LAPT9 Panama, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Blog Team

The life of a poker blogger is a grind. So far this year, I’ve worked 100 days, been to eight states, three countries and have hyperbolized my way to just over 2,000 Twitter followers. There have been countless nights in Holiday Inn Express' and moments where days slowly turn into nights, that even more slowly turn into mornings, where that hotel bed doesn’t even get used. There are dozens of notepads with chicken scratch documenting check-raises, chip counts and flops. There are hand histories that are told, hand histories that are drowned out by the music in my headphones, hand histories that are forgotten. There are bad beats, suck outs, winner’s photos but in the end, through all of it, there are some great experiences.

The Latin American Poker Tour is one of those great experiences and I was lucky enough to complete my 100th day of work this year covering the LAPT9 Panama Main Event. The crew from the PokerStars side of things was the same as the last stop in Chile. The efficient Sergio Prado, who spent most of the trip writing about his countrymen winning SCOOP after SCOOP after SCOOP but found a few moments to glide out to the tournament floor, iPad ready, to follow Brazil’s attempt at back to back LAPT wins. The low-key Reinaldo Venegas, who is the LAPT Media Coordinator extraordinaire and always seems to make doing five things at once look like a piece of cake, and eat cake we did, as we celebrated his birthday on Friday. The pleasurable Carlos Monti, who is the head photographer for LAPT and simply put, the nicest gentleman I’ve ever met, worked with or known. There was this new guy though, replacing my first LAPT partner Jack Stanton.

His name, for tax purposes, is Martin Harris. His name, for blog purposes, is one of two options. Some know him as “Short Stacked Shamus” on Twitter, others know him as “hardboiledpoker” from his personal blog. I didn’t know him at all before this weekend and when I sat down to eat dinner with him and Sergio the first night we arrived in Panama, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve read his work, I’ve seen his name on nearly every poker outlet imaginable but who was this guy that I was about to spend the next five days working with.

“How are we going to do this?” Martin quietly said before Day 1A began on Thursday. He was kidding, I hoped at least because at this point in his career, Martin should be able to speak fluent Spanish having done nearly every LAPT for the last few years. He can’t, neither of us can but we had to figure out how to do this even with a slight language barrier. Working with the PokerStars team makes it easy but the LAPT players make it even easier. They’re friendly, they’re happy, they’re excited and they’re inclusive.

Time and time again, “¿Cuál es tu nombre?” was met by a flurry of noises, all in Spanish. More often than not, I did not understand. After a few of those flurried answers ended up with incorrectly spelled chicken scratch in my notebook, I had the bright idea to ask a player to, gasp, write his own name on my paper. The player was Raul Paez, or as he’s known in LAPT circles, “El Toro”. The Spaniard quickly scribbled his name and wrote his chip count next to it, 122,000. The rest of the field was still working near the 20,000 chip starting stack and no one else in the room was even close to sniffing the century mark. Paez handed me the notebook and then got busy working towards his third LAPT final table.

He eventually finished 5th and after that final table concluded, with Columbia’s Andres Carrillo claiming the title and two young Americans finishing 3rd and 4th, Martin jokingly said, “I don’t know how we did it, but we did it.” I laughed, as I had all weekend at Martin’s simple yet eloquent humor. How did we do it though, how does anyone do anything? A little blogging here, a little counting there, a little winging it that way, a little doing what you do over there. It just happens and throughout the event, you tell a story. Sometimes you are inspired, sometimes you aren’t, sometimes you are creative and sometimes you aren't.

I try to be the former, more than the latter, in both aspects. Martin always is, even if he doesn’t have the same pep in his step that Mr. Prado does, or the booming, cheerful voice of Monti. He’s quieter, he’s more subdued but he has so much to say. In terms of life experience and stories, there might not be a more well-versed person that I’ve met in poker than Martin. He's been around the world and back covering tournaments, he teaches a college course in North Carolina, he lost $20 this weekend on an NBA playoff game that we never heard the end of, he’s lived in France, he and his wife own a farm, he learned how to play guitar when he was younger by listening to a The Beatles song book.

