Poker in Latin America is booming so we decided to try it out for ourselves: “One element that serves as a point of differentiation for poker in Latin America is the visible exuberance of those who play the game”

Poker in Central America is alive and well – and Humberto Brenes is not the only star in San Jose

No doubt there is a lot to do in Costa Rica. Natural beauty abounds. Active volcanoes, exotic rainforests and cascading rivers rank among the Central American country’s attributes. You can even go to a butterfly farm if the urge strikes. But none of the 219 men and women sitting in the Ramada Herradura’s modern, wood-accented and chandeliered convention centre have those pleasurable pursuits in mind. They’re here to play poker, angling for a share of $ 1m in the first tournament of the PokerStars Latin American Poker Tour Season 2. As expressed to me by one 18-year-old competitor’s father, who braved a nine-hour flight from the Northwestern United States in order to be here, ‘We might go white water rafting tomorrow. But if my boy is still in the tournament, trying to win that first prize of $ 285,000, I’ll be right here. It’s gonna be a hell of a lot more exciting than anything I can do outside.’

Seats are taken, cards are dealt, and it becomes clear that this tournament, despite a rather modest buy-in of $ 3,500, has attracted its share of known pros. They include Victor Ramdin, David Plastik and, of course, Costa Rica’s most famous poker siblings Humberto and Alex Brenes. But most of the crowd here is a lesser known, more curious mix of Latino poker fanatics alongside young American and European online pros. Many of them qualified on PokerStars, and they view the trip as a bit of a busman’s holiday; expenses are covered and an early bust-out means a splendid day or two in the sun while everybody back home braces for the impending winter. ‘We are holding the LAPT in exotic destinations across Latin America,’ says Glenn Cademartori, LAPT president. ‘You can come, play poker, and have a great vacation over here.’

Poker central

At any rate, it’s all indicative of poker’s growth in Latin America and the region’s allure for those who reside outside it. ‘Why did I come down here?’ asks Ramdin, repeating my question. ‘For starters, I’m from Guyana, which is in this part of the world, so I feel very much at home on the LAPT
circuit. Plus I’m a culture freak and I love the food. You’ll see me hitting the roadside joints for dinner. Eat in the hotel? Forget it!’

One element that serves as a point of differentiation for poker in Latin America is the visible exuberance of those who play the game. Poker tournaments in the UK are typically quiet, solemn affairs. In America people get penalised for foul language and extreme emotion. Here things are a lot looser. Table talk unreels loud and proud in two languages. Fist-pumping, trash-talking and victory dances are all part of the game.

As usual Humberto Brenes has plastic sharks topping his stack and he playfully harangues tablemates, insisting that his chip-eating swimmers
are hungry for blood. At Ramdin’s table, a guy with snaky tattoos warns the pro that he’s coming to get him. And across the room, a jelly-faced
Costa Rican shakes cheeks and jowls, literally howling for the spade that will allow him to suck out and retain his tournament life. He hits it, leaps from his seat, and suddenly his whole body resembles a tub of fluttering pudding.

Egged on, no doubt, by the heavy presence of internet kids, many of whom are cash game specialists, the play here is fast and aggressive. There’s loads of bluffing and a surprisingly high amount of psychological manoeuvring from players who spend most of their time interacting with computer screens. Shawn Patrick Ryan, who makes his living playing online and resembles Smithy from the TV show Gavin & Stacey, calls a big bet with Sixes, wins, and assures his crestfallen opponent, ‘If it was anybody else I wouldn’t have called so quickly.’ The guy turns tilty for the next orbit or two, much to everyone’s delight.

Gummy shark

Never-ending banter does not pay off particularly well for Humberto Brenes. While little brother Alex hangs in there, the man who’s repeatedly described to me as the Doyle Brunson of Costa Rica (he’s actually way more gregarious than Brunson) nurses a short stack of 3,100. He shoves in against a long-faced Asian who turns up Q-5 suited. 

Eyeing the freshly revealed cards, Brenes says, ‘Say hello to my friend.’ He exposes K-6. When a Six hits on the flop, Brenes literally puffs up. Then a Queen on the turn deflates him. The river helps nobody. Much to the crowd’s chagrin, H.B. drops out of the running.

Getting up from his table, Brenes appears bummed out for all of about 10 seconds, at which point he and his plastic sharks begin posing for photos with fans. In fact, he is so accommodating that you’d think he’d just won the event.

Costa Ricans are proud about their poker. Humberto Brenes may have placed the country on Hold’em’s national stage, but he is by no means
its only talent. Three of the nation’s best players remain among the 38 who survive to day two: Abraham Rosenkrantz, who came 21st in the WSOP
Main Event in 2003, roosts among the chip leaders with 114,000. Standing tough alongside him are Max and Maria Stern. Card-savvy grandparents who divide their time between Costa Rica and Las Vegas, they reign as one of only two couples in which husband and wife have both won World Series bracelets.

