Thursday, July 26, 2007

Convicted Poker Players AKA The Most Fucked Up 19 Hours of My Life

*Names and some details changed or omitted, to protect the...uhh...guilty.
*This came out pretty long, but I think it is definitely worth the read

The night started out innocently enough. I heard from a friend that there was a new home game in Bangkok, one he had found from a social networking website. He had gotten to know the host a bit and all seemed fine...the stakes were enough to at least be mildly entertaining so I decided to give it a try. I've been to lots of home games in Bangkok and have never had any problems, of any kind.

We show up at 9:00 and begin the tournament that was planned to kick off the night.

In attendance are:

Rich, the host, an early 30's restaurant manager from Germany, with an impressive poker setup and nice apartment in central Bangkok

Apple, Rich's Thai girlfriend, a few years his junior

Edward: A 70 year old Canadian, engineering professor at one of Bangkok’s top Universities

Ron: 27 year old American owner of a popular Sukhumvit area Bar. Bangkok veteran

Brent: 24 year old American sporting 8 day stubble and a t-shirt celebrating the go-go bar industry. Has been living in Bangkok for years. Enough said.

Jessica: Mid-twenties recent college grad from Washington State, came to Thailand to teach Music just 2 months ago

Pierre: 30ish year old Frenchman who didn't talk much the entire evening. He lives in Bangkok with his Swiss wife and their young son.

Me: Wild Bill

Yo: Late twenties Canadian on his first trip to Thailand

Marvin: Late twenties Bangkok Resident and Australian Citizen who equally divides his leisure time between tennis, go-go bars and poker

Anthony: 35 year old high school science teacher who has been living in Thailand for the last decade.

Josh: Late twenties Canadian Software Engineer and Bangkok Resident

After about 45 minutes of play eleven of us are playing across two tables and one late player arrives. Something is off about this guy from the start. First off he has a horrible speech impediment. Second he is asking all kinds of really stupid questions like whether or not there are any professionals in the game. He asks us to wait just a couple of minutes for his friend to biggie, we continue play.

Very shortly six Thai men walked into the room, one by one. I jokingly said to Ron, 'uh oh, we are getting raided by the Thai police', as it is fairly uncommon to see several Thai men in a Bangkok home game, at least in my experience.

Within seconds two of them have cameras out and are taking random photographs of the table and of players. One of them says 'Immigration' and has a big ear to ear grin on. I take this as a joke and start laughing, smiling nice and wide for the picture he takes of me.

I then proceed to limp my button with 65 suited of spaids. I look left to Josh who says, 'they are serious, this is not good'. What the fuck? I turn around, now one of them has a camcorder out and is recording our actions. They are being very nice and polite and a couple of them are smiling and laughing a bit. We are all drinking and in a good mood and the mood remains this way for some time.

Though as the moments wear on everybody in the room becomes aware of the fact that there are six plain clothed cops taking photo's of our home game and videotaping our every move.

Edward begins raising his voice talking about all of the various generals and colonels he knows in the Thai government and we all begin to laugh at the laundry list of people we know between us who (we thought) could get us out of this mess with the push of a cell phone button. So we all began doing this. Ron and Edward in particular were able to pull out all sorts of high ranking officials to talk to the police and attempt to convince them they had picked the wrong group of Farang to fuck with.

I have only two contacts who I could think to call to possibly help us get out of this mess, one a prominent Bangkok lawyer I met through poker friends, the other the father of a good friend who I'll just say is very very well connected in Thailand. I couldn't get either on the phone initially so I just waited it out and try to let the others work the magic with their friends and contacts.

We ended up waiting around for several hours while the officials counted down our chip stacks, put all of the chips in 7-11 grocery bags, took pictures of anything and everything in the apartment and just generally stood around and did nothing. During this several hours they made no demands of us, other than we obviously could not leave the apartment. They continued to let us drink our beer and cocktails, smoke cigarettes, move about the apartment freely and make unlimited calls on our cell phones. We were never searched or even questioned besides 'who was sitting here?' in reference to the poker game.

Meanwhile the late arrival to the game was standing near the door and conversing with the officials, pointing around the room and speaking to them in Thai. It became quite obvious that he was a rat. I said this to the owner of the home and he nodded his head, having already realized that himself. We all began to taunt him a bit, and he sputtered back telling us that we didn't understand and that we shouldn't have advertised on the internet. Probably true. In retrospect it was pretty risky behavior, especially in a country where gambling is illegal and everybody knows that.

Still though, it is my opinion the Farang's (foreigners...white people) in Thailand should stick together in situations like the Thai's clearly do. You're not going to catch Thai's turning other Thai's in if they are doing harm to Farang. I seriously think this guy should have his testicles forcefully removed and fed to him.

