Away from WSOP, Steve O’Dwyer Spent Summer Amidst Asian Poker Boom

While most of the poker world was focused on Las Vegas, Steve O’Dwyer enjoyed a poker adventure that took him through Taiwan, Japan, and Korea – and ended with him taking home a WPT Alpha8 title and its $1 million first-place prize.

Tim Fiorvanti
Aug 7, 2023
Steve O’Dwyer spent his summer traveling around Asia, and wrapped up his trip by winning Alpha8 for OneDrop Korea for over $1 million.

It’s June 28, and in Las Vegas, the WSOP $25,000 Pot Limit Omaha High Roller is set to crown a champion in a record-setting field that will award a $2.3 million first-place prize. But Steve O’Dwyer, whose name regularly pops up in poker’s biggest buy-in events, is on the opposite side of the world.

He’s playing poker in the heart of Tokyo, tucked away in a quiet corner just off the beaten path. Ginza Beverly Hills, an amusement poker club in Chuo City that doesn’t award cash prizes, features just a few tables in a small room lit by a series of hanging lights. It caters to an enthusiastic poker audience and gives daily 30-minute poker lessons for those who want to learn the game. As part of a nearly three-week tour of Japan, O’Dwyer’s running a meet-up game that culminates in a three-table tournament, and the night’s a rousing success. The stakes and the setting couldn’t be much different from what’s going on at Horseshoe Las Vegas. 

It was the middle stop on a long, fulfilling trip in which O’Dwyer bounced all over Asia, enjoying the poker, the food, and the culture along the way. And as he wrapped up his adventures, O’Dwyer ended everything on a high note as he captured the WPT Alpha8 for One Drop Korea title in late July to record his eighth career seven-figure result, taking home $1,006,537.

The win pushed O’Dwyer, who is 14th on poker’s all-time total live tournament earnings list, to $37,781,197. That shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, considering he’s won an EPT Monte Carlo Main Event, a Triton Super High Roller title and posts consistent results in high rollers events on a regular basis.

What might surprise you is that the American-born O’Dwyer has managed all of that success without recording a single cash in the United States since the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event. It’s one of the big reasons why O’Dwyer’s trip to Asia happened in the first place.

“I stopped playing the World Series many years ago because I really don’t like it there,” said O’Dwyer. “I don’t like spending more time in Vegas than I already have in my life. I find the World Series way more stressful than any other poker tournament. I really don’t like the crowds. I just don’t like a lot of things about Vegas, and I’ve spent too much of my life there already.”

Steve O’Dwyer poses for his WPT Alpha8 Korea winner’s photo.

O’Dwyer moved to Dublin, Ireland over 10 years ago. Thanks in large part to poker’s ever-expanding high-roller schedule, O’Dwyer has been able to dictate his own terms and travel schedule. And even without the record-setting high rollers at the WSOP, events in the PokerGO studios, and a bevy of other big buy-ins Stateside, O’Dwyer’s career trajectory has continued to trend upwards.

“When I first started playing like 20 years ago, if you were a tournament player, you just had to play the Series because a huge percentage of your buy-ins for the year was just that one-and-a-half-month period,” said O’Dwyer. “But with the proliferation of high-stakes tournaments all around the world, you can play a $25K-plus buy-in almost every day of the year, if you’re willing to travel a lot. You don’t really have to play the World Series anymore.”

While most of the poker world descended on Las Vegas for the 2023 WSOP, including many of his friends and fellow high rollers, O’Dwyer was all too happy to enjoy the kind of low-key summers he’s had over the last few years. A series of opportunities took O’Dwyer to a region he’s grown increasingly fond of.

“Usually, I just spend the summer relaxing, taking a vacation,” said O’Dwyer.  “I wasn’t planning on playing much poker in June or July until Triton,” said O’Dwyer. “But then my friends at Poker Dream, the new poker tour that started last year by Winfred Yu and Richard Yong – and Ivan Leow, who unfortunately passed away last year – they invited me out to play their series in Taipei. I’d never been to Taipei and I’d always wanted to visit Taiwan. So I said yes, and I spent two weeks in Taipei, which was awesome.”

