When the Metro Card Club first opened it was nothing more than a 250 sq.m. place with 2 floors and 12 tables. There were no signs on the facade. All you would see, once you passed the Yoohoo that became our hang out while we waited for the Metro to open, was a lonesome guard standing by a plain and simple wooden door.
It seems as if that happened a lifetime ago, but, in actuality, it only took 3 years for the Metro Card Club to become the poker giant that it is now. Behind this fast growth is a quiet and unassuming yet a strong-willed and aggressive man, the President of the Metro Card Club, Nick Galan.
We were able to steal a few minutes of his extremely hectic schedule to talk about the man behind the Metro Card Club.
Q: How long have you been in the poker industry?
A: I’ve been in gaming since 1999, when I was in Vancouver. I was in online gaming but not in poker per se. I was involved in companies that created software for online games. But I have been playing poker since 1995, but only as a player. But I’ve been in the business side of poker since 2002. And to be frank, I was one of the guys who aided in building the pioneer poker community in the country.
Q: What made you come over from Vancouver?
A: I came over to make some investments in software developments for online gaming. There was a healthy development in the community here. There were some guys that I had worked with in North America and they showed me some exciting stuff. And so I decided to come down and give it a shot. Unfortunately, they didn’t work out for a number of reasons – the particularities of doing business as a foreigner. Although my heritage and my citizenship is Filipino, my whole professional career happened abroad. And without the knowledge of the ins and outs and the realities of doing business in Manila, especially in gaming, it was a bit difficult. It was a hard lesson to learn but I didn’t want to leave here defeated, after 18 months. It’s just not the way I’m built.
Q: How did you get into the poker scene here in Manila?
A: The poker thing wasn’t even part of the plan. I was looking for a card game. I wanted to play some cards after a particularly stressful day one day. I was living in Alabang and I drove by the Airport Casino in Paranaque. I walked in the casino and I looked for the first guy in a suit and asked him where the poker room was and he pointed me to a Pai Gow table. At that point, I knew I’d have an issue – it was going to be tough for me to find a game. I didn’t press the issue. I presumed that if the largest casino in Metro Manila, and in the country, didn’t have a game of stud or hold’em or whatever then it’s unlikely I’ll find it anywhere else.
At the time, I needed to play at least 3-4 times a week. It was my stress release. So I took it upon myself to find a game. I started doing research and, since I didn’t know that many people, I started toying around the internet. Friendster, at the time, was the place to be so I kind of found these little home games happening in and around town. I was lucky enough to meet people who knew this guy and that guy who had a game going on a Wednesday – that kind of thing. It was funny because, like I said I was living in Alabang, and if I could find a Php200 Sit ‘n Go Hold’em game in Marikina, I would drive there. It would cost me more on gas and toll fees but the goal was just finding like minded people getting into it (poker). We could already see 2-3 year old back episodes of the World Poker Tour on TV, so people were starting to get it and appreciate the game.
I did this for several months until finally I felt I had met enough people to put a game together myself. So on my birthday in 2005, I had a bunch of cheap poker tables made. I taught my drivers and some people I met how to deal a game of Hold’em. And people came and everybody had fun. And as I started doing this, I started blogging. I also started linking to other people’s blog. People started reading my stuff, and I don’t really know why they would do that but they did. Then Pokermanila.com came up a year or so later, shortly after the blogs started.
Concurrent with this, I started running tournaments publicly in hotels ballrooms. We even did one on a condo lobby in Makati where I was running two tournaments simultaneously – one small buy-in and one big buy-in. I found people who were willing to learn how to deal cards and how to run the floor.
By virtue of being fortunate to be able to meet all these people, I met guys at PAGCOR who wanted to do something with poker as well. As the months went by, there was TV saturation; people were talking about poker online; there were more blogs, thus there were more grounds for people to want to play poker in a more sanctioned environment. I even invited the PAGCOR guys to tournaments I ran and they turned around and lobbied to PAGCOR to start doing [poker]stuff. There was guy named JB Bangsil, who was the Senior Branch Manager of the Airport Casino at that time, who was very, very keen on it. So we started running tournaments there at the Airport Casino. Ultimately he designed a poker room. So the very first poker room was at the Airport Casino.
