Widgets Achievement Unlocked: Hold A Really Big Check (October 21, 2010) - A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care

Achievement Unlocked: Hold A Really Big Check (October 21, 2010)

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On October 18, the same day that Pallavi's elder sister left Buenos Aires, we set out on an eighteen-hour bus ride into Patagonia. Visitors to Puerto Madryn typically come to see whales, penguins, guanacos and other wildlife. And we did see these, as I'm sure we'll detail in a later post, but I also had an entirely different kind of adventure.

Having returned from an eventful Wednesday afternoon's whale-watching, I left Pallavi at our hostel to wander around Puerto Madryn seeking out socks to replace those lost in the lavenderia. The city itself is not as touristy as one might expect. The roads near the coast are dotted with hotels, and the avenues slightly inland decked out with backpacker hostels, but Puerto Madryn's most important economic activity is industry. (If you travel an hour north to watch whales, you will pass aluminium smelters, agribusiness operations, and other manufacturing plants, as well as a gigantic open landfill supporting a population of thousands of scavenging seagulls.) Tourism's role in the local economy is secondary: travellers are scarce for the third of the year when the whales and penguins have migrated elsewhere.

Thus, Puerto Madryn is actually a surprisingly good place to shop for basic necessities. Businesses cater mostly for locals. When it comes to clothing, the selection is good, you can purchase both local and foreign brands, and stores generally don't have a gringo markup.

Near the shopping district, and about three blocks away from the hostel, I came across the creatively named Casino Puerto Madryn. The place itself looks small, and besides a tall neon sign (reminiscent of an old movie theatre) not particularly obstrusive. But outside the door, a friendly sign advised that their next poker tournament, with a AR$220 (~US$50) buy-in, would be held the next night. So I returned later that evening to sign up.

Now while I enjoy poker--a family favorite at holiday gatherings--I am by no means good at it, particularly tournament-style Texas Hold'em. But a $50 buy-in seemed like an inexpensive way to finally try my hand in a tournament at relatively low risk. As it turns out, the casino sort of paid my entry fee: on my way out the door from entering, I put a small bill in a one-armed bandit, hit a jackpot and came out considerably richer.

Like many forms of Argentinian entertainment, the tournament started late, giving me time to enjoy a nice meal with Pallavi before I trundled to the casino for a 10pm start. While typical gambler's thoughts--"wouldn't it be cool to win this?"--flitted through my head, my main objectives were not to be the first eliminated, not to make a fool of myself playing in a foreign language, and not to offend anyone. For the most part, I succeeded, in large part thanks to Pallavi's crash-course in Spanish numbers and the graciousness of my fellow players.

With one exception, all fifty-five of my competitors were male, although they ranged in age from early-college to wizened and wily. The sole woman, a mid-twenties college student, started at another table. She had entered the competition with her boyfriend, and both would eventually make it to the winner's table. I was particularly lucky in my initial table: the player to my left was a government attorney from Buenos Aires who was quite humble about his near-perfect "little bit" of English. (If I could talk about administrative law in Spanish, I would consider myself more than a "bit" fluent.)

There were a few other notable characters at the first table. A brash young Argentinian started particularly strong, taking a few pots with some aggressive betting. He was eventually eliminated when an elegant elderly gentleman in a salmon sweater called his bluff holding pocket kings. Sitting across from this fellow was a red-haired drunk in his thirties who, despite being apparently unable to keep track of the game, amassed quite a fortune in the first round.

The lawyer was particularly helpful to me when a dispute arose early in the game. Our table's dealer was a bit green, and within a few hands had committed an error or two (such as dealing a card face up). He had a particularly hard time with the drunk, who would lose track of when it was his turn to bet or throw the entirely wrong amount into the pot. This culminated in a disasterous hand, in which the drunk and the salmon-sweatered gentleman wagered a significant amount. The dealer called the hand in favor of the gentleman's three of a kind, not noticing that the drunk actually had a straight. The drunk didn't notice either, and before the rest of the table could point out the error, the dealer had pushed the stack of chips to the gentleman, who added them to his holdings. There followed a great deal of (more or less polite) dispute between the dealer, the pit boss, and both players as to how correct this error, and without the lawyer I would never have been able to follow.

That particularly hand didn't matter much to me, as I had thrown in my cards far earlier. For those who haven't been to a poker tournament, I should probably explain this "conservative" strategy, which I found nerve-wracking throughout the evening. In a tournament such as this one, the mandatory wager required of the "blinds" (the two players who have to bet before the cards are dealt) rises every fifteen minutes. After the initial round, every player is also required to ante an initial stake, which increases with the blinds. Thus, as the evening wears on and players are eliminated, every remaining player gets a bit richer, but every hand gets more expensive.

I spent most of the evening on a knife's edge, getting just lucky enough and winning just enough money to be able to stake the next hand. I would bet up a pot only if I felt I had a statistical winner, and left it to the more experienced players to drive out the competition. This is probably not the most skillful way to play, but it had one advantage. Over the course of the evening, five players tried to drive me out by going "all in" before the flop. Each time I got lucky, holding a winning hand by the time the dealer revealed the river. In this excrutiatingly slow fashion I kept myself alive throughout the evening, eventually taking my place as one of the poorest competitors at the winner's table.

And it was slow: the winner's table opened at 1:45 am, with play continuing until 2:30. The woman, her boyfriend and I were the only players at the table under the age of forty. The rest, including the gentleman in the salmon sweater, were older and quite comfortable in their seats. Gone was the young dealer, replaced by a crisp and efficient gentleman. Either he spun the cards out faster than had been the case earlier, or I was getting tired. But over the next hour and a half, a funny thing happened: player after player was eliminated, and my stack of chips got a bit larger with every elimination.

Finally, four players remained, and the second weakest attempted to force me out before the flop. I had a bare handful of chips, and that looked to be it. I pushed my chips in figuring that fourth place was good enough for a first try. And by the dumbest of luck, I pulled a straight, vaulting me into second place and guaranteeing me at least the third place pot. A few minutes later, I pushed the third place player out.

Which means I didn't really win. At about 3am, I had about a quarter of the chips at the table, but the other gentleman and I were both exhausted. We resolved that we would play one more hand, all-in, to determine the "winner," but that whoever won we would split the pot. We had to do this because while we were happy to call it a draw, the casino needed a "winner" whose name would be on the big winning check.

You can see how that turned out.

The poker winnings

(I didn't actually take home that much. As I mentioned, the "second place" fellow and I split the top two prizes, and the casino takes a cut. But it made for a nice bump to the budget, and I can say I've won a poker tournament now.)

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Great story! And congratulations on the win. :-)

This is awesome. Congrats!

Fun! Remind me to invite you to San Francisco for the Easter picnic at Dolores Park. There's a Hunky Jesus contest every year.

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