After a three-year hiatus, PokerStars’ sun-drenched flagship festival, the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, was resurrected in the brand new setting of Baha Mar Resort in the Bahamas. New both in the sense that the resort has only been open since 2017, and new for the PCA, previously hosted at Atlantis, Paradise Island (and in its inaugural year (2004), on the Voyager of the Seas cruise ship). The era of the poker cruise may have ended, but the PCA has returned in style.
Running January 22-February 3, the festival featured 70 events, with all poker budgets catered for, from the High Roller ($25,000 and $100,000) and Super High Roller ($250,000) to the $550 Mystery Bounty and $330 No Limit Hold’em events for the more moderate rollers.
The cavernous Conference Center was the whole world for thousands of players during the major tournaments, but the resort itself backs onto the pristine beaches of New Providence which in turn sport beautiful views out into the North Atlantic. Though the hotels in the complex (Grand Hyatt, SLS and Rosewood) were fully booked during the PCA, the beach did not feel overcrowded; the multiple pools had plenty of loungers and umbrellas and even the waterslides had minimal queues.
As an event space, the Grand Ballroom lived up to its name (almost 30,000 square feet, the largest of many such spaces in the Center) and even the mammoth TV set was incorporated without cramping the tables. The festival of poker played out alongside a string of lavish weddings and conferences, the hoodies-and-black-tie juxtaposition only rivalled in its incongruity by the Irish Poker Open once taking place at the same time and venue as the teenage Irish Dancing Championships. An army of staff put up and tore down sets, dinner tables, band stages, buffets, marquees and bars daily, while a string of bemused poker players looked on over the heavily utilised but immaculate Palm Lawn to the Bellagio-rivalling dancing fountains.
The PSPC Made Its Finalists Millionaires (If They Weren’t Already)
The $25,000 PokerStars Players No Limit Championship (PSPC) is something increasingly rare in the world of big buy-in poker competitions: a pure freezeout. One buy-in, one bullet. There were players betting with real gaming discs for the very first time sitting next to roosters on the top rungs of the tournament all-time money list (Justin Bonomo, Bryn Kenney, Stephen Chidwick, for example). But everyone started with 60,000 chips and access to the same 52 cards, plus a shot at a share in the $24,843,000 total prize pool.
Platinum Passes worth $30,000 had been awarded to 418 players as competition and giveaway prizes, bonus additions to PokerStars events' prize pools and as rewards for VIPs. The pass granted entry into the $25,000 PSPC plus expenses: a chance to enjoy both the tournament and the exceptional holiday setting in the Bahamas.
One such Platinum Pass holder, Max Menzel, was part of the ICM-chopping trio that shared the enormous combined prize money of the top three spots, finishing runner-up to Aliaksandr Shylko and pocketing $2,542,300. For an amateur (albeit a keen one who was a regular at Macao cash games), such a score is nothing short of life-changing. Inaugural PSPC winner Ramon Colillas (now a PokerStars Ambassador) turned his Platinum Pass into $5.1 million in 2019, and was present to hand over the trophy to 26-year-old Shylko.
Credit: Danny Maxwell for PokerStars
The Belarusian professional player was the second of the final table choppers, taking $3,121,839 and, after just one heads up hand, the trophy; Brazilian Philipe Pizzari was the third ($1,911,200).
"It feels feels like a dream. It's incredible," said Shylko, saying that he had made friends throughout the tournament. "It was an amazing experience, I had a lot of fun. I met a lot of good people. And winning such a big tournament - it means the world for me."
Regarding Baha Mar Resort, he was enthusiastic about the level of luxury but honest about the eye-opening price tags attached to basic consumables. “It’s great – but crazy pricey. I had a $7 chocolate bar. In Belarus you can get a decent dinner for that!”
Busted at Baha Mar: Could Be a Lot Worse
If there’s one poker destination guaranteed to tempt family members to hit the road with their poker aficionado partners (or parents), it’s a Caribbean one. The PCA took full advantage of the activities on offer, from swimming with pigs (they’re bigger than you expect) to ATV adventures, rum tours and golf days. Of course, the beach itself is probably the biggest draw during northern hemisphere winter: the pristine white sand and palm trees of the imagination are the real backdrop to Baha Mar.
Guests at the Grand Hyatt receive rubbery bracelets instead of room keys that unlock rooms with a touch. These are great: they’re waterproof (the water park is top notch and the sea is a stone’s throw away), can’t be dropped, verify room occupation for charging things and are generally forgotten as soon as wrapped around the wrist.
