The Underground Poker Clubs Are Booming in Caracas

Editor’s Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.

The cops showed up the other night at one of the hottest underground poker clubs in Caracas. Not to break up the joint, of course. Just to provide a little protection for a ranking member of the political class who was getting his fix at the Omaha table.

Omaha, it turns out, is all they played — 10 people packed around one table, mumbling, shouting, laughing, coughing, sneezing and betting what are, by local standards, very large sums of money. The ante was $50 a hand, which comes to almost 30 times Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage, and some regulars dropped a couple grand in a matter of hours.

There was a line of well-healed gamblers waiting for a seat to come open the night I was there. They milled about and sipped rum and nibbled on grilled chicken. The owner, a gregarious 51-year-old with a stylish Van Dyke beard and a weakness for black mafia-style outfits, told me that the lines were a new thing. Pre-pandemic, he said, hardly anyone ever had to wait.

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“I’m thinking of adding another table,” he said, asking that he not be identified because running a card room in your dining room is, technically speaking, illegal.

Illicit poker clubs have never been more popular in Caracas, thanks to lockdown ennui in a decaying city that even before the coronavirus didn’t have much to offer in the way of entertainment. The rest of the world has turned to the internet for gambling kicks during the pandemic but that’s not a reliable option here, where service is just too spotty, even for the rich.

So people take the risk and venture out to the growing number of clubs, their locations and hours shared by word of mouth and whispers on WhatsApp.  There are at least a half-dozen around town, some with very high stakes — losing $15,000 in one night isn’t unheard of. There’s even one in 23 de Enero, a huge, desperately poor slum. The word on the street is that it’s controlled by the “colectivos,” armed gangs that are loyal to the Nicolas Maduro regime.

At the house where I watched the action late into the night, the players were of all stripes. There was a 19-year-old in a black hoodie who never removed his sunglasses. An 85-year-old wearing both a face mask and a face shield, sweating profusely. One woman, 65 and with rings sparkling on several fingers, smoking furiously and pounding back cups of black coffee. 

“Coming here makes my nights shorter,” the 85-year-old said as he squinted at his hand. It’s amusement, not a money-making enterprise, for him. “I always lose.”

The threat of the coronavirus was recognized, after a fashion, with masks required upon entry. Most people took theirs off while playing, though. I didn’t notice any social distancing. A hand-sanitizer dispenser went mostly ignored.

Nobody seemed worried about getting sick. They were really enjoying themselves. Just like in Vegas, drinks were free — not only rum but Pepsi, whiskey, beer. If a game got tense, there were women, in tight jeans and high heels, who gave free back rubs.

The host was enjoying himself, too. His rake  (or commission, for you neophytes) was 5% of the pot in each hand. Not bad. To grease the wheels, one of his assistants, a big, burly sort decked out all in black like his boss, worked the room carrying a wad of cash, ready to lend to anyone who might be tapped out. He wouldn’t divulge the interest rate.

Several weeks later, I heard back from the owner. He had decided to pass on the second table. Instead, he got a whole new place — an old nightclub with black walls and green neon lights on the ceiling and a professional staff of dealers and waitresses in uniforms. And a new protection service: two police officers in a marked car, parked right outside. After all, it’s only technically illegal.  



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