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The Linda Johnson Celebrity Challenge
by Andrew N.S. Glazer

Most Americans think of poker as a game of five-card draw played by dusty, whiskey-soaked cowboys, usually with one slick city gambler stacking the chips until someone pulls a six-shooter on him and finds that fifth ace up his sleeve.

If not that, it’s a game for frat boys, or for middle-aged husbands on Wednesday nights. These Americans certainly don’t think of poker as a tournament game.

It’s supposed to be played for cash, and they don’t realize that tournament poker has been growing even more quickly than cardroom and Internet poker, which have both been growing at impressive rates. They also don’t know how popular poker has become internationally.

Most Americans would be surprised to hear I’ve just returned from a charming no-limit hold’em poker tournament in Costa Rica, of all places, and that the tournament was named in honor of a famous American woman poker player. What would Bret Maverick or The Cincinnati Kid think?

The Linda Johnson Celebrity Challenge tournament was held August 8–12 at the Casinos Europa in San Jose, Costa Rica. Johnson won a World Series bracelet in Razz in 1997, and now runs Card Player Cruises. Nick Gullo manages the beautiful casino, which connects to the San Jose Radisson Hotel. The idea was to invite some American poker celebrities to come see what kind of poker the locals could play. I was fortunate enough to be one of the poker celebrities invited. There are quite a few terrific Costa Rican players on the regular tournament circuit: Max Stern, Humberto and Alex Brenes, “Super” Mario Esquerra, and Gus Echaverri are all pretty well known in the big games in the USA.

I knew these players, but there were many more good ones; the fields weren’t as soft as I’d expected.

The first four rebuy events charged a buy-in of 30,000 colones. This sounds like pricey poker, but 30,000 colones is only about $9 US, so I wondered, with fields of about 100 players a night, how the casino was guaranteeing a prize pool of at least $10,000 US. The answer? They do a lot of rebuying around here. The charming part is that when someone goes broke, he doesn’t call out “rebuy” the way they do in America. Instead, he yells “Camisa!” which means “Shirt!” as in “I lost my shirt and I need to buy more chips!”

Unless you get lucky very early, you will probably have to do some rebuying, and you are allowed to rebuy early, often, and in multiples. Someone who loses all his chips during the fourth level may purchase six camisas at once.

Even if you have not needed to call for a camisa once the rebuy period ends, players may take bargain rate add-ons. Nine dollars gets you 45,000 worth of tournament chips—a three for two value—and you may buy as many as 20 add-ons. For $180, you can add on 900,000, and if you are serious about trying to win, that’s optimal strategy. You don’t have to make the big add-on however. On the first night, American Peter Fisher invested $9 in the tournament, and came in 11th, just one spot out of the money and just ahead of another American who was in cheaply: me!

I had invested only $36, and had so many chips by the break that I decided not to add on. I didn’t realize that half the players in the room were going to plunk down another $180, reducing my lead to an average stack, but I still finished 12th, knocked out on the final card by Humberto Brenes. Humberto went on to finish second to local Luis Jaikel, who won $6,794. Each of the tournaments had a celebrity name attached to it, and if you knocked out that celebrity, you won $100. Jaikel’s victory came in the Alex Brenes Challenge.

The next night I played in the Erik Seidel Challenge, but I’d had an exhausting but exhilarating day sightseeing, and played only as a courtesy. I went through $18 quickly and went to catch up on my sleep, while Costa Ricardo took home first prize of $6,088.

On night three, the Jan Fisher Challenge, I came rested and ready to play serious poker, intending all the while to pop for $180 at add-on time. I did just that, and finished fourth when another unlikely river card did me in. If I’d won that pot, I’d probably have won the tournament, but $1,500 wasn’t awful, and a transplanted American known as “Camisa Bob” took home $6,394. Bob, as you might guess, is known for investing a few rebuys in these events.

On Night Four, the Barry Shulman Challenge, I landed at the casino owner’s table, and in an effort to encourage action, he frequently moved all-in blind. This made it a chip-heavy table, and that helped me get to the final table as the chip leader. For some reason the second chip leader decided to take on my A-K with his A-4, and for the third time in four nights, an ugly river card gutted me.

I went out seventh, and Cesar Rodriquez took home $6,196.

I played the big tournament, the $500 entry, one rebuy, and one add-on Linda Johnson Challenge, but I shouldn’t have. We’d had a full day of sightseeing and I didn’t have my game face on. A third Brenes, Erick, won the event, although the finish was controversial. The final three players agreed to a deal that split up the remaining money fairly evenly and left $2,000 in play. No controversy yet. They all went all-in on the next hand, and American transplant Glen Sito won, but it turned out that Sito had not understood the terms of the deal, and felt he hadn’t been awarded enough for his chip lead. Even though he had won the all-in hand and the title, he wanted to return to play, and his two opponents obliged him. Sito finished third, his decision costing him about $8,000.

Local player Natan Wager took the overall points prize with his two second place finishes, and gosh, only one of the American imports made two final tables. Heck, I might have been three river cards away from winning three tournaments. I’ll be back.

The Final Results
Linda Johnson Challenge
45 Entries, 154 rebuys and add-ons
1. Erick Brenes $25,063
2. Gustavo Echaverri $12,889
3. Glen Sito $8,593
4. Arturo Mornues $5,728
5. John Streemp $5,012
6. Eli Baiayo $4,296
7. Jorge Chacon $3,580
8. Herman Zango $2,863
9. Pat Armstrong $2,148
10. Huck Seed $1,432

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