Borderline Gambling: Viña del Mar, Chile
"Be careful," the man casually removed his ear buds. "I am told there are two men on that street looking to rob people."
I was not, in that moment, enjoying Peru.
I had crossed the highway to the neighbouring district of Barranco, where I was to stay in a secure, undisclosed location. I was the guest of Maria, the hostel receptionist, and Alex, her French boyfriend. A friend of theirs, already well drunk, joined us for dinner. She had a curious configuration of bandages on her arm. A knife, recently, had been in one side and out the other. She almost lost it. An infamous local taxi driver had been serializing such crimes.
Maria and Alex impressed that she should be more cautious now. She took near medical amputation as a mandate to live life to the fullest - to drive fast. This apparently involved dating middle aged men. My insufficient Spanish prompted her to deliver an endearing soliloquy - on 'enjoy.' Her favourite word in English, she tried to convey her feelings for it through ambrosial repetition, "enjoy, enjoy... enjoy!" I was intrigued, but had an unresolved problem.
The next day that problem called me fourteen times.
When I moved in with her after returning to Lima for two weeks, I had budgeted for crazy. But she made a politician out of me by week four. I was running a crazy deficit. On Boxing Day I should have been polishing off Supernova status, but as she slept I was searching for flights. She grew erratic as it became clear I wasn't coming back. Next, I left my favourite hostel, where her sensible, benign uncle worked the night shift as I slept in an unlocked dorm steps away. Benign or otherwise, I take enough risks.
She was either having trouble interpreting reality, or was the type of person to say one thing, and for whatever reason, do another. She interrogated the staff at a restaurant I frequented. She phoned them multiple times, asking for me, belligerent. The waitresses called her "la chica pequena," (the little girl) when relating her visit to me. I was abashed.
When you move all in on the river with a hand that has value, typically, it is a play with positive expectation should your opponent call with a worse hand half the time or more. This did not need to work as often, it seems to me.
Had I known it was going to malfunction ninety percent of the time, I would still place the bet (first month's rent). Because that would mean, ten percent of the time, I would be a block from the ocean, paying half the non-gringo rate, with a lucid, live-in girlfriend.
Her hounding stressed me. Maria and Alex had one key between them and no internet. His chain smoking Beethoven parables had been as engaging as her lomo saltado was delicious. And as hedonistic as their voluptuous friend presented herself to be, when I arrived to a dark house the second night, amid admonitions of scoundrels, I checked into a hotel.
Dionysus looked down at his chips and his two hundred dollar placard, collected them all from the rail, and pushed them over the betting line. The final board read queen, queen, nine, eight, king, with no flush possible. I had pocket eights, for eights full of queens. But I didn't call immediately. Something was bothering me. Something had been bothering me from the beginning. Why had he checked the flop?
The game had been worth the wait and the price of admission. On this night the former was an hour, the latter eight dollars. It was eight dollars I had no opportunity to recoup the first time I came. I couldn't get a seat. A little past ten both tables were full, the floor staff absent. Irritated by cigarette smoke, I left promptly, resolved to return.
It is 4:45 am.
I am paranoid about missing my flight.
Steel rebar points skyward along the unfinished walls of the hostel's canopied roof. On the desert peripheries of Lima, far from manicured parks and endless concrete, the dust refracts the street lamps, coating everything in a jaundiced hue. Bricks move to the touch. This is common of buildings in Peru. The ongoing quality of a structure's highest floor is typically intentional - an open ended building plan anticipating a future change in funding, function, ownership, or progeny.
A large man with an encompassing, winged, back tattoo had decided not to turn off the click clacking of his apple device. And he had been getting a lot of messages. This is the main style of inconvenience in twelve bed hostel dormitories. I had not slept well.
I roused the receptionist in the absence of my taxi. She summoned a substitute and I was on the plane in time. Internationals used to have to pay an airport departure tax. The man waved me through. It had been the same in Colombia, a result of the latest free trade negotiations with my passport's country.
I was not so lucky when I landed, dispensing one hundred and thirty five bucks just to set foot in Chile. I had once been on the fence about playing the LAPT in the coastal Viña del Mar, ninety minutes from inland Santiago. At the time turning a profit on the airfare seemed tough, and with the tax added, beyond my poker prowess. This, it strikes me, is how these disincentives operate. People for whom one hundred and thirty five dollars is incidental are unaffected. But people for whom one hundred and thirty five dollars is instrumental go elsewhere. Of course, they would have released far more than one hundred and thirty five dollars into the brisk Chilean economy, never mind likely sludgy government tributaries.
Friday night I got in the game. It was 1,000/2,000 pesos, or 2/4 USD. Halfway through my session, two women approached the table. They smiled and waved, in my direction. I was entranced. They walked towards me. The game paused. The dealer stopped shuffling. A balding, hook-nosed, heavyset man in a polo and a Cheshire grin stood up at the table directly behind me. He was their friend.