After several hours and much talking between the people we called and the Thai girlfriend of our host, along with some connected Thai's who were called in by one of the game participants, it was made clear to us that we could not buy our way out of this situation, and the people we were calling to help us were doing us more harm than good. They rounded us up and led us downstairs into a paddy wagon and drove us down to the main Bangkok Immigration center.

There we sat for hours and hours while they prepared a long confession for us to sign, 100% in Thai. What a nightmare. They were telling us all we would have to do is go before a judge and say we were guilty, pay a small fine and then go home. Though they said if we did not sign the confession, which we couldn't read or understand, that we'd have to sit in jail for a few days and wait for an open calendar spot and go to trial. FOR PLAYING POKER.

I finally got my lawyer on the phone and he said what they were saying was likely true...the government wasn't likely to look upon this crime as a very harsh one, they'd likely give us a fine and let us go, but the judge was in no way required to follow what the police said. Nobody, not even my lawyer, could tell us what the maximum penalty was for our crime, or even the name of the crime we had committed.

We all started to get pretty panicked about this time and small factions of our group began to form. Many people started to be quietly resigned to the whole situation while others (including me) wanted answers and weren't willing to take this lying down.

I'll say that during all of this they did treat us very well. We sat in the back conference room of the Immigration station and they continued to allow us to smoke and drink and they also allowed our friends and girlfriends to join us. We were not put into cells or searched at any point and the officials really had no contact with any of us at all, and allowed us to freely roam around the office, sitting on their couches and using their break room dishes etc. I can't imagine poor immigrants from Laos are treated in this way.

Anyway during the entire process, though we were being treated well, I began to get more and more concerned as they told us we would have to go to a Police Station and be arrested for our crime, then go before a judge later in the afternoon. We would also have to remain in custody this entire time.

In America if you are picked up for a petty crime, they cut you a ticket and tell you when to return to court. That’s the only reference point I had, and coupled with the fact that they had what looked like about ten people working on this, it seemed more serious to me than they were making it out to be. Why would they send an undercover informant into our game and bring six officials down for several hours, then haul us all away and hold us while they investigate for several more hours...if this is a minor crime that they are going to let us walk for?

I learned about Groupthink in college and that started to flash before my eyes here. It is when a group of people all basically just nod in unison, not wanting to be the one to buck the status quo, when going down a slippery slope to a horrible decision...such as being arrested in a third world country and signing a confession they cannot read under duress. I could see this on the Amnesty International website. I began to panic.

I got the idea to call the US Embassy and see if they could send us down somebody to explain it to us and try to negotiate our release. Everybody in the group disagreed with me on this. They said it would blow it out of proportion. I still think that would have been the best course of action, that is why they are there anyway right? But I allowed myself to be stifled by the 15+ other people, along with the immigration officials, telling me this wasn't a good idea.

Though after I made that request, the officials suddenly told us that if we cooperated and settled down (that obviously directed to me as nobody else was making any fuss at all) that we could stay in their facility until court, a place we had obviously grown comfortable.

I had my girlfriend (who had come down a couple of hours sooner to bring me my passport and provide some much needed support) translate the document for us. Other than the fact that we were claiming their was no money involved, it was surprisingly 100% accurate...down to the part where the police treated us very kind and never forced us to do anything. I was shocked. I expected it to be full of lies and exaggerations and huge claims. We were playing a small buy-in tournament, they came in, took us away and were nice about doing that. All true.

So in the end all but one of us signed it.

Soon after we signed it they loaded us back in the paddy wagon and said we had to go to the police station. Uh oh. They had just lied to us. We began to get worried again. For every part nice these people were to us, they were an equal party shady. We must have been told ten different stories about what was going to happen and when we would be allowed to leave. Each time a new story emerged a short while later. All with a nice big Thai smile and an invitation to return sitting with our girlfriends, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

We got back in our paddy wagon. This was actually quite a fun experience, all in all. Our group certainly wasn't a bunch of hardened criminals. I'd be shocked if 8/11 or more of us didn't have college degree's, several of us own successful businesses and you could just tell by the topics of conversation, these were good people. What the fuck were we doing in a paddy wagon in a third world country? Maybe you had to be there, but most of us couldn't help but laugh about it. Staring through metal bars at the Thai people on the street looking up at us being hauled off like a bunch of drug dealers.

So we arrive at the police station, our girlfriends waiting outside for us. I'll pause here to say that Thai girlfriends are amazingly selfless and supportive, in this type of situation and in general. I'd like to see a group of white girlfriends do this for a random assortment of home game players in the US. None of them ever complained about any of this, they continued to bring us food and drinks and negotiation with the police for us all between taking breaks giving us hugs and telling us everything would be all right. Just amazing.

