Thursday, January 14, 2010

Benjo in the Bahamas, Vol. 3: Dispatches from the Coral Bar

Benjo in the Bahamas, Vol. 3: Dispatches from the Coral Bar

Editor's Note: Benjo (the noted French journalist and EPT Live commentator) returns as the Tao of Poker's correspondent at the PCA down in the Bahamas. In case you missed it, check out Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

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Dispatches from the Coral Bar, Vol. 3

By Benjo
Paradise Island, Bahamas

The Coral Bar was in full swing on Monday night... for good reason, since it was the last night on Paradise Island for the majority of people who attended the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Granted, there was still a handful of tournaments to be completed over the next few days (including the World Cup of Poker and the $25K High-Roller), but the Main Event had found his conclusion, meaning that for the 700+ players who had qualified on PokerStars, it was time to pack up bags, wife & children, and check out of the hotel.

Fittingly, it's the youngest of the eight finalists who took down one of the fastest final tables I ever witnessed. Despite the excellent deep stacked blind structure, it only took seven hours of play to find a winner in the Main Event... 19-year old college drop out Harrison Gimbel from Florida, who will take home the title and first prize of $2,2 million. Play at the final table was exactly what you would have expected from a bunch of twenty-something online kids: nervous, aggressive and relentless. Every year, the PCA serves as an exhibition of tournament poker's new trends, and this year was no exception.

What's in store for 2010? Faster play, more aggression and absolutely no fear. Rarely had I seen so many overbets, river check/raises, squeeze plays and preflop confrontations. Sole representative of the old school among the nerds, 63-year old Card Player Magazine CEO Barry Shulman held his own, reaching third place to bank his second million-dollar win in three months.

Back a few days before, Saturday night was official party time. All tournaments were halted at 10pm so that everyone could attend the PokerStars roast. Due to adverse weather conditions, the event had to be held indoors. Which did not prevented hundreds of players, media reps, off duty dealers and industry types to attend the event. Free booze and food were available, but the party was massively understaffed and long lines quickly formed in front of the stands. It sometimes took up to half an hour to get served. At one point, my friend Regis got fed up waiting. He walked passed the line up to the counter, and reached for a cooler full of beers under the eyes of an indifferent bartender. He came back to me with two cans and handed me one: "There you go. It's faster this way." That's the thing I'll never understand with the service industry on Paradise Island. Every morning I walk pass the Box Office booth on my way to breakfast. Behind the counter are sitting four bored attendants with no customers to serve. Yet when a thousand people want a drink, there isn't more than ten waiters available to satisfy their simple, basic needs.

The main attraction of the party was a live show from Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child fame, who had played the Charity Event a few days before. The show was either the greatest thing ever, or utter boredom... depending of who you were asking and how many drinks they had. It was a short set, twenty minutes at best. After that, the free booze quickly ran out and party goers were forced to seek obliteration flavors elsewhere. Me and my crew made our way to the Coral Bar, where I might or might not have engaged in illegal lime tossing with a prominent member of the American poker blogging scene. Fear of prosecution from Bahamas authorities prevents me from sparing you any incriminating details, but yes, I won the contest and collected a few bucks in the process. Shortly after, the Coral Bar closed down as well. Our last option was the casino night club, and by that point I was too drunk to head to bed. I happily followed our group to the club where more drinks were served.

All in all, it was a rookie mistake to get heavily intoxicated that night. I had to work early the next day, and should have had a few more hours of sleep. It's one thing to update a tournament with a hangover -- save for a few typos, your readers won't notice the state you're in. It's another thing to do live audio commentary with a shattered voice and a brain impaired by the the most vicious headache. I should have paced myself and drank lots of water the night before, but instead got carried on with the festive vibe, and grabbed every drink that was on offer, also ordering several rounds myself.

As the result, I spent most of Sunday struggling on the microphone, trying my best not to slur my speech and form coherent thoughts about the play going on at the feature table. Fortunately, play went fast and by 7pm, the final table was reached, sending us commentators free. I made the promise to myself never to behave to unprofessionally ever again.

