LAPT lighting fuse for next poker boom

Alex Brenes

La Barra -- Punta del Este, Uruguay - A few years ago, when I first learned that PokerStars was creating a brand new poker tour in Latin America, I was envious. I wanted to be a part of it.

Anyone who has ever traveled to Central or South America realizes the enormous potential of one of the world's fastest-emerging markets.

This region could, and many insist will, produce millions of additional poker fanatics. If a viable poker boom occurred in America and Europe, it can certainly occur in Latin America, where competitive passions and a deep-rooted love for games (think soccer) are perhaps unequalled anywhere else.

Fertile ground for poker

Indeed, decades of brutal military dictatorships, bone-crushing hyperinflation, and social fragility throughout the Central and South American region have been replaced by what many see as the dawn of a golden era. This entire continent is, after all, largely self-sufficient, at least in terms of the two most important things which determine economic independence - energy and food.

Economic independence and political stability have brought relative prosperity to millions of people in countries such as Brazil, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Argentina and Chile, two nations with tumultuous recent political pasts, are enjoying their brightest economic periods in decades.

The demographics here are favorable for a poker explosion, as well. The average age of the population here is considerably lower than in the United States or Europe. While America's mean age is 35 years and Europe's by comparison is 38 years, the average South American is only 25 years of age.

A significantly younger population base has created social and cultural differences which are immediately evident to visitors from the Northern Hemisphere. Cyber cafes are everywhere. International commerce and trade is commonplace. Multilingualism flourishes.

In short, Latin Americans appear every bit as comfortable surfing the Internet and playing poker on their laptops as the typical American. The natural byproduct of three things - Internet access, a competitive spirit, and newly developed disposable income - is an online poker boom.

It's here.

Latin America is probably the world's fastest-growing poker market, depending upon the metrics used to measure expansion. Although PokerStars does not release its number of players (by country) to the public, estimates as to the number of online poker players (signed up just at PokerStars alone) range between 250,000 and 300,000, this according to a few unnamed sources.

If other online poker sites were included in the overall picture, the number of Latin Americans is most certainly much higher - probably around a million.

Infrastructure challenges

Nevertheless, old attitudes about gambling and casinos have been slow to change in Latin America. While there are (by my last count) 164 land-based casinos spread throughout 16 different countries, poker is offered at very few of the brick-and-mortar establishments.

Rudimentary national gaming laws, lack of space, and hopelessly outdated casino management attitudes about poker have constructed a casino industry that is blasé, stale and frankly just a little bit scary.

A typical gambler expecting to see Las Vegas-style gaming and entertainment in most of the countries where casinos exist would be severely disappointed by what they'd find on the Latin American gambling scene.

Casinos that spread a regular poker game are even more of a rarity. Yes, they exist. But there are no Bellagios or Commerce Casinos south of the border. This makes the contemporary poker boom in Latin America all the more impressive.

Fortunately, things here are beginning to change. One casino in Mar de Plata, for example - which is the southernmost beach resort in the world and is located along Argentina's coastline - is opening a 35-table poker room.

The Mantra Casino in Uruguay, too, has a regular poker room which is filled to capacity during the tourist season. But these are exceptions in what is still a very infantile market.

No doubt, television will be the proverbial bus which drives new passengers into newly created weekly home games and expanding poker rooms, and onto online poker sites.

ESPN shows the World Series of Poker regularly on television, for example. While channel-surfing at various hotels during my visits to Argentina and Uruguay recently, it was impossible to miss the latest WSOP telecast (in Spanish). One must wonder how many potential Chris De Niro's are out there scattered across the continent longing to become poker players.

Players and media to the rescue

Alas, as popular as the WSOP has become internationally, the Latin American Poker Tour may very well be the key to poker's success in the region.

First and foremost, it is uniquely South American. Nations may have bitter rivalries between them when it comes to soccer matches. But they have a common spirit when it comes to building the game of poker.

For instance, despite the language barriers between nations such as Brazil (which speaks Portuguese) and Argentina (which speaks Spanish), one senses a great camaraderie between players and the media here working toward a common goal - which is to create the same level of enthusiasm for poker in this region that already exists in the United States and Europe.

I predict Latin America will get there, but on its own terms. It may take a few years. Glenn Cademartori, the president of the LAPT, told me that this region is still three years behind the United States and Europe in terms of its poker development as a viable market.

But the economic divide which has separated north from south for so long is now fading fast. As Central and South Americans continue to prosper, more of them will turn to poker as new pastime, for many of the same reasons players followed Chris Moneymaker into poker rooms and online sites during the boom which took place during 2003-2004.

Alexandre Gomes
Is Gomes the Moneymaker of South America?

Still have doubts? Consider this. South America's own Chris Moneymaker could very well be Alexandre Gomes. The Brazilian poker player from Curitiba became the first South American in history ever to win a WSOP gold bracelet, when he won the $2,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold'em championship in Las Vegas.

Everyone who witnessed Gomes' breakthrough victory that night back in June bore witness to a truly historical event. Inevitably, more South American champions shall emerge in Gomes' footsteps.

As the Latin American Poker Tour recently concluded its inaugural season, all poker players from this region have justifiable reasons for optimism. Attendance at all three LAPT events held during the first season exceeded the expectations of organizers. Furthermore, the LAPT will be shown on television and seen by millions of people.

The real question is - what will the Central and South American poker scene be like next year, and beyond?

Easy answer: Bigger and better.


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Nolan Dalla is on an exclusive assignment for PokerListings. He recently covered the Latin American Poker Tour championship, held in Uruguay.

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