LAPT9 Chile, Rodrigo Strong and the 'Viña del Mar gypsy'

Fabian Ortiz, the wiry Argentine, had just taken the chip lead before the Day 1B dinner break and as the players left the tournament area I was skimming through my posts. Done and I was out the door. 48 hours. I’ve seen it from my balcony, heard it from the hallway and was a few paces from it but I still hadn't been.

After two days in Chile, my toes were finally in the sand, I was finally at the beach. To be honest, calling it a “beach” left a lot to be desired. It was a mountain of sand, no more than a football field length wide, serving as a barrier between the ocean and town. I wasn’t complaining though, as I usually don’t see the sun for days and weeks on end, let alone get to relax on a beach for a half hour. Oddly enough, it was the first time I saw the sun since I arrived. When I landed, it had already set by the time I left the airport and the previous day it rained for the better part of the daylight hours.

Chile’s weather is weird. Every morning is muggy and cloudy but as the day goes on, it gets nicer and nicer. Temperatures hit their highest around dinner time and as you’re digesting, mother nature’s attitude towards tomorrow morning starts again. It’s like a hangover, usually getting better and more bearable as the day goes on. I was battling the tail end of one as I made my way to the water and even though I was 5,000 miles from home, feeling the ocean brought me back to the Jersey Shore.

Back before I graduated college and well before writing about poker was something I thought I wanted to do, let alone for a career. Fast forward nearly two years and I was working my first PokerStars event in Viña del Mar, Chile, still a surreal experience and opportunity.

A few cycles of the tide did the trick and I took a few pictures to send to my mom because if there is one thing we share, it’s a love for the ocean. I was relaxed, basking in the perfection of it all. I was halfway across the world, writing about poker, something that I pray is not a once in a lifetime experience.

Unfortunately, that relaxation didn’t last long.

“¿Qué hora es?” I heard from above and while I wanted to completely ignore the simple question, whenever I travel I have this fear of being the rude something. If it’s domestically, it’s the ‘rude New Jerseyan’, if it’s abroad, it’s the ‘rude American’. I stood, shook the sand from my hands and checked my watch.

“Siete y doce,” I said, puffing out my chest, proudly remembering all I learned in 8th grade Spanish class.

The woman wasn’t really interested in the time though. She instantly started poking and prodding me, picking at my t-shirt and reaching for my hands. She was rambling in Spanish, pointing this way and that, before taking a handful of leaves out of her pocket. She grabbed my hand and started making a cross with the leaves, I’m not religious but again, I didn’t want to be the 'rude American'.

I played her game for a few minutes and then trudged off the beach with her in tow. When we got off the sand I sharply said, using my minimal knowledge of historical boxing matches as opposed to 8th grade Spanish class, “No más.”

After more poking and prodding, I finally wiggled my way back to the hotel. I went to my room, did some other work and then made my way back to the tournament area. Fast forward four hours and that wiry Argentine was bagging chips, keeping my colleagues and I hoping, maybe even dreaming, that our first Latin American Poker Tour event could end with a player claiming his record breaking third LAPT title.

Alas, Fabian Ortiz bowed out in 26th place, shortly after the Day 3 restart but that’s when the entire tournament field started to learn the name they’ll soon not forget, Rodrigo Strong. As fate would have it, Strong and I crossed paths before the Main Event, the first night I was in Viña del Mar, around 3 AM on a cash game table.

I had a few drinks with my PokerStars Blog partner Jack Stanton and after Jack called it a night, I went over to check out the action. There were two cash games running with a list another two games deep but the poker nerd in me wanted to get a taste of Chilean poker. I ordered a beer and hovered around the room.

My beer was delivered almost right as the hand started and with three players calling a three-bet, from the player that I later learned to be Rodrigo Strong, the reporter in me inched closer to the table. The ace-high flop had to hit someone and after a bet, a raise and a call, my assumption was confirmed on the turn.

Minus the ace, it was a pretty dry board and after another bet and raise, all the chips got in. Strong turned over pocket aces for top set, while his opponent mumbled something in Spanish before tabling middle pair. It was like a scene out of ‘Casino Royale’, as Strong stacked up the plaques and checks that are used in Chilean cash games before getting up from the table.

He stepped away for a few minutes and as he made his way back to the table I quietly said, “Nice hand.” He smiled, shook my hand and after that, I figured I’d seen the biggest pot of the night and elected to call it quits until tomorrow. Eight hours later, I was on the floor working Day 1A of the LAPT9 Chile Main Event.

Admittedly, I knew maybe two people in the entire field but there, on the first table as you walked into the room, was the man with the top set of aces. We caught eyes and in between a hand, he came up to introduce himself. I thought nothing of it but four days later, that chance meeting, that hand, came full circle.

Strong was the first player to eclipse the 1,000,000 chip mark on the event’s penultimate day and he carried that advantage into the final table. A few hours later he then claimed his first LAPT title and a career best score. After the win, as I was writing my end of tournament winner’s story, Strong came up to me and said, “I knew the second I saw you the morning after the cash game that this was meant to be.”

I hadn’t thought about that but I really didn’t really start thinking about it until the next morning. I wasn't scheduled to leave Viña del Mar until 5:30 PM and my flight home wasn't until 11 PM. I had no idea why I woke up early or why I couldn’t go back to sleep but I decided to start my first day off in Chile with a run around the city at 7:30 AM.

After, I headed back to the beach. My run around the neighborhood didn’t yield much human interaction and it was early, so I figured no one would stop me if I took a quick dip. I flicked off my shoes, socks and shirt and slowly worked my way in. The water was relatively warm but I didn’t stay in for long; I ducked under a single wave and then trudged out. The air was cold so I grabbed my things and quickly scampered off the beach.

As I jogged across the street, I heard the first voice of the day, “PokerStars! PokerStars!” I stopped and turned. It was the same woman I came across on the beach a few days earlier.

I explained my interaction with her to a few of my colleagues and they described her, and people like her, as “gypsies”. I wanted nothing to do with her on my last day in Chile but before I could even react she was across the street.

“Get away from me gypsy,” I said, laughing now because I can’t believe I missed my chance to use my 'Borat' voice on an actual gypsy.

I tried to walk away but there was more poking, more prodding and then she started poking at my chest, where my PokerStars “STAFF” patch usually sat. It wasn’t there today because I wasn’t working and more importantly, I wasn’t wearing a shirt. She then made her way to my arms, squeezing them while saying one of the only words I understand from her furious ramblings.

“Fuerte, mas fuerte.” she kept saying and I kept hearing “Strong, very strong.” all thanks to 8th grade Spanish class. It was at that very moment that I started to believe Rodrigo Strong, that this weekend, this event, this trip, this 7:30 AM run, was “meant to be”.

When I explained my first encounter with the gypsy to a few PokerStars staff members, the Brazilian poker reporting legend Sergio Prado, joked that a Brazilian player had run into a similar situation a few days earlier. The gypsy tricked him into giving her a decent amount of money and promised to bring him “lots of luck” before running off. He was out some money but ended up cashing in the Main Event and then won a side event, runs that Sergio joked, “Had the rest of the Brazilians looking for that same luck.”

I’ve always been a believer that you make your own luck but that there also has to be something else. Maybe Rodrigo Strong found that gypsy. Maybe she gave him the luck he needed to claim his first LAPT title. But maybe there are also happenstance encounters that are stronger than the poker gods themselves.

Maybe some things are just meant to be.