Legal poker everywhere, no crime, Robin Hood, and the world’s largest Wendy’s.
PokerListings recently went to Tbilisi/Georgia to follow the first WSOP Circuit event in the South Caucasus and we discovered a whole new world.
1) Poker - It's Allowed!
Poker is completely legal in Georgia. You can play live, online, whatever, wherever, whenever you want. The largest online poker room is called Adjarabet, which was also the host of the WSOPC event.
When it comes to quality, though, the Georgians still have some catching up to do. The biggest problem for live poker, as we were told by the organizers, is not scamming or cheating but “friendly collusion."
The reason for that being that the sense of family cohesion is so strong in the Georgians that they cannot overcome it.
If someone is caught colluding, and we’re quoting an employee here, they’re likely to say something like “I know it’s not allowed, but why would I not soft play this guy? He knows my cousin."
The WSOP came to the mighty sports palace in Tbilisi.
2) Casinos - the Dark Side
There are plenty of casinos in Tbilisi and they even have online poker machines. Real ones, not the video poker ones that just take your money. You can play real opponents.
To prevent people from sneaking up behind you and looking at your cards, they are shown face down and you can press a button to take a peek. A bit like a virtual Blackjack dealer.
Live tables feature $1/$2 cash games and up everywhere. The local currency is the Lari but casinos accept dollars.
Also, Georgia’s casinos are the darkest in the world -- at least away from the poker floor. When I first went in I immediately had to remove my sunglasses. To my surprise, I wasn’t wearing any.
All you see are some flashing colored lights and shadowy figures. Just think of that metro tunnel in Cloverfield.
Just one of many casinos in town.
3) Tbilisi - Defiance and Sulphur
The capital of Georgia has been destroyed about 40 times across its history, making this one of the saddest city histories anywhere. The great feature of the Georgians then is, obviously, that they always come back and rebuy.
The name Tbilisi means “hot spring." There is a peculiarly sulfuric smelling area in the city and there’s a fantastic public bath that’s open 24/7 the whole year round.
It’s reminiscent of Tbilisi’s history. In the middle ages, everybody who wanted to enter the city had to take a bath first. I sometimes wish the same were true for poker tournaments.
Interestingly, Tbilisi wasn’t hit very hard by the plague compared to most of Europe.
The bath house.
4) People - Only Human
The Georgian is open and friendly but manages to hide that very well behind a stony, grumpy poker face.
Once, I asked one of the casino door guards for a light. He looked at me like he was wondering where to stick the knife in, took a lighter out of his pocket, gave it to me, smiled and said “keep it." Such are the Georgians.
"A typical West Georgian." - According to an East Georgian.
5) Geography - Imposing
Georgia is so far East that the Black Sea is on its West Coast. The country lies to the North-East of Turkey but they prefer to say “South of Russia," as they consider themselves as definitely European.
The locals like to call their country “the Balcony of Europe." A fitting nickname, particularly once you get to see the breathtaking landscape.
Despite its small size and having three troubled provinces struggling for independence, there are coasts, woods, mountain ridges and even deserts in Georgia.
Georgia has this, but also deserts, woods, coasts and other areas.
6) Crime - Abolished
Doesn’t exist. Because it’s illegal. No, really. See “politics" below.
This is the way they treat crime today.
7) Politics - Deterrence
When PM Saakashvili took over office, Georgia was in a terrible state. Neither water nor electricity was working properly, corruption ruled and car mirrors were the most popular “souvenirs” among the locals. We’re talking about the 1990s.
Saakashvili fired the complete police squad, rebuilt police stations out of glass to illustrate the new philosophy of transparency, and implemented Draconian measures against any form of criminal activity.
Our city tour guide said: “There is no family in Georgia who doesn’t have one member in jail.” Cruel as this may sound, this is one instance where deterrence worked, as now you can leave your wallet on the bar of a lively pub and it’ll still be there the next morning. So we’ve heard.
They’re now in the process of mitigating the laws as they realize that they can’t rob every third teenager of his life for doing something stupid without creating a lost generation. But I think that even stealing the blinds might be a criminal offense.
Typical police station in Tbilisi.
8) Religion - Oh, Well
The Georgians are orthodox Christians, and if you go on a city tour you’ll be hearing about churches 60% of the time. However, the other 40% still makes it worth it.
Although being mostly Christian, Tbilisi is also the host of – allegedly – the only Mosque in the world where Shiites and Sunnites pray together peacefully.
So you see, it is at least possible.
