Thinking of Relocating to Thailand to Play Poker?

I’ve probably received a dozen emails since Black Friday from people interested in relocating to Thailand to play poker.  I figure it’s easier for me to just write a post for everyone rather than try to answer these emails one-off.

First off, I DO NOT recommend moving to Thailand to play online poker.  Online poker is illegal in Thailand as are all forms of gambling (other than the state lottery).


Now with the disclaimer out of the way . . . I know lots of people living in Thailand who derive either their entire income or a portion of their income from playing online poker.  Hell, I was sitting in a True Coffee Shop (True is one of the largest telecom and cable providers in Thailand) in the middle of Bangkok and watched some random guy multi-tabling Rush Poker on FTP on a public internet terminal.

Your chances of getting into any real trouble playing online poker in Thailand are pretty low.  As they say, “It’s a farang problem.”  In other words, it’s a foreigner problem.  Thais don’t really play online poker so it’s just those crazy farangs wasting their money as far as the cops are concerned.  It doesn’t impact the locals so it mostly flies under the radar.

Although gambling is illegal in Thailand everybody gambles.  In fact, just last month the chief of police was fired (ahem, I mean reassigned to an inactive post) after claiming to be unaware of illegal casinos operating in Bangkok.  An unusual denial considering everybody knows about the casinos.  The denial prompted the editor of one of the largest English language newspapers to publish a list of illegal casinos district by district in Bangkok.  It also didn’t help when a member of parliament produced undercover video inside one of the illegal casinos and claimed to know exactly which police and other members of the government were getting kickbacks to look the other way.

So that’s a very long-winded way of saying, I don’t suggest that you get involved in gambling in the Kingdom but if you ignore my advice you should understand what the risks are.  Thai jail is not a place where you want to end up.  The locals call Thai jail “The Monkey House” which is somewhat of a misnomer because you are probably treated more humanely in a zoo than you are in prison.

So my two pieces of advice to those who want to live in Thailand and play poker:

  • Don’t ever talk about playing poker for a living.
  • Don’t ever talk about playing poker for a living.

A good number of foreigners who get done up for crimes in Thailand get ratted out to the cops.  That sweet girl you’ve been dating?  Yeah, she’ll rat you out in a heartbeat when she becomes your ex-girlfriend.  Have a beef with another foreigner?  Don’t put it past him to use your illegal activity as leverage.

Keep a low profile.  Don’t talk about what you do.  Don’t live too lavishly and draw attention to yourself (jealously can be a bitch).  If people ask, tell them that you have some real estate investments back in the US or get a job teaching English so you appear to have a source of legitimate income.

So, you’ve decided you’re willing to risk the Monkey House and make a go of it in Thailand, what else do you need to know?

Visas

First off, you need a reason for staying in the country.  Thailand’s rules on tourist visas changes quite frequently but the general trend is to make it increasingly difficult for foreigners on tourist visas to get back to back visas.

Typically, people get a tourist visa (outside of Thailand) and have permission to enter the country for 60 days.  That can be extended to 90 days at an immigration office in Thailand.  At the end of their visa they cross the border into Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Malaysia and obtain a new tourist visa giving them another 60 days (extendable to 90).

More and more the local consulates and embassies in neighbouring countries are declining back to back tourist visas.  Too many people were abusing it and staying for years in Thailand on tourist visas.

Another option is to get a legitimate job in Thailand and obtain a proper non-immigrant visa and work permit.  Teaching English is pretty much your only choice for a legit job unless you know your way around the system in Thailand and can get other work.  Even then, it’s not easy.

I stayed in Thailand on a student visa.  I enrolled in Thai language courses (about $1000 for a year).  This makes you legal for about a year but you need to go to the immigration office every 90 days to extend your visa.

Banking

Never, ever, ever sever your banking and credit card relationships in the US.  You may not be able to process payments through those accounts but you will most certainly need US banking relationships sooner or later and they’re very, very difficult to set up with no US address.

