The poker room of the Fiesta Casino in the Ramada Herradura just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica is a six or seven table area that is just big enough to fit the players, a couple of aimless cocktail waitresses, and Humberto Brenes.
When the men get massages, they do it with their shirts off and buxom, camel-toed therapists kneading away elbow-deep at their fat-backs. Out of simplicity and in the face of a 540-1 colones to dollar exchange rate, the poker games are played with dollar-value chips. Against all better judgment, the first seat I took in the room was at a 5/10 half No-Limit Hold'em and half Pot-Limit Omaha game.
There is no excuse for a person with $2,000 in his pocket to sit down in this game. The game was populated with locals, two of which were Scandinavian transplants with a fluent grasp on the Spanish language and an apparent intimate knowledge of everyone in the room. There is no excuse for a guy who spends more time playing Razz than Hold'em or Omaha to sit in a game in which most pots were $300 pre-flop and any play after the flop would result in his stack being in the middle. I discovered, however, there was one excuse.
It was the only game in the room.
"Let's just take it easy," a local named Alex said in English. "In eight hours we'll be playing 25/50 with $25,000 in front of us."
It seemed like hubris, but the way the game was going, the guy could've been right. Three or four of the players at the table were fairly good. Everyone else was dreadful and bordering on clueless. I, admittedly, was underfunded. It only took me two hours of seeing no hand past the flop to realize this. I catch on as quick as most husbands my age.
I turned to an American pro you know, but whose name I've forgotten how to spell and said, "Take this seat. I'm wasting it." He took the seat and didn't say, "Yeah, you are."
I took my chips to the cage where the cashier paid me in $50 bills. It wasn't dinner time yet.
It's hard being in a poker country and not being able to find a game I'm properly-funded to play. Sure, I could've sat there and played nut-only poker, but that is just about as boring as not playing at all. For the two hours I sat, I felt like a guy in the G-Vegas underground named Whitey. He plays in all the games, folds 99% of his hands, and only plays the nuts on the river. Someone once asked, "Whitey, do you enjoy playing poker?" He answered with one word.
"No," he said, and then probably folded.
I took a walk, went back to my room, and then realized I was hungry. Room service seemed like a cop-out, so I went out in search of food. There are three restaurants in this hotel. Nearly every one was empty. I went to the sushi place last. It was barren and didn't have a visible bar.
"Buenos noches, senor!" said the guy at the door.
"Just looking around," I said. Not that it mattered.
I finally wandered back to the Fiesta bar and ordered an Imperial. The Texas game was on and they were losing. Two elderly Americans sat at the other end of the bar drinking Jim Beam on the rocks. Another American, one who had announced in the elevator earlier in the day that he had gas, showed up for a second. As he walked away from the bar, he told the bartender to give me another Imperial.
"For earlier in the elevator," he said, and then walked away.
As the bartender sat my second beer on the bar, I wandered over to the poker room and saw another game getting set up.
"Dos-Cinco," the dealer said.
I laid $500 in front of the two-seat and went to retrieve my beer.
This all looks like a set-up for a story in which I won several thousand dollars, got jumped on my way back to my room, and have a black eye to show for it. That's actually what I was thinking about as I ran my $500 up to $900 in about 30 minutes. I hit a gutty, played two pair to perfection on a flushed board, and called down a bluff with third pair. The players weren't very good and I saw myself winning a ton of money and then getting killed for it.
That's not what happened, nor what this story is about.
In fact, I sat for about five hours in total. I realized half the people at the table were playing with a percent of each other. I also realized that, even if they were soft-playing each other, most of them were bad enough that it didn't matter. If I hadn't missed fourteen outs in one hand and had my kings cracked all-in against a flush draw, I probably would've hit my $2,000 goal for the night. Instead, I finished with a one dollar profit. I saved the chip to remind me of the time I won one dollar.
In fact, this story is about what happened a couple hours into my session. In a scene that smacked of Vito Corleone walking down the street and picking up some oranges, Humberto Brenes walked into the room with two sons in tow. The room got quiet for just one moment, and then half of the people stood up to kiss his ring. Or something like that.
It was hard to say how many of the people in the room respected Brenes or all he has meant to poker in this country. He is, by far, the best known Tico in the poker world and his emergence into the small poker room made it clear that everyone knew that. It was something between Norm walking into Cheers and Doyle Brunson walking into the low-limit section at Bellagio. Everyone knew him, everyone wanted him to know they knew him, and everybody played their part. Still I couldn't figure out if he was Don Corleone or Doyle to the Costa Rican poker players. I don't suppose it matters. The effect is largely the same.
In an odd coincidence, Brenes took the very seat I had abandoned earlier. He alternated between playing pots and stepping to an adjacent table to watch his sons play. I could only think, for better or worse, I am not Humberto Brenes, Godfather of Costa Rican poker.
Sometime after midnight (although I thought it was just after 11pm), I went to the cage to cash out my initial buy-in (she gave me $100 bills this time). As I stood in line, I saw a cross between bingo, the lottery, and roulette. That is to say, it was a typical roulette felt, but instead of a wheel, there was a giant spherical bird cage full of numbered balls. After spinning the thing for five minutes, the dealer let one ball fall out (black ten) and paid it off. I couldn't decide it it was more, less, or just as random as a ball on a wheel.
And again, I'm not sure it mattered.
That was all less than 24 hours ago. In about an hour, I'll venture back into the fray. If all I've been told is true about the level of play here, I should make money in the short time I have to play. And if not, for a final time, I'm not sure it matters.