‘Moneymen’ fuel Korean addiction to online poker

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‘Moneymen’ fuel Korean addiction to online poker


A player in his 40s plays online poker at an Internet cafe in Seocho District, southern Seoul. In less than five minutes, he lost game points worth 10,000 won (8.90 dollar). The player said he is now 300 million won in debt because of his addiction to online gambling. By Kim Do-hoon

A basic wish to interact with his fellow employees led Moon to learn how to play Internet poker in 2004.

Those simple beginnings, however, ended up derailing his life.

“I started playing the game for a bit of fun, but then it soon ended my career and family,” said the 42-year-old former CEO of an architecture firm.

Different from normal gambling debt where the player loses while playing the game, players like Moon are incurring debt by paying other players to intentionally lose.

Moon discovered that he could buy gaming points with cash through so-called “moneyman,” and eventually racked up debt over 1 billion won ($897,000).

The moneymen refer to players who intentionally lose to other players. When they lose, moneymen give up their game points, which they have collected from their wins in previous rounds, for money they have received from the clients.

Players are vying to accumulate game points so they can in turn sell them back to the moneymen who have illegally monetized this online poker system. The players can also sell their points to other players, which is also illegal.

In the process, moneymen charge a 10-percent commission for the traded points.

A gambler can buy points with a personal credit card through an account on the site, but there is a limit to the amount. All Internet gambling sites are regulated by law to limit accounts to 300,000 won per month.

Moon promised his family he would never gamble online again and started driving a taxi after losing 1 billion won. But soon after, Moon again found himself receiving game points through a moneyman.

Park, a 48-year-old who ran an interior business, has a similar story. It only took him four months last year to blow 250 million won on Internet poker last year and bankrupt his company.

Korea’s renowned gaming sites have become an around the clock playground for gambling addicts to pour their money into gaining points. They’re operated by leading game portals such as NHN, CJ E&M and Neowiz.

In principle, they ban users from trading game points for cash and vice versa as such practice is illegal. But in reality, the gaming industry estimates over 1,000 moneymen are making profits by exploiting addicts.

“Even a beginner in this job could easily earn around two million won a month,” said a moneyman who declined to give his name in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “I have seen cases in which some made over 100 million won a year.”

Posts advertising a lesson for 3.5 million won on how to become a moneyman are seen on bulletin boards of Internet business communities.

If caught, moneymen are guaranteed to spend time behind bars.

Authorities arrested a moneyman last month for raking in 300 million won in commission from the cash-for-game-points trade that involved trading of over 5 billion won.

The number of cases in which players become victims has also increased.

Another form of cheating includes a viewer program, which enables them to see what other players are holding in an online game.

“If fallen into the hands of a group of cheaters, four to five million won could vanish in minutes,” said Kim, who lost nearly 100 million won in Internet gambling and asked to not reveal his first name.

Major game portals such as NHN, operator of the country’s biggest Web portal site, are under criticism for their seemingly lack of desire to tackle the problems, presumably because the gaming service has been highly profitable.

According to reports released by Representative Cho Hae-jin of the ruling Saenuri Party, the profit share by the gaming companies running the poker games accounts for 35-40 percent of the total profits of Korea’s gaming industry.

The companies take one percent of the total pot in each hand as a service fee. The business profit margin earned from revenue from running the gaming operation is reported to be between 80 to 90 percent.

Officials at gaming sites say in defense that they do try to catch those committing irregularities by running an online reporting center, where users can report violations.

“We have and continue to stand by a firm policy that we impose stern punitive action on those promoting irregularities on gaming sites,” said an official at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

By Song Ji-young, Han Young-ik [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]
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