San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s Poker Not Folding Anytime Soon

BELLIED up to yards of green felt lifting the cornersof their two-card hands, hundreds of gamblers tempt fate,size each other up and toss chips for stakes of hundreds andthousands of dollars three nights a week and more in CostaRica’s Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournaments at theRadisson’s Casino Europa in San José.Some have raked in million-dollar jackpots in internationalchampionships, some are visitors whiling theirnights after days on the golf courses, some are residents,some are business execs, or professional cardsharps, or justcurious and have some money to drop on a few handswhile sipping complimentary cappuccinos.Costa Rica has emerged as Latin America’s poker tournamenthotspot, not only spawning champions in LasVegas’ and other card capitals’ competitions, but hostingsome games that draw the world’s most prestigious players.The Europa has hosted some of the world’s greatestplayers, such as Men Nguyen, 2001 Poker Player of theYear, and a handful of World Series of Poker winners, andwas featured on the Discovery Channel and in some of theindustry’s top magazines such as Card Player and PokerDigest (TT, March 1, 2002).San José, already having made its mark on the gamblingworld as the headquarters for a large chunk of theInternet-based sports-betting businesses and its plethora ofcasinos, wrested attention from the established U.S. gamblingcenters beginning in the 1990s when Costa Ricansstarted wrapping their knuckles and scooping up jackpotson the final tables at international tournaments.POKER has been played here for 25-30 years, accordingto Luis Szlek, manager of the Casino Europa.Tournament play began in homes, he said, then becameestablished in hotels such as Hotel Irazú, where it began tomigrate from venue to venue. Now the Europa is the onlyplace in the country that holds tournaments, he said.Three men take credit for putting this tiny country onthe map among gambling circles even before its fame as atourism mecca lit it up on travel agencies’ radars.Two-time World Series of Poker champion HumbertoBrenes, before he could claim the titles, traveled with now poker-champions José Rosenkrantz and Max Stern to theirfirst World Series tournament at Binion’s HorseshoeCasino in Las Vegas in 1987. There, at the high-rollergames that have become, if not the most famous, then oneof the most famous poker tournaments in the world, thethree of them saw poker as it’s played by the best in theworld.After learning how to lose and how much they had tolearn, they brought Hold ‘Em to Costa Rica and began toplay in tournaments hosted by the Hotel Irazú. The three ofthem taught their friends and families to play, and were keyin converting this into the Latin American country that boasts the most championship winnersinternationally, Brenes said.The beginning, however, was not soauspicious, as Rosenkrantz can attest.“When we got to Vegas in ‘87 we realizedwe didn’t know anything,” he said. “Sowe bought books.” They also studied thetechniques of the pros and told more than afew about Costa Rica for the first time.“The North Americans said they didn’tknow where Costa Rica was,” he said.After they explained, Rosenkrantz saidsome of the U.S. players just resorted tosaying the Costa Ricans were from “belowMexico.”The tournament game of choice is No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, in which each playeris dealt two cards and then there arerounds of betting interspersed betweendealing the flop (three community cardsdealt face-up that every player can use) andthe fourth and fifth community cards,known as the “turn” and “the river” cardsrespectively.No one is required to bet on any hand,but throughout the play, certain playersmust pony-up periodic payments, calledblinds, and all players must place bets orfold as the cards are dealt. Players buy-in ata certain, fixed rate, depending on the tournament– at the Casino Europa they are aslow as $10 on some nights, and the chipsthey receive are the only ones they can usefor the night.“One thing I like about tournaments isall the players are equal,” Rosenkrantz said.“We all start with the same chips. You can’tspend more than the $500 or $1,000 buy-in(in big tournaments). If someone has $1million in his pocket it doesn’t matter.” Onthe other hand, “casinos are dangerous forpeople. You can lose – the odds are againstyou.”AFTER their first hard lesson in LasVegas, the three Costa Rican players camehome with their heads full of ideas and adesire to put themselves at the winners’ tables in tournaments they would play down the road. They beganto play here regularly.