One was stunning, a legitimate nine. The other was a goddess. She wore a short white dress, translucent, but only on account of overlapped cascading fabric. It is a serious disadvantage in life if your brain is deactivated by the substantiation of your highest aspirations. They doted, a delicate hand placed casually on his Dionysian belly. Play resumed.
The mark was on my direct left. He called anytime I raised before the flop. I had ace king one such time on a flop of jack, seven, three, against him and another, out of position, opponent. Only he had called my continuation bet. That's when I made my largest mistake of the session, checking on another, turned, three. I should have recognized the frequency that he was calling this flop, implying a wide, weak range. I could have made a profitable turn bet. Instead I checked and was forced to fold.
A smiling, obese twenty-something quipped from across the table, making sure the gringo knew he got outplayed.
I raised ace king the next orbit. This time the mark and I saw the flop heads up, green lighting machismo implications. It was queen, ten, four, with two clubs, and I had the king of clubs in my hand. I checked, content to call a bet. He obliged for twenty dollars. The turn was a fortuitous offsuit ace. I checked, and again, I faced a twenty dollar bet.
I had seen this opponent bet 'without purpose' previously. He had done so on the river of a king, queen board with pocket nines, rarely to be called by worse, and the way the situation worked out, never folding out better. I called again, hoping for such a river bet. On an offsuit seven, I check raised his twenty dollars to eighty-six. He called quickly but took his time to muck after I tabled my hand confidently.
A definitive confrontation would not come to fruition. The mark flopped an underflush against a tight player. Both slowplayed, but the board ran out clean, and all the chips went into the pot on the river. In his absence, I made the decision to leave my session early. The worst players had either busted or picked up their remaining stacks. To my left lounged two young players, one tight, the other corpulent but shrewd, sharing ear buds. Old nits sat on my right. The game had changed, as had my edge. I woke up fresh the next day. That would prove valuable.
Las Vegas. In the third level of another fifteen hundred dollar tournament I looked down at two kings. A new, unknown player had reraised an early position raise, giving me a decision for my stack. Could I call? I could move all-in. Or, I thought, I could fold.
Everyone was waiting on me. I hadn't put a chip in the pot.
I could fold here, I reminded myself. He looked so strong, in every way one could.
I wish I could blame the salad of misapprehensions repeated across the internet. You can't fold kings preflop. You can't. You mustn't! Boy I would sure love to play against you if you ever have.
The truth is that kings are just another two cards.
Most coolers aren't, particularly when navigating a sea of exploitable opponents. The truth is most decks are refrigerated to preserve reassurances. At some point you have to start taking responsibility. After countless repetitions, your deficits stand out, even to you.
Having a good image was unavoidable. I had already successfully squeezed, from middle position, after Dionysus opened to three times the big blind under the gun, a sign of weakness, and was called by the next two players to act. Next the cutoff isolated a limper on my button and I three-bet with king jack. He defended his raise and we saw a king, queen, four flop with two hearts. I had the king of hearts and checked back. I had an easy call on the five of hearts turn and an even easier raise on the ace of hearts river. I was fairly convinced my opponent, fit, middle-aged, unshaven, and vacationing (judging from his designer t-shirt), had been bluffing. Not only because all the hearts were out, the ace, queen, and jack on the board, the king in my hand. But also because he bet quickly, in reaction, I thought, to my flop check.
That is what led to me and Scruffy seeing another river an orbit later. Again he had isolated a limp, but this time in early position. I cold called next to act with ace ten of diamonds, probably one of the weakest hands with which I would do so. The flop came ten, four, two, with two hearts, the vacationer continuation bet. I called and the limper folded. The turn paired the two and added no draw. Scruffy fired again, almost one hundred dollars. I was not overjoyed, but my hand was too strong to fold at this point. The river was an offsuit queen. Scruffy was quickly all in.
The cards on the board change the situation, it should go without saying. My opponent would not have moved all in with two jacks. This river card made pocket queens less likely. The ace in my hand removed half the combinations of pocket aces from the deck. Would Scruffy move in with a heart draw that hit top pair? I was skeptical of that. Pocket kings began to loom large. I knew he could not have a deuce in his hand: he had been content to limp along often. His raising range was high cards, evidenced by a previous time he showed down ace eight.
It seemed to me that Scruffy recognized the queen as a scare card to my range and it also seemed likely to me that he wanted to even the score from our previous confrontation. I made the call and was shown an unimproved ace king.
I traveled to the coast by bus. In the cordillera transition from the Andes to the beach, along the spine of South America, there are countless switchbacks. They litter Peru, the only way up or down, over or around. And they are deadly. Men try to overtake other men at every pointless opportunity in bulky ten wheel vehicles hardly equipped to deliver lettuce, much less overloaded human cargo. The switchbacks are also where mudslides, earthquakes, boulders, and potholes intersect with rusty axels, top heavy frames, and bleary overnight bus drivers.
