I was swapping emails with my friend Mark this weekend and it reminded me of a poker game I once passed up. I was in Bangkok hanging out in a bar with a group of locals (some Westerner ex-pats and some Thais) and we were discussing the various sports that are big in one country but may be completely ignored in another. I think the discussion started over watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship match on the television over the bar. Anyway, one of the Americans commented that ESPN and the Travel Channel are even showing poker tournaments online and that started a side conversation about how interesting the game actually is.
One of the Thai women there, Pek, mentioned that she quit gambling recently. She had lost 30,000 baht playing 7-Stud and decided the game just wasn’t for her. Now, keep in mind that although 30,000 baht is only about $770 US (at today’s exchange rates), that’s half a month’s salary or more for her (pre-tax). Anyway, I told her that I play quite regularly back in the US and after some additional conversation she offered to get me in on a local game.
I can’t express how much I wanted to take her up on the offer. Not many farang (Westerners) get to play in a backroom game in Thailand. There’s a certain energy and vibe that’s quite unique to Thai gambling. If you’ve ever watched gambling at a Thai kickboxing match, you know what I mean. It’s like something out of a Jean Claude Van Damme film (and with anything starring Jean Claude Van Damme, I’m using the term “film” loosely). The only thing missing are people wagering with live farm animals. I thought it would be one of those surreal moments in life that you never forget.
I could even picture the game in my head; A dingy, smoke filled room. A single hanging bulb shining light onto a makeshift poker table. Bottles of Mekong whiskey in various stages of consumption littered about the table. Tattered cards being dealt by a shirtless and barefoot man with a home rolled cigarette dangling from his lip. Bursts of angry Thai being shouted across the table at nobody in particular. And me, with a massive stack of baht notes taking down yet another pot.
Of course, over the years you wise up and quit doing things impulsively. The reasoning part of my brain was politely pointing out several key points to consider:
1. Gambling is illegal in Thailand. I have no idea why gambling is ok at kickboxing matches but all other forms of gambling are strictly prohibited. And for those who missed Brokedown Palace, Thailand’s prisons don’t win too many Consumer Reports satisfaction surveys from the inmates. I don’t know how seriously they take gambling but this is a country where they still hand out life prison sentences for first time drug offenses.
2. This wasn’t some home game, which might imply that some not so nice folks are running it or at least backing the people who run it. The great thing about Thailand is that is a place with very little violent crime directed towards farangs as long as they stay in their world. Once you cross over into dealings with gangs and organized crime, all bets are off. Add to that the fact that almost anything illegal going on in Thailand goes on under the protection of corrupt cops and what you’ve got is a situation that could get very ugly very quickly and the consequences likely to be quite serious.
3. I don’t speak Thai. I’ve traveled all over the world and the one thing that I’ve pretty much found to be universal is that if money is on the line and people sense that you are out of your element, they’re going to try to take advantage of that. I’ve had more than a few experiences where a simple game like pool suddenly developed some very unique localized rules once you won the match. Not being able to speak the language makes it difficult for you to point out that trips does not beat a flush.
So I sat there and let the reasoning part of my brain and the impulsive part of my brain battle it out as I attempted to give the impulsive part an upper-hand by ordering another beer. Pek could see that I was pondering the offer so she jotted down her phone number and said that if I was interested that I could always give her a call.
In the end, reasoning won over and I declined the invite so the only tale I have to tell is of how I didn’t get into a backroom poker game in Bangkok. Of course, the fact that I’m here to tell the tale may be the best part of the whole story.