I highly recommend a service from a company called, PayTrust.  They’re owned by Intuit the same folks who bring you Quicken and Mint.  What they do is give you an address in the US and you can change all of your billing addresses to PayTrust.  When your bills or other correspondence arrives at their offices they scan your bills and convert them to PDF so you can view them anywhere in the world.

In Thailand opening up a bank account on anything other than a non-immigrant visa and work permit is hit and miss.  One day you could walk into a branch and all you need is your passport.  Next day you can walk into the same branch and they might ask for a mountain of paperwork.  That said, many people report good experiences at the Kasikorn Bank branch on Sukhumvit near Soi 33.

Some people have told me that they have no problems processing payments via their Thai bank account.  I’ve never done it because I’ve kept my European bank accounts and had no need but supposedly it can be done.

Taxes

Well, in case you aren’t already aware, Americans owe tax on income earned anywhere in the world.  That’s right, you could have a job in Thailand teaching English and you’ll have to report that income to the US IRS and pay taxes on it.  Plus you pay Thai taxes too.

It’s not too bad though.  Most countries have a reciprocal tax treaty with the US.  That means that if I work in Thailand and earn $100,000 and pay the Thai government $25,000 in taxes I can deduct the $25,000 from the amount I owe Uncle Sam.

Additionally, foreign earned income is subject to an $85,000 (last time I checked) exemption from taxes.  So the first $85K you make is essentially tax free in the US.

If you live in a state with a state income tax you should discuss with your accountant what your options are for avoiding this tax.  Some states are very aggressive and operate under the assumption that your time overseas is simply temporary and that you intend to return to that state thus you are subject to taxes even if you don’t live there.

Breaking the state government’s grip on your income usually involves establishing a residence in another state (preferably with no state tax) prior to moving overseas.  But be careful because even having your primary care physician in the state could be enough for the state to claim that you never severed your ties to the state.

I guess the best advice for all of this is to go see your tax guy/gal and ask how to minimize the taxes you legally owe.

Internet Connectivity

While everyone complains about not having 4G here in the US, Thailand is still dreaming about rolling out 3G.  There is limited 3G coverage in Bangkok but that’s about it.

Cable and DSL internet is okay in the bigger cities like Bangkok, Pattaya, etc but is spotty (at best) outside major metropolitan areas.  Even in Bangkok expect outages.

A few of the more hard core poker players I know have a cable or DSL line as their main connectivity and use a 3G modem as a backup.

To be honest, the internet connectivity in Gibraltar was far, far, far worse than Thailand but if you’re used to blazing fast speeds and get angry when your 4G phone has to jump down to 3G when driving through the mountains, Thailand’s connectivity may cause you severe distress.

Playing in Thailand

As far as I’m aware none of the major sites blocks Thailand.  Full Tilt’s website was blocked in Thailand (by the Thai government) but the poker client worked.

However, that is a risk.  The Thai government filters internet traffic in the Kingdom.  Most of their efforts are directed at pornography and anything deemed disrespectful of the monarchy.  Officially there are over 75,000 websites blocked by the Thai government with the unofficial number being much higher.

And don’t think they won’t block a site because it’s too big.  YouTube was blocked for almost a year because of a video that mocked the King.  The Economist seems to regularly run articles that question the acts of the monarchy and The Economist website will be blocked for a month and local news agents will refuse to carry that edition of the magazine.

Working in Thailand

One of the biggest problems you’ll probably face is justifying your stay in Thailand.  Unless you’re north of 50 years of age you can’t really retire to Thailand.  If you’re not retired then the Thai government will be curious as to how you’re supporting yourself while you stay in the Kingdom.

I’m no legal expert and I’m certainly no expert in Thai law but from what I have seen from various people who are experts in Thai law, work done online and conducted outside of Thailand is not seen as work.

