Thoughts from an American Poker Exile
It's been nearly six weeks since I uprooted my life in the United States and relocated to Playa del Carmen, Mexico in order to once again access a game on the Internet that has become a substantial part of my life over the past several years. I've been here long enough to start feeling able to wrap my head around the whole experience, although only a little bit. I suspect that even decades from now I'll feel a sense of surprise that I actually sold most of my possessions and left my native country in order to continue playing a game of cards on the Internet. The pittance of clarity I'm feeling about the whole experience leaves me with some thoughts about the online poker playing culture and the evolution of what it means to me to be an American.
Despite it seeming like a crazy thing to do on paper, and that's because it really is a crazy thing to do, relocating out of the U.S. for online poker has felt basically completely natural to me. Part of the joy of existing in the culture of people profiting off of online poker is a broadened worldview. I've traveled to various parts of the United States, Europe, and even Israel because of poker. Having some years of awareness behind me that there is more to the world than the comfortable culture I grew up in makes leaving the U.S. less of a scary unknown.
Another thing that aided in the move feeling natural are the online poker pioneers who relocated before me. Having left the United States nearly six months after Black Friday, I was somewhat late to the poker exile party. This gave me the benefit of reaching out to others who already braved the journey themselves. Chip Ferguson ('z23fantatic' online) was especially helpful and generous with his time in helping me ascertain what realtor to talk to, what bank to go to, and which of the Mexicans at that bank are able to assist me in my native language.
Getting back into online poker was not as simple as deboarding the plane in Cancun and powering up my laptop. First, you need a bank account. To get one of those, you need a copy of a lease and a utility bill that proves your residency here as well as the visa you received at customs. It takes patience to get through this process. I spent much of my first few days in Mexico just trying to move forward with the process of getting back into online poker.
Once you have a bank account, you are, in theory, good to go. I could have been playing on Party Poker, 888 Poker, and others within just a couple of days of arriving in Mexico had I not encountered struggles with the functionality of my bank's online system. Instead, it took about a week before I was clicking buttons at online poker tables again. After six chaotic months, it felt nice to once again have access to an activity that feels very normal to me.
Something I've had to get used to in Mexico is not everything working quite as efficiently as I've come to expect in the United States. It requires more patience to live here. There is much less of an overall sense of urgency here than in the United States. I have generally welcomed this change in pace and lifestyle and would go so far as to say that it was needed.
My grand visions of relocating to Playa del Carmen involved playing online poker nearly every day. However, since arriving, I have found myself unmotivated to log full-time hours at the online poker tables. I've been playing only 2-3 days per week and have instead allocated more time to getting myself into the gym, enjoying the paradisiacal beach that is more or less right out my back door, and assimilating into the culture here that is very much foreign to me. The cheaper cost of living in Mexico has allowed me to have an easier time accepting a slower pace and be less concerned about cash flow issues. This change in lifestyle has served as a nice reminder of the importance of having fun and enjoying life. Life is really too short not to just enjoy it if you have the chance.
There are enough Americans who have relocated here to provide a sense of home and security when needed, but for the most part, it's an all-encompassing culture shock. It's very surreal to know that everywhere you go, you are the minority. You are the outsider that doesn't speak the native language. You are no longer home. You are merely a gracious visitor in someone else's home.
Yet in a strange way, Mexico is beginning to feel precisely like home to me. The paltry bit of Spanish I am able to recall from five years of classes in the American education system, combined with body language and a population used to dealing with helpless outsiders, has been enough to get me basically anywhere I need to go. Still, it is unsettling to want to be able to communicate something to someone but simply be unable to do so as a result of a language barrier. Six weeks of this as a daily struggle has been more than enough to motivate me to seek out a tutor to teach me the Spanish language. My lessons start next week.
In a bigger sense, this move to Mexico feels like the final blow to the honeymoon relationship I have had with my country since it was instilled in me as a small boy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every Monday in his publicly-funded elementary school. I have grown from a child with a sense of awe and reverence towards his country to a man that now realizes it's far from perfect and not quite as much the center of the universe as he once thought.
It's been a long, gradual coming-of-age process for me to realize that our politicians aren't rock stars but rather flawed men somewhat deeply indebted to the status quo and the interests of the financial backers that put them in that office. And that the American lifestyle is not the best way to live, but merely one way to live in a world that offers many choices. Indeed, while it may come as a surprise to many Americans, most of the world has found a way to cultivate happiness without needing to share the values of American culture. That has been perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned in six weeks in Playa del Carmen: that the world is a big place and it doesn't revolve around me as much as I thought it did.
I guess the last bit of reverence I held for my country was erased when the game I harmlessly enough enjoyed playing on my laptop while sitting on my couch was taken away without the slightest pause for concern for the citizens whose lives were enriched by it. American poker players were made to feel like a bug squashed by the heavy boot of our government without a care. I'll always love my country and the spirit that it stands for, but my days of looking up to it wide-eyed like a child might at his father are over.
I had to leave the United States to join the majority of the rest of the developed world that has access to playing online poker. And while that is, on paper, the reason I and other poker exiles left the United States, there's a certain feeling for me about the whole thing that makes it seem much bigger than being just about clicking buttons in a game on the Internet.
Being here in this strange country feels too much like home to me for me to believe that the poker exile experience is merely about a game of cards on the Internet. Poker has always been best suited for people with a propensity to live on the fringe chasing a pot of gold. It seems almost fitting, and perhaps an apt tale for characterizing the current state of the United States, that myself and hundreds of other Americans had to leave our native land in search of better opportunity.