“It has become commonplace here to play three tournamentsevery week. It’s practice – people are learning,” Brenes said.And people outside the country are paying attention. DeweyTomko, a professional poker player and winner of multiple internationalchampionships, was one of those who noticed the country’sgrowing poker presence. He moved to Costa Rica and hasowned the Horseshoe Casino in downtown San José for the lastfive years.“There are a lot of good players here,” he said. “They play No-Limit Hold ‘Em here and a lot of places don’t play it. But they’veplayed for 20 or 30 years.”He said it’s like anything, the more you practice, the better youget, and since it has been established for so long here, the playersare strong.THOUGH the seasoned players may argue that the luck of thedraw is not the defining moment of the game, luck may have hadsomething to do with Costa Rica’s burgeoning poker fame.Hold ‘Em has become the game of choice in tournament play,because, Tomko says, it’s the game that most acutely tests a player’sskill. It’s also the game Costa Ricans happen to have beenplaying, thanks to Brenes, Rosenkrantz and Stern, and a large followingand interest in tournament play here.Add to that luck the fact that ESPN and the Internet have jettisonedthe number of people who enter tournaments into the thousands,if not hundreds of thousands, and Costa Rica’s decades ofexperience have dealt it a winning hand.“It’s unbelievable,” the surging interest in poker, Tomko said.“It’s skyrocketed. Used to be old-timers playing … used to be oldguys and one young guy, now it’s nine guys under 25 and one old timer.These young kids have money, now. I don’t know wherethey get it.”Two of the most heavily trafficked Internet poker sites, and declare nearly100,000 players online between them. Winning players fromthose virtual tournaments can land at the tables face to face withthe world’s greatest players for the biggest poker showdowns. Thelast two World Series of Poker winners started from their PC’stossing chips in cyberspace and went on to win millions.CHRIS Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant, bought in anonline tournament for $40 on and went ona winning streak that ended in first place and a $2.5 million jackpotat the 2003 World Series. This year, Greg Raymer won arecord jackpot of $5 million at the same tournament after buyingin on the same Web site.Brenes, with a pair of aces in hand, lost to Moneymaker in2003 just four hours before he won the tournament. Moneymakerhad a pair of 8’s and the dealer dropped a third 8 in the flop.Brenes took 40th and calls the loss his worst moment in poker.Today, Brenes, Rosenkrantz, Tomko and others play at theCasino Europa and travel from time to time, maintaining theirpoker playing as a hobby and elevating Costa Rica’s fame as acountry of cool players and world-class champions.Costa Rican poker is touted on what might be the only Websight for poker aficionados in Spanish, named, unexpectedly, inEnglish: The site is the brainchild ofand maintained by Abraham Rosenkrantz, José’s brother and abudding poker champion in his own right. It tracks the Costa Ricanfavorites and helps introduce Spanish-speakers to the rules, subtletiesand lore of the game.Meet Costa Rica’s Poker EliteJosé RosenkrantzOne of Costa Rica’s elite poker players,Rosenkrantz can claim several international championshiptitles since his first venture into the world oftournament play outside ofCosta Rica in 1987.The father of two youngwomen, he is divorced andretired from work at his shirtfactory. Now, he dabbles inreal estate and other investmentand treats poker as ahobby.Like other CostaRican players of his caliber,he has playedcards since he wasyoung. “I like poker a lotbecause of the psychology that ithas. I study the players,” he said.His worst moment at the card table, he said, was ata Limit Hold ‘Em tournament in 1988. He wasknocked out at the second-to-last table when he hadtwo aces in hand. The winning hand had two kings,plus a third king in the community cards. “If I wouldhave won, I would have made it to the last table –every players’ dream,” he said.His best moment was beating professional pokerplayer Dewey Tomko at the World Tour in Costa Rica.Humberto Brenes“I’ve dedicated myself only to tournaments,”international poker champion Humberto Brenes said.He can’t remember the exact numberhe has won, 20-25 championshipsin the UnitedStates, he said, includingthe prestigious WorldSeries of Poker where hewon two first places, foursecond places and twothird places since enteringinternational competition inthe late 1980s.