“The shark is hunnnnnnnnnnnngry!”
Humberto Brenes is one of the most recognizable figures in the poker world; he stands out from the usual sordid cast of characters in the poker room with his mustache, a visor sporting a Costa Rican flag, spontaneous crooning — and then there are the sharks.
A couple of years ago, Brenes started using a shark as part of his shtick. This ever-clever businessman-turned professional poker player knew he needed to come up with something out of the ordinary to help distinguish himself from the pack. He admits that his English is a bit shaky, so he dug into his bag of tricks to get noticed by the poker media.
To catch media attention, Brenes introduced a miniature shark to the poker world. Originally used as a card capper, the shark quickly became part of his routine. Film crews loved every second of his shark banter, and photographers could not snap enough photos of him and his shark.
But, Brenes’ shark act drew heavy fire from critics. Poker forums lambasted his clowning around. A handful of purists thought his shark act was way over the top. During World Series of Poker Main Event broadcasts on ESPN, he unfairly became the whipping boy for announcer Norman Chad, who did not hold back his disdain for Brenes’ antics.
Yet, Brenes always brings a light-hearted approach to the tables and has fun playing to the cameras at the same time. After all, televised poker is “sports entertainment” and Brenes knows how to effectively work a crowd despite the language barrier. Brenes and the shark quickly formed a symbiotic relationship, so wherever Brenes played poker (Las Vegas, Europe, South America), the shark tagged along.
In 2008 at the WSOP, Brenes was forced to tone down his act after the WSOP rules committee instituted a penalty for unsportsmanlike behavior. He was no longer able to pull out his mini-sharks at will or run into the stands and snatch up an inflatable shark to parade around the TV table. The rules were designed to reduce the amount of excessive celebration, specifically targeting Hevad Khan’s antics at the 2007 WSOP when he ran around the Amazon Ballroom with a chair on his head.
The new rule put Brenes and the future of his shark in jeopardy. The one thing that people recognized him for, Brenes was no longer able to do.
“No mas sharks,” sighed a dejected Brenes.
Sure, the sharks were an integral part of his act, and they went a long way toward self-promotion in the English-speaking media, but what many of us did not know was that Brenes was also raising awareness for an important social and ecological issue — decimation of the shark population around the world.
Brenes was working closely with Pretoma, a marine conservation nonprofit organization from Costa Rica. Although the Costa Rican government had instituted policies to preserve its plush land, it had failed to effectively protect the oceans. Pretoma’s mission is to “protect ocean resources and promote sustainable fisheries policies in Costa Rica and Central America.”
One of Pretoma’s campaigns targets the billion-dollar shark finning industry, which kills an estimated 35 million sharks each year. The fins are considered a delicacy and main ingredient in shark fin soup. Fins are also used for unorthodox medical remedies. Fishermen catch the sharks and brutally sever their fins, and then, because the meat is inedible, throw the sharks back into the ocean. Without a fin, the majority of sharks are unable to swim, so they die.
The finning industry decimated the worldwide shark population, including the shrinking numbers of hammerhead sharks. Two of the nine hammerhead species are listed as endangered. According to Pretoma’s website, “Global populations of scalloped hammer heads (Sphyrna lewini) have been drastically reduced in recent years, up to 95% in some ocean basins, due to overfishing.”
Humberto Brenes threw his support behind Pretoma’s mission to protect the world's shark population. He spearheaded a charity tournament, called Humberto's “Shark Hunt” Charity Bounty Event, in his native Costa Rica. His tournament coincided with the opening event of the PokerStars.com Latin America Poker Tour at the Paradisus Resort at Playa Conchal in Costa Rica, and Brenes hosted his event the night before the Main Event. In keeping with Brenes' flare for the dramatic, a handful of Team PokerStars Pros were designated as “bounty players” and were given an inflatable hammerhead shark. If you busted a player with the shark, you won a cash bounty.
The event featured many of the top players in Latin America including Andre Akkari, Veronica Dabul, Alex Gomes, J.C. Alvarado, Maria “Maridu” Mayrinck, and Leo Fernandez. The son of famous Mexican wrestler “Santos” wore a silver wrestling mask while playing in the event. Americans Victor Ramdin and Shirley Rosario also played.
“This is a good cause and how could we say 'no' to Humberto?” explained Veronica Dabul. “He’s done so much for poker in Latin America. Any charity he supports...we will all support.”
Dabul, a Team PokerStars Pro from Argentina, was short-stacked as the charity tournament progressed late into the night. She was scheduled to play the Main Event the next day and wanted to get a good night’s sleep, so she purposely tried to bust out.
“I kept going all-in blind, except that I kept winning!” Dabul said. “When I saw that I had a good stack, I decided that I was going to try to win it all.”
A sleepy Dabul went on to win the charity tournament and was awarded a seat to the LAPT Chile (one of the prizes added to the pool by PokerStars). She also won a bounty for busting Brenes.
Almost $30,000 was raised in the Shark Hunt Charity event and all proceeds went to Pretoma. A total of $9,600 was collected in buy-ins and rebuys. Brenes agreed to match the number out of his own pocket, and PokerStars also matched that number.
Humberto’s miniature sharks were unavailable for comment, but Brenes was beaming with pride when we spoke.
“I am very happy with the results,” Brenes said as he flashed a smile. “I cannot wait to do another charity tournament.”
So the next time you see Humberto Brenes on TV with his sharks, don’t be too quick to criticize his antics; he’s trying to draw attention to the shrinking worldwide shark population. For more information, visit Pretoma’s website, www.pretoma.org.