Panama provided a lot of firsts for several players. It was the first major tournament for some lucky qualifiers and a maiden voyage to Latin America for others.
Many were surprised by the lush patches of green surrounding and dotting the city. Panama City is the only city in the world with a rainforest within its city limits. But there were other bubbly patches of green around the tournament area that raised eyebrows and caused a few players to snap pictures with their phones.
They were looking at mate, a South American drink that's served in a gourd and typically drunk with a silver straw. Hot water is poured over a grinded, leafy concoction that resembles something players are more used to smoking.
Not for Argentinians though. The drink was officially deemed a "national infusion" by Argentinian congress in 2013 and some Argentinian players wouldn't dare play a poker tournament without it. You can almost estimate how many Argentinians are in the field based on the number of hot water thermoses.
The presence of a large tub of hot water emblazoned with Argentinian patches in the $10K High Roller indicated that there were quite a few. Not surprisingly, Germans, Americans and Canadians were the three most represented countries in the field, but Argentina tied Spain for fourth.
The frothy herbal concoction was being brewed and sipped across the High Roller.
"Mate is simple," said Team PokerStars Pro and lifetime Argentinian Leo Fernandez. "It's good for waking up, it's good for playing poker, it's good for whatever you want to do."
And Fernandez likes to play poker. The team Pro has been playing for so long that he remembers having to walk 10 miles on dirt roads (not really) to play a poker with only 32 cards (really). Fernandez says that when he started playing in Argentina more than 25 years ago, the deck only went as high as seven. Fernandez says that didn't change until Johnny Chan won the WSOP Main Event and Texas Hold'em found its way down to Argentina.
Fernandez watched the game grow in Latin America and he grew along with it. The Team Pro has since amassed more $2 million in live tournament earnings along with one LAPT victory here in Panama and two LAPT High Roller titles.
"The truth is we have really good players in Argentina," Fernandez said. "There are a lot of us that were on the LAPT for all nine seasons.
"We developed a lot of great players in that time. Players like Damian Salas."
Out of the six Argentinian that entered the High Roller, Salas and his mate gourd are the only Argentinian remnants left in the field. Salas is closing in on seven figures in lifetime cashes and he recently scored his first big buy-in cash when he finished 15th in the €10,000 8-Max High Roller in Barcelona. Now, with two tables left, Salas is hoping to take down the inaugural PSC Panama High Roller.
While Salas and Fernandez are close in age, Salas didn't start playing poker until 2006. He'd played a few times with friends, but it's when he started playing online that he really dove headfirst into the game.
"I started as a hobby with no intention of playing professionally," Salas said. "I was just playing cash games back then and then all of a sudden, a year later, I was playing high stakes without even realizing it."
Salas got serious about the game after that and banded together with a network of Latin American players all dedicated to improving their game.
"Along with some Uruguayan players we've formed a small community where we exchange a lot of opinions and talk and mature as players," Salas said. "I think poker in Latin America has taken some pretty large leaps. Four or five years ago the difference with European players was huge, not to mention six or seven years ago.
"But now it wouldn't shock me to see a Latin American player win the World Series of Poker Main Event. I think there are a lot of players that are at that level here."
Leo Fernandez agrees and says he looks forward to seeing poker grow even more in the region.
"Like PokerStars says, I really think there's a new era of poker that's starting," Fernandez said. "It's only just starting to settle in in Latin America."
For live updates from the $10K High Roller, visit PokerNews.
Take a look at the official website of PokerStars LIVE, with tournament schedule, news, results and accommodation details for the PokerStars Championship Panama and all other Festival and Championship events.
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Alexander Villegas is a freelance contributor to the PokerStars Blog.