Q: How was the Metro Card Club born?
A: There was another group, a bunch of balikbayans with foreign investors, who had taken over the Airport Casino. They’re no longer in the industry but they were the first to open the doors to private operation. Because there were already people at PAGCOR championing the game as well, we decided to form a company and we became the first to secure approval to operate a legal poker room outside a casino.
The very first Metro Card Club was in Davao inside a casino. The old Metro here in Manila started with 2 storeys, 250sq m floor area with 12 tables at most. We thought that would be sufficient, at that time, to serve the market. Don’t forget, there were about 2 years of building the community, playing poker, meeting people, blogging, showing up at tournaments, running tournaments and building a reputation. So people knew who we were not only at the partner level but also at the staff level.
We didn’t rest on that. From the very start, we were very aggressive with our marketing promotions and we came from the advantage of being real people persons. People knew we were investing hard and they knew who we were. There were a lot of BS that was happening in the industry, at the time, that never happened at The Metro. We were able to attract the attention of (a) players who were most important (b) future critical partners like FPT (Filipino Poker Tour) and the APPT (Asia Pacific Poker Tour). We started focusing on those tournaments – working with them and eventually hosting them with large guarantees with the lowest buy-ins. Those guys gave us credibility and we gave them credibility.
A few months after, we became 24 hours. That was a big gamble but it paid off. By October of the same year we opened this place (the New Metro) because we knew that the demand was there.
Q: Did you expect to grow this fast?
A: The speed of growth I cannot honestly say I foresaw but I knew that it would grow because the game of poker was tailor-made for the Filipino mindset. We excel at cerebral sports. The speed of growth has been surprising, but the growth itself hasn’t because I fully expected, and I still do, that one day the Philippines would have a card room that approached the size of the Commerce or the Bike in California. We’re talking of 100s of tables in one location. The reason for this – poker as a gaming activity is very benign and people have a chance of winning and winning in the long term. It appeals to the Filipino’s skill-based kind of approach to competitive activities like billiards, chess, poker and other things that Filipinos are good at. Having said that, it is then incumbent on the operators to provide the right environment for people to play at.
Q: How does this affect your personal life?
A: Now it’s much better because we’re a little bit more stable. I’m not here 24 hours a day. But I have a partner in Neil Arce who’s here all the time.
But earlier on, it was difficult. I lost a family. My wife left me and went back home to Vancouver. It’s not only because of poker – it’s because of being an entrepreneur. Everything has to go into what you’re doing. Your world view changes and sometimes people get left behind. Now I have time for myself and read a book, not necessarily about poker. I can look after my family even when we’re apart.
Q: Do you still need the poker fix for stress release?
A: Not so much. I’ve had a personal model – never pay your own rake. Yes, there are times that people are required to bring that action in. Thankfully I have a partner who can fill that role and he’s good at it.
I’m on this side of the poker table. Every now and then, I play a tournament, most of the majors, with varying degrees of failure (laughter!). But I don’t spend as much time on the felt, that’s for sure. But the day may come when I get the bug again. Like when I went to Cebu last week, I was there for 3 days and I spent the better part of 2 days playing cards. I haven’t done that in a long time and I found myself enjoying it immensely. But being in the business, watching it grow, helping to manage the business, watching people’s lives, like our staff, succeed…it’s very rewarding. Seriously, when I came down here, I wanted to do something good – to help people.
Q: What do you think is the secret of Metro’s success?
A: All of us had been sitting on seat 3 or 4 as a player. We’ve all experienced bad management and good. We’ve played internationally and locally. We know what it feels like to be a player and we actually developed the business so that we could play. That’s how I started and we’re always cognizant of what is important. The Metro is a poker room by poker players for poker players.
So if you’re wondering why the Metro is so successful, it’s because of – a series of fortunate events, the passion of a group of people who love playing the game of poker, the strong desire to share the game with like-minded people, the creativity and ingenuity of an inspiring visionary partner in Neil Arce and the leadership of a driven man named Nick Galan.