Monday, December 19, 2011

Greatest day yet in Belize

I had about as good of a Sunday as I could imagine yesterday.  It all actually started two weeks ago when I decided I wanted to complete the "La Ruta Maya" - a four day canoe race across Belize.  Each year, the Embassy sponsors a team, but I was going to put together a second team that only had the goal of finishing.  I talked to my friend Beth and she was all gung-ho about it too.  While we were still looking for a canoe, I got the chance to go out this weekend with the Embassy team and practice with them.
This is how you hold a paddle, right?

We were taking a "short" trip from Spanish Lookout Bridge to Valley of Peace Bridge.  I'll be perfectly honest.  Within three minutes of going down the river, I knew I didn't want to do this anymore and I was just hoping to get out of it without embarrassing myself or hurting myself too badly.  The two locals guys - Macario and Jose -   were monsters on that river.  Macario just did not stop paddling.  It was so intimidating to watch him because I just couldn't do it.

You can't tell from the picture, but I already want to stop.
As we went down the river I settled into a pattern, I would paddle thirty strokes and then take thirty strokes off.  Unfortunately, this plan did not work as well as I wanted.  I kept losing my balance in the boat.  We almost capsized about every five minutes.  And not when the water was rough or anything - just me losing my balance.  Anytime we got to some rapids (nothing more than a Class II), I would stop paddling and just make sure I didn't dump us in the river.

As little as I paddled (probably about 1/3 as much as the other two guys), my arms still got extremely sore.  I don't think my triceps had gotten such a workout in years.  My sore arms wasn't actually the worst part, it was my legs.  This canoe is not built for someone my size.  I couldn't sit with my feet planted on the floor because the canoe wasn't deep enough.  I couldn't comfortably put my feet out in front of me and still paddle (I also had no balance in this position), so I ended up sitting cross-legged (or Indian style as we said when I was a kid).  The problem with this is that my right knee kept rubbing up against the side of the boat and my legs still cramped up.

Despite the uncomfortable and strenuous ride, it is one of the coolest things I have done in Belize.  I felt like I was in the "real" Belize.  The river, surrounded by jungle, cuts a fine path through the country with views you don't see from the road.  We saw several dozen iguanas high up in the trees.  These large lizards looked like they weighed about 20 pounds and were 2-3 feet long.  If we got too close, they would dive into the river for protection.  Also up in the trees were howler monkeys, egrets, herons, and another dozen birds I couldn't name.  It was a fantastic day on the river.  I couldn't have asked for anything better (except maybe for a boat with a motor).

As great as canoeing on the river was, that wasn't the highlight of my day.  That afternoon, I drove down to San Ignacio for a poker tournament at the casino there.  This was the first poker tournament that the casino had ever hosted and they were broadcasting it live on one of the local Belize channels.  (Note: if you don't want to read about poker, just skip to the last paragraph).

The tournament was horribly run - not only had the casino never hosted a tournament before, but they don't normally have poker, so the dealers don't know how to deal poker.  (The primary job qualification for their dealers appears to be a cute young girl).  Moreover, I don't think that the people running the tournament had ever played in a poker tournament before.  The tournament started 90 minutes late and took horribly long breaks every time one person had to switch tables.  The dealers couldn't catch the chips and one (admittedly complicated) three way all-in hand took over 15 minutes to settle.  The blinds went up super fast - started with only 3000 in chips and 40 minutes in, the big blind was 400 and kept doubling.

Despite the mess and confusion, I played really well and got really lucky.  I made an early all-in where I tripled up.  As the blinds went up, I won enough hands to stay in the game and everyone else kept dropping by the wayside.  When we got down to the final table, I started to think I could actually make the money (top 3).  I was around 4th or 5th in chips to start and many of the players could barely make a single bet.  After one round, no one had been knocked out with several people winning their all-in bets.  I knocked out one guy with AK suited.  Then, a few hands later, I had KQ spades vs. 10-10 and A-8.  The flop came J-9-4 rainbow.  A 10 came on the turn to make me the winner with a straight and chip leader.

With six players left, I started playing a few more hands trying to steal the blinds and antes.  The blinds were so big that just winning the blinds was worth 5% of the total chips in the table.  We traded chips for a while when there were four players.  I stole some more blinds, but tried to avoid hands where someone already called.  Finally, the other three players got involved in a big hand with two all-ins.  One guy was knocked out and suddenly I was in the money with the guy in third crippled.

After a few hands where no one called and the big blind won the hand, I was on the button with K-4.  The blinds were 10,000 and 20,000 but the guy in the big blind spot was all-in with 13,000.  I called 20,000, as did the small blind.  Flop was J-J-2 and both me and the small blind checked.  K came on the turn giving me two pair.  Small blind checked and I checked behind so that we had a better chance to knock out the big blind.  The river came 8 and the small blind bet 25,000, which I called.  He flipped over a 9-2 and I won the pot.  I wasn't trying to trap him, but it worked out well.  Were were heads up and I had a 4-1 chip lead.

Throughout all of this, the TV crew is trying to broadcast all of this.  They apparently spent five minutes debating my nationality (no one asked for a while).  I kept hearing calls of "Mr. Al with the cheap lead.  He is playing a strong game."  Besides the TV crew, there were about 40 people hovering around us watching the game.  Since almost every hand was an all-in, it was actually pretty exciting to watch (unlike regular poker which can be as dull as watching paint dry).  There was a definite buzz in the air and it was really a lot of fun.
When we got to heads-up, they did interviews with us to put it on TV.  I sent friends texts letting them know that I was playing on TV.

The cash is on the table
Finally, we were heads up and on the very first hand, I see A-7 off suit.  Any Ace is a great hand heads-up, so I raise him all-in.  He immediately calls with pocket kings.  I got an Ace on the flop and another on the turn to win with trip aces.  It was all over and I had won.  I got a fancy trophy and, more importantly, cash.  With a buy-in of US$100 and 45 players (plus several buy-ins), top prize was just over US$3,500.  This was, by far, my biggest cash in a poker tournament, although I have won three other larger tournaments (two online and one live).

All-in-all, a pretty good and long day.

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