That night, the vibe was more serious inside Atlantis. Most of the players were back to work. In the Coral Bar, the online kids were busy playing the Sunday tournaments on the major websites. Dozens and dozens of laptops scattered among the cocktail tables, massive cheering sections, and relentless multitabling until late: for any observer, the most defining image of what the PCA truly is, year after year. Inside the poker room, the old-school cash-game pros weren't too interested in spending the night in front of their computer. Instead, they were busy playing a very big game comprising a variety of formats at $200/400$ blinds: Pot Limit Omaha, Deuce to Seven Triple Draw, No Limit Single Draw, etc. Among the participants, I recognized Carlos Mortensen, Mike Matusow, Barry Greenstein, Jean-Robert Bellande and Antony Lellouche. A few working girls were lurking around, recognizing the potential value of such lineup. Totaling nine players, the game was booked solid.

"We're mostly playing Deuce to Seven variations, so there shouldn't be more than six players at this table," explained Antony Lellouche. "But a lot of fishes wanted to join as well. Would be a mistake refusing to let them sit."

As a result, no less than three players had to sit out every time a 2/7 game was dealt. Greg Raymer wandered by to say hello. "Sit down, Greg, we'll make it ten-handed for you," quipped Matusow. Unable to join, Roland de Wolfe and Noah Boeken started a Chinese poker game at a table nearby. Frustrated at having to rail this game, Freddy Deeb tried to lure some of the players into rejoining his hotel suite to start a private table. "No rake. I'll deal myself," he offered. Indeed, this wasn't a game to miss for a serious pro. I learned later that the last hand of the night, dealt at 4am, involved a player putting $12,000 before the flop (the maximum amount, since the game was capped) in PLO with Q-4-3-3 double-suited, a hand most players in their right minds wouldn't even limp in with from the small blind. The afro-mentioned player scooped the $48,000 pot by turning a straight, which prompted Matusow to yell, "Tomorrow, it's only PLO!"

When all is said and done, the 2010 edition of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure will remain in the history books as "The one with the shitty weather." The poker memories will fade away, while most players (especially the majority who didn't make any cash during the trip) will remember the incessant wind, cold temperatures, and occasional rain torrents who plagued the week. Stuck inside, tourists didn't have much to do. Perhaps it made it easier for them to realize how grim and fake the place is.

Ironically, the wind calmed down on Tuesday. Finally, the clouds were clearing the way for the sun right around the time hundreds of players were heading for the airport. Me, I got lucky: this twist of fate coincided with my day off. I joined my French poker friends who had rented a speed boat for the day. Our local guides took us ashore. Breaking the waves at fast speed, wind slapping in my face, I felt like I was escaping a golden prison. It took me three trips to the Bahamas to see something else than Paradise Island. We docked on a deserted island far, far away from any activity. A mile-long beach was us, at least for the day. No one in sight. No noise except for the gentle, relaxing sound of the tide.

"When it's time to leave, don't wait for me," I said. "I'm staying here."

Of course, I was joking. I wouldn't last more than three days in a place where Nutella, cigarettes and Internet access aren't widely spread. But still, what a place. I was finally getting a taste of the real Bahamas, the one I had previously only seen on pictures. Our guides flipped burgers on a make shift grill and handed us punch cocktails. After that, I made my way into the forest then on top of a hill. Old memories of Lost episodes were popping in my head. I didn't find any secret hatch. Instead, I found a clear view of the other side of the island. On this side, there was no wind and the clear, turquoise colored water stayed motionless. No beach on the shore, but a cliff instead, quite steep. Ahead, on the horizon, nothing but the ocean. With Antony, we walked down the stairs to a big sea dock.

"Let's dive," I said. Antony wasn't so sure. "This dock is quite high, and the water not very shallow. Besides, how will he climb back on land?"

He had a point, but I wanted to give it a try. The water was too perfect. We jumped, and landed successfully without hurting our feet. We started swimming. For just a few perfect minutes, we were on another planet. Of course, the dream didn't last too long. As Antony had predicted, it was impossible for us to climb back on the sea dock. The sun was setting down. We started screaming for help. I smiled.

"If they don't find us, I'm gonna have to start calling you Wilson."

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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