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HomeBusinessEx-Richmond casino exec on high rollers from China: “These people just kept flowing in”

Ex-Richmond casino exec on high rollers from China: “These people just kept flowing in”

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Bob Mackin

At a public inquiry about money laundering in B.C. casinos — sparked by too much cash in B.C. casinos — a former casino executive said the problem was the cash.

Walter Soo, who was vice-president of player development for Great Canadian Gaming Corp. until his 2019 firing, said gamblers were demanding alternatives and the B.C. government was not willing to allow casinos to offer credit.

Ex-Great Canadian Gaming VP Walter Soo (Cullen Commission)

“By 2010 the world had morphed into cashless, much more cashless, as the smart phone was being developed, you can see that other solutions, payment solutions that was non-cash, yet for us it was still only cash,” Soo testified before Commissioner Austin Cullen. “There was no other casinos that I can think of in the world, especially in North America that would only accept cash. So it was becoming a very big concern for us as the business got larger.”

Soo said travellers preferred not to carry cash, as it exposed them to theft, confiscation or conflict with customs officers. Credit, he said, would reduce loan sharking and money laundering.

Instead, cash was king and crime flourished.

In July 2015 alone, Great Canadian’s Richmond flagship River Rock took in $13.5 million in $20 bills.

Soo said River Rock was never aiming for the top tier of gamblers who would spend a million dollars, but those that would gamble $25,000 to $250,000. The 61%/39% revenue split in favour of government meant it was not economical for Great Canadian to compete for the highest of the high rollers.

Yet, a lot of them came anyway and Chinese new year was prime time, when River Rock would test new games and marketing strategies. 

“We gained greater than our fair share of the business because we reacted with building the facilities to welcome these people in and we identified what they wanted,” he said. “Crude as it sounds, we were serving hamburgers, they wanted steak. So we changed the menu.”

Soo said Chinese new year would result in families reuniting in Vancouver and it was an opportunity to spark word of mouth among gamblers who would return to China and encourage their friends and business associates to visit River Rock during other times of the year.

“They would be our walking advertising boards, of saying ‘hey I was just in River Rock during Chinese new year, they’ve created this product, it was really good, I like it’.”

Soo said that geopolitics also became a major driver of Chinese gamblers to B.C.

River Rock Casino Resort in Richmond (Mackin)

Post-SARS, the Chinese government opened the border to Macau for gamblers from Hong Kong and Mainland China. “Chinese people gushed in,” he said.

Then, American regulators put Las Vegas-owned casinos in Macau under extra scrutiny, chairman Xi Jinping went on an anti-corruption purge in the Chinese Communist Party and the global Chinese currency flight sent investors and gamblers alike to B.C.

“For years overlapping, from 2005 to 2012, these people just kept flowing in. They just, it may sound crude, but they just washed up on shore.”

Was Soo worried about dirty money?

“I knew there was this entity of four or five different (regulatory and law enforcement) partners that we had… again I had to trust, with such a vast pool as long and wide as it was deep that it was working on a fully integrated, coordinated and cooperative manner.”

Soo said in his affidavit that he was born in Vancouver, has limited ability to converse in Cantonese and no ability to communicate in Mandarin. He joined Great Canadian in 1983 as a roulette dealer at the Pacific National Exhibition. He sued Great Canadian after his 2019 firing, alleging that he was the fall guy for the NDP government’s focus on dirty money at the River Rock.

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