Thursday, January 07, 2010

Benjo in the Bahamas, Vol. 1: Dispatches from the Coral Bar

Editor's Note: I want to welcome back Benjo as a guest poster. The noted French journalist and EPT Live commentator is the Tao of Poker's correspondent at the PCA down in the Bahamas. I am unable to attend the festivities this year, but luckily Benjo will be giving us the straight dope. What he doesn't know is that he agreed to be compensated in Nutella, Gauloises, Vicodin, and croissants.

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Dispatches from the Coral Bar, Vol. 1

By Benjo
Paradise Island, Bahamas

Pauly asked me to write about the PokerStars Carribean Adventure. The good doctor is currently holed up in LA working on the final draft of his long-awaited masterpiece, and he couldn't make it to the Bahamas.

"I want some recap of the hijinks," he said to me. Notwithstanding the fact that I've been already been at work for twelve hours today, let alone that my brain hasn't fully recovered for that epic four-day long bender in Miami for New Year's Eve, I accepted the offer. "I'll pay you," he added. That helped my decision.

First, let's get the facts straight. The PCA isn't happening in the Bahamas. The PCA is set on a tiny island covered by concrete that happens to be located in the middle of the Bahamas, which is different. Everything here is fake. As my friend Snoopy wrote when he visited the place two years ago, "Paradise Island didn't look as much like the Bahamas as it looked like a Vegas-themed version of the Bahamas."

This is my third straight year covering the PCA and I'm always amused and/or sad when I see all those joyful faces on the plane, in the airport or during the cab ride to the hotel. "Isn't that great? We're going to Paradise Island !"

Poor souls. For those who dig hideous cheap pastel-colored buildings, overpriced stays, cutthroat prices on drinks, fat American tourists wearing shorts & sandals, and poor service, Paradise Island might actually be what the ad wants you to believe it is. But for those who know better, the whole place is nothing more than a corporate setup to empty your pockets. You're not doing much to help the local economy by staying in Atlantis, the main hotel on Paradise Island. No, what you're actually doing is helping some rich guy from Dubai funding more and more of those monstrous resorts.

Moving on... The PCA is a special tournament on the poker circuit. Because of its proximity to the American soil, and more lenient gambling laws, the Bahamas attracts an army of young players who otherwise cannot play live poker in Las Vegas, LA or Foxwoods. Allowing online players to make their entry on the live scene, the tournament has grown over the years, put faces and put civil names on the faces of kids who previously were only known by their nicknames, much to the point that the whole festival now acts as a replacement for the World Series of Poker for all those under aged online wizards. The comparison has been made even more accurate this year when looking at the whole schedule -- a whooping number of fifty tournaments, no less, will be organized in the span of twelve days, in every game and format you can think of (yes, even Badugi is on the schedule for you degenerates).

For all players aged under 21, the PCA has become a rite of passage, a Summer Break for dropouts. For hundreds of people every year, the PCA is the place where lots of them will get their first hangover in the myriad of bars scattered all over the resort. Given the scale of the festival this year, this also might well be the place where they will have their first $25K live downswing. But on the other hand, this isn't the place where they will get laid for the first time. This will have to wait.

As a famous French pro confided to me, "This island doesn't have many prostitutes. There's a few bordellos located on the outskirts, but I wouldn't advise anyone to go there. Dodgy."

Granted, you'll see plenty of insanely hot girls inside the tournament room, with their tiny tops and skirts revealing a pink bikini under, enclosing perfect silicone breasts. But think about it twice before hitting on them. The only reason they're in there is because their boyfriend is sitting at the table playing for serious money. What about the local nightclub?

"There's one girl in there and it's the waitress," says another pro.

Anyway, I landed in Nassau shortly after noon on Monday. On my (delayed) flight from Miami were members of the British and Dutch press. Being part of the PokerStars crew via my EPT live webcast duties, I was coming to the Bahamas with a work permit. The immigration officer found my application on the computer and duly stamped my passport. From that moment, I was now considered a Bahamas resident trough my permit. The result? I won't be allowed to gamble anywhere in the country. Even something as innocent as lime tossing in the parking lot would, if discovered, would put PokerStars at risk of losing their gaming license. Bad beat.

I arrived on Paradise Island (a thirty minute drive from the airport) and met Mad Harper in the hotel room we're sharing on the eighth floor of the Beach Tower. It was a reunion of some sorts with the EPT media coordinator and mother superior of all European poker journos. We grabbed a piece of pizza on the Marina outside the hotel. It was windy and cloudy, and locals weren't too optimistic about any upcoming redemption. Not your typical Bahamas weather, even during the winter. But I didn't care too much, as I wasn't here on a vacation. It was, on the other hand, rather funny to see all the angry and/or sad tourists passing by. Those poor fucks paid thousands of dollars for a shitty holiday, and now they were stuck inside. I bet the casino wasn't too upset about the current meteorological situation.

In the hallways, it was hard to walk ten feet without being greet by someone you know. Players, media, industry types, vampires/agents, all the clique. PokerStars employees, in particular, were out in full force. This is the biggest live event of the year for the leading online operator, and they're sending employees from all over the world. For most of them outside the event coordinators, this is a paid vacation. The company flies them for free on Paradise Island, and just ask them to work for a couple of hours a day at the welcome desk, handling gift bags to players, etc. I said hello to everyone I knew, even though I wanted to avoid at least 90% of them. Everyone was acting its usual self; miserable people were miserable no matter how easy they had it, and happy people were bouncing around smiling not matter how hard they were working. Same old, same old.

