Much like life, poker is a game of incomplete information. You make the best decisions you can with the data you’ve got and play a hand as well as you can with the cards you’ve been dealt.

Humans are creatures of routine. We go about these routines daily, weekly, monthly. Routines provide us with comfort, safety, and personal security. I know what I like to eat and which side of the mattress I like sleeping on. I’m familiar with my local supermarket and know how to work my specific home appliances. Life gets interesting when we exit our routines. Venturing out of our comfort zones is the spice of life. Perhaps it’s a matter of taking public transportation one day instead of your own private vehicle. Maybe it’s buying a different brand of laundry detergent.

To extend the metaphor, then, how far one is prepared to venture outside their comfort zone determines just how spicy that person’s life will be.

Looking Beyond Our Borders

Fact: The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t have passports.

The United States of America is a vast land, with much to take in from sea to shining sea. You can even visit Alaska and Hawaii, neighbors to the north and south in Mexico and Canada, and various U.S. islands and protectorates, without that magic little blue passport booklet.

That said, there’s a big wide world out there. There’s so much more to see beyond the aforementioned confines. There are plenty of other English-speaking countries around the world, like Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and more, but where experiences tend to get even more interesting is when you set foot in a place where English is not the native language, nor widely spoken.

beyond borders
Image used for illustrative purposes only

So, too, with poker. You’re likely most comfortable in either your home poker game or your local poker room, and while game selection is important, there’s a lot more you can gain as a poker player by trying out different felts at different locales. To be sure, there’s plenty of poker to be played throughout the United States. Maybe you just stick to the card playing Meccas of Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Maybe you’re a bit more adventurous and occasionally tour other popular poker rooms around the country. But really getting out there and playing in poker tournaments and rooms around the world is what can truly open your eyes.

When Russia Calls, You Pick Up the Phone

A number of weeks ago, I received an invitation from PokerStars to join them in Russia and do media coverage at their 2019 European Poker Tour Sochi stop. It’s always a thrill to receive such invitations, and they’re never something I’ll take for granted. As open as I always try to be to new experiences, however, I’ll admit to having had just the slightest bit of hesitation on this one. Russia? Hm…

You know what; why the heck not?!

Just before accepting the invite, I did a bit of research on Sochi. Reading about the place and watching some videos helped to whet my appetite for the experience, and it wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of things I was looking forward to doing on the trip.

Moreover, a good friend of mine suggested to me that on this trip I ought to perhaps consider trying to focus more on the “Lifestyle” type of coverage rather than the “Cardplayer” type of coverage. That’s the attitude with which I boarded the Turkish Airlines flight, with a brief stopover in Istanbul, to Sochi.

Speaking of comfort zones, some of you may know that (as an orthodox Jew) I keep a strictly kosher diet. Disappointingly, my online research yielded absolutely nothing(!) on this front. No restaurants and no kosher products at supermarkets anywhere even remotely near where I’d be staying; nada. So, for anyone who might be interested, this is what it looks like when you have to bring essentially ALL your own food along with you for a six-day drip:

Sochi food
Not pictured: cold cuts, cream cheese, and sliced cheese (thank goodness for in-room fridges!) Also, once arrived, I purchased some fruit in a local supermarket; more on that later…

To follow up, then, on the listed things I was looking forward to, here’s what the experiences were actually like.

Touring an Almost-Brand-New City

One of the first things I learned about Sochi is that there are sort of two “population clusters.” The main one is the proper city of Sochi, by the Black Sea, which is where you land at Adler airport. The secondary one is located about a 40-minute drive into the mountains and is known by the name of Krasnaya Polyana, where the majority of the city’s spa resorts are. That’s where I stayed, with my hotel about a five-minute ride from Casino Sochi.

Most of my time was spent in Krasnaya Polyana, but on the day of my arrival I joined a group excursion out to the coastal city, where I enjoyed a tour of its Formula 1 track and Olympic Village.

A couple days later, I set out to explore my more immediate surroundings. The mountains near Sochi were known to be Russia’s main holiday-making area long before the city hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Massive investment in infrastructure notwithstanding, there’s still plenty of quaint charm to be had when checking out the area on foot.

Picturesque Scenery and Natural Beauty

Up in the mountains, it snowed multiple times during my trip (a BIG thrill for this LA-born-and-raised guy currently living in the Middle East), but there was a gloriously sunny two-day window that I was determined to take advantage of. I took a cable car ride up to the top of the Gorky Gorod ski resort, located just a 10-minute walk from Casino Sochi. A cloudless sky made for absolutely perfect viewing conditions from the top of the mountain.

