Cascais, Portugal and the end of the Portuguese Poker Prodigy

I wasn’t sure that I was going to come here. I had toyed with the idea my mind many times, but I was never sure what to do. It wasn’t until working on the farm in France that I finally made the decision. But I think all along somewhere in my journey, there was some invisible string that tied me to Portugal. And though I swung around in my arc through Europe, and though at times when the string went slack I would suspect myself free, and even at times declare it true—at some random moment I would think about my story, about the impetus of my journey, and Portugal would tug at me again like an impatient master, and I would remember.

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Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that where there is error, I may bring truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that where there is despair, I may bring hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring light; that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be understood; to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen.

The Prayer of St. Francis

I decided to go to Portugal. I did not have to, but I wanted to know. I wanted to know who Jose was. Why he did what he did. I wanted to know what his story was behind all of this. I wanted to know what my lesson was.

Somewhere along my travels, someone asked me at some point about why I was debating whether or not to see Jose.  I thought about this for some time, and gave them this for an answer: I don’t think about Jose anymore, in truth.  He doesn’t arrest me anymore when I walk to and fro and ponder my life. My focus is only on myself, on who I am, and where I am going from here. So why do I think about seeing Jose? Well. I think it’s because it all just feels so meaningless. From all the shit that happened, how am I supposed to grow from this experience? How do I become stronger? What am I supposed to learn? What’s the great lesson that he came into my life to teach me? “Don’t trust people”? That’s so disgusting. I don’t want that lesson, I don’t want to learn that. There’s something I need to understand about who Jose is, why he did what he did, and what it is about me that brought him into my life. And until I do that, my story is empty.

So I came to Portugal.

It’s strange. I went to Guincho beach where I told him I would meet him. Guincho beach is near the west most point in all of Europe, cupped against the Atlantic. It was cold, and I walked along the beach back and forth, waiting for him to arrive. Evening turned to night, and the sea which at first seemed so sorry and melancholy became a colossal darkness. There was only one light along the entire beach. I walked back and forth, waiting. The photos that I took of the beach I took only an hour before Jose arrived, before it became dark.

The first moment I saw him, I was climbing the steps to the embankment above the beach. He had arrived on his motorcycle. I had been thinking for a long time what I would do the first moment I saw him. I imagined sometimes that perhaps I would punch him in the gut, or perhaps that I would give him a measured and pregnant look in his eyes to communicate my anger and disappointment in him. And sometimes I imagined I just wouldn’t know what to say, shake his hand, and say “hey.”

He took off his motorcycle helmet. I knew that he was 6 feet tall—a young and powerful rugby player. For some reason I thought he would be really tall. I always imagined I would look slightly up at him. I’m actually 5’11, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that we were really close to the same height. And in that first moment that I faced him, I was almost surprised. He was the same person as in the pictures, but when I inspected him—his clothes, his face, the way he stood—it was so apparent. He was just a boy. He had an uncertain half-smile on his face. Under his chin was a small patch of acne. It hadn’t appeared in the photos. He was 18 year old. It occurred to me that at 18, even the terrain of one’s face is inconstant.

In that moment, I did not want to hate him, to curse him, or to show him he was unworthy. I wanted to forgive him, and to understand him. He put out his hand to shake mine. I pulled him in to hug him. And though I had my arm around him, he did not hug me back. He seemed uncertain of himself around me. He would later tell me that I made him nervous, and that meeting me felt surreal—that he didn’t know how to act around me. He could sense my heaviness. He felt guilty for it. He felt sad. He didn’t know what to do, or what to say. I could see it in him. And I forgave him for that too.