Local heroes

In short order, though, the local ranks thin out. Early in the day, Rosenkrantz drops more than 100,000 in a single hand when he runs Kings
into Aces. He promptly hits the bricks. A few hours later, as the bubble looms, Dr Stern flames out as well. Once a payday is secured
only Maria remains, short-stacked but still very much alive. Lauded as the godmother of Costa Rican poker, dressed today in an orange ensemble
that’s as bright as Latin America’s sun, she clearly stands out against three tables filled with young, male, online assassins.

Is she intimidated? ‘Not at all,’ she insists. ‘I don’t have a lot of chips but I am very patient. And I’m solid. So a field of internet players is a good thing for me. They can be as aggressive as they like. I’ll wait for the right moment.’

And that is what she does, picking her spots and going after opponents who show subtle signs of weakness. She and the others clearly take a
toll on square-jawed, robotic looking Robert Henry Woodcock. He began the day as chip leader, with 181,300. From the start, though, opponents
peck away at his stack, munching on chips until they’re all gone. Woodcock earned his position by being ultra aggressive, and he loses it the same way. Unable to shift out of high gear, he continually opens the door for players to re-raise and shove on him. Too many times, he just can’t call. It turns into a war of attrition. Woodcock bombs out in ninth, winning $ 17,098 and missing the final table by one.

As the day’s dust settles, a decisive chip leader emerges. He’s Ryan Fee, a 20-year-old mop-topped internet pro from Philadelphia. Over the
course of the tournament he’s established himself as a fast-talking table bully, adept at stealing chips and using verbiage to put people off their games. He’s prone to pre-flop comments such as, ‘I’d love to shove now, but it would be too epic’ – right before folding. Fee continually asks for chip counts – other players find it obnoxious, but it’s due to his inexperience at playing live tournaments – and comments
on the ‘sick hands,’ ‘sick raises’ and ‘sick laydowns’ of his tablemates.

When the sunglassed and hoodied Claus Rasmussen makes one of umpteen raises, Fee gets into the Dane’s face and asks, ‘Are you Scandinavian?
You play like you are. You don’t have a call button. You either raise or fold.’

True to form Rasmussen remains expressionless and plays hard enough to ensure he’ll be joining Fee at the final table on day three of the LAPT in San Jose.

Paying the Fee

It’s a couple of hours into the final table. Fee seemingly hoovers chips at will. He serves as a locus for action. Last thing the guy needs is a lucky shirt. But there it is: a flashy red cowboy number, with snaps on the sleeve, Aces fanned across the front, and ‘Hold’em or fold’em’ scripted above his shoulders. Friends of Fee’s brought the shirt from home. They qualified on PokerStars and busted out long before the final table. Their plan,
however, was that whoever lasted longest got to wear the shirt. In Fee’s case, it suits him perfectly. Augmented by his hair, shades, and a pale moon of a face, the shirt transforms him into a baby-fat approximation of rocker Jack White.

It seems to simultaneously embolden him and bring good fortune. In one instance he induces Brent Sheirbon, an itinerant US pro, to fold after
helping to build a substantial pot. Fee shows pocket Fours and says, ‘I knew you were bluffing, but I was afraid you were bluffing with the best hand.’ He stacks his chips and photographers blind him with camera flashes. ‘Just another day in the life,’ Fee tells them.

Over time, the LAPT final table comes to resemble a National Geographic special, on which the fittest beasts destroy the weakest. Maria Stern,
who came in with a small stack and an enormous cheering section, is the first to go. She’s followed by Rasmussen, who busts out and receives a
big kiss from his pretty girlfriend (so it’s hard to feel sorry for him). Things become downright spooky when Jeff Patronack, a good-natured American who seems to be having the time of his life, gets it all-in against Fee. They both turn over A-K. Patronack’s are red and Fee has two spades. The flop comes J?- 8?-10?. It’s a lucky flop for Fee, giving him the win and sending Patronack to the showers. Then the Q? hits. It’s followed by the 9? – making for a seven-card straight flush. As Fee himself, almost speechless for once, puts it, ‘Sooo sick.’

After that it’s almost unsurprising to see him hit the straight that knocks out his friend Andrew Chen in fifth place and to catch an Ace on the river that wraps up the tournament, busts his final opponent and leaves Fee crowned king of the LAPT’s first event of the season. Posing alongside his crystal trophy – shaped to resemble the spade in PokerStars’ logo – Fee raises both fists in the air, smiles big, and half-jokes, ‘Poker’s an easy game. All you need to do is play well and run good.’

And wear a lucky shirt.

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