Borderline Gambling: Bogota, Colombia

December 27, 2012

I stepped out of the cab and thoughts of finding a game dissolved in sensory overload.

The vines of commerce had invaded every nook of the old city’s cobble. Small rugs lined the streets, covered in candies, toques, dolls, paintings, records, books, electronics, toys, and power tools. Carts with every bodega item imaginable rolled past curbside barbeques. This was an Andean city to be sure – yellow corn blackened on open grills served at high altitude next to anticucho, a skewer of beef topped with a small skinned potato.

My arrival in Bogota was South America vérité, my Spanish making its strongest showing while arguing with the cabbie over the fare. From the airport, we passed assorted barrios, rich, poor, commercial, crumbling, corporate, and historic, all which left me thinking, “how big is Bogota, exactly?”

As soon as I was in the street an aproned chef my age thrust meat in my face. “Like pork” was the English translation of this unpronounceable variety. Easily disarmed, I grabbed a table during the raucous lunch service. The din from the televised soccer game, overpowered by the band just feet away, meant I could do nothing but smile at the senoritas facing me, enjoying their second round. This was a bustling asaderia, a reference to the style of barbequing various animal products on a large, open-air grill.

I was in a new city, looking for a new game. And a place to sleep that night.

Sporting an electric harp, one would think the five piece Colombian folk ensemble would not need a gimmick. But it had one – the percussionist’s pitch perfect capacity to moo between songs, as if to remind everyone what those being eaten had to say for themselves. I decided upon the “mixto,” three slabs, of chicken, pork, and beef served in a heap with two baked potatoes and fried bananas. The soup came with chicken, rice, and half an avocado. I had ordered a feast – that occasional side effect of being conversationally deficient. Stuffed at two in the afternoon I made my way to the Plaza de Bolivar.


A large police presence idled in the square, with good reason. The National Capitol and the nominal ‘Palace of Justice’ faced opposite sides of a modest statue of the liberator, and when I was there, a gigantic fake Christmas tree. Each building, from the Presidential Residence to the Cathedral of Bogota, represented a distinct architectural motif. Colombia’s seat of government imitated its streets, a jumbled mess. Graffiti covered the walls of the main square – typical quixotic anarchist slogans – suggesting an ominous unrest bubbling beneath the surface of this teeming polity.

Perhaps amongst ten million people, there are a lot of teenagers. Though in fairness, bridging pillars of the Palace of Justice draped a banner that simply stated “Justice – Yes. Reform – No.”


I never played a river. The twenty to fifty big blind stacks and frequent straddles made sure of that. But I had battled back in the five-ten game in Cartagena, at one point, up a few hundred dollars.

Then, having raised ace jack, I was put to another strenuous decision. I knew the squeezer was a wild old man and I thought I could profitably continue facing his forty big blind three-bet shove range. But the new player who had flat called in early position could easily have ace queen or a decent pair.
I had to look strong.

Without checking my cards I cupped my stack of fifty dollar chips, rolled my wrist, and watched them spread out inaudibly on the other side of the betting line. The player behind was pained, his resolve attenuated, and he eventually folded ace queen face up. The squeezer turned over king five of spades.

For my efforts, I was a mere five to three favourite, a lead in the hand that would not endure.

I finished down ninety that night, a happy outcome compared to certain alternatives. I had to find a new game. This action was juicy, but the swings were going to be too big.
By day, I had spotted “Horus Casino,” whose billboard advertised a poker room. By night, cab drivers idled on the stairs leading up to the square. Some left their motors running; others flirted with women wearing clear heels. There was a ‘disco’ next door, and young men cackled in huddled groups around the courtyard. I wondered if the homonym was intentional.

The casino was clean inside. Roulette was in action, the encircling patrons all locals. A poker room, it turns out, is an empty table, underneath a hanging, neon-wire “Texas Hold’em” sign. Most of the chairs had been pilfered, the rest were haphazard. I inquired with a blackjack dealer nonetheless, who nodded – poker didn’t run much. Horus was a hotbed alright, but not for cards.

I wandered to the beach, illuminated by the old city across the waterway. Families held hands, sauntering in the surf. A few kids were still kicking around a soccer ball at midnight. Whatever unbecoming juxtapositions existed in Cartagena, I felt safe.

It began to rain.

I was up high, having climbed the side of Bogota’s circumscribing eastern slope. I rang the bell at the first door that said ‘hostel,’ and entered a place that was, in its entirety, an underbelly. Toughs were smoking pot and blaring music in what I supposed was the lobby. I was pointed down an unlit passageway that filtered out into a courtyard, where I found a woman hanging laundry. The price she offered was right, ten dollars a night, but I had plenty of time before dusk.

On a street leading back to the square, a cameraman filmed a correspondent and a lightly attended police barricade. In English, she was hurriedly reporting on, amongst other things, the government’s peace talks with FARC, which had begun in October.

The next morning (I found out much later), Colombia killed twenty rebels in an aerial bombing. Turns out, the rebels reneged on promises to get out of the kidnapping game.
It was pouring now.

People hugged pocked walls seeking the uneven shelter of the gutters. The second place I happened upon had nice rooms worth fifty bucks a night, which I would have been willing to pay for, had the owner budged from seventy. Both hostels I encountered after that were perfect, and as a result, had no vacancies.

I was soaking when I saw the second floor sign atop a nondescript restaurant. The room was six by seven and had everything I needed – a bed, an end table, and a Wi-Fi connection.

