When poker first hit the TV spotlight, producers needed gregarious characters to capture audience attention and draw them in to the game.
Few players hammed it up for the cameras more successfully than Humberto Brenes. The outgoing Costa Rican found a natural fit as the centerpiece of many a televised poker moment. His thick but charming accent, garish tropical wear and clever use of card protectors made him a fan favorite.
Brenes frequently employed a small shark to guard his station at the table, moving it forward to figuratively gobble up the chips he would take from opponents. The shark was notably missing from his side as he made a run into the money in the $1,100 PokerStars National Championship.
“The shark is in the room, still sleeping,” Brenes confided after he busted in 110th for $1,920. “I’m saving it for the big tournament.”
It also helped Brenes’ celebrity that he could play a little. Brenes rode a famously tight playing style to considerable tournament success, racking up more than $6 million in cashes. He has lapped his Central and South American compatriots many times over in that regard — next best is Argentinian Ivan Luca with just a little over $4 million.
Brenes has also collected two World Series of Poker bracelets, both in $2,500 events in 1993.
However, he has slowed down considerably in recent years, with just $20,000 in cashes since 2015. He booked his first cash of 2017 with aforementioned cash here at PokerStars Championship Panama, and that’s no accident. According to Brenes, he devotes most of his time these days to interests outside the felt.
For instance, Brenes owns a cafe called El Tostador that he proudly boasts has 27 locations in Costa Rica. He and his family also operate a large import/export business centered around shipping nuts and fruit. Brenes’ son Jose — who graciously helped translate for this piece — recently graduated from college, and Brenes’ focus at the moment is preparing his heirs to run the family’s interests.
That’s been a four-year project for Brenes, one that has taken him away from the felt more than he’d like. He still finds time to play the occasional home game with friends, but trips to play events have been few and far between. PokerStars Championship Panama represented a rare chance to fire in an event an hour away from home, and Brenes jumped at the chance.
“I’ll play every day, and he’ll work every day,” he said with a laugh, nodding at his son. “It’s perfect for me.”
What Brenes sees when he sits down at the felt here in Panama is a reflection of years of poker’s growth in Central America. Brenes pointed at the likes of poker legend Erik Seidel — whom Brenes once defeated for a $500,000 win 2002 — competing here along with dozens of players from the region as a sign of how far things have come.
When asked about his role in helping foster the growth of poker in the area, Brenes deflected responsibility from himself and praised the efforts of PokerStars, which sponsored Brenes for years.
“I feel I was just the image, so a lot of Central Americans can see themselves succeeding on PokerStars,” Brenes said. “PokerStars made a lot of contributions developing Central American and South American players, like Andre Akkari.”
That spotlight from PokerStars, augmented by Brenes’ natural charisma, allowed his Q score in the poker world to be commensurate with his on-the-felt success. Most of his opponents still recognize him immediately and have asked where the famed shark is at, he said.
He hopes those players will see more of him in the coming years as he begins to turn more business interests over to his children.
“I’ll never retire,” he said. “When my sons take over the business, I can play a little more. I’ll have all day to play poker.”
Brenes’ infectious love for the game hasn’t diminished at all. In fact, he’d like his final business in Costa Rica to be “Shark Poker Room,” a special club for retired people complete with a nursing staff where the retirees can battle each other at the felt all day long. Brenes believes it helps keep a person’s mind sharp in old age.
But before that, Brenes has one more goal he’d like to accomplish in poker before he fades into the sunset. He plans to take a break from the business grind and play a solid WSOP schedule this year in hopes of accomplishing that goal.
“I have two bracelets,” he said. “But, I have three children. I want to win one more, so I can give one to each of them.”
So, Brenes will be there this summer. He wasn’t as visible as usual at PokerStars Championship Panama, donning muted tan and denim garb. But if he wants to capture that third bracelet, expect his reliable sidekick make a return, the one who comes out to play when it matters most.
It’ll be time to wake up the shark.