Monday, December 08, 2008

Shakedown Street > Mexicali Blues

By Pauly
Neuvo Vallarta, Mexico
"Busted down on Bourbon Street.
Set up like a bowlin' pin.
Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin.
They just wont let you be. Oh no."
- The Grateful Dead
I should had suspected something was rotten in Denmark... er shall I say, rotten in Mexico. I stood at the reception desk at the Marival Resorts and Suites and the very fabulous and flaming front desk clerk (like full-on Jm J. Bullock gay) handed Change100 and myself a photocopied piece of paper. There were two columns; the left was written in Spanish and the right was written in English. It was a waiver form and some sort of pledge. It stated something to the effect of, "I understand that gambling is illegal in Mexico and I was not participate in any gambling activities on the Marival property."

I'm totally paraphrasing there, but you get the gist of the form. I did not want to sign it. My inner rebel screamed, "Fuck this shit!" And my inner paranoid self thought that they were keen to my utter degeneracy. Like they knew that Otis and I would be engaging in high stakes lime tossing and they were out to get us. Instead of signing it, I wrote down a fake name (Page McConnell) and scribbled a faux signature.

Pauly 1, Mexico 0.
* * * * *

I ate dinner with Otis and Change100 at one of the restaurants in the resort. The eatery opened at 6pm and Change100 arranged a 6:10pm reservation. We arrived a few minutes early and half of dozen wait staff greeted us at the entrance. When we told the host our names, he asked us to hold on a second. He reached into his wallet and fished out a couple of Pesos. He handed it to one of the waiters as the rest of them burst out laughing.

Otis and I glanced at each other. We knew what was up. They had a pool going to see which reservation would show up first. The lucky winner picked Change100's name. Originally, I thought it was cool that they like to gamble on random shit just like I do with my friends. But as time passed, I was kinda irked at the hypocrisy of the waiver that we had to sign at the front desk. Guests of the Marival Resorts were not permitted to gamble, but it's totally kosher for their employees to wager while on the clock.

After dinner, we headed to the PokerStars welcome party to kick off the LAPT Mexico. Most of these events have striking similarities despite the change in locale, if it's Monte Carlo, London, Las Vegas, or Neuvo Vallarta. In this instance, players from all over North and Latin America mingled as we were greeted with a waitress who held a tray of drinks. The selection included draft Sol beer, tequila, frozen margaritas, and frozen strawberry daiquiris. A mariachi band performed on stage and Humberto Brenes sang lead vocals while Greg Raymer milled around the buffet. Otis and I drank steadily and got in trouble when the chicks with the whistles and bottles of tequila darted through the crowd as shrieks of whistles echoed all around us. One moment you were in a middle of a conversation and the next, the chicks with the whistles were sodomizing you with a bottle of tequila, like some poor starlet trying to chug John Holmes' junk. One chick poured more tequila on my shirt than in my mouth.

My first night in Mexico. An outstanding start to an assignment. I was well fed, pretty drunk, took a walk on the beach in the moonlight with my girlfriend, and given a good show by the local entertainment. Plus it was Otis' birthday and we had plenty to celebrate. Yes, it was Otis Day and we were staying at an all you can drink resort, so we completely abused that privilege. We drank the lobby bar out of beer. I was cutoff by the waitress and said, "No mas cerveza." My alternative choices were tequila and beer. I opted for tequila and an hour later they closed out that bar. We stumbled outside to a bar near the pool and continued the steady flow of shots and beers until way past last call. Yeah, I consumed an excess of cheap tequila and bad beer. The result was an unwelcomed pestilence of a hangover when I woke up on the morning on my first day of work.

Mexico 1, Pauly 1.

* * * * *

Day 1 of the LAPT Mexico went off without a hitch. I was actually impressed that cards went into the air at 12:01pm or just one minute late after the scheduled start time. Tournaments rarely start on time and during the earlier seasons of the EPT, those events were notorious for starting late.

I sat in media row while the gang at 441 Productions (the crew who shoots the WSOP for ESPN) methodically set up the TV table behind us. They were at the event and shooting b-roll on Day 1 and they'd start filming the feature table on Day 2.

Around the second or third level, I noticed that a group of guys in khakis and polo shirts sat down at one of tables adjacent to the media row. A mountain of paperwork sat on the poker table and were I dunno why I thought this... but I dismissed them and figured that a couple of Mexican businessmen were having a meeting and they decided to use one of the empty tables. For most of the afternoon, they went unnoticed. I had no idea that they were from the Mexican Ministry of the Interior (SEGOB) or the local gaming commission. They were there to observe the tournament.