The Minaret of the peaceful mosque.
9) Modernism - It's Here
You might think that Georgia is behind Central Europe regarding the achievements of modern society, but there’s not much that jumps to mind.
They pride themselves on having the largest Wendy’s in the world (if that’s something to be proud of) and there’s even a bowling hall called “Big Lebowski," which actually is pretty cool.
The street signs point to squares called “Europe,” “Heroes,” or “George W. Bush." Asked what this is about, a local told me “of course, everybody hates Bush, which by the way is a very good measure for the sanity of a country."
McWendys or Dunking Pizza King - you won't need any of these.
10) Language - Beautiful and Mysterious
Georgia doesn’t only have its own language, it even has its own alphabet. It has 33 letters and is at least 1,500 (but more likely over 4,000) years old.
It looks beautiful and mysterious and it’s pervaded by a general rejection of vowels, but we’ve found a way for you to learn it quickly.
Try to read this and you’ll suddenly feel that it’s very easy.
This is actually a psychological trick, that I can unfortunately not reveal.
11) Food - Outstanding
Delicious. Another quote of a local: “Most of Georgia’s food is based around meat and hangovers.”
You’ll find Georgian breads, dips, pastries, dumplings, crispy chicken with blackberry sauce, eggs with coriander and tomato sauce, braised pork, Georgian pizza, cheese filled with cheese. And a hundred more things.
None of them are pronounceable for the Central European tongue, partly also because you’ll come across a strong alcoholic liquid called Chacha.
Georgians love to have toasts before dinner. With every toast comes one Chacha. I remember our host saying “this is my sixth and last toast, and then we eat." After that, not much.
Asked why they’re not all terribly overweight, they say “because we drink lots of Georgian wine with our dishes.” I’m telling you, when you’re there, it all makes sense.
If you want to offend the host you can go for a non-alcoholic specialty: Tarragon lemonade. Its color is so green that nature can’t produce anything similar, and it’s mainly just sweet.
I wouldn’t recommend it but Dan “jungleman” Cates loves it. See below.
Dinner with Dan Cates and Tarragon lemonade in the front, and taost and Chacha in the back.
12) Robin Hood - For Real
Georgia has its own Robin Hood, but unlike the guy in tights from Sherwood Forest this man really existed -- and as late as the 19th century.
His name was Arsena of Marabda and there is a statue of him in the first capital of Georgia, Mtskheta (just pronounce it the way it’s written).
He stole from the rich, gave to the poor, and fought the Russians. Consequently, he was killed off by the authorities.
Fun fact: There is a line by Will Scarlet in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood spoof that goes: “My full name is Will Scarlet O’Hara. We’re from Georgia.” Strange that, hm?
Arsena of Marabda.
13) Here Came the Flood
In summer 2015 Tbilisi was hit by a spring tide, which sounds a little odd as the Sea is 300 km away.
Severe rain had caused a landslide in the nearby mountains that remained unnoticed. The debris formed a natural dam, more rain created a lake behind the dam, and then a storm caused the dam to break.
Within two hours the city center was buried under two meters of mud and water. The city was paralyzed for a week, because that’s how long it took them to clean 4 km of the main traffic artery.
The central zoo was flooded, too. All the animals that didn’t drown escaped and roamed the city, and in best Georgian tradition, there were no official counts on what animals they actually had in that zoo.
After a couple of days the government proclaimed in the News that all animals were caught, but two hours later a man was mauled by a tiger in a city building. They changed the news to “almost."
The hippo on Main Street has become an iconic image and now people can laugh about it. But from personal experience I can say that you still shouldn’t make any hyena jokes when you’re walking through a park at night with locals.
A Hippo nightmare on main street.
Alexandre Dumas, who lived in the same house in Tbilisi as Alexander Pushkin, once said he should never have gone to Tbilisi because he was missing it forever after he left.
I guess that’s a poetic way of saying, if you like city trips and might want to make some money at the tables, Tbilisi should be right up there on your list. It’s +EV in every respect.
Hawk beats pheasant. Pretty obvious, but it's also a hallmark of Tbilisi.
Turn a corner, and you come across magic places like this...
...in the middle of the city.
Where Pushkin and Dumas used to live.
Bilingual signs make everything a lot easier - and now I'm off to Abamotubani.
The bridge of peace - built in 2010 after the last Russian invasion.
Home of the PM in the back, and the modern Art House in the front, shaped like a wineskin.
By day and night, this is a fascinating place.