prize pool expected to be over $800,000.
The annual IPT series will award additional prizes in a year-end championship, amounting to around $2 million. The organizers hope to attract over 500,000 players to participate in IPT tournaments globally in 2017.
The IPT will act as the vehicle for a range of Alisports sponsored mind sports contests including chess and bridge tournaments.
Organizers say that they will use local chess and poker clubs to build a network of participating players who will take part in satellite and qualifying tournaments across all the sports the IPT will promote.
When Alisports was first created in September 2015, the company said that it aimed to “transform China’s sports industry through Internet-enabled technologies.”
In an interview in March 2016, Alisports CEO Zhang Dazhong explained that the company and its parent the Alibaba Group, saw “health and happiness as two main strategic directions for the company over the next 10 years, and sports is the golden cross point for the two directions.”
While much of the company’s work has been in traditional physical sports, Alisports is also reaching out to esports. In July, it announced a partnership with the Korean based International e-Sports Federation (IeSF).
Simultaneously it announced a grand plan to build esports stadiums throughout China to play host to the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) competition.
Min Yunhao, vice president of Alisports explained:
“We set up the WESG like an Olympic competition to help establish the tournament’s legitimacy right away and to promote eSports like a sport, not just an entertainment.”
Poker seems to provide a close fit with the Alisports strategy as it offers both live events which appeal to players at the grassroots level of the game, and online poker which is susceptible to the technological expertise that Alisports can add.
Amaya’s Head of Corporate Communications, Eric Hollreiser, refers to online poker as the original esport.
Alisports doesn’t include online poker in its esports, but as a mind game live poker is clearly classified by Alisports as a valid sport within its overall strategy.
Apart from a third party involvement with promoting the International Poker Federation’s Match Poker game, Alisports has not yet indicated that it will add online poker to its list of promoted games.
The Alisports strategy, whether announced explicitly or derived from its actual operations, strongly implies an interest in online poker. But perhaps it is still too early for the company to engage in the legal and regulatory complexities that online poker would bring.
Even live poker in China is not without its difficulties. Although many tournaments have run without a problem, the 2015 PokerStars Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) Nanjing Millions was halted in mid-event after the local authorities questioned its legality.
In August 2016 the Asia Poker League (APL) successfully held its first Beijing festival.
The second APL event began in Shanghai on November 24 and was due to run until November 29. Unfortunately on day one, the APL ended play at 8pm after the local government in Kunshan City raised legal issues.
Alisports’ IPT announcement shows confidence that live poker tournaments can be run legally with the cooperation of the authorities. But there must still be some doubt about whether this is true across all the local jurisdictions where the IPT plans to operate.
Over the last couple of years Chinese investment in poker has been growing.
The Alisports decision to begin running live poker tournaments followed the purchase of the World Poker Tour (WPT) by Chinese company Ourgame.
Ourgame bought the WPT from bwin.party in June last year. Since, it has successfully operated the brand and expanded the business both in terms of tournaments and in marketing WPT events.
Chinese entertainment and gaming company Tencent has also put its footprint on the poker map. It runs a successful online social poker site, also available as a mobile app. In 2015, it held its first live poker tournament — the Tencent Poker Tour, in Sanya.
Sanya is in Hainan province, where the PokerStars Nanjing Millions event experienced its problems.
November 25 saw Chinese lottery operator 500.com invest in social poker after taking a 51 percent stake in Qufan Internet Technology Inc. and Shenzhen Qufan Internet Technology Co. Ltd.
And most recently, Hong Kong based investor, the Head and Shoulders Global Investment Fund has emerged as one of the principal funders behind David Baazov’s attempt to buy Amaya.
Head and Shoulders is also an investor in Alex Dreyfus’ Mediarex which operates the Global Poker Index and Global Poker League.
The poker industry shouldn’t worry that the Chinese are coming — they’re already here.