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Special Features | National

THE MANY HATS AND TIES OF WALLY SOMBERO | From police officer to poker master to alleged bribe-giver

Former police officer and poker champ Wenceslao "Wally" Sombero. Image from Youtube screenshot
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines – For many, retirement means either slowing down or stopping work because of old age.

But not for Wenceslao “Wally” Azarcon Sombero. When he retired from his 26-year stint as a law enforcer in 2000 -- spanning four administrations from Marcos to Estrada -- he had not yet reached 50 and didn’t really call it quits.

Sombero just decided to wear another hat – from the exciting but dangerous world of crime-busting to the equally heart-pounding but differently risky world of gaming.

“It’s about passion and I’m passionate in poker. I was dreaming of bringing it to Asia...,” Sombero said in an interview six years ago, explaining his love of the cards game, criticized by many as a form of gambling, but is regarded by Sombero as a mind sport because it requires more skills than luck.

It was said that Sombero already had a desire to enter the world of poker even when he was still a police officer. Thus at the age of 44, when others like him were still looking forward to getting promoted, Sombero decided to hang up his badge as chief superintendent with a one-star-general rank assigned at the Philippine National Police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG).

Feathers in Sombero’s cap

Though his exit from public service could be said to be premature, Sombero didn’t leave law enforcement without feathers in his cap.

These included the Dangal ng Bayan Award or the Outstanding Public Officials and Employees Award conferred on public servants who had demonstrated exemplary service and conduct by following norms set by Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards For Public Officials and Employees.

Also, Sombero, who was assigned to lead various police operations against organized criminal activities such as smuggling, bank robbery, kidnapping, and hijacking, bagged a Congressional Award of Recognition from the 11th Congress, earned an Honor of the Police-CIDG Award and was once declared as Senior Field Officer of the Year, among numerous other commendations and decorations.

“In 2000, it was really the peak of my career. I received the highest award in the country, which they called The Honor of the Country Award (Dangal ng Bayan Award). So I asked myself, do I need more? I think this is the timing. So I told myself, I asked my family. Hey, this is enough. I think I need to retire,” Sombero said during a 2009 interview with Poker Media Asia.

“But, what I didn’t tell my wife (was that) I would move to Vegas to play. Because poker to me, it’s bigger than life. It’s larger than its existence,” he added during the same interview.


Links to BW Resources, PhilWeb

Among the first of Sombero’s gambling-linked jobs outside of law enforcement was with Best World Gaming and Entertainment Corp. (BWGE) as a senior gaming consultant from 2000 to 2001.

It was Dante Tan, allegedly a close associate of President Joseph Estrada and among the latter’s biggest presidential campaign donors, who incorporated BWGE in 1998, which became the major shareholder and subsidiary of tourism and leisure firm BW Resources.

Allegedly because of Tan’s close ties with Estrada, BW and BWGE were able to secure gambling licenses from the Philippine Gaming and Amusement Corp. (Pagcor) and a P600-million loan in 1999 from the then government-owned Philippine National Bank.

BW Resources was later accused of stock price manipulation after its shares ballooned to 18,000 percent to P145 from only 80 centavos within a year, from October 1998 to October 1999.

From BWGE, Sombero assumed the chairmanship of Asian Sportsbook Corp. from 2002 to 2005. The firm, according to Sombero’s LinkedIn account, was a sportsbook game supplier to gaming technology provider PhilWeb Corp.

[In October 2016, businessman Roberto Ongpin, the Trade minister during the Marcos administration, sold PhilWeb to Gregorio “Greggy” Araneta III, son-in-law of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Ongpin made the sale after Pagcor refused to renew PhilWeb’s license to provide software to online casinos.]

[Prior to Pagcor’s decision against renewing the firm’s license, President Rodrigo Duterte, during the first week of August last year, cited Ongpin as an example of an oligarch embedded in government, who must be “destroyed” because he was allegedly making money out of the suffering of the poor.]

Sombero’s role in Asian poker and his Las Vegas connections

In an article written by James Potter that appeared in the 2013 issue of World Gaming Magazine, Sombero was quoted as saying that he “considers himself instrumental in the birth of modern poker in Asia.” 

In the same article, Sombero was further quoted as saying that the said birth of poker in the region was triggered in 2005 when then Pagcor Chairman Ephraim Genuino asked him to accompany the Filipino delegation to G2E or the Global Gaming Expo, a major gaming convention in Las Vegas.

“During this time, I introduced Genuino and his Directors to (Las Vegas) Mayor (Oscar) Goodman. I was able to convince the Pagcor Chairman to support my vision of elevating PAGCOR casinos to an international level by introducing modern poker to the country. As a result, we opened the first poker room in Parañaque Airport Casino in 2005,” Sombero was quoted as saying in Potter’s article.  

Sombero’s gaming consultancy in Las Vegas, the world’s biggest gambling mecca, also began in 2005. From that year until 2007, Sombero, according to his LinkedIn account, became a consultant on Philippine gaming projects to casino moguls Jack Binion, Timothy Poster, and Tim Shiah.

Binion, an American businessman, is the son of the late poker icon and Las Vegas hotel and casino owner Lester Ben “Benny” Binion, who started the World Series of Poker in 1970, a series of poker tournaments that continues to be held annually in Las Vegas. 