A quick bracelet scan allows free entry to the Baha Bay water park (regular admission $160), where exhilarating slides generate shrieks audible from the lazy river (about 7/10 on the lazy scale; it moves at a decent clip and there’s a surprising wave moment and an unavoidable waterfall). There are bars and food outlets within the park, plus plenty of towels and places to lounge; wait times for the popular rides were short on the tested day but showed no sign of being overrun thereafter.
On the “crazy pricey” side: lockers, as of February 2023, are an eye-watering $15. More than a few visitors had their mobile phones in waterproof pouches instead, leaving hats and sandals in cubby holes near the rides.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Baha Mar Resort is dotted with so many bars, restaurants, attractions and gaming facilities that a zoomed-out interactive map is just a mass of icons beneath which the actual layout of the place is invisible.
The Grand Hyatt’s gaming tables and slot machines occupy only the central section, and became busy, predictably, in the late afternoon until around 1am, at which time people seemed to collectively call it a night. The Jazz Bar’s live band was, likewise, lively to the point of conga lines at 11pm, but utterly deserted by 2am. Whatever communal decisions the non-poker-playing guests may have made to head bedwards at a certain point, the night owls (and deep running tournament contesters) still had a place to eat and drink late – The Swimming Pig – a strange but welcoming hybrid of sports bar and gastropub tucked away down a hallway opposite a Cartier outlet.
There were steakhouses and taco trucks, a poke place, lots of semi-fast food (the sort that’s served with a real napkin) and a fancy “Asian-Latino Grill” called Cinko that was booked out a week in advance, but as someone keeping odd hours and in need of a fast sandwich for under $40, The Swimming Pig was the go-to destination. The only times that seats were not immediately available were during a crucial Superbowl-deciding American football game and on one of the days that the heavens unexpectedly opened and outdoor pursuits were curtailed.
Activities and Experiences (Difference: Whether You Have to Move)
Outdoor pursuits included daily tennis and paddle (taking advantage of a lesson or just booking a court), ATV dune-buggy riding, golf (both the “grown-up” version and a mini-golf course) and, though these might have just been provided for the PCA players’ lounge, pool, giant Jenga and cornhole (this American pursuit has not conquered Europe quite yet – it’s effectively bean bag tossing into a hole in a wooden board and is more fun than it sounds).
There’s a fully equipped gym in the Grand Hyatt alongside the ESPA spa, where, the website informs readers, “22 luxurious private rooms provide serene settings for expert treatments and therapies, using ESPA’s collection of renowned natural products.” If the ESPA surroundings are comparable to the rooms’ marble-topped and -floored, spacious, and spotlessly cleanly presented luxury, then it will probably be worth its cost; the poker community by and large did not avail themselves of this particular service.
A fad blazed brightly a few years back when WSOP players, exhausted by their punishing tournament schedules or self-inflicted hangovers, went for quick intravenous infusions of what most people vaguely described as something like internal Lucozade. Not to miss a trick, the ESPA provides something called “Infuz” that is “specially formulated to give heightened mental and physical vitality, providing your body with the nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants you need to feel energized and refreshed.”
There are, of course, freshly squeezed juices, smoothies and whatever people were walking around drinking out of whole emptied-out pineapples to fill this gap, too.
Setting the Standard for Hosting
The players coming for a week plus to Nassau for the PCA were those who either serenely circled in the rarefied air of the nosebleed stakes already or those whose packages allowed them to enjoy the setting without breaking the bank. PokerStars almost always lays on trips and activities for its qualifiers, and those on offer in the Bahamas were exceptional. A “seat only” approach to the PSPC would have been tough for many; the airfare alone was more than the highest buy-in of a fair number of Platinum Pass winners.
To go to a luxury resort (and one that provides something called “Flamingo Yoga” with real flamingos is definitely in that category), one has to be prepared to pay luxury resort prices. The shops were not high street; Mont Blanc, Breitling, Rolex, Tiffany & Co. were all represented and representative. Do not make the mistake of comparing life at Baha Mar with that outside it as PSPC winner and new multi-millionaire Aliaksandr Shylko did (before he won his PSPC millions). It’s another world and people pay to be transported to it.
The whole thing worked because no one who’d won their way to the Bahamas felt like they had to eat only plain bagels in order to keep within budget. To sail a flagship event into worldwide success, you need the ballast of well-treated staff and media, the steering of experienced tournament directors, the streamlining of a well-balanced tournament schedule and the passengers to be treated like VIPs regardless of how they made it on board. The PCA 2023 could write the manual.
Photo Credits: Danny Maxwell for PokerStars