i bump into Maya at the bar.”You still to go strong?” she says.
“Getting my ass kicked.”
“What you to do after this?”
“Hopefully, sleeping on a mattress of money.” I say.
“You to stay at hotel?
She means the chi chi hotel across the street. There’s a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. Or maybe she’s just buzzed from too many Cuba Libres and looking to recoup her entry fee from the man who knocked her out.
“No” I say. “I’ve got a flat in Cangrejo.”
“Tengo uno apartmento. Arreglando para vender.”
“Si? You to know how?”
“Es mi trabajo en el norte.”
“I crazy for blonds” she says.
It’s crazy how some women in Panama will say anything to get your attention. The strange thing is their flattery feels good on some subterranean level, even when you know it’s probably a lie. I hear that line a lot in Panama. I’ve come to believe there’s a smidgen of truth in it. I briefly contemplate getting a room.
Maya is thin, petite. The flowery scent of her long black hair cuts through the smoky casino. In the dark room her sparkling eyes and white teeth glow like neon. The “Jaguar’s Smile” Rushdie called it, in the book of the same name. She flirts. I buy her another drink. We do what we do.
Around us gamblers, corrupt pols, strippers, whores, and the wealthy elite. Dozens of young men in dark sunglasses wait with older men in cowboy hats for another shuffle of the cards. There are celebrities. Francisco Reyes, the disgraced legislator. Up close he’s a small man. Which may explain the gun. Tonight he wears a plaid jacket circa 1970, and has a very young girl on each arm. An embarrassment of riches that doesn’t help him in cards. He busts out early. I’m silently relieved he doesn’t shoot any of us on his way out the door.
Maya tells me shes works at Oasis. The Oasis is a small massage parlor on Via Veneto. I compliment her on her English. Two years ago she couldn’t speak a word. She picked it up from gringos who pay her for sex. She’s refreshingly honest about her life. In two years she’s made enough money to buy a small home in Santa Catalina, a new car, put her sister through college, and helped her mom with medical bills. She enjoys the money, travel, and sex, but says she’s too old for the business. Over the hill at 26. Now she’s ready for more; marriage and kids. She wants to find a good man and settle down. But in Panama she’s the proverbial good girl gone bad.
“Latin man no want to me” She says.
In the Latino culture she’s damaged goods; bisexual, open minded, independent, dark skinned, and a whore. But for American men? That’s solid gold. She loves American men. They love her. They don’t judge her. Or if they do, they keep quiet about it. She hands me a note with her number.
“Call me” she says, “or to come by club”.
After the break, I’m sent to a different green felt table. My chips are neatly stacked and counted. I spend the next hour folding cards and learning the new player tendencies. So far I’ve survived without premium hands by stealing blinds, and the occasional pot. But I need cards.
And then it happens, pocket queens, late position. There are three limpers. I re-raise big, and get one call. A medium stack. Perfect. He hasn’t re-raised so I’m guessing he doesn’t have pocket Aces or Kings. Mentally, I’m already all-in.
The flop looks hopeless: 10 of hearts, 3 of hearts, J of spades.
The caller bets the pot. I put him on a small pair or maybe a flush draw. My best guess is he thinks I missed with AK and wants to head off a continuation bet. I re-raise all in. He calls, and turns over 55. My queens look good. There are only two cards in the deck that can save him
Fourth Street: 2 of spades.
Fifth Street: 5 of clubs.
My opponent hits a set on the river. I’m toast. I hang in for another hour like one of those sad creatures kept alive by machines. It’s well after midnight, close to the bubble, when I’m forced to make a final stand. My M is about 5. The blinds are moving up again. It gets folded to me. I move all in with AK suited knowing I need to get lucky on the flop. Two monstrous stacks call with nothing, just because they can. Briefly, I’m hopeful.
The flop: 2 of spades, K of hearts, 7 of diamonds.
Fourth street: Q of hearts.
The river: 2 of clubs.
I pair my King on the flop with an ace kicker. That should do it. I should triple up. But the cruel thing about poker is you can play the hand correctly, have a big lead, and still lose. In the end, I’m busted out by K2 suited. My opponent shows down a full house, two’s over kings.
I’m out $100 and the cost of drinks. I’ve learned some hard lessons about tournament poker. The blinds in these tournaments go up fast . Vahedi’s right. You need to force the action in the first couple of hours or your dead. The WPT tournament structure favors aggression, luck. My game is about patience, observation. Turns out I really was dead money.
As I leave, the tournament director shakes my hand, as if I’m an important dignitary. He asks if I’ve enjoyed myself.
“Everything but the cards” I say.