These days, Sochi gets millions of tourists passing through each year. While plenty of them are foreign, much of the tourism is local. A number of Russian-speakers I interacted with throughout my trip mentioned to me that they were from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities around the country, and that it was their first visit to Sochi, too. Some had vacation apartments in the area and were making their umpteenth visits. I’ve already mentioned that Sochi is considered to be Russia’s premier holiday destination, and with vistas like these it’s easy to understand why.

Cash Games

I had a lot to say about the cash games running during EPT Sochi, but this section got so long that I decided to publish it on its own as a separate story. Be sure to check it out.

Seeing What All The Fuss Is About

Once a legalized gambling zone was established in Sochi, and Casino Sochi finished, it almost instantly became a magnet for prestigious poker tournaments. This year represented PokerStars’ third foray into Sochi and it became clear to me quite quickly why they’ve selected this venue as worthy of an EPT stop.

From the outside, the casino’s classical exterior looks like it wouldn’t be out of place even in ritzy Monte Carlo. That opulence was mirrored by the building’s interior. Polished, shiny marble and varnished wood around every corner, high-tech slot machines situated right beside gaming tables so clean and fresh that looked as though they’d been installed just days beforehand; it was quite a sight to behold.

The establishment’s permanent poker room was just plain beautiful: new solid-wood tables, each equipped with automatic shufflers, with plenty of room to walk around, nestled within a tastefully decorated corner alcove. Only the plastic chips seemed somewhat out of place; where’s the clay, folks?! Housed on the second floor of the building, the poker room was adjacent to the numerous conventional halls and ballroom areas, almost all of which were converted to tournament poker areas for the duration of EPT Sochi.

I wasn’t the only poker industry Westerner to be visiting for the first time, either. While they’ve provided live streaming coverage during each of the past PokerStars-branded Sochi festivals, the crack team of James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton had always been doing commentary remotely. Not this time. I guess they also wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Debunking Stereotypes

If you’ve already gotten through the previous 1,500 words or so, I imagine that my descriptions and depictions were likely NOT how you had envisioned Russia.

That’s not to say there wasn’t room for some improvement. For a destination working hard to attract international tourism, I was pretty shocked at the overall low level of English spoken, especially by people in service industry positions. From drivers to money changers to hotel reception desk clerks and even public information booth attendants, I was stunned to repeatedly have to resort to a combination of gestures and Google Translate.

I’m not suggesting that “English is a superior language and everyone ought to learn it,” but the fact is that English is the primary international language of communication and things would’ve gone significantly more smoothly if the locals knew English even marginally better.

Russian supermarket
It took me way longer than I care to admit to find the few items on my shopping list. #yanegovoryuporusski

For instance, I don’t believe that visits to a supermarket and pharmacy to pick up a few items ought to make someone feel accomplished upon managing to gather a few select items, but I suppose that’s all something I can chalk up to being outside my comfort zone, and there’s absolutely some value in having experiences of that nature.

In any event, what DID make my trip overwhelmingly pleasant was that every single local I met and engaged with — bar none — was good-natured and friendly. They may not have been equipped with the right tools to communicate with me effectively, but they sure did want to help and their generally cheery disposition sure made me feel welcome.

bartender
The hotel bartender and I had a very enjoyable (albeit language-limited) conversation as I enjoyed a Bailey’s nightcap after one of my cash game sessions.

Oft-reinforced cultural stereotypes and preconceived notions tend to cloud and clutter our minds with untrue visions of what different peoples and places are actually like. Actually seeing places and meeting people in person, however, in many instances helps to debunk those stereotypes and notions.

I know that my own perception of Russia and the Russian people has improved significantly as a result of having taken the trip and I hope that I’ve successfully been able to convey all of this to you.

Conclusion

Sometimes it can be difficult to get information out of your opponents at the felt. Some players elect to request a table change, while others opt to grind it out and do the best they can.

When money’s at stake, like at the poker table, game selection is certainly critical to your bottom line. But in situations where “only” comfort is at stake, like crossing borders in the game of life, I’d suggest that there’s far more long-term value in grinding things out and keeping an open mind to learning, improving your skills, and being exposed to new people and situations.

Only when you place yourself in challenging spots, outside your comfort zone, can you truly gain as a person. I feel that I, for one, ended up better off for doing so.

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