Working without a work permit is illegal in Thailand and will get you deported.  I’ve even heard of people volunteering for charity work getting into trouble as that is considered working.  In another case, a bar owner who didn’t have a work permit himself, was ratted out by a competitor who noticed that the owner was carrying boxes from the back of the bar to the front.

The online world has sort of passed by the Thai legal system in this area.  Since being able to work in a place in which you are not physically located was not something the framers of the law had anticipated it falls into a grey area that, at the moment, is not considered working.

So you can play online poker and you are not working.  If you’re a graphic designer or programmer you can take on work from overseas clients and not be considered to be working in Thailand.  You could do poker coaching or writing for online publications and as long as they don’t involve Thai owned businesses then you aren’t officially working in Thailand.

But, as I mentioned, it is a grey area and could be clarified at any time or the government might just get a bug up its ass and decide that there are too many foreigners living in Thailand working illegally on the internet.  So keep that in mind.

Political Stability

Thailand is a great country but it has the potential to become very volatile very fast.  The country is undergoing a lot of change at the moment.

First off, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra is trying desperately to get back into the country after being overthrown in a coup in 2006.  His sister was just elected PM in July and the new government has been doing everything possible to lay the groundwork for his return.  If that happens, another coup isn’t too farfetched.

Second, Thailand’s King, the longest currently reigning monarch in the world (over 65 years), is in ill health.  The Thai people loooooooooooooooooove the King.  He’s been instrumental in keeping the country united.  When he dies (he’s 83) all bets are off.  Nobody is really sure of what will happen.  It could be a peaceful transition of power to his son or various elements could seize upon the power vacuum and try to wrestle control of the country.

In other words, be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.  I lived in the middle of last year’s red shirt protests and felt relatively safe so I’m not recommending being skittish but do be smart.  In any sort of power struggle I would not be surprised if foreigners became an easy target in order to whip people up into a nationalistic frenzy.

Not that they would come to your home with pitchforks and torches or anything but power struggles usually involve a scapegoat.  Sort of the “Those freeloading foreigners who come to our country and buy up our land and drive up prices are causing all of the problems, “ speech.

And don’t think it’s unlikely.  Just a couple of months ago a leader in the former government was asked about having foreign observers oversee the elections and he told the press that he didn’t see a need for them as he doesn’t respect foreigners.

There’s an old saying in Thailand amongst expats, “Don’t ever keep more money in Thailand than you can afford to lose. “

Words to live by.

Don’t Get Too Intoxicated

Drink up all you want.  Just don’t fall in love with Thailand.

In the Hangover II there’s a quote “Bangkok has him now.”  Every expat in the audience cracked up when I watched the film in Bangkok because we all know what that means.

Thailand is a beautiful place.  Beautiful beaches.  Beautiful islands.  Beautiful mountains.  Beautiful jungles.  Beautiful people.

All of that often becomes intoxicating.  It’s like a drug you can’t quit.

I’ve seen people throw their lives away there.  They can’t go back even if that’s the only thing that would save them.  That’s what happened to Ron “The Mad Yank” Fanelli.

I guess I have a hard time feeling the sympathy for Fanelli because I’ve seen loads of Fanelli’s here in Thailand. Much like Las Vegas, Thailand is intoxicating. But like any intoxicant, it can be dangerous if you let it control you.

People who spend a lot of time hanging out in casinos or card rooms might be slightly familiar with the phenomena that I’m talking about.  You know that guy who might have been a decent player in the past but just can’t cut it anymore?  The guy who is always looking for a stake and can never seem to pull themselves out of the hole?

That’s a mild form of intoxication.  They don’t know when to call it quits.  They refuse to go and get a job or straighten their life out.  As they spiral deeper they can no longer support themselves on hand outs or the goodwill of others so they hold on to their old lifestyle even tighter and tighter resorting to anything to keep in the game.  Eventually they turn to booze and/or drugs to cloud out the reality which only accelerates the downfall.

