Borderline Gambling: Punta del Este, Uruguay

It was dawn.

Horizon abounded. I was in the Pampas all right, the flat, fertile lowlands that cover Uruguay and spread across eastern Argentina. A wiry cat slunk under the ranch's fence, a day of sleep ahead of it. I declined Monica's offer of the potent, ubiquitous mate, to which just about everyone I crossed was addicted. Her husband Miguel took me to where the horses roamed. He saddled me up before mounting, bareback, the ranch's young stallion.


I was wearing a goofy helmet and bouncing up and down despite a slow pace. He was lithe and relaxed, casually touring me around the property, offering instruction. The ranch dogs ran alongside us and took turns tackling one another. The horses' family tree and the grazing-fallow cycle were topics of sparse conversation. Whoever Miguel had been before (he wore the German flag on his green jacket's shoulder), he was a gaucho now - a South American cowboy.

"Where are you going after this?"

"I was thinking Punta del Este."

"Punta del Este? That's where all the rich people go to show off their money. There are
much better beaches than that."

I had taken the ferry across the Rio de Plata from Buenos Aires to Colonial del Sacramento, the furthest point south west in Uruguay. The only thing I had known about Uruguay before landfall was that it rhymed with Paraguay. And the only bed I could find online the night before was at a horse farm in the countryside. That morning, I only almost fell off once.

"Where you want to go is Punta del Diablo."

Tranquilo -that perfect Spanish word - that was Punta del Diablo's reputation. Halfway to the border of Brazil, Diablo was known for surfing, counterculture, and old fishermen. Monica and Miguel used to operate a hippie hostel there. They retired rustic, tending to a dozen horses and taking in travelers. Despite the flies with whom I shared breakfast, their place was idyllic.

Miguel's disparagement was precisely the endorsement I needed. I wasn't heading east looking for tranquility. I was looking for a card game.


Booking a bed in advance can be quite cumbersome. You have to go find it. I got off the bus in the midst of beachside high rises, having crossed the length of the country in five hours. My hostel, it turned out, was ten kilometers away, in the next town. So I walked in the hot sun.

I passed people sporting ill-fitting and delusively skimpy swimwear. The beach wrapped uninterrupted around each bend of the shoreline. A couple miles on, high rises turned to kempt lawns and aristocratic shrubbery. An elderly man in a restored sixties-era sports car asked me, the sweaty gringo with the backpack, for directions. I stopped for fish at a restaurant and everything there, the dozens of umbrellas particularly, was emblazoned with the MasterCard logo. If I could find a game, it was going to be good.

When I reached the town of La Barra the sun was setting and my direction, a street name hastily punched into my iPod, wasn't comprehensive. But I found the street in question and followed it into the woods. At some point on that winding, unpaved road, past barking dogs chained to properties disguised as scrap heaps, I was reminded of the value of getting off a bus and staying at the first place available. Thankfully, as the light drained from overhead, I found a series of wooden planks, nailed to a tree at every subsequent fork in the road.

Each was painted with the word "hostel" and an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction. When I got there, as often happens, I was one of the only guests. Some people have reservations about booking a bed in an eight bed dorm, but having the room to yourself for basically nothing is quite economical.

In the morning I hiked through the forest, up a hill, to the Mantra resort. Its website advertised a poker room "which is visited every year by the best players ... in the world, (and) holds events with prize pools above 1 million dollars." The main entrance's escalator took me to an empty, spacious casino floor, replete with slots and some table games. The employee I spoke to said they hadn't had poker in years. I got the sense he was trying to get rid of me. I was traveling great lengths for an unguaranteed proposition.

My toil-free day complete, I took to ordering Coronas and calamari at the astutely named "bikini beach." There are always families, people of all ages (and shapes), at these places, not the classically imagined eye candy. But wandering any strip of sand, you're likely to find some diamonds in the rough.

I took the bus back to Punta del Este at noon the next day, renting a bed for twenty dollars a night at the '1949 Hostel.' I couldn't imagine that it had been so named, on and after its founding date, with the plan of eventually cashing in on nostalgia. I was now five minutes along the boardwalk from a casino that actually dealt poker. While I was scouting the location a hostess told me the game started somewhere around seven, and added with a hint of admiration, that it ran until daybreak. I took out cash; the ATM dispensed American dollars in hundreds.

Hostels invariably carry the same cast of characters. There was the sun soaked fifty-something European, traveling alone, and willing to exchange my Argentinian pesos at a less cutthroat rate than the local establishments. I suspected this transaction was taken partially in hopes of finding a dinner partner. There are the familiar couples a month away from grad school, the four inseparable Argentinian eighteen year olds whose music reaches every floor, and of course, the American nurse from Seattle whose body is intensely symbiotic with her Lululemon attire.