My girlfriend told me that the police were not going to be as nice as the immigration officials. They are much more corrupt and rude. They ushered us in, looked over the poker chips and talked amongst each other for some time. They then brought us in as a group and one of them said to us, in pretty good English, that we'd all be fine, we just have to pay a fine and we'll be going home. We all were very happy and congratulated each other a bit. He also said we wouldn't have to spend any time in jail or in a cell. Excellent. Lets get this over with.

A few minutes later they ushered us up some stairs and into a room with two other officers. One problem, we look to the back of the room and there were some of the ugliest jail cells I had ever seen. Uh oh, were we lied to again? We all stood around for awhile, smoking and drinking the waters and snacks our girlfriends had brought, wondering again when all of this would be over. Then the head police officer came in and started barking at us to go into the cell he had just opened. FUCK.

We all go in there, as surreal an experience as I have ever had, all of us giggling and just not believing this was happening. There were small, dirty, smelly, shirtless Thai men sprawled out all over the floor of this long hallway with maybe 8 cells in total going off on the sides. Each of us still had everything in our possessions that we had come in with, and our girlfriends began feeding through bottles of water and bags of chips for us. I gave mine 10,000 baht (about $300) to try and buy my way out of this. She said she'd do her best. The look on her face isn't one I ever want to put on anybody’s face again. She felt so bad for me. I was smiling, for a reason I can't fully put into words. It just didn't make any sense and I couldn't help but to laugh about it.

So we all stood around munching on Lays, smoking cigarettes, making phone calls telling people we were officially in a Thai jail and collectively wondering how long we'd be in this hell hole. That is really what it was, a fucking hell hole. Smelled like old feces and dried urine. The walls looked like they hadn't been cleaned in years, the whole place a very dingy yellow color with the types of prison cells you see in movies with bars running floor to ceiling.

Within ten minutes they opened the cell for us and let us all out. We all sat down, laughing pretty hard that we were now released from our stint in a Thai jail. We sat down and were very relieved and told of the deal our girls had negotiated for us not to stay in the cell. I wont release details of that here, as I don't want to get anybody into trouble nor do I want any more trouble myself. I'll just say that we are very lucky men.

We were told we'd have to wait until 9:00 in this room before they would take us to court. None of us had gotten any sleep and the fun was beginning to wear off. We were also getting more worried about what might happen to each of us. The teachers were concerned about losing their Thai jobs, the rest of us concerned we'd get booted from the country...and all of us a bit worried the judge might throw the book at us and we'd be in a Thai jail for years for playing poker.

For the next several hours we watch TV with the police, laughing about the resident crack head who keeps speaking nonsense to us while offering to fetch coffee for us and the cops, goes in and messes around with the prisoners etc. This man has obviously been doing crack (or whatever they use in Thailand) since most of us were small children. The police though did nothing more than occasionally shoo him out the door. You would never see this in America in a million years.

Around 9:30 they finally got us together and put us back in the paddy wagon. Our girlfriends/friends were able to get them not to put shackles on us for the trip, which would have been a fairly humiliating experience. We got to the courthouse and waited for the judge to arrive for over two and a half hours. All of us badly needed sleep and we were getting more worried about what the judge may say. They told us they wanted us to plead guilty and then the judge would give us a sentence.

Here we were in this old, broken courtroom, being spoken to in a language we do not understand, about to plead guilty to a crime who's name we did not know and carrying a maximum penalty we were not aware of, having signed a confession we did not understand. The anxiety was growing thick.

I called my lawyer again, who told me he'd send a Thai down there for us to find out what was going on. He said he'd take about 20 minutes. 15 minutes later the judge (a very attractive 35ish year old Thai woman) finally entered the room.

Obviously the whole thing is in Thai and they do not have an interpreter for us. One by one the defendants behind us stand up and the judge goes through a very quick speech with them, they say something quickly back in Thai, she says a bit more than hands off the documents in her hand to somebody else, they sit down and then she calls the next name. I had no idea what was happening. Then one of the teachers next to me said each of them was being given a fine, nothing more. He also said we were in the misdemeanor court. Excellent news.