The road to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar undulates in great degree. But there are no switchbacks, only long and well maintained tunnels burrowing cleanly through the base of the intervening earth. Walking the streets of Santiago, clean and bustling, I understood more clearly why Peruvians scorn their southern neighbours. It is not unfamiliar to someone from Canada, where the most conspicuous ideology is anti-Americanism. Parochialism is universal.
Taking the subway through Santiago, stopping by Starbucks, watching Django Unchained, it amazed me that this was all of Pinochet and hyperinflation. But Peru is not far behind. In Lima, on at least one street corner of every block, there is construction. The country's reported infant mortality rate has been cut in half since the turn of the millennium, from over forty deaths per thousand births, to just over twenty. That is in less than fifteen years. If someone ever tells you how things are going from bad to worse you should ask them what they think the explicit function of the state is, and what would be a good way to measure success. They never give a good answer.
As so many hands had started, the players under the gun limped into the pot. I called with two red eights in middle position. The button limped along. This was the small blind's cue. Dionysus made it 13,000 pesos to go. Only the button and I called. The flop was simple enough, queen, queen, nine, with no flush draw. Dionysus hesitated and then checked. It was all in the space of eight seconds, but I had never seen him not check instantly when he checked. In multiway pots, in pots he had given up on, when he was chasing, he had always checked instantly. Why did he check? Why not instantly?
The flop checked through. The turn was a black eight. I had hit one of the two miracle cards in the deck. The god of wine fired out 25,000. I called, hoping to entice the button to come along, maybe with an inside straight draw, of which there were now many. But the button folded. Otherwise I was waiting for the river to decide about the strength of my hand. Maybe I had called a bluff. If so, I was giving Dionysus rope. Maybe he had flopped nines full. If he was slowplaying a queen I would always have the option of getting the money in. I reminded myself to be careful on a king or an ace river.
The river was a king. Dionysus hesitated. This was aberrant behaviour. He was renowned in this cardroom. The staff knew him, the regulars enjoyed his company, the beautiful women smiled in his direction, and he was constantly up from the table socializing. He had been content to bluff and to follow up his bluffs with more bluffs. He acted quickly and assertively. But now he paused. Then, all his money was in the middle.
The casino was palatial, close enough to the water that waves crashed onto cars parked in advance of high tide. In central Viña del Mar, the favoured holiday spot for Santiaguinos, it was surrounded by faddish sushi restaurants. A few blocks away stands a moai, one of eight hundred or so statues made on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, the far flung island territory of Chile. The island's demise, the favourite example of the declinist writer, is a religious parable of short sighted people constructing escalating, anthropomorphic monuments, consuming their resources until geographic circumscription comes to be definitive. Chileans stroll by the figure carved from volcanic ash, on their cell phones, without a second thought.
I took the metro to Viña's sister city, Valparaiso, whose architecture was part bustling shipping port, part 1947 Paris. Cynical, bicycling skeletons laughed as I climbed the steep streets. I began to wonder how accurately you could plot states onto the development index based solely on each country's ratio of dogs to intact dog testicles. As you ascend to overlook a port once crippled by the Panama Canal housing gets expensive. When you reach the top, it has already begun to swing the other way. It was overcast, but I returned burnt. Apparently there is no ozone layer so far south. Declinists rejoice.
Eights are just another two cards. When I flashed them, before throwing them onto the muck, Dionysus exaggerated his expression, as if to say, "I bluffed you off of that?" The dealer flipped the eights face up, since they had been exposed, so that the table could see. Murmurs escalated. He didn't muck. I didn't think he would.
"Show a bluff?"
"Now would be a good time to show a bluff."
My read went further than folding a full house, and what I hoped would happen, did. The table goaded their captain to reveal his cards. He was in good spirits and amenable to the attention. In weakness, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.
When he exposed a king my fold was vindicated. He would not move all in with a naked king. He would not have checked the flop with pocket kings. It had to be king queen. Was I constructing a narrative for the protection of my psyche? What else could it be? It had to be king queen. The table didn't make the same deduction. The tension was still in the air.
Ever the showman, he rolled his thumb across the king of hearts, to reveal its partner underneath, the queen of clubs. Two moribund nits were reanimated, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Bewilderment reigned.
I never show. But I was leaving the table within the hour, and after that the city, and shortly thereafter, the country. And I needed to know. At three in the morning on a Sunday, I stood up and cashed out my chips and placards. I had more Chilean pesos than I now knew what to do with and a flight to Buenos Aires before the banks opened Monday morning. They had let me into the casino in shorts and running shoes. I legged it back to my hotel.
Gareth Chantler is a PokerStars player and frequent traveler