“¿Tu sabes esto pasado?”

 

 

“Claro,” I replied to the bus attendant. In context, at least in Peru, this means something like “Don’t worry – I got this.”

If this was a grasp on the situation and how to handle it, well I definitely didn’t have that. But as my Spanish proficiency had grown I noticed that when given a choice between truth telling and coming off as fluent, I would choose the latter more often than not.

What had passed was my legal stay in the country, and by the considerable length of two hundred and forty-five days. From what I understood this would be an ameliorable offence, payable by a fine of 1 USD per day overstayed. I had chosen this route, north up the coast of Peru to Ecuador, in order to avoid the airport tariff at Lima, but also, potentially, to bribe the frontier border officials for a lesser price. I was going to play it by ear.

At the dusty border checkpoint we all shuffled off the bus to form a single file line, while a few locals selling poorly refrigerated ice cream tried to grab everyone’s attention. A uniformed man in charge walked down the line inspecting everyone’s papers. He never looked up as he handed them back, until he came to mine.

I was rushed to the front of the line where another man prepared documents for me. I asked the uniformed man what the issue was, my lack of fluency revealing itself. There was a complication. I could not pay the fine at the checkpoint, I needed to take a document from the checkpoint to a bank to get it notarized and paid. Then and only then could I pass through – this seemed like a clear obstacle to bribery. It was noon on a Saturday. We had been on the bus for approximately twenty-two hours.

The officer hurried me into the street, explained the situation to the bus driver and his attendant, and hailed a mototaxi for me. There is a reason I don’t take mototaxis, and this one, with its single row bench, nonexistent suspension, and ducking tarp roof provided a good reminder why.

When we arrived at what seemed likely to be the only bank in a 25 mile radius, it was closed, presumably for lunch. But as I spoke with the security guard on the other side of the imposing metal gate, it dawned on me that it wasn’t just for the day, but for the weekend. Did I mention it was December 31st, 2011? If I couldn’t get the form stamped now I was likely stranded in a town whose name I did not know for at least forty- eight hours.

My mototaxi driver, understanding the pressing nature of the business, made me aware that the bank had only just closed, the employees were still finishing up inside. After much imploring first from me, then from my driver, the security guard disappeared inside before re-emerging to let me in. I met the manager in his office, he took my 245$, stamped my form, and I thanked him warmly for doing so. I gave the security guard a hearty slap on the back as I jogged out, jumped back on the motorized rickshaw, and we bumped and rattled back to the bus at thirty-five miles an hour.

Some six hours later I rolled into Guayaquil, Ecuador, the largest city in the country and the base of the country’s modern coastal population. That would be in comparison with the more traditionally minded of Quito, the capital resting atop the Andes. Because I have a weak stomach for bus travel I had not eaten anything of consequence for approaching thirty-six hours. I grabbed some arroz con polo (rice and chicken) at the bus station food court before taking a cab to the city square. There I oriented myself to the nearest one star hotel and checked in for two nights. By the time I was settled, showered, and shaved it was nearly eight o’clock. I resolved to go out and see the New Year’s celebrations in this new city and new country. With that resolution firmly in mind I passed out on my bed and slept like a log for the next ten hours.

When I came to it was six in the morning and the sun was rising over a ghost city. I wandered the streets looking for signs of life. I had what seemed like all the time in the world to examine the city’s great monuments to Simone de Bolivar, huge statues two to ten stories high and plaques adorned with superlatives. I climbed up the hill separating the old city from the suburbs and at the top noticed some people still partying from the night before, dancing in the streets of the barrio de Las Peñas.

My aimless exploring took on purpose in the afternoon now that I had scoped out the city from on high. A few months earlier the government of Ecuador had ordered the nation’s casinos to stop spreading all poker games within six months. That is to say, if the casinos were dealing to the stroke of midnight, there should still be a game in town.

As I made my way from casino to casino I found nothing but smoke filled rooms and slot machines. Guayaquil is sprawling – cracked concrete streets spilling rainwater into oversized gutters. At night in a messy five-story-high hive that would make Travis Bickle shudder, I was trying to find a place to gamble. On the second night I ducked my head into a Chinese themed casino at the back of a particularly large one star hotel, sitting on the boardwalk of the Guayas River. In a small room, with perhaps ten table games and twenty slot machines I saw two unoccupied poker tables. The room manager told me to return at nine o’clock to see if we could get a game running. The stakes? One hundred no limit – not exactly the game I was looking for, but it would do for a night.

I had a long dinner on the boardwalk, shrimp with my rice this time, and a side of fried bananas. As night fell I went back to the Chinese casino with 300 USD in hand. It was smokier and more crowded. I saw the manager again and he said that I would have to wait as they only had four players at the moment. I bought some chips and took a seat, contented by my iPod as I waited.