Jack joined Nevada-based resort-casino operator Wynn Resorts Ltd. in July 2006 as chairman of Wynn International, acting as the senior executive for the firm’s Asian operations and development.

In November 2006, Jack was elected to the Board of Directors of Wynn Resorts’ in Macau and was tasked to start his role as director and principal in the development team in the firm’s Macau operations.

Poster served as chief operating officer of Wynn Las Vegas, a subsidiary of Wynn Resorts, while Shiah was a representative of Jack Binion, who was quoted in news reports as saying in 2007 that Wynn Resorts was looking at investment opportunities in the Philippines.

As stated in Sombero’s LinkedIn account, he served as business consultant to Binion, Poster, and Shiah from 2005 to 2007 to explore potential casino projects in the Philippines.

Also, in his LinkedIn account, Sombero said that while working as Binion’s consultant, he conceptualized, produced, and launched in February 2006 the first Pagcor Celebrity Poker Tournament at the Pagcor Airport Casino Filipino in Paranaque City, also said to be the first of its kind in Asia.

Sombero said the event was attended by Jack Binion, Poster, Shiah, American poker player Doyle Brunson, casino executive Tom Breitling, who also worked with Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas-based criminal defense attorney David Chessnoff, and Key Binion Fechser, Jack’s nephew.

Links of Lam’s Jimei to Wynn Macau

Jimei Group, the company chaired by online gaming tycoon Jack Lam, is connected to Wynn Macau, where Jack Binion – whom Sombero worked with -- was assigned as director. Jimei, one of the largest VIP junket operators in Asia, largely contributed to the earnings of Wynn Macau by bringing wealthy gamblers to the hotel-casino. 

It was alleged that Sombero was Lam’s middleman in the latter’s purported negotiations with Bureau of Immigration commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles in securing the release of 1,316 Chinese nationals, who were arrested on November 24, 2016 at Lam’s Fontana Leisure Park and Casino in Clark, Pampanga for allegedly engaging in illegal online gaming.

Sombero was accused of bribing Argosino and Robles with P50 million in exchange for the release of the Chinese nationals apprehended in Clark. But Sombero, during a hearing at the Senate on February 16, countered that Argosino was the one who had demanded P100 million for the release of the Chinese workers nabbed in Lam’s casino.

Asia’s ‘godfather of poker’

Prior to the alleged bribery/extortion scandal, googling Sombero’s name plus the word poker would mostly result in online articles about the former police officer’s brilliance in the said cards game.

In one article, Sombero was called the “godfather of poker in Asia,” who started the first registered poker room in the Philippines in 2005 at the Pagcor Airport Casino Filipino.

In another, Sombero, the only founding Filipino member of the World Poker Association in Las Vegas, the biggest poker association in the world, was praised “not only because of his skills on the felt but because of his enormous contribution to the sport (poker).”

A third described Sombero as a “tough opponent” on the table, a “true living legend of the game,” who “is hard to read and mixes up his game, and that is precisely what makes a great poker player.”


And it’s apparent that before the alleged bribery/extortion issue, which is now the subject of a Senate inquiry, Sombero was enjoying his life inside plush poker rooms abroad, playing with fellow poker pros and enthusiasts, including Filipino world boxing champ and senator Manny Pacquiao, who recently admitted that Sombero was his longtime friend and his poker-playing buddy when he was still gambling. 

Once asked by Poker Portal Asia of his favorite poker place, Sombero said that, “I play around the world.”

“I played the annual British Columbia Championship, I played the LA (Poker) Classic and in Borgata (Hotel and Casino) in Atlantic City. But my favorite place is, of course, in Las Vegas because I live in Las Vegas. I play in the Bellagio. You can find me there a lot,” he said.

“In Bellagio, the poker is gorgeous, especially in Bobby’s Room,” Sombero added, referring to the place at the Bellagio, a luxury hotel and casino in Las Vegas, that hosts the world’s highest poker action where players are only allowed to enter and play a poker game if they have a minimum buy-in of $20,000.

Outside poker rooms, Sombero never stopped being involved in gaming jobs.

His LinkedIn account showed that after working as a senior consultant of BB International Resort & Leisure Development Corp. based in Makati City and Pampanga from 2007 to 2009, Sombero also worked as senior gaming consultant for the Stockholm, Sweden and Gambia, West Africa-based Fargin Group AB & Afra Solutions Inc. from 2012 to 2014.

From 2013 to 2014, Sombero also stated in his LinkedIn account that he had worked for the British Virgin Islands-based online gaming and technology provider Skye World Entertainment.

Likewise, from 2012 to 2015, Sombero became the Asian gaming consultant for the World Gaming Group, a Macau-based gaming service firm and media publisher and its subsidiaries, World Gaming Magazine and World Gaming Consultants.

Currently, Sombero is president and CEO of the Makati City-based Asian Gaming Service Provider Association (AGSPA), Inc., a trade group comprising IT-BPOs and other support service providers to the online gaming industry.

Sombero said AGSPA was formed to educate the police and the government on putting a stop to illegal gambling trough “revolutionalizing gambling by cybertech solutions.” - ARCS