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Fun And The Sun In Puerto Rico
A little slice of Texas can be found just off the coast
By Senior Correspondent Richard T. Pienciak
August 22, 2004
LAS CROABAS, P.R. - The sun, the crystal-clear sea, the massages, the gourmet meals, the swim-up bar, the palm trees - oh, and I almost forgot - the poker.
Here at the elegant Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Golden Door Spa, the Texas Hold'em is far from ordinary, especially the surroundings.
The differences between a typical stateside casino and this 500-acre resort are profound: the El Con offers breathtaking room views from atop a 300-foot bluff. The resort has its own private 100-acre island for swimming, water sports and horseback riding. Other accoutrements include a marina, a half-dozen swimming pools, a top-notch country club and seven tennis courts.
If you prefer your own villa, a two-bedroom ocean view unit under construction in the second phase of Wyndham's even more exclusive Las Casitas Village goes for $850,000, complete with butler service.
Located an hour east of San Juan, the El Conquistador is paradise for the New York poker player who wants to take the family away from the buzz of city life, but stay connected to the green felt table, small blinds and pocket Aces.
The 2-1-2 crowd
The poker is none too shabby at the Wyndham El San Juan, either - the first stop on the Pienciak Poker Tour's special trip to the Caribbean.
Located in the Isla Verde section of the city, the El San Juan is the premium nighttime action spot. It has the feeling of Havana in its heyday.
The lobby is the place to be seen on weekends - women in evening dresses, men in suits, live music, dancing, mingling, laughing. The casino entrance beckons just off the lobby.
At night, jackets are preferred for men. No baseball hats. During a five-table tournament, only one player wears sunglasses. The casino has chandeliers.
Poker started in Puerto Rico at this classic Old World hotel in June 1999, with one table. Seven casinos on the island now offer poker; the Wyndhams hold the leadership position with three - the El Conquistador, the El San Juan and the Condado Plaza.
The stakes across the island are only $5-to-$10. The first two rounds of betting have a $5 minimum and a $10 maximum. The last two rounds require $10 bets, period.
Action at the El San Juan has grown to five tables of Texas Hold'em and 7-Card Stud; early-evening tournaments are conducted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"They see it on ESPN, and so they all want to play," says Vladimir Fernandez, the El San Juan's casino director.
A native of the Bronx and graduate of Stony Brook, Fernandez says the casino is often teeming with high-rolling New Yorkers, especially during the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's period. "We affectionately call them the 2-1-2s."
Tournament play is "all-in, all-the-time." This is a bit different than what the PPT has experienced elsewhere, but it is quite exciting.
At the El San Juan, when the tournament gets fully subscribed, additional players are put on a waiting list. One by one, they take the place of players who bust. And one by one, the busted players make their way back to the tournament.
A local player at my table goes all in on the first hand with his $500 worth of tourney chips ($50 buy-in, $5 registration fee). He loses and is out.
But he's back within 15 minutes, with a fresh load of tournament chips (another $50 to play and $5 fee). Again, he goes all in on his first hand, and again, he loses.
He heads over to put him name on the bottom of the waiting list.
"The pattern of play here is very aggressive," says Jesus Garlobo, assistant marketing manager. "If you want the action, this is the place."
Earlier this year, the hotel sponsored three local players into the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
In October, Wyndham will host its first big tourney, for up to 225 players; the $2,500 package will include room, food, beverage and $1,500 buy-in, says Rich Cortese, a former bar owner from Queens who is now in charge of all of Wyndham's casino operations. "We want people who have the money and who deep down in their hearts think they can win."
"I'd like to see other casinos put in poker. It would help all of us. You need to grow the customer base," says Cortese, predicting that he'll double the number of tables at the three Wyndham casinos within a year.
Non-stop action in Condado
Wyndham's Condado Plaza Hotel caters to the most serious gamblers. Open 24 hours a day, the casino is the island's largest and busiest. Two poker tables are included in the mix; a third is being delivered this week.
"I was a little reluctant to get poker here at first, but now I would love to have 10 tables," says Guillermo Marquez, Condado Plaza's casino operations director.
"People who didn't come to the Caribbean can now come here and play poker."
Marquez has the best of both worlds because many locals also are now playing Hold'em. "It's part of the Latin culture. We like to play poker," Marquez says. "We used to play at home, but now, since it has been on TV, everyone wants to play in the casino."
Adds Arnaldo Suarez, casino shift manager for Condado Plaza: "It's going to explode. I think we're eventually going to end up with a big tournament here. I think our tournament in October is going to be a real turning point. It will bring in a lot of tourists."
The El Con jewel
On many a night, the single poker table at the El Conquistador fills up and casino bosses start a waiting list. The game is very social; often, most of the players are from the New York-New Jersey area.
Hotel manager Paul Heroux says the gambling operation here is considered "an amenities casino." Poker was added May 15. "I think we have a real jewel here," he says proudly.
Poker action is expected to really pick up in the coming months. "Stock brokers, insurance people, bankers, car dealers - they all love to play," says Jose Encarnacion, the El Conquistador's casino marketing manager. During the winter holidays, up to 85% of guests are from the New York area.
A second table will be installed before the winter season, and the tables will be moved to the center of the floor, with spotlights. "We want to showcase the poker," says Encarnacion.
"There are so many things that a family can do here," says Heroux, making note of camp and tour activities and giant-screen movie nights by the pool, where children watch on floats in the water. With so much to offer, "you don't have to worry about what the rest of the family has to do. Sometimes the best place to play poker is where you least expect it."
One recent evening, the players included a former Las Vegas dealer who now calls New York his home, a Queens restaurant owner and a young couple from Manhattan.
"It's beautiful that they have poker," says Declan O'Reilly, 36, of Forest Hills, who owns a restaurant in his neighborhood. "You can do the family thing during the day, then do the poker thing at night. Now that's as long as you can still get up at 8 o'clock in the morning with the kids - otherwise, it's trouble."
Another guest from the New York area, Anthony Rosamilia of Metuchen, N.J., 38, says he plays poker at least twice a week back home. "I was juiced when I found out they had it here. I was ready to play."
"Compare this to Atlantic City - where you can't bring your kids because there is absolutely nothing to do. Here you have the pools, they have their own island beach, you're waited on hand and foot," says Rosamilia, who owns apartment buildings in Middlesex County and was accompanied by his wife, three children and sister-in-law. "You are less concerned about the rest of your family being taken care of. And hey, you can never get enough poker."
Puerto Rico just raking it in
While poker is relatively new to Puerto Rico, its overall growth could ultimately be stunted by the rake - the house's fee for running a game.
Usually, the rake is $3 or $4 a hand. But by law, Puerto Rico casinos have the highest rake encountered thus far by the PPT - 10%, up to a $100 maximum pot. That means if you win a $100 pot, the dealer gives you only $90.
The rule doesn't seem terribly offensive on the surface. But if eight players sit down at a table with $250 each ($2,000 total), after four hours the house will be holding half the money.
And since the players are betting against each other, not the casino, the house gets to rake in that dough without any risk.