Borderline Gambling: Buenos Aires, Argentina
To live well, the right things have to go wrong. I don't know in what proportion. But in Buenos Aires, I seemed determined to find out.
I woke up in Santiago at five. The cabbie told me to pay him in advance so the police wouldn't see us exchanging money at the terminal. Chile had been the most modern place prior to this.
The gate changed and we bussed along the tarmac. This was apparently a novelty: two girls posed in front of the plane for a drowsy, reluctant photographer. The crew hustled us aboard.
Then we waited two hours. Some people were moleste, which means upset. I slept spasmodically. The way you realize is uncomfortable only after you wake up, unsure if your neck will regain its initial position.
We got there. That's my criterion.
Traveling and gambling isn't everything you might imagine. When I got off the plane, for instance, the opening chords to "Gimme Shelter" weren't reverberating in the air. Actually, I was a little nauseous.
"Have you paid the immigration fee?"
"Ok, wait over there."
What a strange thing, that you can remember that you've forgotten something, but not what. Customs didn't have the capacity to take the seventy-five dollars I was supposed to have prepaid online. So, with an escort, I had to pay at the uncooperative computer station of some car rental company.
An hour later my bag was waiting for me.
I grabbed a sandwich and a beer, opened my guidebook, and began orienting myself. I wasn't sitting for fifteen minutes when a uniform ushered me to leave. I didn't understand why, but people were being evacuated. I deserted half a Stella in the middle of an empty airport lobby. A sin, surely.
I found an ATM to retrieve some local currency. The machine quaffed my card and like a cheap drunk, became inconsolable. The evacuation net widened.
In foreign places you see everything through odd-coloured glasses. There were fire trucks outside. Why were they evacuating the airport with so little urgency? I bunkered down in an internet café and was told not to leave. The emergency preparedness exercises ended about an hour later. I took the bus into town.
The bearded man was unhappy. I had four bet (re-re-raised) to over one thousand pesos. He was cursing and talking to the table. He counted out the calling chips and slid them into my peripheral view. I took all of this as indication that he was going to fold. Who tanks, kibitzes themselves aloud, and continues in a hand knowing the weakness betrayed? I remained focused on one spot, protected by my routine. No expression, no thoughts, becoming more relaxed as time passed and my heart rate came under control.
On two connected steamboats, moored permanently to a pier in Buenos Aires, you can gamble. On the top floor, I found the busiest poker room in South America. The bearded man helped me put my name down and we started a new table. He sat on my immediate left.
There is a distinct advantage to playing with chips in a foreign currency. That being, you're never sure how much anything is worth. So thinking in units, that nirvana where a poker player ascends beyond social fabrications of money - to play on a cloud - is easy to achieve, maintaining sufficient ignorance.
The big blind being twenty pesos was immaterial to me.
Later, enlightened, I learned this was an accurate belief. Argentina's currency had been devaluing sharply for months. Exchanging the Chilean pesos I had won over the weekend, wholesale, had not been savvy. Beating the juice is one thing. Knowing how much you need to profit, to stand up with the same amount a few hours later, is another.
Transcending oneself on the felt is fulfilling, winning that internal permission to, in the spirit of Buddhism, condescend every white person on the subject of personal happiness. The one problem with my being a void was that the hand was not over. I should have been thinking of what I was going to do in the unlikely event the bearded man decided not to fold.
I had found my hostel easily. It was clean and lively. I was older than half the staff and for the first time it seemed like everyone spoke English. Close quarters and big couches stoked conversation.
Her name was Andréanne.
What could be perfect was. Quebecois and assigned to my dorm, she exuded francophone femininity. She was en route to hike Patagonia. Solo. She had worked full time through her bachelor's degree, and loved nothing more than sports and trekking. We shared bunk beds, hers above mine, and midnight conversation.
"I'm so old," I joked, recently twenty-seven.
She confided in me; she wasn't ready for her parents to grow old. I related some observations on expectations, how I had never lost someone when young. How that led to horrible expectations. She said thinking of death, really thinking of it, would drive anyone crazy. She wasn't going to think about it, she added, she was going to put it off. It caused her anxiety. I told her she wasn't alone and she said she was thankful for that.
I took in an extended view while, on her tip toes, she arranged things on the upper bunk. She wore a thin blue shirt, a V cut with shoulder length sleeves. Jeans hugged muscular hips. Handheld tits. After an hour she anecdotally mentioned her boyfriend, thrice.
She had a bus to catch at noon. But before that she was heading to Cementario de la Recoleta, to see Eva Peron, amongst others. I said I would join her before a certain revelation. I woke up groggy. Unaware of the hour I collected my stuff and left before she could open her eyes. I couldn't torture myself with a perfectly not perfect girl.
The game on the steamboat had not begun well. I flopped top pair in a limped pot the first hand, lead out, got one caller, checked the turn, and bet the river for value, having made trips. I folded to a minimum raise: the backdoor flush had come in, as had some gutshots, and my kicker wasn't going to play. The river raiser had little idea what was in store.