She called our names one by one, butchering each of them beyond belief. We all stand up and then she tells the owner of the apartment's girlfriend to step forward. She goes through some process with her that none of the other people had to do, we get worried again. She appears to be giving her oath. She then goes through the same motions as before, and Apple turns to us and tells us that we are accused of playing poker and some other small details (all true), and that we need to plead guilty. My life flashes before my eyes, I'm having nightmarish visions of not being granted an appeal for making huge mistakes in this process...rotting away in a Thai Prison making futile arguments about the injustices of the Thai penal system. Everybody says guilty, I don't say anything in the hopes that I could possibly say later that I didn't speak nor understand what was going on...then the judge begins to speak in Thai. Apple turns to us and says that the owner of the home would be required to pay a roughly $50 fine, and the rest of us about $25, and we were free to go.

WHAT THE FUCK?? They held us for all of that time, wasted countless man hours from seemingly high ranking investigators and others, and it all amounted to a $25 fine!

Sure, here is my money, let me out of here!

So in classic Thai style, it takes another hour for them to finish up, collect our money, and usher us out. But one more suprise is in store for us. We have to get back on the paddy wagon and go back to immigration. Now immigration decides if they want to allow us to keep our Visa's and remain in Thailand. Thailand is notorious for stamping the passports of unwanted people with Persona Non Grata, meaning you are effectively blacklisted from ever returning. As all but one of us have lives here, we were very worried about that.

My lawyer finally arrives and after talking with the Thai officials a bit tells me we have nothing to worry about. We are going back to immigration to sign some documents and we'll be released. He also tells me my poker friend (his boss) is very well connected at all levels of the Thai Government and if there are any problems, I can call him and he'll be glad to help me out. Great news. I tell him there is no need for him to stay but if there are problems at immigration I'll call him.

We get back to immigration and our wonderful girlfriends are again waiting for us. They worked out for us to stay in the same room we had before, instead of the much uglier/more prison-like Immigration Detention Center. We feasted on Pad Thai and Fish Ball Soup, smoking cigarettes and all feeling pretty good. It was about 1pm now, and we'd been in custody for over 12 hours, but we were glad it was all coming to a close.

My girlfriend told me they were working on a solution to speed this up for us and get us on our way (details of which I wont release, for fear of further problems) and it should all be over soon. Then something odd happened. They told us all to head downstairs and we were going to a new building, with more staff, he could get this done quicker.

Another twist. We were all pretty sick and tired of twists. We get over to the Immigration Detention Center and are told to sit around a picnic table and our girlfriends had to wait outside, beyond our view. On the other side of a huge metal fence we see about fifty shirtless and short Asian men squatting and taking instructions from a Thai guard. He is telling them to do things like stand on one leg with something in their mouth and a hand on their head. It looks like ritual humiliation you'd do during a fraternity pledging process, but these seemingly were captured illegal aliens coming from Myanmar or Cambodia. It made very little sense to any of us.

We get our girlfriends on the phone and are told we are now under a different Generals control and any deal that was being worked on before is effectively dead, we should be prepared to be sitting there for a long while, possibly through another evening.

Then we get news awhile later that one of the Thai police thought what we had done was very bad, he wanted to revoke our Visa's and deport us. This would mean a long wait in this jail and that we couldn't return to Thailand. Obviously very bad news for us all.

We had a further problem that several people in our group were unable to produce their passports, further delaying things. Over the next several hours we kept getting conflicting messages...we would be released soon, we wouldn't be released for a long time, they were running background checks (very bad for some of us) to see if we had criminal records overseas, they were working on some type of deal etc etc.

A few times we got news that our release was near immediate, we all got excited and stood around waiting, and then nothing. The despair was obvious by looking at our faces.

Then they told us to go onto the other side of the fence and sit in a row of chairs. We sat there watching TV and wondering if we'd ever get out, when the little guard who had been processing us motioned for us to come over...and he had our passports in his hand! He began calling our names one by one, handing us our passports. I never thought I would be so happy to have my passport in my posession again. I was close to tears. We signed a paper, I have no idea what it said, and were ushered back into our old waiting area. We all had our passports and were just standing there, wondering what now. They never told us to leave. Thai's are so odd about that stuff. I just looked at the guard and said 'Pai Mai?' (we can go, right?). He nodded. We all headed for the exit. Our entourage waiting on the other side. Free men. No permanent records on our passports, our Visa's intact etc. Nobody lost their teaching or other jobs to my knowledge and all is well.

Needless to say I wont be playing any more poker in Thailand, no, not that kind either. It simply isn't worth the risk. That was a very scary experience. If not for our connections, resources (ahem...) and Thai negotiators, we likely would have had a far harsher experience.

I love this country. I may not always live here but I will always visit it. I do not want to lose that rite. We came close. I also love my freedom and for 19 hours I did not have that. All for playing poker.

What a night. Feel free to cross-post this any place you like. It was definately one of the more interesting experiences I have ever had.

Thanks for reading, now get back to the tables!

Wild Bill