It is by self-forgetting that one finds, And it is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

Over the many days I was in Portugal, we spoke many times about many things. And I came to understand Jose. What his story really is, what made him into the person he is, and what led him to do what he did. What drives him. His fears, his insecurities, his particular brand of madness. I spoke to his mother and learned from her all that I could about Jose, and tried to communicate to her what I had learned as well. For five days I stayed in Cascais in a cheap little hotel by the marina. And every night I would go out to a little stretch of beach facing the sea, and I would pace back and forth along its meager coast. I would think, and think, and think. I sought to understand. To weave his story together. And in those moments when I would reach the end of the beach (I look down at my feet when I pace), I would turn around and face the long of the beach again, and—sometimes, looking over the path my footprints had traced again and again—I would feel such a tremendous sadness and loneliness that my impoverished words fall short to describe it.

And yet, I felt my soul accumulating itself. I came to understand. More about myself, about Jose, and about why our stories intertwined with one another the way they did. In the moment I left London almost three months ago, I felt like my soul had been shattered. I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’ve been a professional poker player for 5 years. Poker was my lodestone, it was my meaning, it was how I knew in the end that I was worthy, that I was special, that my mind and my life were worth my struggles to uphold them. When I lost it, I felt like I was empty. And so I realize now that the purpose of my journey was to remember who I was. I am such an amazingly different person now than who I was 5 years ago, before I began my romance with the game of poker. So now I look inward and take stock of what’s left. Who am I now? I pick up little pieces along the way as I travel, one on this day, one in this city, another one from this person. I don’t have everything, and some pieces of my puzzle are still missing, perhaps under a couch or beneath a carpet somewhere, or maybe on the tongue of an insightful stranger. But it feels right. I am moving forward.

Jose offered to let me stay at his place. I declined. It didn’t feel right (though admittedly, I could’ve used the laundry machine, haha). For five days I stayed, met with him, wrote, paced, and slept. And I suppose that now I have my trophy, small that it may be, which is in knowing. The day before yesterday I returned to Lisbon, from which I flew back to London. I am now in Gloucester, and am facing the final chapter of my journey.

I will not write about all I learned about Jose. Not now. I still need to synthesize everything that I understood, and there are things that need to be said between the two of us that are yet unfinished and unsaid. That’s okay, it can all wait. And when I write my book (not the one of which I spoke earlier in this blog, but the larger book that I am writing), I am sure I will write about all of it. But for now, a new episode has been opened in my life, and I stand here on the cusp of the first word.

I am about to go to a Vipassana meditation retreat in the British countryside. If you don’t know what that is, I will explain simply – basically, it’s a free (supported by donations) encampment out in the country. It lasts for ten days. One begins by turning in all of their unnecessary possession (i.e., phones, laptops, etc.), taking only clothes and the bare necessities of life. Then one takes a vow of what’s called “noble silence.” This means that for the entirety of ten days, one will refrain from speaking, gesturing, writing, or any communication of any sort whatever. And over the ten days you are taught the art of Vipassana meditation, and for ten days you meditate.

I first heard about this from someone I met in eastern Europe. He told me that it’s supremely intense. According to him, around day 5 is when everyone starts to go a little crazy—once you reach that fifth day, your mind starts to want to escape, starts to wrack itself with excuses as to why you can’t stay and have to leave. But if you make it to day 10, he said, you will change.

I don’t know why I decided to do this. I’ve never done anything of this sort before in my life. Hell, I’ve probably done yoga less than five times in my life and I’m terrible at meditating—I’ve always found the contents of my mind too noisy and various. There are probably lots of reasons why I’m doing this, some less obvious than others. But as I’ve been answering this question to the various people who’ve asked, there’s one answer I gave of which I’ve grown fond. Which is: I am doing this because I know it will change me. And I want to change.

The truth is, I am afraid. I don’t know what I will experience. But I want to see what happens when I come out of the other end of the fire.

I think of Alex.

In two hours the coach will arrive to take me into the countryside. Tomorrow morning I will begin the vow of silence.

I will write again at the end of ten days.

Link to the album

Haseeb
November 09 2011
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Effective Altruist. Software engineer. @Airbnb alum. Instructor @Outco. Writer. Blockchain Believer. Former poker pro.
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