Borderline Gambling: Cartagena, Colombia

November 30, 2012

I admit it was my fault.

Once you have travelled enough, things take on a certain lack of urgency. It is your experience that everything will turn out fine. I was “late” to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I rolled up to the check-in desks at 7:10am to catch my 8:05 flight. I had decided to forgo the 5:00 shuttle from downtown for the 5:30.

Once I slept through the 5:30 and caught the 6:00, my margin of error had shrunk to a sliver, but I didn’t know it. It closed with the ‘airport express’ driver’s own lack of urgency and relatively interminable bathroom break.

“There are two hundred people who got here on time. How did they all do that and you could not?”

I resisted the urge to call this Air Canada representative names. I asked for his supervisor, who confirmed I could not get on the plane, with all the time in the world–fifty-five minutes that is–because amongst other things, the security for check-in luggage closed five minutes earlier.

Theatrically, I used the “I have to make this plane!” imperative – to no avail. We are just doing our jobs. There is nothing we can do.

What would Don Draper do? What would he say? Surely only he could talk these two onside.

No alternatives were suggested, save the protocol that I get in a new line to buy a new ticket for another day. I would miss my connecting flight to Cartagena, and I would have to plunk down some new fares. The original prices I had paid for my flights was practically theft – when I saw them online I snap-called and decided to sort things out later. The move that would make the most sense at this point budget-wise would be to purchase a new one way ticket to Lima, Peru, and forgo my Colombian vacation.

But I had missed Colombia once before. I wasn’t going to miss it again.

“What if I go without my luggage, can I make the flight then?”

“I guess so yes. There is luggage storage around the corner. That will be your responsibility. Come back here in five minutes and I will give you your boarding pass.”

It was almost like I had said ‘open sesame,’ except inside the cave with all the gold and jewels you were not allowed any check-in luggage. Maybe there really was nothing to be done. Maybe there really was a luggage airlock that automatically shut somewhere deep inside Pearson at precisely one hour pre-flight, guarded by a gun-toting robot with a mean streak. Maybe Mr. Supervisor had tried to cross that robot once before, and ended up here, a broken man. Maybe.

Time was running out. What to take out of my big bag? Guidebook. Pills. Condoms? I had to leave all my clothes. There was no room in my carry-on laptop backpack. I left my kit in the hands of a nice Russian couple who seemed unperturbed by my frenetic pace.

Handing me my boarding pass, Mr. Supervisor told me to run. I ran to security. The security people passed me through without major incident. They also told me to run. This was encouragement I did not need.

I had not run for a plane in a long time. When I travel, I like to amble. I like to explore new cities without thinking about where I am going or where I have been. I am only marginally concerned with where I am in the present tense. The opportunity to put my head in the clouds is an intoxicating, detoxifying priority. I had not run for a plane, a train, or an automobile, if memory serves, in seven years.

How stereotypical I must have looked. Unkempt. Dead sprint. Backpack bouncing along those long halls with their snail pace moving sidewalks. I was running twice as fast as the senior citizen cart was driving.

Gate 80, where was it? I burst down two flights of stairs and was suddenly lost in a sea of duty-free crap. Now was not the time for a gargantuan Toblerone bar. Gate 73-81. Left. Gate 76-81. Right. Gate 80. Left. End of the terminal. I turned the last corner and saw the flight attendants waiting for me. I was entering the land of competent employees.

“You can stop running my friend,” she told me in that distinct cynical Quebecois accent as I huffed and puffed. It was 7:56, plenty of time, particularly since we waited at the gate until 8:45 for some people to connect from Montreal. Oh well. I guess this long journey was going to start without clothes, or even better, a new sartorial me.

My mood was quickly ameliorated when a typical, smiley Latina sat down next to me in a black form fitting outfit. How tilted can one really be when getting on a plane bound for Colombia as winter descends around you? I am not one to complain about the miracle of flight. I’d be willing to wait all day on the tarmac for the Montreal group, to ascend into the sky, and return in one piece. But one would conjecture such a timeline had enough wiggle room for luggage.

Having lived over a year in Peru, I had met a lot of people who had come through Colombia, all without incident. Something you learn on the road, though, is that amongst travelers the definition of a safe locale ranges wildly. I was not sure what to make of a February 2012 article in the Washington Post, detailing FARC’s (Colombia’s revolutionary rebel group) decision to end its policy of “kidnapping for ransom to fund its war against the state.” Not the kind of press release that reassures your mother. And so many questions!

For instance, do paramilitary guerrillas now have PR teams, or do they bring in PR consultants? And which guru decided this press release was in order? See the sacrifices these sympathetic freedom fighters are making? In a principled stand they are no longer in the business of absconding with your loved ones.

“Most backpackers stay in Getsemani. There are many budget hotels, some of them excellent, others are more like brothels.” My guidebook is not always unfailingly accurate, but it was tonight. After connecting in Bogota I landed in Cartagena around 8:00pm. I knew the hostel I booked was in Getsemani – I just didn’t know where. Since my reservation cost a dollar it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t find it. The first place I went into had one room left for $140. A little steep. The precocious and bilingual receptionist pointed me in the right direction.

I was back in South America alright. Cacophonous traffic, loose bricks indicating perpetual construction, shops closed for the night with metal garage-style doors, working girls, and sideways looks, it was all here. I was not dressed for the heat. The second place I found was full for the night. The third had a room for ten bucks. Up two narrow staircases, it was about what you would expect — a lot of loose wiring, a haphazard connection between the roof and the walls, two beds, and two fans.

