SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA -- There's an exuberance here that I haven't seen at a poker tournament in a while. With the growth of the American game, there's come a blanketing how-do-I-get-mine cynicism that's fierce and unrelenting and sometimes frustrating to those who love the game. Here in Costa Rica, on the Latin American Poker Tour, they're just happy to be doing something they love. You can see it in every fiber of their beings.
Every win is met with a cheer, loud, proud and exuberant. Where such celebrations can border on the offensive back in the States, here it's accepted, because the players honor one another unfailingly and play with a love for the game. Says Glenn Cademartori, the president of the LAPT, "They're very expressive, passionate, jubilant. Much louder and more excitable than your average player back home." He's right at the center of this remarkable storm.
Cademartori isn't new to gambling. After spending time in marketing with the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey, then working with an advertising agency that serviced the online gambling industry, PokerStars came calling in its search for a seasoned marketing professional. "The experience of having worked in the most mature corporate market in the world [in North America] was important to PokerStars in approaching a new market, as opposed to finding someone they could teach," Cademartori said. "I did a lot of research before I came down here and decided to partner with them. I found that my background and realm of experience could be applied regardless of where and when, took my knowledge and know-how and applied it with an understanding of the cultural differences."
The result has been a phenomenal success. With its second event not yet in the books, the LAPT is already looking at the possibility of increasing the buy-in. "We expected 200-250 players. We've gotten 314 and 398. The desire is there, the market is there, so that may affect things. We wanted to control our expectations, but we didn't dream we'd have 400 players in just our second event, especially in such a small country."
The benefits to raising the buy-in would primarily lie in increased exposure and the attraction of big-name players, but those needs are secondary. Right now, Cademartori and the brand he represents are focused on growing the Latin American market.
"We wanted to make it inviting for everyone, but most importantly the local market," he said. "We did think long and hard about the buy-ins and recognized the benefits of going higher, but our first priority was to serve the Latin American markets. Since some of them might not be as affluent as North America, we felt it was most appropriate to attract the best Latin American players as well as others who are interested in poker tourism."
The numbers are a strong indicator that they've succeeded and the region has taken notice. With three staple events already, Cademartori says the inquiries are coming from Mexico, Chile, Peru, Columbia and other interested markets on a daily basis. Cademartori meets regularly with benchmark politicians interested in the boost the LAPT can provide their tourism industries. It's a remarkable payoff that's as rewarding to PokerStars as it is to the man who carried its banner here.
"It's the most challenging task I've ever tackled by far," Cademartori said. "As a result, our success thus far has been the most rewarding accomplishment of my career."
You're not going to find many more amicable players than Max and Maria Stern. The only married couple in the world to both posses WSOP bracelets, the good doctor and his wife were happy to talk and all smiles even after their eliminations in 35th and just off the bubble, respectively.
Max is one of Costa Rica's poker titans. Playing from the age of 9, he was beating older kids from the start. His hair still full, his smile Cheshire and his voice a crystal clear baritone, the charismatic Costa Rican says of his good fortune "to play poker, well, you have to have a natural gift, and I had that."
Cuban Maria met Max's family while Max was away at school, sleeping in his vacated bed, a fact that gives him pleasure to this day. They're still playful despite almost 50 years together. "She slept in my bed and got the smell," he laughs. She scolds him playfully, still obviously enamored of his mischief. They make you hope for the same at their age.
Once he was done with medical school and his profession gave him ammunition, Stern, along with Humberto Brenes, Jose Rosencrantz and others began playing regularly. The other wives had no interest in poker or the way it excited the men, so Maria took to hosting duties every weekend, serving sandwiches and beverages while the boys played their game. Little did they know she was learning off their beats.
"The old saying," says Maria, sitting with her grandson and his friends, "is if you can't beat them, join them." She accompanied Max on his first trips to Vegas. "It took me six or seven years to really take poker seriously," she said.
It was the early '90s when that seriousness started manifesting. The three men put her into a ladies event satellite, which she promptly won. In 1992, she finished fourth in the $1,000 ladies seven-card stud tournament. It was their best game, one that Max specialized in enough to co-author a book on the subject with Tom McEvoy and Linda Johnson. Maria's the only one with a stud bracelet though; she won it five years later in an open invitation event. That same year, Max brought two more to the Stern family, the second and third of his career.
Max's love for his wife pours forth in his words. "We are a wonderful couple," he says. "I say that because mainly we are great friends. I have seen her that way all my life. I knew that she was catching things from hearing us guys analyzing and discussing poker, so the teaching started becoming serious. I knew she would win."
Now, the pair spend most of their time in Las Vegas, but the LAPT in San Jose was too good to miss. Do they miss the old days when they could count on dominating the local games? According to Maria, not at all.
"It's tougher, but I like that it's tougher," she said. "They say the more the merrier." Max quickly adds, "It's harder to win now, but in the end, all of our gifts are more important than jewelry." It's a nice truism for a couple that's been at the center of Latin American poker from the beginning.
Here's how the final table shapes up. There are going to be some names made this weekend:
Seat 1 -- Alec Torelli: $404,000
Seat 2 -- Pawel Sanojca: $134,000
Seat 3 -- . Steven Thompson: $195,000
Seat 4 -- Steven Silverman: $831,000
Seat 5 -- Kwaysser Akos: $594,000
Seat 6 -- Ashton Griffin: $761,000
Seat 7 -- Max Steinberg: $284,000
Seat 8 -- Joe Ebanks: $391,000
Seat 9 -- Alexander Soderlund: $325,000
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.