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Lady Luck

While high-stakes gambling has long been a male domain, a number of women are bringing home the bacon
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

(continued from page 1)

Ironically, Tran's family members remain convinced that poker is gambling and that she is lucky. But Tran understands that the game is all about hard work and dedication. In light of her success, Tran remains indebted to Greenstein, who still serves as her poker sensei. "In 1991, Barry told me that his lessons are a million-dollar gift," Tran says. "Four years later"—after she made her first million—"I called him and thanked him for the gift. I originally wanted to win $100,000 and open a hair salon. But now that I've learned to beat the game, it would be stupid to stop. No job can pay me the way poker does."

Tran is not the only world-class woman with a male tutor to thank. Annie Duke learned about poker from her big brother Howard Lederer. His lessons not only preceded her becoming the most famous woman in poker—a point punctuated by the fact that NBC is shooting a pilot for a sitcom loosely based on her life (a divorced woman who's playing poker professionally while raising four children)—but they also provided the foundation for her to become an impressively winning player. In 2004, her best year yet, Duke cleared just shy of $2.5 million in tournament winnings. Her most stunning victory of the season took place in September at the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions on ESPN, during which she cleared $2 million by outlasting a murderer's row of poker professionals: Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, Greg Raymer and brother Howard among them. Ultimately, it came down to Duke and Phil Hellmuth, a notorious psych-out artist. "I like Phil, but everybody knows he's a baby who spends a lot of time berating other players," explains Duke, who was just a hair shy of earning a PhD in psycholinguistics before taking up poker. "I know him well enough that what he said didn't bother me. I agreed with him and replied, 'Yeah, Phil, I am terrible. I hope I get lucky.' It diffused things and tilted him a little bit. When he told me that I'm no good, it seemed like the obvious response."

In terms of how women handle themselves at the poker table, Duke believes that they have some advantages and some disadvantages. On the upside, female players tend to be more intuitive. On the downside, though, girls growing up have historically been discouraged from becoming mathematical and competitive—two big detriments for anyone who wants to make it in the poker world. Slowly, however, the gender biases are changing. Encouraged by players like Duke, increasing numbers of young women are getting into poker. "Even those who don't play tell me that I'm inspiring them. [My success] shows that women can do anything," explains Duke. "It's a cool thing to have results that are better than almost any man on the planet. I can now say, 'Don't call me one of the best women players in the world. Call me one of the best players in the world.'"

Women are matching up against men, and beating them, in locales beyond the casino. In Costa Rica, an American woman runs one of the more successful sports betting operations; in New York, a top backgammon player generates a healthy living by playing against men online; and in Dallas, a female pool shark pockets a steady income from hustling pool.

The pool shark, a rangy redhead by the name of Orietta Strickland, frequents the local billiards halls and bars where she supplements her straight gig (as a computer operator with MBNA) by hustling dinner money off of unsuspecting opponents. It may not sound like much compared with what the Annie Dukes of the world pull down, but the hours are short, the money adds up and the swings are virtually nonexistent.

Plus, she gets to beat the pants off of men. And, unlike Mimi Tran, who's in it for the Benjamins—anybody's Benjamins—Strickland finds it particularly pleasurable to humiliate males at 9-ball. "I remember being in a bar one night and a guy said that he could outshoot me with one arm," recounts Strickland. "I was quickly ahead by $20. Then he told me that he plays better two-handed. He played with both hands and I got my lead up to $300. He wanted to play double or nothing, and I told him that I would play one last game for $300. I won, took the money, and he started cursing me out. I got an escort to my car and went home with $600 for a few hours of work."

Tonight, Strickland is plying her trade at a pool hall called Clicks. It's a modern place with a DJ and a young clientele. She's shooting balls around the table, hoping for somebody to come over and challenge her. When a guy in his 20s snaps at the bait, she gets ahead by a couple games, then slows down and lets him win. He knows he's outmatched, but the stakes are low enough—$10 per game—that he doesn't seem to mind very much. Her style is friendly and easygoing. She compliments him on his good shots, blows the ones that don't mean very much to her, and is careful to maintain the illusion that he actually has a chance at beating her. Finally, though, after about two hours, she runs her lead to $100. That's when the guy pays off and goes to shake her hand. But Strickland's having none of it. She gives him a friendly hug while pocketing his dough.

Strickland figures that she's made a customer for life. And, no doubt, he's just discovered the upside of losing to a woman.

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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