EPT12 Prague: The mystery of Karlův most
The easy thing to do is sleep an extra few hours, let the body recover from a long plane ride, and allow the brain sharpen itself for two weeks of mental calisthenics. The poker game--today a €50,000 buy-in event--doesn't begin until after lunch, so lunch can be breakfast, and the workday will begin with a dream's sugarplums still dancing.
Anyone with a job to do, whether it's winning a poker tournament or reporting on one, could be forgiven for letting those sleeping hours butt up against the workday. I've done it before, and I've done it too many times.
But what about Karlův most?
I'd seen the words on a map of Prague, and I saw them flash on the back of my eyelids as I woke with the sunrise.
Karlův most had been nagging at me for the better part of a decade. The first time I remembered hearing the phrase was when a man named Otis Gibbs sang it on stage in Greenville, South Carolina's Handlebar. Though his voice had a certain gravel to it, he sung the words to his song "Karlův most" with a schnapps' sweetness:
"If you find you're becoming someone you don't recognize, the stars will still shine on the Charles Bridge tonight."
I talked with Gibbs a bit that night, but I didn't get around to asking him how he came to write the song. After that, I never got around to figuring out what the words "Karlův most" actually meant.
And, honestly, that's what bothered me. Of all the failures real and imagined I've forced on my psyche, the intermittent failure of curiosity may be the most senseless and infuriating. Google could've answered the question long ago, but I hadn't even managed that effort. It was a sort of mental laziness that, for my money, is unforgivable.
So, when my friends and fellow PokerStars Blog writers Howard and Stephen asked if I wanted to get up early for a walk in Prague, I said yes before I had a chance to think about the value of a few extra hours of sleep.
The air was cold, the kind that would turn your cheeks rosy in a few minutes. As Stephen, Howard, and I walked, it reminded me of my first trip to Europe for PokerStars. It was 2005 in Copenhagen, Denmark. My luggage hadn't finished the journey, and I was wandering with little direction through the Danish winter looking for some underwear. I walked forever, stopping in shops and bars, forced by the threat of nudity to become intimately familiar with a brand new city.
It was a sort of forced education, one that made me realize that poker had afforded me a luxury few other jobs would. By merely traveling to do my job, I would see countries my parents had never seen, eat food my grandparents never heard of, and meet people with whom I'd never cross paths at home.
In the early days, I considered my journeys to places like Uruguay and Argentina to be a sort of second income, one that paid in experience, stories, and understanding that my world at home was not the only world. I cashed those checks every time suburban ennui would creep up at home.
And then one day I decided I needed some sleep. The notion of getting up early on a workday that would last 16 hours seemed less necessary. That entire week I was in Panama, I saw little more than the hotel where I stayed. Fatigue and laziness had overcome curiosity, and with that, I, in essence, divested myself of that second income.
If I'd been thinking at all, I might have thought back to Gibbs' lyrics, and I might have wondered if I'd become someone I didn't recognize.
The easy thing for me to do--something I have probably done before--is to scream, "Well, I'm not the only one who does it!" And, clearly, I'm not. While we don't keep statistics on this sort of thing, a great many of the poker players who travel to play often show up to the poker room, play until they are finished, and then go home without seeing more than their hotel room and the airport. They don't see London's Big Eye, Vegas' Red Rock canyon, or Punta del Este's La Mano. They see cards, chips, and reflections of themselves at the table.
I think I've probably faulted those people in the past, but I've come to appreciate a simple fact: poker players' paychecks come by way of staying in their seats. The longer they stay seated, the more they get paid. They sleep to keep their minds sharp, and if all goes to plan, they will sit all day long.
I don't get paid--monetarily or spiritually--to sit down. People of my ilk get paid to keep moving. We get paid to see the things and learn the stories the folks who have to sit all day never get to know.
"Food tastes better outside," Stephen said.
We needed food and didn't mind eating outside if circumstances required it
We were in Josefov, the Jewish quarter, surrounded by Old Town Prague. A statue of Franz Kafka looked across Dunsi street in a neighborhood that dates back to a time long before my United States even existed. We could turn 360 degrees and see everything from the centuries-old St. Vitus cathedral, to gray Communist-era administration buildings, to a museum dedicated entirely to medieval torture devices. We'd been walking for hours, past the pastry shops, the Christmas markets, and the carts hawking mulled wine and schnapps. The streets turned from pavement to cobblestone to thin alleys to stairs that climb so high that their summit literally ended in the clouds.
In three hours of meandering through the streets, we saw people of every creed and color. An old busker stood on the castle stairs and sang--of all things--"Hotel California" through a Czech accent. It's like a place Disney would create, but it's real, and the only cost was the energy to get out of bed.
Finally, Howard said I should see the Charles Bridge. Along the way, I spotted a sign that read, "Karlův most." I told him about the Otis Gibbs song and how I'd always wondered what the mysterious words in the song about the Charles Bridge meant.
Howard looked at me out of the side of his eye. He was kind enough to remove all condescension from his voice.
"It means," he said, "Charles Bridge."
When Stephen said, "Food tastes better outside," I think he might have meant something more. It's better, I think, because it's different. It's not what we normally do, and that makes it somehow better. Whether we're getting out of our hotel rooms, leaving the security of our own country, or merely looking up from our phones to have a real conversation with someone, the mere act of experiencing something new and different makes things immeasurably better. We learn about other places and other people, and if we do it right, we learn something about ourselves. That is, if we look in the mirror and find someone we don't recognize, the Charles Bridge and the stars above it will be just outside. If we somehow make it out there, out to a place that isn't our safe hotel room, cloistered home, or secure country, some things we thought were mysteries might not be so mysterious after all.
That is reason enough to get out of bed early.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.