The LAPT acquired a permit and temporary gaming license to host a tournament at the Marival Resorts. The permit met all the requirements from the Code of the Mexican Federal Law of Games and Raffle, yet at 10:30pm, the officials rescinded the permit and ordered the tournament to cease at once with 89 players remaining. The officials ejected everyone from the tournament room.

A confused crowd milled around in the hallway outside the tournament area. The bar in the lobby was flooded with players and spectators. The media were holed up in the business center at the end of the hall.

Someone suggested that we remove our badges. For a couple of moments, I was on edge and extremely concerned at the safety of Change100 and myself and my fellow media reps like Owen, Otis, Joe, Alex, and everyone else. I never thought that I'd get tossed into prison in Mexico for a non-drug charge. Then I got really freaked out. The federalies wouldn't throw me in jail. They'd whack me. Journalists are the enemy in third world countries and forty-five journalists were killed in Mexico since 2000. According to Reporters without Borders, Mexico is considered the most dangerous country for journalists with the exception of Iraq.

I was just a half-baked blogger (and at the time half-hungover and jonesin' for a sampling of the local produce) and never considered myself a journalist. But the types of sinister souls who murder proponents of free speech don't distinguish the difference between a blogger and a journalist like the New York literati would. Alas, if any trigger happy federalies saw press credentials such as a media badge dangling around my neck and a camera slung around my shoulder... well, that would enough to make sure that I became number 46 on that list of slain writers.

That paranoia subsided. It wasn't like the police kicked the door down or tear gassed the room. I think I saw maybe one or two rent a cops and not one thuggy looking guy around. We were in the middle of a passive-aggressive shakedown. And everyone walked right into the trap. The fix was in. Set up like a bowling bin.

Mexico 1, LAPT 0.

* * * * *

Corruption at all levels is rampant in third world countries. We have a corruption of a different kind in America, but money talks in Latin America. Have you met my friend Mr. Franklin?

(Editor's note: One reader named Victor pointed out that Mexico is not a third world country. He wrote, "Mexico is not a third world country... it is actually considered a NIC, a category between 'developing' and 'developed' country. Mexico is the second largest economy in LATAM, after Brazil, and the 4th for all the Americas.)

I assumed that the banditos in charge wanted a bribe. If they accepted PokerStars transfers, they'd get a nice little chunk of change parked into their accounts. And if not, they'd receive a PokerStars schwag bag with a t-shirt, a frisbee, and a couple of bricks of Benjamins.

The LAPT handled the situation diplomatically and let their lawyers engage in negotiations. In the end, the LAPT stood up to the corrupt government officials and refused to pay the shakedown money. If they paid the shakedown money, then word would get out on the street that the LAPT were an easy mark. They would get squeezed by other shady government agencies in the third world countries that were future stops on the LAPT (and not just the LAPT but the EPT and APPT).

It's like getting bullied when you were a kid growing up. If you give up your milk money on the first day of school to the class bully, then a precedent is set. Everyone knows that you're soft and you'll get pushed around the rest of your life. In prison terms, if you don't beat the shit out of the first first guy who jumps you, then you ended up becoming somebody's bitch.

Mexican officials dropped the ball. They exhibited zero long term vision and were clouded by their own immediate greed. They wanted more money now instead of looking at the long term affect of a powerful poker presence in Mexico. Within a couple of years, the LAPT Mexico could have been almost (not quite, but almost) as popular as the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The proximity makes the LAPT Mexico a more appealing place for North American poker players to travel. It's a quick trip and instead of heading out to stops in Eastern Europe on the EPT or making a long journey across the Pacific Ocean to the APPT. Hey, I love the EPT, but I'd rather head down to the sunny beaches of Mexico in December than freeze my gonads off in Poland.

The LAPT did not bring in their own dealers. Instead, they hired locals and trained them for a month. The LAPT created jobs in a country where people desperately need employment. The Mexicans blew an opportunity to allow the LAPT to help stimulate the economy and give their citizens jobs, especially when tourism numbers are down.

Poker players are generous tippers and they showered the waitstaff at restaurants and the various bars scattered around the resort with fat tips. Marival is an all inclusive resort so you don't have to pay for food and booze. Tipping is completely optional and not expected. But the poker players were more than generous with splashing around some pocket change. Some of the workers at the resort are gonna have an amazing Christmas because of the influx of tips, particularly US dollars. Otis and I tipped one guy the first night here and every time that he saw us, he has a huge smile on his face. Some lucky staff members acquired the equivalent of a month or two in salary in tips this past weekend alone.

