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Moms Put on Their Poker Faces and Win Big

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Sue Carswell: It's 8:30 AM at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament as women begin congregating at a poker strategy boot camp inside the Atlantis resort in the breezing Bahamas. No, they're not playing yet (the ladies' tournament begins in a few hours), but they're anxious to learn playing tips from an über-poker star. Vanessa Rousso, 26, is one of the top five professional female poker players. She graduated from Duke University in 2 ½ years, is a semester shy of graduating law school, and has already earned $3.5 million playing the game that moms are finding red hot at this very moment.

vanessa rousso

Rousso is giving a tutorial on what may seem to be the most banal of subjects: blinds. But they're not the kind you think. (It's poker slang for a forced bet -- or partial bet -- put in by one or more players before any cards are dealt.) She is speaking to a captivated group of eager-to-learn women who are hoping to make a run not only in ladies' tournaments, but in professional mixed tournaments still dominated by men. Learning tips from the pros (especially women) is essential to this group that is continuing to pioneer their way into the sport. They're gaining inside knowledge of what it takes to sit at a table for over ten hours for two days in a row (or longer) and cash in on cards that could be worth millions. While their attire ranges from high-heel stilettos to sneaks, sweat pants, and T-shirts featuring pictures of their children, nearly all of these women sport designer-name sunglasses. And all of them write down the privileged information they are here to attain, the secrets of tournament strategy: chip stacking, betting practices, patience, persistence, playing aggressively, and knowing who the good players are in your "neighborhood" -- or at the table.

For most of the moms I spoke to, poker started out as a game to play with friends, and then they might go online to sites (like to practice for free until they felt comfortable enough to put some money down on their charge card. The next step is to enter a live ladies' tournament. After that, it's play with the male-dominated base where women like Rousso are making a run for their money, following the trail blazed by poker star Annie Duke. But right now, here in the Bahamas, these women are looking for advice on how to excel in the upcoming ladies' tournament, and they're hanging on Vanessa Rousso's every word. It's "The Secret" -- poker-style.

Lauren Fallia, the CEO of High Heels Poker Tour Academy from Fort Lauderdale and mother of a 10-year-old, says of the ladies tournaments, "It's not that we're looking to segregate men from women. We're really here to settle women into the mainstream market. But at a place like this, women don't have that fear of asking a question that they might not ask if they're in a room full of men. It's a more comfortable environment all the way around."

As Rousso continues her lecture, showing the women how to play their cards right and explaining the "river" (the fifth and final community card, put out face up, by itself), Beth Gains from Los Angeles, mother of two sons aged 12 and 14, doesn't know what to be more excited about -- her sons winning a basketball tournament last night or the fact that she won her way here through the Internet. Gains is a medium- to high-stakes player who has been playing routinely since her kids were in Little League and her sons' coach, also a poker player, encouraged her to get into the game more. She tells me she likes to look for the "fish" at the table. "They're the kinds of people I like to play with -- people who are just playing for the evening, and they have a lot of money -- I go after them." She says of the opportunity to play in a ladies' tournament, "I like the idea that we can compete because there's no other tournament in the world that can pay out like poker."

Elizabeth Bennett-Martin, a lawyer from Toronto and mother of two boys ages 11 and 9, also got involved in poker after hearing of its riches. "I think women are becoming more interested in playing poker because the rewards if you do well can be big," she says. "Most women in the beginning play conservatively. But with experience, you become loose and ante up more."

playing poker

Still, there is sexism at the tables. Gains admits, "A lot of the men are mean to women. But I think a large part of this game is not making mistakes, and women are better at that." Gains admits that "poker has become my life. My husband comes first. My kids come second, and then my poker."

Another player, Rebecca Mercer, has a different explanation for why she thinks women are well suited for poker -- they're good at reading people. "Tells" -- a change in a player's expression or behavior that can tip off other players as to what's in their hand -- are instrumental in the game. Mercer says, "Regarding tells, moms are better poker players because they're used to reading people. They have to know when to get tough and when to back off. There are so many psychological reasons why women make better players. Men don't understand how to play against women. They think they can push women around more. They tend to think if we bet, we have a huge hand. Most likely, they're wrong! It's skill!"

When the three-hour academy ends, I ask Vanessa Rousso what she thinks about intimidation from men. How do you inspire women to get past that fear so there are more female players in mixed tournaments and not just the ladies' events? She encourages going online to get a feel for the game. "When you're playing online, you're just an avatar -- no one knows if you're a guy or a woman," says Rousso. "Next you come into a tournament with men, and you already know the poker part. It's okay to be a little distracted. Just don't be uncomfortable at the thought of playing poker. The worst thing to do is sit down and be uncomfortable with poker as a concept."

At the main ladies' tournament (which, interestingly, men are allowed to compete in if they wish), close to 100 women have paid (or have been sponsored) $1,000 to buy their place at the table.  While Rousso is also playing in the tournament today, so is Team PokerStars Pro and mother of two Katja Thater from Germany. Thater, whose sons are 19 and 20, started playing ten years ago when her husband, a professional, got up to go to the restroom and asked her, "Honey, would you play this hand?" Thater is one of five or six ladies to win a bracelet at a tournament. She says in the poker world, winning a World Series of Poker gold bracelet is like winning an Oscar. But even a gold bracelet has its drawbacks in a game where women are ready to break into the mixed tournaments alongside men. "That bracelet is so ugly," she confesses. "It's for a man. I asked, 'Don't you have one for a woman?' and they said no."

Vanessa Rousso, who despite her pro status told me she finds playing with all levels of poker players a great opportunity to remind herself of the fundamentals, takes it easy and enjoys talking to the women at her table for the two days of the tournament. And true to form, with the same patience and persistence she advised them to practice, she takes the final jackpot. It's just another Olympic win for her!

next: Think Your Hands Are Clean? Think Again!
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