“Esta bien,” I told the manager, we settled up for the night, and I was asleep in ten minutes.


My room in Colombia

I admit it was my fault.

This game was too big for my bankroll. But it was too good to pass up. The board was jack, ten, eight, all diamonds. And all the money was in the middle.

My middle-aged opponent was exactly who you would picture at a 5-10 game in Colombia. Designer sunglasses, expensive watch, supermodel companion, and macho delivery – he wanted people to know he was secure in himself. I knew from the way he played cards that he wasn’t.

“Muerto,” he declared to the table, referring to my hopes of winning the hand, thankfully not my hopes of leaving the casino. His leggy senorita was immersed in her phone at the empty table beside ours. She wore red, carefully arranged tatters.

My chances were quite slim. I had the king of diamonds with a jack, top pair good kicker and the second nut flush draw. My opponent had me pipped in a very bad way, holding ace jack with the ace of diamonds. My chances of drawing out were not zero as he would have you believe, but 12%.

An offsuit nine on the turn meant those odds improved to 17%. I could now scoop, with a straight on any offsuit queen.


Again my opponent declared I was drawing dead, an affirmation that elicited half-hearted corrections from the table. I was silent.


When I had come to the casino the night before the 5-10 table had been full and they opened up a 2-5 (well, a 5,000-10,000 peso) feeder game. It played three to five handed. And I had a very large edge.

They didn’t accept US dollars, but they took Mastercard. I must confess it felt good telling the cashier “un millón pesos.”

I only needed the first 500,000 to cover the table and pocketed the rest. There were straddles under the gun for various amounts. It should go without saying that when playing twenty to forty big blind stacks, straddling is usually not a good idea, certainly not for five times the big blind.

But that’s what my opponent did, for one seventh of his total stack. On the button, I looked down at king queen offsuit. I raised to 125,000, hoping to prompt calls from hands that would have otherwise folded to an all-in bet. My opponent checked his cards and instantly obliged.

The flop came, queen, jack, ten, with two spades, and he moved all-in for his last 225,000. I called. All he could manage was the ace of spades with an offsuit five, and I scooped a big pot early. He didn’t seem too perturbed. In fact, with his shaved head buried in his mobile phone, he was making a big show of not being perturbed.

I was winning every small and medium pot. My opponents were limp-folders who did not value bet, raise preflop, or bluff effectively. With a 160,000 stack, the player under the gun straddled to 35,000. The aforementioned bald player, on the button, called. I decided to just call in the big blind with queen jack offsuit. The button had about 415,000 to start the hand and I thought I could make more money keeping the player under the gun in the pot than shoving and taking down the 85,000 right there. That could have certainly been a mistake, but I was emboldened on a flop of jack, three, two, rainbow. In a game like this, with shallow stacks, I had hit the jackpot. I checked and the under the gun fish moved all-in for his last 125,000, the button called without hesitation.

There was only one thing left for me to do. I moved all-in over the top, covering the button, who again snap-called. I opened my QJ, under the gun tabled 82 offsuit, and the button turned over KQ. I had 66% equity in a three-way all-in and was crushing in the substantial side pot. The turn was a 6. I was 81% to scoop. The king of diamonds hit the river and I tried not to flinch. Just short of a million pesos got pushed towards my no longer listless opponent.

“Back to work,” I reassured myself. I would be able to win those chips back. I wasn’t upset. This was a great spot and I was still ahead in the game. But baldy had other ideas, immediately picking up his newfound stack and bringing it to the big game’s freshly vacated seat.

I was playing about 40% of hands – my opponents doubling my effort. Only the wheelchair bound man on my direct right had a fully functional fold button. So when he raised to 40,000 under the gun, I just called on the button with a black ace ten. The big blind came along to see an innocuous Q62 flop with two diamonds. When it checked through he led for 45,000, on the ten of diamonds. The tight initial raiser came along.

I had to have the nuts here, I thought to myself. So often both players will have a worse pair, a one diamond hand, or both. Any which way, I had the best hand, and would be best served pushing that edge. I raised to 175,000. The big blind folded grudgingly and the initial raiser came along after counting down his stack. He had only 25,000 left behind and I had made a minor bet sizing mistake.

He tossed that last 25,000 into a pot of over 500,000. The river card? That pesky king of diamonds. I took the pot odds and called, to watch the singular ace of diamonds gradually turn over. My neighbour was enjoying his victory with the customary South American one-card slowroll. After I mucked my hand the dealer spread the ace to reveal the two of clubs, face up, underneath. I was pleased, confident my read had been precise and my play had been strong.

The game broke shortly after and I had won 400,000, about $200. At the cage, with 1.4 million pesos in chips on me, I read the sign that said all winnings of 1.25 million or more were obliged to be taxed 20% by the government. I didn’t know what to make of that. I pocketed 200,000, content to cash it in the next day. I had a reason to come back.

And when I did there was a seat in the 5-10 game. My early arrival made sure of it. Instead of cashing in, I sat down with the full million this time. Things went awry so quickly when the macho man open shoved the jack, ten, eight flop, after limp-calling pre.


On the four of hearts river, my opponent’s accuracy had improved substantially. My stack was crippled. I had a lot of work to do. And it was entirely my fault.

Gareth Chantler is a poker player, Zoom poker specialist, traveler, and writer


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