Avarice is one of the seven deadly sins and that destroyed any chance of a consistent influx of money into the struggling Mexican economy. The LAPT will never again return to Mexico and some other country in Latin America will reap the financial benefits of tournament poker. Shakedown failed.

LAPT 1, Mexico 1.

* * * * *

Several of the players who busted out (before play was suspended on Friday) nearly caused a riot on Saturday afternoon.

A meeting was held at 5pm on Saturday by the LAPT in the theatre and only the remaining 89 players were allowed access. Not even media were allowed inside. The entrance was a narrow bridge walkway over a pool. That area was congested with pissed off poker players. Many of them were there for different reasons but all of them wanted to go inside.

An angry mob gathered. The walkway was jam packed. I stood in the back of the crowd as an over flow of people started to grow outside the theatre. People were screaming. My Spanish is horrible, but one of my Costa Rican friends translated some of the things that the players were yelling such as they demanded a refund. Most of them were Venezuelans. They had been drinking (free booze) and were pissed off. Driven by pure greed, the angle shooters wanted to get a free ride and tried to get their money back when they were already eliminated. It was already a shitty situation, but they complicated matters and surged towards the entrance.

One guy fell into the pool. A member of the LAPT was tossed to the ground. Another was threatened to get his ass kicked. Yet despite the adversity, the LAPT handled the matter as best as they could given the circumstances. They called the police, but only the local turista cops showed up. They were the equivalent of rent-a-cops. At that point, I evaded the mob outside and snuck inside the theatre. That would be a much safer place and I cut through some bushes and entered through the side.

LAPT officials told the 89 remaining players that the tournament was canceled and they arranged a chop of the prize money in a similar manner if PokerStars server crashed and one of their online tournaments were canceled. In this instance, players got twice their buy in and divided up the rest of the prize pool by chip count. Plus they each got a $500 bonus (that was not from the prize pool). Only the top 27 players were scheduled to win prize money so more than two-thirds of the players would be awarded money that they weren't going to see. The deal was positive for short stacks but not so good for the big stacks. But if you played tournament poker, you know that a big stack with 89 players to go doesn't mean much.

While the remaining 89 players filled out paperwork, the furious mob were eventually pushed back by the rent-a-cops.

This is an unconfirmed rumor, but supposedly a couple of the Venezuelan players who incited the near riot were arrested. When they did not get refunds from the LAPT, they called the police. When the real police showed up, the Venezuelans said that LAPT would not let them continue gamble. The police then arrested the Venezuelans for gambling. Again, this is unconfirmed rumor that I was told by a reliable source.

Mexico 1, Venezuela 0.

* * * * *

As Change100 and I planned our early escape route from Mexico, a couple of Grateful Dead lyrics rattled around in my head...
Is there anything a man don't stand to lose, when the devil wants to take it all away? Cherish well your thoughts, and keep a tight grip on your booze. Cause thinkin' and drinkin' are all I have today.
So what exactly happened this past weekend?

Well, the weather was gorgeous in Mexico. We drank took much booze. The food sucked. Otis forgot to pack underwear. I didn't get shanked or succumb to the a nasty case of Montezuma's Revenge.

The fix was in and the LAPT was set up. The locals (including the resort, gaming officials, and the third-party group who acquired the gaming license for the LAPT) acquired the LAPT's and the players' money up front and then fucked 'em when everyone was at their most vulnerable. And in turn a lot of collateral damage ensued including the film crew who had their gear seized by the officials. And yeah, a handful of players were pissed off. And most of the players who cashed were satisfied with the solution.

The LAPT did what they could to make the most of a horrendous situation. In the end, no one got hurt. No one went to jail (with the possible exception of a couple of drunken Venezuelan troublemakers). The LAPT also stood up to corruption and decided to not play by their rules. Instead, the LAPT absorbed the setback and something like this unfortunate incident will only make them stronger.

And yes, it's safe to say that there will never ever be another LAPT event in Mexico. Too bad, because Neuvo Vallarta was a lovely location and I was truly rooting for the LAPT to pull off a successful tournament.

Original content written and provided by Pauly from Tao of Poker at All rights reserved. RSS feeds are for non-commercial use only.

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