Gambler, Bookie, Diplomat, Gangster: the Fantastic Story of Paul Phua Wei-seng

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Macau businessman Paul Phua Wei-seng has more money than God. So why did he risk everything to run an illegal betting operation in Las Vegas?

On July 13th a high-profile raid was made on three hotel rooms at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. A 50-year old Malaysian man named Paul Phua Wei-seng, his 22-year old son Darren, three other Malaysians and three men from Hong Kong were arrested for allegedly running an illegal sports betting ring out of the three rooms.

• Paul Phua Wei-seng was recently arrested in both Macau and Las Vegas on separate illegal betting charges

• He is reportedly a bookmaker, poker pro, gangster, junket operator and diplomat

• He $2 million bail was posted by celebrity poker players Phil Ivey and Andrew Robl

A federal police report later stated that the culprits had accepted millions of dollars in wagers on the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. While such things aren’t heard of very often in the US, illegal betting on the World Cup is reported to be a billion-dollar business each year. In fact, reports say that more money is wagered illegally than with all legal online sportsbooks in the UK, US, Canada, Europe and Asia combined.

What made the story sensational was what later came to light about the group’s ringleader, Phua. Less than one month before he had been arrested for running a million-dollar illegal betting ring in Macau; also specializing in World Cup matches. He posted bail and left the city, landing in Vegas where he and his associates immediately opened up shop.

A businessman, a politician, a gentleman

As media coverage of the case has picked up more has been revealed about him. He’s not just a black market bookmaker. He’s also a legitimate businessman, owning Macau junket Sat Ieng Sociedade Unipessoal which has been delivering VIPs into casinos owned by Sheldon Adelson since 2005.

While most junket operators rely on professional staff to wine and dine their customers, Phua has an interest in personally entertaining clients. He also holds a majority stake in the Philippines-based IBCBet, one of the world’s highest-revenue sportsbooks.

What makes IBCBet different from most online and mobile betting sites is its exclusive nature. Customers must receive an invitation to place wagers there. It seems that anything and everything the fascinating Mr. Phua is involved in is invite only.

On the other hand, if it’s surprising to you that someone with a large stake in a legal sportsbetting company would be running an illegal operation out of a Las Vegas hotel, dig a little deeper into Phua’s past. If reports are to be taken seriously, he is a significant figure in the world of organized crime.

Federal investigators in the US told reporters that Phua is a high-ranking member of the 14K triads, who are reported to be one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most powerful criminal groups. He had no qualms about posting bail in Macau then immediately hoping off to the US, displaying the arrogance of a crime boss.

Did we mention that Phua is a diplomat? From 2011 until his arrest in Vegas he held the title of San Marinese ambassador to Montenegro. While it has been reported that he never properly checked in with the authorities in Podgorica, he did receive a diplomatic passport, allowing him to travel freely almost anywhere.

A poker professional

Just to add icing to the cake Phua happens to be a high-stakes poker player, making regular appearances at games at the Poker King Club in the Galaxy World Casino in Macau. In 2012 he participated in the World Series of Poker main event, a $1 million buy-in tournament which at the time was the biggest poker event in history. He failed to leave with the $18.3 million prize but he did make a name for himself with a devil-may-care approach to the game.

That same year Phua won GBP 1 million at a private high-stakes poker table at the Aspinall casino in the UK, beating fellow Macau businessman Richard Yong. While done more for sport than sustenance, Phua’s poker career has earned him the admiration and friendship of many other pros, something that has come in handy.

In fact, celebrity poker players Phil Ivey and Andrew Robl were part of a group that put up $2 million to bail him out of jail in the US. Ivey reportedly put up $1 million toward the releases of both Phua and his son. That’s the kind of support that money can’t buy, even for a man who can seemingly buy anything.

The most interesting man in the world

This site would never excuse criminal behavior like Phua’s, but his story is one of the most astounding we’ve ever heard. This soft-spoken, unassuming man has seemingly done everything: transported Chinese billionaires to Macau casinos, run an international (legal) betting site available on an invitation-only basis, befriended poker legends like Phil Ivey, served as the ambassador from one tiny, obscure European country to another, allegedly headed one of Hong Kong’s most notorious crime rings.

Given all that, it’s astounding that a man like that would find himself taken down by federal agents for running a sloppy illegal betting ring out of a Vegas hotel room. Given the billions he has flowing in from legitimate business (and who knows how much from other operations), why would he put himself on the line for a few million dollars in World Cup wagers?

It seems that with Phua the motivation is the thrill, not the money. This is a man who lives life on the edge, always pushing another step further. Has he pushed too far this time? He was released from jail in the US following his bail posting, so it looks like he’ll live to fight another day. But if he continues to live this way, the game will be over eventually.

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