O’Dwyer added a Taiwanese flag to the ever-growing list of countries on his Hendon Mob, but his summer adventures in Asia had only just begun.

“I’d played before in Osaka and my friend, Tsugunari Toma, who plays Super High Rollers, mostly on the EPT, has a poker tour in Osaka called the Top of Poker Championship. Last summer, he invited me out to Osaka for that event and I had a great time.

“I played a little bit more poker, just a few hours, when I was in Osaka again earlier this year,” said O’Dwyer. “[At that event] some Japanese guys that I know were like, ‘Hey, how come you don’t ever come to Tokyo?’ I was like, ‘Well, no one’s invited me.’ They invited me out to help promote their rooms in Tokyo after Taipei was over, so I spent 18 days in Tokyo.”

O’Dwyer embraced the opportunity and participated in a series of meet-up games throughout the city. He was already aware of the rising popularity of poker in Japan, but O’Dwyer’s experiences over those two-and-a-half weeks really opened his eyes to the voracious appetite these players have for any opportunity they can get to play the game.

“Poker is just so huge in Japan. I really don’t think many people understand how big it is,” said O’Dwyer. “Even though it’s basically only play money out there because of the laws. There are hundreds of poker rooms all over the country – most of them are quite small, most of them are two to four tables and some of them are a little bit bigger. But every night they’re filled with people just playing for the love of the game.”

The popularity of those rooms is particularly impressive because players aren’t leaving with cash prizes. These amusement poker rooms, which award non-cash prizes because of the gambling laws in Japan, still cater to players in every way they can to give them the closest thing to the poker experience that players get everywhere else in the world.

“Even though it’s a play money environment, mostly, they really want to provide the players with a professional, high-end experience,” said O’Dwyer. “And every time I played in Japan, I’ve been blown away at the quality of the dealers. The dealers are on a higher level than pretty much anywhere except for a Triton or EPT.”

To prove how serious they are about providing world-class experiences, the group that brought O’Dwyer to Tokyo also put together a TDA summit that featured WPT Executive Tour Director and TDA co-founder Matt Savage.

“They had about 100 tournament directors and floor staff and dealers all show up. They were all asking really interesting questions,” said O’Dwyer. “They really are fantastic. They know the rules. One of the events, Matt was playing and kept trying to trick the dealers into making an incorrect ruling. And every time they just instantly knew, ‘That’s a call, that’s not a raise’.”

There have been a handful of tournaments with cash prizes awarded, including a WPT Tokyo event in late 2022. Organizers have found a variety of creative solutions to the restrictions presented by local laws, but the events themselves still have a long way to go to reach industry standards elsewhere.

“The event I played last summer in Osaka, the Top Poker Championship, you paid cash to buy in and there was a prize pool,” said O’Dwyer. “But the law says you have to announce the prize pool before the tournament and it can’t change. Say you want to have a $100,000 prize pool with a $1,000 buy-in, if you get 150 entries, that ends up being very, very high rake, because of that excess buy-in.

“All the tournaments I’ve played there ended up being very high rake because they just smashed their guarantees,” said O’Dwyer. “But people didn’t seem to care. They just wanted to play. If they ever work out the law to allow normal style tournaments with regular buy-ins, it’ll be unbelievably huge.”

For now, Japan stands ready with enormous potential. In the meantime, there are numerous other countries in the region cashing in on the growing popularity of the game. And as someone who has played poker all over the world, O’Dwyer is all too happy to take part in the increasingly lucrative opportunities at hand.

“I love traveling out to Asia to play, and poker is booming in Asia,” said O’Dwyer. “Great prize pools. I love going to new places, exploring new cities, eating local food. I’ve played in Macau, played in the Philippines, Malaysia, now a few times in Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan – every time it’s just people having a good time.”