Slowly the players took their seats. First an old-timer to my left, the kind of player liable to doze off between hands. Then across the table two young friends, who were passing the time with some version of heads up euchre. One had brought chips from the table games and sat behind an irregular stack – always a good sign. While the other, doing one better, had to borrow money from the room manager to sit. A sharply dressed businessman sat to my immediate right and the old man was joined on his left by a thirty something whose darting, buggy eyes betrayed the fact that he had plans to win some money at this game. Our seven handed game was completed, naturally, by the manager. I estimated at the time the game had less than a five percent chance of being crooked.

With cards in the air everything settled in naturally enough. The play was loose-passive and I had a good seat at the table. The first hour passed without much confrontation as I played small and medium pots with the young friends for a small loss. The others mostly limped or folded. The old man showed his vitality by leaving the table for a cigarette. You can’t smoke at the table in Ecuador apparently, but you can smoke in the casino. This resulted in more second hand smoke, as the old man exhaled on my back while reaching onto the table to squeeze his cards.

I was in the big blind and the old man raised under the gun to 6$, which was standard at the table. The sly player to his left immediately three-bet to $20 on a stack of perhaps $85, the old man having $67 to start the hand. It folded to me quickly and I squeezed an ace and an offsuit king. In online play a veritable monster. But in this situation, given players with any degree of positional awareness, I was in a marginal spot. I was too eager to put chips in the middle, however, and cold four-bet all-in to cover both players. Snap – and there they were: the pocket aces of my opponent staring at me face up. The board ran out clean and I dipped into my pocket for more chips.

The night wore on. The table talk began to flow and the cloud of smoke became less noticeable. I had reminded myself to ask about the ban on poker but never got around to it. The room manager busted to the bug-eyed player, who was both running hot and careful not to put a bad chip in the pot. The former hovered around the table as action continued six handed, stoking the conversation whenever necessary. The old man bled down to a sixteen dollar stack before busting and taking a short reprieve. We all welcomed him when he sat back down with $120 after a twenty-five minute absence.

I was still down about one hundred and fifty dollars when the businessman limped the button. I looked down at the king and the jack of diamonds and raised the pot. He called quickly and we saw a flop of ten ten six, with two diamonds. I made a continuation bet and was instantly raised three-fold.

“Tiene un diez?” I asked.

“No.” Smiled the businessman.

“Seguro?” I pressed.

“Seguro.”

He seemed sure he didn’t have a ten and I continued with my table talk. He swore he didn’t have a ten. If I folded now all my momentum would be lost and my best course of action would probably be to stand up and book the loss. But it seemed clear to me, to him, to everyone at the table, that he didn’t have a ten. A hand like ace-six or pocket eights seemed likely. I had two over cards and a strong flush draw, against a player who would be unlikely to raise a better flush draw on the flop had he one. I didn’t hold up the action any longer and moved my stack across the felt.

Snap.

The businessman stood up proudly, revelling in the machismo he had earned in his mind, before slamming the pocket sixes face up.

“F-u-ll,” he exclaimed, the standard term for a full house in South America, which sounds much closer to what I felt like – a fool that is. Out of habit I remained seated, motionless. I also had outs, all of the runner-runner variety. On a chalkboard behind the table was scrawled the payout for tabling a straight flush or a royal. I wondered how easily, were I to hit perfect-perfect, that hastily written forty-six hundred dollars would be handed to the unarmed and alone gringo presumably just visiting for the week.

The queen of diamonds hit the turn and with it the table, already riled from my opponent’s theatrics, erupted. It is hard to hit perfect-perfect, but not that hard, once you are halfway. With a straight or a flush no good to win the pot I needed the nine or the ace of diamonds on the river, and according to the chalkboard I’d be entitled to either twenty-three hundred dollars, or double that, and the pot. I looked at the room manager and he looked at me and I raised my eyebrows as if to say “if it comes I’m not leaving without the money.”

The dealer held the deck tightly and waited for the hoots and hollers of the table to die down. What patrons weren’t immersed in their slots had wandered over to see what was causing such a commotion. She burned and turned.

The useless king of spades came off the deck and the air left the room. I was suddenly sitting in a hazy cardroom full of degenerates, my pockets empty, in a city I didn’t know, at two in the morning. I got up to leave and the room manager caught me before I hit the door, to tell me that the game would be running every night for the next few, and welcomed me back. That made me laugh since it meant that everyone at the table thought I was a mark. On that night I suppose I was. I was glad there was no higher limit running; I would have been willing to play up to five times the blinds that night with the help of the nearest ATM.

I walked back through the soggy streets. Past the towering statue of Bolivar in the main square and to my hotel, it would end up being my first and last live game in Ecuador. When I touched down in Quito later that month the casinos had all either cleared their poker rooms or never had one in the first place.