When I put my name down on the cash game list that night an old man chatting with the floorman mentioned that "you need at least $200 to sit." It didn't occur to me until later that I was being told I wasn't where I belonged. The game was three dollar, six dollar, no limit. I sat down with the maximum six hundred, moments later.

American cowboys, not gauchos, played cards in a mural on the wall. A curious logo on the felt just said "Poker Tour." The Conrad, which faced the sunset over the point, had all the winking kitsch cum grandeur of a Las Vegas casino with a dash of misimagined Americana.

On the coast of Uruguay, in ratty shoes and a t-shirt on its third shift since last being washed, I would get towed into that treacherous body of water known as the bluffing vortex.
The session began conventionally. I raised two jacks and folded to a limp-reraise, confident I was avoiding a trap more often than not. I raised king queen and flopped top pair, collecting a three-way pot with a second bet on the turn. In the cordoned off room, waitresses wearing corsets with fishnet stockings distributed fancy drinks to a motley lineup of yacht owners and displaced disco patrons. I folded pocket tens to a turn shove from an amateur who was running hot, on an eight, six, five, six board. I ran a big bluff from my button, versus an early position limper on a queen high board, with total air. My opponent dwelled before folding the river to my all-in, and with that I was ahead in the game. I picked up two aces shortly thereafter and managed to extract a couple hundred dollars of value.
They're called playing cards. And they're fun enough fanned across your fingers, guarding insipidity. Face down they aren't all that serious either. With their kings and queens, suits and symbols, these are the vehicle to playing with strange adults, in strange places?
Face up on the table however, the five cards were terrifying. At least, I hoped so. The jack of clubs was last on the scene, the banshee. I had ace three of spades. No pair, no draw. My opponent gave me one last glance and checked. I had no choice now, only the fatalist wish that the ghoul's appointment was with him. Brusquely intimidating him wasn't going to work, looking like I was trying to, even less so. So I waited, exerting what I could on my fate.

He and I had close to eight hundred dollars each. That was before our chips began eddying centripetally. I never looked at the pot. But having bluffed at every opportunity, I was sure a whirlpool had formed. Was I trapped in its current and just didn't know it?
He had reraised a late position raise. I had entered the fray with a re-reraise. When he called I had bet the three-club flop, and when he called that, the three to a straight turn. The river, the fourth club, the fourth card to a straight, left me no choice.

The casino didn't use twenty-five or hundred dollar chips; everyone had stacks and stacks of five dollar redbirds. They stuck together, faintly coated in residue. I squeezed my last three towers together, piled loose chips atop, and pushed. My opponent made a histrionic gesture in the corner of my eye.

This was not a good sign. I stared at the felt.

I remember the last time I bluffed all-in on the river and provoked that reaction. In that instance, a French amateur eliminated me from a tournament moments later.

He called as if he had no choice. Two black queens were good.

I realized, suddenly, I was an outsider. The hero walked over to seat five to bump fists. His friend requested my cards, which were already atop the muck, be turned over. The dealer obliged him. I cashed my remaining fourteen dollars at the cage and walked out to where the sun had set so brilliantly not many hours before. The world's worst Beatles cover band was playing "All You Need is Love."

Should I really be here, doing this? The poker professional is without supervision. When experiencing angst, we're inclined to fantasize that perhaps supervision would protect us, offer comfort and prevent ruin. It is probably not unlike the fantasy that there is such a thing as morality or moral choices, that events have echoes because we are surrounded by walls with a ceiling overhead.

But the universe, just like the deck, is indifferent. As with the state censor, no one is qualified for the supervisor's task. And everything passes in silence, which is just as well, because there is nothing out there to rebound a peep.

So when I walked out of the casino it was only me standing where the sun had gone down, left to decide what I was going to do next.


Your mind constructs peaks and valleys, triumphs over tribulations. But no drama resolved has permanence; you still have to wake up the next morning. And the alternative to that peculiar deflation is considerably worse.

I was reading in the sun, working on my burn. My consolations were not of philosophy, but in a bottle, which I shared with the cynically bemused hippie in the next hammock. I could hear all about the system and its impertinence. What an imposition it was! At night there was endless barbeque and travel tales. I could hear all about "how you really must go to Bolivia" and "oh I loved Armenia." I played cards into the night with people whose names I doubt I even asked. There was no rent money in the middle and no felt across the picnic table. Strategy but no consternation, tricks but no tallies, and tension interrupted by laughter.

Miguel had been right. I had wanted to go to Punta del Diablo all along.


Gareth Chantler is a PokerStars player and frequent traveler


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