LAPT Panama: A town full of fish
It's nearing 11pm and the van is bumping hard along the highway to Panama City. An American expat sits near the front explaining the subtleties of poker to a Venezuelan journalist who doesn't know a turn from a roundabout or a river from a lake. And there is nothing else. It's blackness, water and jungle, everywhere. Or that's what you're left to assume, because other than the dashboard's blinking lights, there is nothing but black.
"It's pretty," are the first words that recognize the approaching horizon. Panama City is rising out of the black like Las Vegas out of the desert. The expat in the front is on his first trip to Panama. He's alone and has just popped across the boarder from Costa Rica where he's been grinding the World Championship of Online Poker for the past several weeks.
And it is pretty. The high rises stretch much higher toward the sky than one would hope for an earthquake-prone area, but it's gorgeous in a way you might not expect. It's bright against the black, and suddenly the ride is less bouncy and more treacherous. Cars and people are everywhere in the narrow streets that lead to the casino that hosts the Latin American Poker Tour.
This is the fifth season of the LAPT, a tour that has stretched as far north as Mexico and as far south as Argentina. In all its time and all its events, this is the first time the LAPT has visited Panama.
Here is sum total of what many people know about Panama:
With that in mind, some people might wonder how this became a stop on the LAPT. That question becomes moot by the time the van parks in front of the hotel. The lobby is full of poker players. Hundreds of them slide in and out of the LAPT welcome party. It's more crowded than some people expect, but to the educated, it makes a lot of sense.
"This is like the hub of Latin America," explains Thomas Koo, the besuited, smiling fixture of the LAPT. "You can get a direct flight here from almost any city."
By the time the evening begins to wind down, it's clear Koo is right. The tables in the tournament room upstairs are set for more than four hundred people from all over the world. In the hotel lobby, international tourney rounder Jim Collopy is poking pieces of sushi in his mouth, clearly aware of the fact he's on an isthmus that divides two oceans of sashimi, and perhaps hoping the pickings are as easy the next morning in the tournament room.
"I did some research," says Reinaldo Venegas, the Latin American PokerStars blogger. "Panama means town full of fish."
He says it with a smile, but the etymology is apparently true. Fish and butterflies to be more exact. The grinders are hoping for fish. As for the butterflies and what swarm they might symbolize here, it appears that's a story better left for another day.
For now, it's morning, crunchy rock and roll plays over the tournament room speakers, and the dealers are setting up for this inaugural Panamanian event. As this four-day event kicks off, it clear this place is more than a song, hat, or canal.
Panama is the hub of Latin American poker for the week.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging