John Tabatabai is a Betfair sponsored pro who first burst onto the scene when he took the runner-up spot for £570,150 in the 2007 World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) at the Empire Casino in London, losing the heads-up confrontation against the young Norwegian Annette Obrestad.
The Welshman has been an ambassador for Betfair ever-since that amazing first live cash, and recently decided to choose Colombia for an extended stay of online grinding, traveling and for the ability to learn to speak Spanish – a long-time goal for Tabatabai.
Why South America?
Ever since I was young I had always had a desire to go to South America to learn Spanish. Also I realised I was earning in dollars and living in the world’s most expensive city in sterling. I thought, “I could be anywhere in the world,” and thought now is the best time before I have to settle down, get married, become responsible and start acting like an adult. It was going to be a drastic change from what I was used to in London. I have friends there and I speak the language; so understanding how drastic the change would be I decided to go the full length. So instead of choosing somewhere comfortable like Buenos Aires, which is a metropolitan city, I thought lets go to the heart of it – so I chose Columbia. I had read a lot of the propaganda about Columbia being a dangerous place. When Pablo Escobar was running the cartels, the city of Medellín, was voted as one of the most dangerous places on earth for eight years. It scared me, but I thought, “Why not go down to Medellín, let’s give it a go, I’ll fit in.”
So off I went.
Did you take the advice of other poker players before moving to Colombia?
No, absolutely not. The only consideration I would have made in relation to poker would have been if it was illegal to play online e.g. I wasn’t looking at the U.S or any other countries that prohibit that. My main purpose was to have a break from the life I started to consider “normal.” When you are raised in the Western world you sometimes forget how fortunate you are. Living in London makes it is very easy to lose yourself and get caught up with going out every night and eating at Michelin star restaurants; it becomes almost a game because everyone else around you is doing it so you think it is normal. Therefore my main purpose was to better myself and to learn Spanish and during my downtime I could still play online poker and stay alive, alive meaning make money of course.
Interesting that you would believe that online poker in Colombia is legal when the local authorities say it isn’t. Were there ever any warning signs on the Internet when you logged on to play?
I had no idea up until 10 seconds ago that is how the Columbian government felt and that was the state of law over there. No one has ever said that to me before, although I must not have done my research thoroughly. Had I have known they were against it I would not have gone there. The last place I would want to end up in is a Columbian jail. I didn’t see any restrictions or notifications when I logged on. If I had seen any warning signs then I would have ceased my activities immediately.
So a typical ‘grey area’ in the gambling space?
I guess so, but on the other hand I don’t think there are a lot of online poker players in Columbia, I don’t think there are many Columbians that have enough disposable income, nor do I believe there is a big enough market in the US who would like to relocate to Columbia to play online. So I’m pretty sure that the Columbian government taxes are spent on actual issues…
The Colombian gaming regulator ‘Coljuegos’ have recently been cracking down on illegal slot machine dens. Did you hear about anything like that during your time in Medellín?
I played in the LAPT in Medellín. It was held in a casino and I made a few friends there who play cash games in other casinos, and I am sure there were private home games. So, I think if there are rich people who want to gamble they do. I didn’t want to find myself in a situation where I was playing for large sums of money against unknown people in a foreign country, with an unfortunate bad reputation, where I do not speak the language; and I definitely didn’t want to put myself in spots where I played in any illegal dens. However, I am sure they do exist.
What were the local’s opinions on gambling?
During the days I enrolled and attended University so I could learn Spanish. I played a little in the afternoons and then would go out in the evening with people from Uni, or people I had met along my stay. My main focus was to try and understand what people were saying. I have never been in a situation where people cannot understand me, simply because everyone speaks English and if it’s not their first language, it’s their second. I find it strange if there are people in the UK who cannot speak English and wonder why they are here if they don’t want to learn our language? I met some people who didn’t know any English and the only word they knew was, ‘Thank you,’ it gave me some sort of view and appreciation to how difficult it is for people who come to the UK or US and don’t speak the language. Now I understand, they are trying to learn, it’s just very difficult for them. This made my main focus when I went out in the evening to understand what was going on, and to try and communicate with people.
I did tell a few people from my class that I was a poker player. They all came from different backgrounds e.g. finance, marketing. That came up a couple of times, the same as when you meet a random person on the street who does not know anything about poker, they ask the same questions like, ‘What is my real job so I can pay for my gambling problem?’. The same question anyone who has been playing poker for a while has encountered regularly. But in general I didn’t talk about gambling.
How has your view changed on Colombia since your stay?
Currently, while having this conversation, I am much more relaxed and confident about going back to Columbia, but the time whilst I was there I was always paranoid, always looking over my shoulder as it is a foreign country and a completely new place. All you know is what the media in our country has told us, which I now know not to be the 100% truth. I did not want people to think I had money; my goal was simply blend in, learn Spanish and live a new way of life.
Did the time difference suit an online grind?
It was an advantage for me. I think they were a few hours behind us, which meant when I played in the afternoons, I am playing in the evening European prime time. Then when it came to the evening in Columbia I was not missing out on any games when going out making friends and socialising. The time difference was pretty close to perfect.
So a beautiful new country helps you relax and therefore helps your game?
Living in London is very difficult. There is always somebody visiting me and so I am always out partying. You’re lucky if dinner costs a thousand, the next day you are hung-over, you have poisoned your body with copious amounts of alcohol and then have to play in the worst state. Whilst I was in Colombia, I was going out a lot, not drinking myself into a stupor and the next day I was generally quite fresh. I had a beautiful view of the city and trained in the morning, and it felt great, like I was doing something purposeful, learning a new language, making new friends. There is something about learning which gives me a great drive.
What were your impressions of the LAPT?
95% of the people in the tournament were from other South American countries – even though the eventual winner was an Irish guy! The standard as you would expect was relatively poor, or a couple of years behind Mainstream Europe. The tournament was very well run, very professional and if I were ever in the area I would be sure to go down and play it.
When Colombia do create a legal framework for online poker. Is it a place you would recommend to online grinders?
It’s not for everybody, but I would strongly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in learning Spanish and learning a completely different culture. They want to enjoy themselves, money is not as important like in the Western world where we are brought up to study, then work, keep working twelve hours a day, work for that promotion and want a bigger house, two cars and by the time you know it you turn 50 and if you’re lucky you own your own company and then you look around and think, “I wish I had done this or that?” I feel there is a lot we can learn about the South American culture, about life generally, they are the friendliest people. When the Olympics were in London they were so excited that I was from London, as they had never even met anyone from Europe as the only foreigners they meet are from the US. Everything is fantastic there and the weather is stunning.
What was the cost if living like?
It’s like every city. There are different places you can live and I wanted to be in the safest part, which is also the most expensive part. It’s cheaper than London, but nowhere near as cheap as I thought it would be. Once you have accommodation out of the way everything else is relatively inexpensive. I would say the top restaurants are about 30% cheaper than in Europe. Those two things cost a lot of money, but things like taxis, going out drinking, partying anything else you want to do there is very cheap.