The road to becoming a player in the World Series of Poker Main Event is different for each of the 7,221 players that put down $10,000 this year. However, some stories stand out more than others. Gyeong Byeong Lee from Seongnam, South Korea has one of those special stories, as not even his parents know that he’s playing in the biggest poker tournament in the world. 

Heading into the dinner break on Day 5, 26-year old Gyeong Byeong Lee  with 7,345,000, and is on a quest to change the perception of poker for good in his home country. With just 143 players currently left in the tournament, Lee has already made sure his finish will be the best ever in the Main Event by a Korean* player. 

“Poker is not popular in Korea. Korean people think that poker is very bad. I cannot tell my parents that I’m playing poker. I lied to them, and told them I’m just playing a tournament,” Lee said with a smile, seemingly aware of the insanity of the statement he just made. 

Unafraid that his friends of family might be following the coverage of this tournament on an English website, Lee continued, “My friends don’t even know that I’m playing. I wish. If I’m a champion, I can tell my parents.”

Poker in South-Korea

Gambling, and poker for that matter, are outlawed in South Korea for its citizens, with foreigners being the only guests that can enter the sparse casinos spread out across the country. Online poker however, is available to Koreans through foreign based rooms, and that’s where Lee got his start in poker. 

“I play online, this is my first time in the Main Event and my first time in America. I only played in the Philippines.”

For a player from a country with very little exposure to the game of poker, his story of discovering poker is that much more compelling.

“I saw poker on YouTube in 2012. I saw Greg Merson win the Main Event, and I was very impressed with him. I saw him win and become the champion, that’s why I wanted to play poker and the WSOP is my dream.”

For now, Lee’s on track to follow in Merson’s footsteps, the player he drew inspiration from five years ago. 

“I’m just lucky. It’s going alright. I get ace-king and a flush draw, and I hit. This tournament is very fun, I like it. I feel a lot of excitement, and this is really my dream.”

When asked whether a big result from him in this tournament could change the way poker is being perceived in South-Korea – a country where e-sports and Starcraft in particular have been a big part of pop and celebrity culture for many years – he answered near inaudibly, “Maybe, I wish. I really wish that.”

South Koreans in the WSOP Main Event

Name Year Place Payout
Eun Jong Kim 2015 284th $34,157
Joonhee Yea 2012 297th $38,453
Hyongin Lee 2015 338th $29,329
Hyongin Lee 2014 382nd $29,400
Cathy Hong 2012 402nd $28,530
Ro-Woong Park 2015 660th $15,000

*Kevin Song is South Korean born, but plays under the United States flag. Song has lived in Los Angeles for many years, and won a bracelet in the 1997 $2,000 Limit Hold’em event. In the 2001 Main Event won by Carlos Mortensen, Song finished in 20th place for $39,960. Song also finished 42nd in the 2003 Main Event, won by Chris Moneymaker, and 586th in the 2012 Main Event won by the aforementioned Greg Merson.