“Maybe there’s moremoney in the open table, butit’s not about money, it’sabout pride. If I win the opentable I may win $10,000,$20,000 even a million, but what have I won? On theother hand in the tournaments you get photos, trophies,bracelets…”Brenes, by his own reckoning, has won more than$1 million at the card tables, which is about fourtimes the amount he has invested. But for him, it’s ahobby.His day job is at the nut packing factory he ownsin San José. He has taken the game a little more seriouslylately, though, and is selling off his side businesses,such as several restaurants, he said, and a constructionbusiness, among other things, to make moretime for poker.Brenes earned a degree in industrial engineeringfrom the University of Costa Rica and he’s marriedand the father of three children.Now he plays about three tournaments every yearoutside of the country. He used to be recognized at thetables by his cap and earphones piping Costa Ricanfolk music and Mexican mariachi tunes, before electronicdevices were banned. He used them as a bufferto block the other players’ conversations in Englishthat he didn’t understand.His worst moment, he said, was his loss to ChrisMoneymaker at the 2003 World Series of Poker. He lostwith a pair of aces in hand to Moneymaker’s pair of 8sthat were bumped up to a three of a kind when an 8turned up in the flop – the first three community cardsthe dealer flips over.Four hours later, he said, Moneymaker won thetournament and the $2.5 million jackpot. His bestmoment was his win of the World Poker Open in 2002.He won’t tell the story, though, because it was televised.“Why tell it again?” he asked.Dewey TomkoThis is where good poker players come to retire.Professional poker playerDewey Tomko has settleddown in Costa Rica from theUnited States in a semi-retirementfrom playing poker forliving. Now, continuing hislegacy of making a livingoff of luck, he owns theHorseshoe Casino in SanJosé.He said he has beenin the gambling businessall his life. For 35 yearshe played in about 30tournaments per year. He has fiveworld championships under his belt, including threefirst places in the World Series of Poker, five secondplaces, and two third places.But, he doesn’t dwell on trophies, he said. “Ibelieve you’re only as good as the next hand you play.I don’t look back,” he said.He said for some reason he plays better when hewears black. But, “I try to play good all the time.”His worst moment is a toss-up between two spectacularlosses. One was a loss in the WorldChampionship of Poker, 2001, on the last card. Tomkohad two aces, the winner had a straight draw. Theother, a 1983 loss on last card of a world championship.“One cost me $2 million, another $1 million,”he said.Though he has “kind of retired,” as he said, hecould only be reached by telephone before he caught amorning flight to a tournament in the Caribbean.Say it RightPoker is a game that is already notoriously riddled with jargon, but in CostaRica, that gamblers’ language has a Spanish accent and even generatedsome of its own Tico vocabulary. English and Spanish are usually spoken ata poker table in a Costa Rican casino or tournament, dealers speak at leastsome English and all the English terms for play are readily understood.The following short glossary is excerpted from www.pokerpages.comand The English term is followed bythe Spanish term, if there is one, in parentheses.(From W-1)All-in: When a player bets all his orher chips.Ante: A token bet required at thestart of a round.Blinds (Ciegas): A forced bet thatone or more players to the left ofthe dealer must make before cardsare dealt to start the first round.Bad beat: When a strong hand isbeaten by a lucky hand. Every playerhas a bad beat story.Bet (abrir, or betiale): To voluntarilyput chips into the pot.Bluff (Farol, Mentira, Chana): Tobet or raise with a hand that isunlikely the best hand.Board (Mesa): The five communitycards in Hold ‘EmButton (Marca):The round peice that points out whois acting as dealer. Though thehouse dealer always deals in tournaments,it rotates around the tableshowing who gets to bet last as ifthey were the dealer.Call (Ir): To match (not raise) theprevious bet.Check (Pasar): To abstain frombetting, reserving right to call orraise if another player bets.Community Cards (Cartas comunitarias):The cards dealt face-upin the center of the table andshared by all the players.Dealer (Repartidor)Fish, Sucker (Idiota): A player whooften loses.Flop: In Hold ‘Em, the first threecommunity cards.Fold (No ir, Retirarse): Somethingyou gotta know when to do.Loose player (Jugador blando,flojo or jugativo): A player whoplays more hands than averageManiac (Maníaco): A hyper aggressiveplayer who plays lots of handsand often bluffs.Nuts: The best hand possible, acinch hand.Pot (Polla): The chips in the centerof the table.Raise (Subir, envidar): To matchand increase the previous bet.Rake (raque, comisión): A percentageof the pot the housecharges.Tell (cante): A player’s nervous tickor habit that could reveal his or herhand.Tight player (jugador selectivo,amarrado): A conservative playerwho only plays strong hands.Tournament (torneo)

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