Martin loves The Beatles, he carries a The Beatles playing card deck around with him for crying out loud. That’s how ‘Sgt. Pepper’ started, with that The Beatles deck and a little inspiration, a dash of creativity and some, okay maybe a lot, of boredom. The game is a variant of Badugi and you have to try to make the lowest qualifying hand, A-2-3-4, while only holding one heart, thus “lonely heart.” Martin, Sergio and I played a few times this weekend, while at dinner, while on the job; for candy, for imaginary chips, for dinner vouchers.

I have to admit, Martin and I are polar opposites when it comes to our tastes in music. When I asked him about Kanye West one night, he said that he, “Just missed that one.” Odesza? Nope. Future Islands? A little. Låpsley? Who? I never admitted that I don’t particularly like The Beatles and have probably listened to only a handful of their songs in my life. Not once was one of them “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but I wanted Martin to like me, I wanted Martin to keep beating me out of chocolates and fake chips and dinner vouchers. By the end of the weekend, I had to know what that song, that created the game, was all about though. When I went up to my room after the final table finished, before I started packing to leave in the morning, I opened my laptop and began streaming “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

I busied my way around the room, picking up clothes, chargers, anything else a blogger needs to do what he does. It is a grind and it can get lonely sometimes but midway through that song, I felt inspired. I felt creative. I understood why Martin is always those two things.

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.

Thoughts From The First Two Weeks Of The WSOP

I just can't seem to get my body clock worked out.

Somehow on East Coast time, waking up at 6 AM nearly every morning and every day I flip-flop between it feeling like I've been in Vegas for a few days or a few months. 

I checked the calendar this morning and even though I've lost all sense of what day of the week it is, the numbers don't lie, I've been in Vegas for 19 days.

I've spent more or less two weeks covering the opening events of this year's World Series of Poker, which have provided me some unforgettable memories and given me tons of things to think about during my last few off days...

"One of these guys is going to win a bracelet..."

Not to dismiss any other tournament series or major tournament victory, but there is just something about a WSOP bracelet. An allure. A historical value. A magical tension at every final table that I've yet to experience. 

I've watched dozens if not a hundred players claim Borgata or Parx titles over the last year. Even a few players win World Poker Tour Championships. Those are all tremendous accomplishments and things that, as a player, I could likely never achieve. 

But, while watching those tournaments play out, I've never had a chill roll up my spine like the one that did when I was covering the final table of the opening 'Casino Employees' event last week. 

When play got heads up, I turned to my partner Kevin Troilo and said, "One of these guys is going to win a bracelet." 

I don't think either of us realized the extent of the moment until I reminded us that a bracelet was up for grabs. That one of these guys was going to win potentially the most prized trophy in poker. 

East Coast Bias

Now, I'll never have an actual bias when it comes to covering tournaments. I've joked in the past that I "don't really care who wins". That's a lie, I do. But I care way more about the quality of a given event's coverage over the individual players competing for the title. 

With that being said though, I'm always going to have an East Coast bias. Sports teams, New York Giants, New Jersey Devils, New York Knicks. Food, other than Taco Bell of course, pizza. Seaside Heights Boardwalk pizza to be exact. 

In poker, my bias isn't that I root for players from the East Coast, but that I want to see the region as a whole succeed. Mainly because the outpour of support and camaraderie when a player makes a deep run is unlike anything else I've experienced before.  

Maybe this is the case in other regions that I'm just not privy too. But, I truly think that the majority of the East Coast player pool has a mutual interest to see each other succeed and I'm honored to be considered a part of that community. 

No More No-Limit

In about a week's time I'll have reached the one year mark of my tournament reporting/blogging career. In that time, I can honestly say I can count the non No-Limit Hold'em hands that I've written up on both my hands.