Thailand is overflowing with guys like this.  Some you see sitting in outdoor bars at 10am on a Tuesday.  Some turn to crime.  Some even become homeless (rumors are that The Mad Yank was close to getting evicted from his Phuket apartment) like this German guy, Michael, who was a frequent site on Sukhumvit Soi 22 (word is that he’s since moved to Pattaya).

Photo from StickmanBangkok.com (a good site to read for expats in Thailand)

Word is that he was a successful businessman in Thailand until he lost his job with a multinational corporation.  Instead of going back to Germany to regroup he crawled into a whiskey bottle until he was eventually homeless.  With that came a serious psychological decline which has left him muttering to himself on the streets and at the mercy of Thais who give him food and try to look after him.

Like they said in the movie, Bangkok has him now.

Don’t be that guy.  Don’t fall in love with the lifestyle.  It’s like proper bankroll management.  Those who practice good bankroll management seem to stick around to see the next session.  Those that try to be “balla” and throw cash around like drunken sailors eventually are creeping around the tables asking for a stake.

Conclusion (Finally)

Like I said, I cannot recommend to anyone that they move to Thailand to engage in online poker.  That said, it’s a great place and I hope the above didn’t scare anyone away from visiting or moving to Thailand.

If you have any specific questions or care to post some helpful travel /relocation tips please feel free to ask/share in the comments section.

12 comments

  1. First, I wanna say that I will never participate in any gambling and poker in the live arena in Thailand. It is far too risky. Sure, you can pay the police but times are changing and the government continues to tackle gambling in Thailand. I think you are also too reliant on the police in order to keep the games going.

    On the other hand, players who make money playing online (although still very much in grey area) will find that they will live like kings in Thailand due to the living costs.

    Great blog and great article. Even though I’m not a farang I could really relate to this article: I am originally from Thailand and have been a professional poker player for the last 3 years. I mostly played in the UK but have recently relocated back to South East Asia. I have just started a new blog: http://www.pokermedley.com/blogs/mapp888/

    I have only made 2 posts so far but these are long and about how I found poker and decided to turn pro.

    I would love to meet anyone playing professionally or in the poker industry who are in Thailand, especially the author 🙂 So please feel free to email me.

  2. @Kevin: Thanks for the kind words. I’m not sure I would go as far as you go though. I think you can have *some* fun but the problem is when you let it consume your life.

    For instance, I make a lot of comparisons between Las Vegas and Thailand. Both have the same allure and the same siren’s call for those with weak constitutions. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun. It doesn’t mean you can’t gamble or hit up the Rhino. The problem is that once your life begins to revolve around unhealthy things I think people can slip into the abyss very quickly.

    In Thailand the extra danger is that nobody will stop you. You’re too far away from friends and family. You can live your life in a bubble of your own creation. The entire expat lifestyle is transitory. Friends come and go out of your life all the time. They move back home. They get jobs in other countries. Sometimes they just disappear and you never know what happened to them.

    The problem with that is that for many people, it’s social pressure that keeps them in check. With nobody around to frown on their behavior they end up not knowing where the limits are and they head off the deep end.

    But I think the biggest danger is that even the expats who live in Thailand sort of take up the local “mai bpen rai” attitude where nothing matters. On one hand this laissez-faire attitude is one of the draws of Thailand because people feel more free to express themselves and live how they want to live but on the other hand some people can’t handle that much freedom and keep pushing the limits out farther and farther until there are no limits.

    And I’m not sure I agree with your holier than thou vibe the later part of your comment gives off. Believe me, I know plenty of educated people who are a wreck. There’s a former Olympic gold medal winner who I’ve known for several years but he doesn’t recognize me sober (which isn’t very often) but always knows my name when he’s drunk (which is nearly every time I’ve ever seen him). I know a doctor who is hiding from his ex-wife’s lawyers who spends nearly every night drinking his problems away, partaking in the services of the gals, and plotting some sort of scam to rip people off.