In the first orbit I opened ace queen offsuit in early position to seven and a half big blinds. The bearded man, next to act, three bet me to the minimum. I folded, a weak play, but at a ten handed table I wasn't too keen on proceeding. He showed me two tens, a bit of a surprise, and told me if he had just called he would have to play a six handed flop, which he wanted to avoid. I filed that away.
I bled down and topped up - giving up on most pots I played. Then the river raiser opened under the gun and I re-raised in position with ace queen suited. His flat call produced a four, four, eight flop with two diamonds. I had clubs. Check check. An offsuit six turned. Check check. On the ten of hearts river, with a thousand in the pot, he bet his entire fifteen hundred peso stack. I wanted to beat him into the pot. I slowed down, but couldn't muster a thought process other than, 'I am going to win this guy's stack.'
He showed ace five of diamonds, putting money in at the two junctures when he was crushed, but failing to do so when he had a good chance of drawing out. I was back in the black. The quiet nit in the four seat said, en espanol, "that's not poker."
I was staying in the San Telmo district - cafes and tango bars, with Baroque architecture - a flanneur's paradise. A cavernous Starbucks occupied the ground floor of one block's black-spired corner. It was a good place to avoid her.
"You worked at Starbucks today?"
"Yeah it was great."
"I don't like that!"
My peppy new roommate from Chicago was nothing if not forward. Thankfully he was agreeable to a fault, unless on a topic beginning with the adjective American. He was heading to Lima for a month, on mission, after a few in Argentina as an exchange student. He was going up to the Peruvian cordillera, the forgotten interstitial lands between population centres. Destitution is the norm, I reported, which made him sad. I could tell he was not ready for it.
"Why come to Buenos Aires if you are going to go work at Starbucks?"
I like working there. I get a lot done. And I don't pretend to be the arbiter of what is and what is not Argentinian culture or cuisine. Starbucks is a bit departed, I admit, from the abattoir's best friend, the Argentinian parrilla.
Steak is a delicacy. I have it about twice a year. And I don't think if I ate the second best steak in the world the night before, I would want the best one for lunch. In Argentina this level of asceticism is not an option for the culture vulture. After three steaks in ten days I was going to explode. Thankfully one night two Norwegians and I washed it all down over nine hours with two bottles of red wine and a parade of liquor.
Inebriation is a delicacy. I have it about twice a year. And I know that if I had the second best inebriation the night before, I wouldn't want the best the next day for lunch. Twenty tourists gathering for the hostel's city tour found me splayed across the basement's couches. When you don't drink, but then do, your odds of embarrassing yourself are quite high. I stumbled to my bunk upstairs for more sleep. There was no sign of Andréanne.
After I called his all-in with a better ace high, seat six decided to lose his mind. He had been playing loose, but now he played every hand and for all the chips. Trying to unburden himself, he called the pot sized shove of an old man on ten, eight, seven, no flush draw. Facing kings, with three five, he had no direct outs. I didn't get wet in the bloodbath, but in nine hands he spread six rebuys around the table, before saying good night. The biggest spoils went to my immediate left. He now had a huge stack.
I isolated a limper and the bearded man three-bet me once again. This time, it was to less than the minimum, but the dealer didn't notice. I did not mind - it didn't appreciably affect my bad intentions. I knew what kind of hand he had. That, it is worth pointing out, is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for a successful bluff.
When he called my four bet, the flop came seven, four, three, rainbow. I had ace eight offsuit - nothing. But the bearded man was weak; I could not give up on a huge pot. I had twenty five hundred pesos remaining at my disposal. I cut out seven-fifty, prepared to launch the rest on the turn. Again my opponent started talking, eyeing my stack. It seemed like this time he had given up.
He shrugged his shoulders, picked up chips, and raised me to fifteen hundred. When I folded he slammed the table, he knew something had been up! I gathered my remaining chips to leave. Quitting is a skill. Before I did he told me two things. First, that he thought I had ace king and second, that he raised the flop, with two nines, to see where he stood. This meant that he had not folded the bottom of his range preflop. I began to realize the extent of my misread. I walked the piers back to the hostel.
I was working late in the lobby, some hours away from boarding a ferry across the Rio de Plata to Uruguay. I had taken some time off before returning to the steamboat, dropping down to the 5/10 peso (1/2 USD) tables. The action was juicy and I slowly won back what I had lost. During the days I lounged around San Telmo - old bookstores, antique shops, and fading graffiti. I wasn't particularly productive. I watched tango classes and tango dancers. Every Sunday an artisan's market filled the streets. I didn't buy anything.
Out of the elevator appeared Andréanne, up early to catch a sunrise flight. I hadn't seen her in the intervening week. She typed her email address in my word document. I wished her safe travels and asked her if she needed help. She didn't. Her petite frame hauled her oversized kit into the night. The wrong things were going right.
Gareth Chantler is a PokerStars player and frequent traveler