During the evening was held the traditional welcome party in one of the huge ballrooms inside the resort. The place filled quickly as free food and booze was served. I stayed there long enough to say hi to a few dozen more people before leaving for dinner with Mad and Regis, my video guy at Winamax. We were invited by French pros Antony Lellouche and Ludovic Lacay to Ocean Place, a small hotel on the beach, far away from all the agitation. Mad was excited cause several scenes from Casino Royal, the Bond movie were shot there.

"Daniel Craig was here!" she shouted when we entered the place. It's apparently the most expensive place to stay on the island and I gave tons of shit to Antony and Ludovic because, no matter how many thousands of dollars they were paying every night for their exquisite apartment, they were still stuck sleeping together in one bed. I asked them if any celebrities were spotted. They said they had just bumped into Rod Stewart. Last year, they had spent the NYE's dinner next to Uma Thurman's table. We ate at one of the hotel's two restaurants. Mad (a British ex-pat living in Spain) was the only non-French guest at the table, but she held her own without problems.

The first day of the $10,000 Main Event went without a hitch. PokerStars has set up a very professional operation, hiring some of the best floor men and dealers available. I met one of them in the elevator... an old-school guy who proudly revealed he dealt his first tournament in 1971, at the Binion's Horseshoe. I hope I'll be able to catch him later to hear some stories.

The only problems I witnessed were about the food. Because of the retarded system in place (you need to queue twice, first to pay for the food, second to actually get it) and the general slowness of service, it took up to fifteen minutes to get what you wanted. By that time the break was over, yet the security wouldn't let you enter the tournament room carrying food, which mean you had to sit out if you wanted to eat something.

One thing that I wasn't sure what to think about was the abundance of kids running around outside the tournament room. Granted, this is a family resort, but I couldn't help to be reminded of that DeNiro line at the end of Casino "...and while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots."

Mood in the room was quite mellow. "This is a bit boring," some jaded vets were heard saying. "We're playing nine-handed, players are taking forever to make decisions. Can't wait for Day 2."

The canooks from PokerListings couldn't believe Jeff Madsen was actually playing. Apparently they had been partying together till eight am, leaving Madsen in a rather intoxicated state. He could have opted to play on Day 1B, but stayed true to his plan and showed up despite having only slept for a couple of hours. Amazingly, Madsen ended the day with nearly three times the starting stack. Shaun Deeb didn't lasted too long. The burned out online player had announced a few months earlier that the PCA would be his last poker tournament ever, adding he would now spend his time playing cash-game and pursue other projects. So, a prolific career ended with an ill-advised 5-bet all-in with King-Queen and he was snap-called by Aces. Whether Deeb will stick to his promise remains to be seen. Grandma told me I shouldn't trust the word of any poker player. My newest buddy James C. was playing. He is a an American exchange student doing his classes in Madrid. He's hilarious, if not an obnoxious guy who, if he had auditioned for any role in Superbad, would have gotten the part right away. I first met him when he refused to let me enter my own house after I came back from work late at night without my keys -- but it's a long story.

On the poker front, there isn't much else to report. Day 1 of a big tournament like that is like Chapter 1 of a long novel. Characters are introduced, but not much progress is made plot-wise. So I won't bother you with the specifics. Sure, Tiffany Michelle busted, and Daniel Negreanu built a big stack, but isn't what they are supposed to do? Card players play cards, some get lucky, some don't. Nothing new here.

After play ended and all my reports were wrapped up, I headed to the Coral Lobby bar, the central meeting point of the PCA for its ideal location halfway between the casino and the tournament room. At any time of the day or the night, this is where you'll meet cohorts of players and media types engaging in all sorts of hijinks, mostly involving drinking and gambling. Laptops everywhere, Chinese poker games, dice shooting, and lots and lots of cocktails scattered on every table. I sat down in an ample couch with a mixed ensemble of pros and PokerStars employees blowing off steam after a hard day at work. In one corner, a group of Belgian players cheering on their buddy making a deep run in a Full Tilt tournament. Behind us, some online kids were trying to hit on Maria Ho and Tiffany Michelle. Jeff Madsen was busy ordering cocktails, picking things where he had left them off in the morning. Foxy British pro Liv Boeree stopped by. She mentioned having her luggage lost during transit. "You can always buy a 'I love the Bahamas' t-shirt," was my advice.

As the evening progressed, everyone was getting more and more inebriated. A famous Swedish pro ordered no less than ten whiskeys and coke for himself, on a single round, while telling me story involving a burglar breaking in his Wynn penthouse while he was asleep. "I could have sued Steve Wynn for millions," he said.

Jason Mercier returned. I gave him shit for busting out of the Main Event with a trash hand. He chuckled. "This is usually how I win tournaments."

The Swedish pro brought up the subject of marijuana. A pothead himself if there ever was one, the Swede firmly believed weed consumption was more widely spread in America than Europe. "Everybody smokes in the US! Bring me just one player here and I'll bet you the guy smoked more than twenty times in his life."

We quickly settled on a $20 bet, and I called Jason Mercier over. I knew I was a heavy favorite, but I was still a bit surprised with Jason's reply, "I have never ever smoked in my life."

In perfect comedy timing, James C. passed by our table, his usual giggling self. The Swede quickly fired the same question he had just asked to Jason.
Swede: "How many times have you smoked?"
James C. (confused): "What? Today ?"
His classic reply brought a hearty laugh to the entire table. The Swede reached for his wallet, and handed me a twenty. "It's okay," he said. "It was a fun bet."

Benjo is a writer originally from Lille, France. He has been living in London, but is relocating to Paris. If you understand French, you should check out his blog. You can also follow Benjo on Twitter, where he tweets in English.

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