Not that many mixed events are offered or covered where I work, so when the WSOP schedule came out, I was interested if I was going to get an opportunity to cover some mixed game events. 

The first two weeks have been solely No-Limit, but the next two weeks, starting today, will likely be some of the more interesting and challenging reporting I've ever done and I can't wait. 

This afternoon I'll start covering the $10,000 Omaha Hi-Low 8B Championship. I'll work that event from start to finish and then work the opening day of a $1,500 PLO event.

A few days off and I'm back on the mixed game wagon, covering the $1,500 2-7 Triple Draw and then the $1,500 10 Game Mix events in their entirety. 

Right now, I'm super excited to take on some mixed games. Talk to me in two weeks though and I'll probably be begging for players to have two hole cards again. 

Do Anything Other Than Poker On Your Off Days

If you follow me on twitter, you know that this past weekend I had a few off days. During those off days, I played a total of about 30 minutes of poker. That was a Friday night sit & go that somehow turned into an hour long massage. 

 I woke up the next morning and I realized that I'm in Las Vegas, a city that literally has EVERYTHING. With a friend of a friend, I spent most of Saturday exploring and seeing a lot of places that your normal tourist wouldn't. 

Over the next few weeks I might do some individual blog posts about some of the places I explored, so I don't want to spoil those places just yet. But, if I have any advice for anyone that is in or coming to Vegas before the series ends, don't spend your off days in a poker room or casino. 

Get out, explore and if you want some company, don't be afraid to ask because I am definitely up for a Vegas adventure. 

I'll be doing a few of these throughout the rest of my World Series of Poker stint so if you have any ideas or topics that you might want addressed, let me know.  

Everything Starts With Curiosity

Whether it be overnight bus trips to NCAA tournament games in college, flights or train rides, I've never been able to sleep while traveling. I always try. Contorting myself into positions that feel comfortable for a few minutes before my foot or hand inevitably goes numb. 

Today I didn't even bother. After years of trying and failing, I knew I wasn't going to get any sleep. And how could I, with my mind racing 100 miles a minute in preparation for touching down in Las Vegas. 

To say I am "excited" to arrive and have the WSOP begin in one week's time is a massive understatement. But, it's also probably not the the right word. That excitement is mainly brought on by my curiosity. My curiosity about what the next two months have in store. 

What's Vegas going to be like? Who am I going to be working with? What events am I going to be covering? What big name player will I see first? 

It's the curiosity that makes this and any experience an exciting one. But the really exciting part is that I don't expect that curiosity to waiver at any point during this series. 

Who is that player? Where is he from? How did he get in this event? What's his story? 

I want to know the answers to all those questions and more. About every player in every field. For the live updates blog, yes. But mostly because I am just curious. 

I'm not the only one that's curious. In a week's time 20,000, maybe more, players will converge on the Rio for the opening of the WSOP and 'The Colossus'. Whether they are poker pros with millions of dollars in tournament earnings or stone amateurs, they'll all be curious. 

You have to be curious to be a poker player. In essence, poker is curiosity in game form. With that game usually involving relatively large sums of money. 

Why did he bet that much? Why did he raise pre-flop? Why did he check? What's his calling range? How many beers has he drank? And most importantly, what does he have? 

If you are playing poker and have a poker related thought, you are likely being curious. Whether you are aware of it or not. The great players are and I can't wait to watch them in action throughout the series. 

As my flight begins it's decent into Las Vegas, I'm curious what this series has in store. But, I'm also curious about other completely random things. Because I'm always curious. 

 What am I going to eat when I land? How does this plane work? Why won't these Bluetooth headphones connect to my iPhone? Why does the girl in front of me have half of her head shaved off? 

The likely endless amount of questions can go on forever and, unfortunately, I don't know the answers to any of them just yet. But I do know one thing, that every day I'm going to have thousands of curious thoughts running through my head. Which will hopefully help me tell some pretty amazing stories over the next two months.