    You don’t have to be a working class stiff with tattoos in order to ruin your life in Thailand.

    Likewise, I know plenty of educated Thai women from good families who are worse than any bar girl I’ve ever run across. I can’t even begin to recount all of the stuff I’ve seen or heard about that would spin the average person’s head.

    People are not their job or their education or their family. Everyone is an individual and should be viewed based on their words and actions. There are people who look good on paper but are as evil as they come.

    But the reason I dislike the holier than thou thing is because in order to distance oneself from the topic matter one is basically admitting that they have very little first-hand knowledge of what they’re talking about.

    I dislike Pattaya because I’ve been there and experienced it. You view it from a distance and pass judgement. We may even dislike Pattaya for the same exact reasons but my feelings are based on experience while yours are preconceived.

    I say live and let live. Yes, that’s a bit “mai bpen rai” but what people want to do with their lives is their own business.

    I remember having a bit of a debate with a somewhat famous expat author of books about Thailand. I took issue with something he had written which was factually incorrect. During our debate he said, “Well, I wouldn’t know about that because I mostly associate with upper-class Thais.”

    Well, 90% of the country is poor. That’s the “real” Thailand. His Thailand is one that not even most Thais know because it’s an artificial construct. He has built his own reality. And the only way to keep that reality safe is to keep out everything that does not support his views.

    My advice to you is to get out and at least see things for yourself. Don’t sit back and pass judgement on people. You’ll find a lot of interesting characters out there. Some will be horrible, miserable people but there are a lot of diamonds out there too.

    For nearly every horror story I’ve ever heard I’ve also heard of some random act of kindness.

    And for me, the randomness is why I love Thailand. I love the fact that anything can happen. I love waking up every morning and never being completely sure what the day will bring. Sometimes it brings good things. Sometimes it brings bad things. But the one thing that’s guaranteed is that it won’t be boring.

  3. Really good advice from Mr. Rini. Everyone reading this in or out of Thailand should take it to heart. I’ve been in and out of Thailand since 1989 and lived here permanently for 8 years. There are lots of these stories about stupid farangs and Pattaya or Phuket bargirls; about stupid farangs loosing everything gambling here; about stupid farang trying to live the perpetual party life here on tourist visas; about stupid farang losing everything they ever had to some low life prostitute who the farang actually believes loves him.

    I’ve heard these kind of stories over and over ad nauseum for 20 years and it seems the stupid farang never learns and they just keep coming here to make the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

    And 9 times out of 10, the stupid farang is an uneducated, working class stiff who thinks tatoos, bear and bargirls are actually a way of life. I have to just laugh at them, because it’s really just too pathetic to consider seriously.

    As an educated middle class guy living here for honorable reasons, I find the whole Pattaya, Pot Pong, Phuket debotchery just disgusting and I’ve only seen it from a distance so I can only imagine what it’s really like on the inside. I love Thailand. I’m legal. I work here in advertising. I pay taxes, I have a lovely educated wife and have never ever considered gambling, going to a gogo bar, hiring a prostitute or any of the other depraved reasons stupid farang come here for.

    Thailand can be a lovely place to live if you come here for the right reasons and with good intentions.

  4. Je viens d’apprendre que le site ne va pas reprendre son activité.

    L’équipe est changé, et maintenant c’est la broderie et le point de croix qui vont etre les sujets de prédilection. Son rythme de croisière sera de 1 article par an (en fonction de l’état de santé de Marguerite, de la maison de retraite des Espérides, près de Paris).

    C’est bien dommage. A bientot.

  5. I agree with Joshua, the Philippines treat foreigners like kings. I’m currently living here and they weren’t kidding about Filipinos being the most hospitable people in the world. I’m playing online poker here and a bit of live poker as well. Live poker is particularly fun because the people here just love white people (i hope im not being racially insensitive here).