Shortly after eight the rain finished pounding the hostel’s roof and I stepped out into a fray, unbeknownst to me, known as Septimazo. Charismatic street performers entertained young and old alike as they celebrated the lighting of Christmas lights on the last night of November. Children marched in a disorganized parade with their minders patrolling on stilts. Adult urchins in tank tops and camouflage scrounged alongside stray dogs. Bars, clubs, and discos were strewn across every street. And pulsing above the various incarnations of kumbia, salsa, folk, and electronica was the ubiquitous, incomparable Gangnam Style. I decided to look for a game the next day.


Ten kilometers north, in la Zona de la Rosa, I shuffled grimy, cracked chips on a poker table whose condition would be well explained if it was moonlighting for billiard wagering during the day. The service at the Rockefeller was first rate in contrast. When I approached the cage to buy chips, the cashier dialed a hand held phone before I could mispronounce a second word. A native English speaker was on the line and relayed my buy-in wishes easily, an efficient change of pace from my usual bungling.

My Saturday hike to the pink district was a Mr Magoo affair. I overshot the world’s foremost gold museum by fifteen blocks and was a step and a honk away from certain death by way of an oncoming tri-articulated bus. At the National Museum I walked into the employees’ wing and was on my way up the stairs to their offices pretending to read the Spanish signs on the wall as if the content was of deep historical interest. I tallied four Dunkin Donuts walking the eighty blocks up Calle Siete through the financial district and past the Parque National. I lost count of the tattoo parlours. Surrounded by red brick middle-class apartment buildings and guitar shops, I heard the unmistakable. Nessun Dorma was being performed, in Spanish, at a concert for the benefit of Colombia’s impoverished children.

Bogota was a big place.


I knew I had reached the pink district when I saw Hugo Boss, Stradivarius, and Armani Exchange. I had travelled a distance from soup being sold on the street, served out of a white plastic bucket whose original cargo was a favourite to have been windshield wiper fluid. Zona de la Rosa didn’t have a room I could find for less than a hundred bucks. Besides well groomed parks and twenty-four hour big box grocery stores, there were nightclubs with names like Penthouse, Bellini, and Pravda. You know you are in a truly affluent neighbourhood when you pass by a dianetics agency flanked by a clothing boutique and a nail salon. Bogota was a big place.

I was tired and didn’t play long the first night, but made my night’s tariff at 1$-2$, the only stake spread in the three table poker room.

The button straddled to six dollars and I just called in the big blind with jack ten suited.
The best thing about the cash games in Colombia, it seems to me, is that pescados are allowed to straddle from both under the gun and the button, as well as sleeper straddle, to any amount they want, and that this amount vacillates in an inverse relation to their disposition.

Just calling the straddle with my particular hand seemed to address all potential future scenarios. Jack ten suited performs well in a multi-way, ‘limped,’ pot where I would have the first opportunity to seize the betting lead, and could therefore decide to put in money effectively on good flops against weak ranges. What’s more is that if the action came around without a raise, the button would exercise his option to protect his straddle, as he had in each of the four orbits leading up to this hand. This would, in turn, give me the opportunity to put in the last bet, potentially squeezing out weakly played overcalls from hands as strong as ace ten and pocket sevens. Sure enough, with a call between us, he made it twenty-two. I raised all-in for his stack, about eighty dollars; the caller folded, and he decided to go with his nine seven suited.

I had found a good game.

The same could not be said for the Rock and Jazz Casino, where I stopped on my way back to a rather expensive hotel room. There I looked over a few empty tables, one with three large stacks sitting unattended, archaeological evidence of a game once dealt.

Checking in the next day I surmised that this had been the conclusion to the daily sit and go. It seemed like that was all the poker that got played at Rock and Jazz. A few tables of 1-2 – one table of 5-10 – I wondered if Medellin, Escobar’s city, and host of PokerStars’ LAPT Colombia stop, was similar. If the locals were as deprived from practice as those in Bogota or Cartagena, living in a world totally divorced from training sites and PokerStove, how soft must the field have been? I can’t imagine anything short of a bloodbath.

I am sitting in a bar, dingy chic. The decision to order a second beer made when three unaccompanied women my age sit down at the table across from me. The waitress struggled to take a group shot with one of their iPhones. Bob Marley was encouraging everyone to get up, stand up, and they had all varieties of German beer chilled. The waitress had stuck the landing on my first pour, a domestic red, but the Erdinger hourglass foiled her expertise. I was left with half an hour of foamy head.

She was perfect, proportioned – Andean features with a little jungle blood, if I was compelled to guess. And I was.

Dark bangs and sharp cheek bones atop a compact frame hardened no doubt from generations at altitude. Poised, she joked with the women and smiled at the men. In Colombia it is a wonder anything ever gets done. I consider one near death experience with a bus running above expectation.


I went back to Rockefeller, whose daily tournament was now down to two tables, the other opening for cash. We started three handed, me, a sexagenarian women with a leopard pattern vest, and a middle aged man with a European blazer, sleeves rolled up, hair slicked back. The dealer took cash and people bought in short. A second senior citizen joined us, and when he drew out on the little old lady’s flush, hitting quad sevens on an ace seven eight three board with three hearts, he pounded the table in excitement, fervor in his eyes.

I picked up pocket kings and the newest player, a young skateboarder, limped under the gun. When I raised he called instantly and we saw a dry ace high flop, making for an easy check back. The turn paired the ace. He checked to me again and I was comfortable betting for value, a bet that was called. The river ran dry and after he pondered before rapping the dirty felt, I did not hesitate to bet all but his last four dollars.

Going for thin value on the river, if you are doing it right, is an Icarian experience. He toppled his stack into the middle, revealing ace three suited. Quite pleased with himself, he bragged to the table about his deceptive physical behaviour.

The table filled up quickly and the tedious pace of ten handed play ensued. The patrons were enjoying losing their money. I had found a good game. A shame it was only a few days before I crossed another border, looked for a new game, and searched for a new place to sleep at night.


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