Churros and chips in Madrid
Seat draws are the curse or blessing of a traveler. My trip to Madrid began on an ominous note. On my flight from Philadelphia, I was seated next to a toucher. This man had a habit of telling me a bad joke and then accidentally brushing my leg or arm with the punch line. I couldn't sleep the entire trip. Still, soon after landing in Madrid, I immediately took to exploring the compact, energetic city.
After taking in some great art, including Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia, I sat in an outdoor cafe to enjoy some anchovies, chocolate and churros (not all at once). A couple of ladies asked to sit next to me as there were no other outdoor tables open. I was scribbling in my notebook and not in the mood for company--I silently grimaced, but of course agreed. After some innocent conversation, I discovered that one of the women was the president of an art foundation, filled with the work of an artist whose sculptures were also puzzles. She was also the daughter of an alleged Portuguese princess. I couldn't have invented a more fascinating lunch mate if I tried. Poker players take note: allow some time before you judge your table draw.
The PokerStars Women Live EPT Grand Final on May 11th featured 60 players from 14 countries. I used to think women's events had great value because of a larger pool of inexperienced players, but now I find the situation more complex. Events like the PokerStars Women Grand Finale event attract a wide range of players. Though there are some relative beginners, there are also many high stakes professional players who may not normally squeeze a €550 or 1K event into their schedules. Entrants to the Madrid event included Team PokerStars pros Liv Boeree, Victoria Coren, and Sandra Naujoks as well as professional players such as Vanessa Peng, Melanie Weisner and Xuan Liu. If you are preparing to play a major women's event, I'd suggest browsing through articles featuring top female poker players. If you recognize who's who at your table, you will be at a distinct advantage, or at least not a disadvantage.
In Madrid, I played most of the tournament to the direct left of Team PokerStars Pro Vicky Coren. I've always admired Vicky because of her witty writing style and her ability to combine a high-powered media career with poker. I didn't want to come off like a crazed fan girl but I told her how much I enjoyed her book--as an author myself, I can't imagine it ever gets old to hear that.
Coren was multi-tabling the women's tournament and a 2K side event upstairs, so she periodically left for chunks of twenty minutes at a time, even as we were playing six-handed. In one instance, after returning, Vicky sized up a woman's stack and I thought I heard her say: "That lady's a crude little gypsy," In shock, I asked Vicky why she'd call her that and she clarified that she had actually said, "That lady's accrued a lot of chips." I turned as red as the queen of hearts as Vicky relayed this hilarious misunderstanding to her 64,000+ twitter followers. Despite this embarrassing mishap, I got along really well with Vicky and the rest of the table. The poker itself was going well too. I managed to triple my stack without a showdown, mostly with well-timed three-bets and one big pot against Vicky. My fun halted right after the dinner break. With thirteen players left I lost a race with Ace-King vs. tens.
Of course, I did not go to Madrid to bemoan the result of a coin-flip. The food, fashion and nightlife of the Spanish capital were memorable, and it was easy to meet people in the very sociable PokerStars event atmosphere. I even found some new friends to explore the city with, from Andrew Li, the Grand Final tablist, better known by his online screen-name "azntracker," to Rie Woodward, a professional poker player and former New York Times writer.
My notoriety in the world of chess also spread quickly, and several poker players approached me to ask which game I prefer. I arrived from Madrid directly after providing live commentary from the US Chess Championships in Saint Louis, so I was in a mood to answer the question. I love chess for philosophical reasons; the game tantalizes the human mind--difficult enough to dominate lifetimes but simple enough to at times feel pure and transparent. Poker I love because it calls on so many real life skills like adjusting to new circumstances, influencing other people and managing money.
This spring, many women have fattened their own wallets through poker including Team PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst, who won back-to-back NAPT Mohegan Sun titles, and Canadian pro Xuan Liu, who placed third in EPT San Remo for €360,000. But amongst all the professionals, a Madrid local, Sara Mariani emerged victorious in the PokerStars Women Live Event, taking home over 11,000 Euros. This is the first year that the EPT Grand Finale has been hosted in the Spanish capital, so it was fitting to see the crowd cheer "Vamos" for the local champion.