It is the very crack of lunchtime in London, but it’s already 9pm for Martin Trang, who is speaking to me from his home in the Philippines. He is telling me about how he ended up halfway across the world from his birthplace in Norway.
From Sweden to Finland to the Philippines
“I grew up in Sweden, even though I was born in Norway. Then I ended up moving to Finland in around 2000, I guess, and then I met Franke a few years after that. So even though we both grew up near to each other in Sweden, we never met. Actually it turned out that I dated one of his distant cousins or something for, like, seven years,” he laughs. “So yeah, it’s a small world. But then we had a few business ventures and we always had common hobbies - which would be drinking and gambling.” Well, that makes all of us, then.
Trang has been involved in the gaming industry, at least tangentially, for many years. “We started a company which turned into Poker Icons. We were a poker agency for all the big names, so Juha Helppi - I see you interviewed him - he was part of our team in Poker Icons. We had lots of poker players all over the world, but most of the people we had were sponsored by Full Tilt, and when Full Tilt died, Black Friday - that’s when that company kind of died. So that was basically the only involvement I had in poker per se. But based on that, we did a lot of stuff around poker, and we started also the big tournament between Finland and Sweden - you know they have an athletic championship every year between Finland and Sweden? So, based on that we had a poker challenge between Finland and Sweden. So we did that with live events four times per year in Tallinn.”
Trang talks about his involvement in poker in quite modest terms, but his pedigree in what is still a relatively new industry is actually quite impressive. I ask what led him to the Philippines. “Well, you know, I got a bit bored of Finland, and I thought the weather was always better here, so after coming here for a few summers I ended up being longer and longer time in the Philippines.” With the harsh European winter only just starting to abate, who can blame him? He’s hoping to make it back to Estonia in June for The Festival in Tallinn, however, although he remains philosophical about the global covid situation. “Well, that’s my plan at least. You know, there are so many travel restrictions. I’m still trying to get my working visa here, and if you don’t have a working visa, you’re not allowed to come back. I have friends that left a year ago, have their houses and everything, but they are still now trying to get back.”
Life in the Philippines is not quite as idyllic now as it was before Covid - like everywhere, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on businesses. “I’m working for an event management company,” Trang sighs, “But there’s not many events to manage at the moment.” Trang is also involved in supplying services to companies that provide online gambling, but business is still precarious.
The Philippines as the Asian gambling hub
“I know that the gambling companies are doing well, but for us that are doing events - all the events that were scheduled to happen in Manila for online gambling - they all were cancelled. So now of course everything that was going to take place this year probably won’t take place either. It’s still an online gamling hub - similar to what Malta is for Europe, Philippines has become the hub for Asia,” he says, “So in that sense it will keep on going here, but when it comes to travel, they’re still not allowing any tourist or business travel, so there can’t be any events here, with any people coming from abroad. Thailand, I guess, has also done very well with the Covid situation, but they’re also not really letting anybody in.”
Trang is sanguine about the prospects for the return of live events in Asia, as well as the easing of travel restrictions. “They haven’t started vaccinating here yet so we’re probably going to be a year behind at least. I’m hoping to get my working visa sorted out within the next two, three months, so then I’m sure I could fly into Tallinn. Nobody could stop me coming back to Europe at least, so that’s good. As long as I can come back here without having to wait, like, a year before I can come back, I’m OK with it.”
Indeed, although Europe has dealt exceptionally badly with the pandemic in many respects, now that an extensive vaccination programme is underway, it looks as though Europe may well end up leading the way in live events in the near- to mid-term future. “Yeah, I hope,” says Trang. “Like, ICE has always been the biggest gaming show, and ICE had an Asia event planned for last year, and that got cancelled. Nothing will happen for another two years, I imagine. Nothing will happen this year at least.”
I put it to Trang that a temporary move back to Europe might not be the worst thing he could do, given the situation for live events in Asia at the moment. “I want to go back in the summer anyway so for me, it’s always good to see Franke, Franke comes to see me here a few times… So I definitely want to go back. I’m not planning to go back purely for events, but I’m definitely trying to plan my trip around this event.”
Roulette is a combination of skills
Trang is particularly excited about The Festival Series’ mixed game format, throwing a variety of casino and other games into the poker schedule. “I haven’t heard of it before. For me, I’m a roulette person, I come for the roulette. Of course I love poker as well. Blackjack is definitely not my forte though,” he chuckles.
Trang, unusually, has some experience playing tournament-format roulette. “They had a roulette championship at the casino in Helsinki a few years back, which I won. And it’s fun! It was a small one where they give you an amount of stacks, and whoever has the biggest stack after a certain period of time, that will be the winner. And I love playing roulette anyway, right, so for me it was interesting, plus - even though I have a big stack, you still have to monitor where the other ones are, and especially when you only have a few spins left, you kind of have to put the same chips that they do, so in case they hit, they don’t surpass you.”
The rules for the non-poker events at The Festival in Tallinn are still being finalised, and will be published in May. Trang already has a headstart on strategy, though. “For me, I don’t see that roulette as that much luck as everybody else, of course. I see it as a combination of skills, even if it’s not as a tournament, but just to go and win some money against the casino. So for me, this format of playing against other players is just a fun way of doing it.”
“A lot of players that go and play, they have their lucky numbers and then they go and play, right? And some days you’ll win and some days you won’t win, but I play more segments on the wheel, and anticipate where the ball will end up. And of course, it’s both skills and luck, so sometimes you will not win, but in my theory I can win more often than I lose.” Anyone planning to join Trang in the roulette event in Tallinn: take note. I leave Trang to enjoy the rest of his evening, which is only just getting started in his time zone. “I really hope the event takes place,” he says as he leaves, “I’m really looking forward to coming back.” We’re also looking forward to welcoming him back to the roulette tables of Europe soon.