    I think asiapokeracademy.com is already offering relocation services to the Philippines, Thailand and Macau. It’s under Camps -> Relocate to Asia.
    Or here’s the link: http://www.asiapokeracademy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=816&Itemid=14&lang=en

  6. I think you’d be better off living in the Philippines if you want to play poker for a living. Here the foreigners (as long as you are white/caucasian, pardon, no racist pun intended) they treat you like a god. Everyone smiles at Americans/foreigners, not just the ladies. Many people here can speak and understand English even if just a little, so communication is not a problem. A lot of newspapers, TV, shops and all that are in English you won’t have a problem. That is because English is the unofficial major language of the Philippines even though it is Tagalog (their laws/constitution are written in English, go figure). No websites are blocked, gambling is not illegal, and cyber laws here are kind of still being written. Don’t be afraid of what you here in the news. Just stay in Manila or Cebu and you’ll be fine.

  7. Hey Adam,

    Good to see your comments.

    If Thailand is similar to CR I’m not sure why you would not recommend it.

    Mind you, I’ve only lived in Thailand so I can’t give you the expat lowdown on these others but I’ll give you my overall impressions.

    Cambodia – Gambling is legal (or seems to be since they have a casino on the border) but from an infrastructure standpoint it’s about 20 years behind Thailand. Nice place though and a lot more friendly to outsiders than Thailand from a visa and foreign investment perspective.

    Vietnam – I’ve got a few friends outsourcing manufacturing and other work to Vietnam and though the Communist government is a bit of a headache to deal with from a red tape perspective they too are more open to foreign investment. I do believe gambling is illegal though.

    Laos – Not sure about any of the laws there but a very sleepy version of Thailand. In fact, Lao is very similar to Thai and many Thais living in the NE speak Lao as well as Thai. But there’s little to do there in terms of nightlife and such.

    So I guess it all depends on what you’re looking for.

  8. It’s amazing how much of this stuff applies to Costa Rica – and I imagine quite a number of tropical countries. Everything you were talking about with people getting intoxicated by the lifestyle, throwing money around, not knowing when to stop, letting their lives deteriorate at frightening pace….I could come up with a list of more than 100 people I know this applies to. Fascinating how many people are living abroad to basically just ignore accountability for as long as humanly possible.

    On another note, we’ve been thinking about adding Thailand as a featured country to Poker Refugees. It sounds to me at least somewhat like we shouldn’t… Any other countries in that region that you think might be more friendly to what we’re doing?

  9. Excellent info. Personally, I just send everything to my accountant and let her deal with it so I know some of the rules but I’m not well versed in the specifics.

  10. Good points regarding taxes.

    I’d like to expand on the foreign earned income exclusion. For 2011, the foreign earned income exclusion is up to $92,900 of income. There are some caveats:

    1) Professional gamblers, but not amateur gamblers, can claim the exclusion. That’s because “earned income” includes wages, salaries, tips, and other employee compensation, plus the amount of the taxpayer’s net earnings from self-employment. Pros have self-employment income from gambling, but amateurs do not.

    2) To qualify for the exclusion, a taxpayer must physically be present in a foreign country or countries for at least 330 full days during any period of 12 consecutive months. These 12 consecutive months need not coincide with a tax year. For example, if the 12 month period begins on July 1, 2011 and ends June 30, 2012, assuming all other requirements are met, the exclusion would apply to income earned during that period.

    3) Also to qualify for the exclusion, the taxpayer must maintain a “tax home” in a foreign country or countries. In general, a taxpayer’s main place of business is considered the tax home. If the taxpayer does not maintain a place of business, then the taxpayer may consider his/her home as the tax home. Pro gamblers who play online from their home in a foreign country may be able to treat their home as the “tax home.”

    Of course, a taxpayer should not rely on this information to assess whether the foreign earned income exclusion applies to her/her own situation, and should consult a tax professional to discuss particular facts and circumstances.

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