Big Hand for a Little Lady

Cyndy Violette belies the stereotypes and Makes Sexism Pay in the macho world of High-stakes poker
| By Michael Konik | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Cyndy Violette plies her trade at a major Atlantic City hotel and casino. Given her line of work, it's the ideal place to do what she does best. She comes in only on weekends, sometimes toiling around the clock on Saturday night, when business is booming. Her prize customers--and there are many of them--are men. So many men she can barely remember their names or their faces. An anonymous blur. They do, however, have one thing in common: they have money. Lots of money. Money to throw around in search of entertainment, money to spend on a pretty lady, which Cyndy Violette happens to be. Many weekends she comes home from the casinowith $10,000 or more than she had when she arrived. On a great weekend, sometimes much more.

You've probably guessed what Cyndy Violette does for a living. Most people, sexism firmly entrenched, reach that conclusion easily. Most people, however, are mistaken. * Which is fine with Cyndy Violette. She doesn't mind that most people are misled by their sexism. Because it's this same sexism that often allows her to succeed in her profession far more richly than an equally talented man might.

Cyndy Violette is a high-stakes poker player. And she is a nice-looking woman. That combination, as far as many of her less enlightened opponents are concerned, is something that should not exist, not if they have anything to do with it.

Which is also fine with Cyndy Violette. Because she is delighted to teach them an extraordinarily expensive lesson.

Twenty-two years old. Pregnant. Dealing blackjack and poker at a downtown Las Vegas casino. She was nearly broke, or as near to broke as a gal can be while still managing to find the necessary funds to play $1 and $4 poker.

Thanks to those little poker games in the early '80s, Cyndy Violette didn't stay broke for long.

She says of those early days, when a $50 windfall was cause for a riotous celebration, "I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I just always seemed to get lucky. I always seemed to win." This dumb luck--or undiscovered innate skill--gave Cyndy Violette the preposterous idea that she might actually make a living playing cards, that she might actually quit her punch-the-clock job and go into business for herself.

She knew such thoughts were crazy: after all, how many dozens of gamblers had she seen go broke trying to make the transition from amateur to pro? Even more discouraging, how many women could she count as role models, members of the "wrong" gender doing everything right at the poker tables? Sure, there was Betty Carey, a great no-limit player; Terry King, an accomplished seven-card stud player; and, subsequently, Barbara Enright, the only woman to make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker World Championship. But at the time these women were an anomaly--just as Violette is one today. The truth was (and still is) this: women generally don't play high-stakes poker, and when they do they don't last in the big games for very long. For many, the competition is too tough and the pressure too great.

But Cyndy Violette didn't know her place.

As her bankroll grew, so did the stakes at which she gambled. In less than six months, Violette was playing $15-$30 poker, where wins and losses in the thousands are not unusual. Shortly after her daughter, Shannon, was born, Cyndy Violette played in her first poker tournament, at Lake Tahoe. It was supposed to be a fun, little vacation. She finished in the top five.

"I knew then that I could probably make a career out of poker," she recalls. "And even if I couldn't, I was willing to try. I guess you could say I took a gamble."

After her dazzling tournament debut, Violette never went back to work. She moved permanently from the dealer's side of the table to the players'.

When Violette began gambling in earnest, in the mid-1980s, the big seven-card stud games, her specialty, were $30-$60. Armed with a modest bankroll cobbled together from months of winning sessions at smaller stakes, Violette beat the game. (Beating a casino poker game does not mean winning each time you sit down; it means consistently winning more during your profitable sessions than you lose during your bad ones.) Then $75-$150 games started popping up in Las Vegas. She beat those, too. These days, $150-$300 stakes are not uncommon in the biggest poker rooms. And it is not uncommon to see Cyndy Violette, with a stack of chips towering before her, beating those games, too.

You can't miss her at the table. She's the one who's about six inches shorter and at least 100 pounds lighter than the other gamblers betting, raising and folding. And probably the only one who wears a brassiere.

Men have always been the primary obstacle between Cyndy Violette and high-stakes poker success. Most of these fellows occupy seats across from her on the green felt ring. It was one who didn't who almost put her out of the game.

That would be Violette's ex-husband. Soon after cultivating her advanced poker skills, honing both her mathematical and psychological arsenal, young Cyndy fell in love. Her beau was someone who gambled himself, someone, she thought, who understood a poker player's lifestyle. She married quickly, in 1987, and followed her groom to Washington state, where she assumed she would be a sometime homemaker, a sometime poker player, and an all-the-time wife. This, she soon learned, was not an assumption her husband shared. In fact, she didn't play a single hand of cards for two years, per her husband's wishes. Eventually, this involuntary exile from poker proved unbearable--she needed to play.

"I was forced into early retirement," Violette says. "At first it didn't bother me. I was happy being a mom and a wife. But eventually I got the itch."

She scratched it with successful appearances in 1990 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles. At Caesars, she won $62,000 in the Super Bowl of Poker, a presitigious poker tournament held at the time, and earned $60,000 at the Bike, which then spread a $75-$150 stud game.

"I realized then that my marriage was pretty much over," she says.

After her divorce in the early '90s, Violette visited Atlantic City, which had recently legalized live poker. "I virtually lived at the Taj Mahal for two months," she says, wide-eyed. "The games were good, so good. A lot of people had only played poker in home games before they came to the casino. They really didn't know what they were doing. And on the other hand, there were others who didn't care about the money. For them it was all irrelevant. The higher the limit, the less they cared."

To a professional poker player, the nascent Atlantic City poker scene was a dream come true. Cyndy Violette decided to move there permanently and set up shop.

Now 39, Violette travels around the world, wherever a good game can be found. But she still calls Atlantic City--Absecon, a nearby suburb, actually--her home.

Cyndy Violette has made a living confounding expectations. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that during a meal at Taj Mahal's steakhouse, she confesses that she's a macrobiotic vegetarian. And a dedicated astrologist. And an aromatherapy junkie. "The casino lifestyle can be unhealthy," she warns. "But only if you let it. I work out regularly, eat well and try to get plenty of sleep. Of course," she says, laughing, "when the game is good you've got to stay up."

Unlike many of her poker-playing brethren, Violette works only on the weekends, when the games are filled with visiting celebrities, household-name businessmen and assorted multimillionaires willing to blow tens of thousands of dollars in search of a good time. "I usually play in the one-fifty-to-three-hundred or two-hundred-to-four-hundred games," Violette says. "Sometimes it gets as high as four-hundred-to-eight-hundred. These games produce swings as high as thirty thousand in a night. For me, that's plenty."

The rest of Violette's week is devoted to working on her house (which has a lagoon pool and a duck pond), spending time with her now teenaged daughter, and attending lectures on health and wellness. "Someday, I'd like to open my own health food café," she says.

The capital she's amassed recently will go far toward those goals. Last December, Violette won the seven-card stud event at the United States Poker Championships, conquering 207 opponents and earning $26,000. She also "cashed" in three other events, making the final table (the remaining eight or nine players) each time.

"It was a good tournament," she says, modestly.

Good, indeed, considering that the competition in tournaments like the U.S. Poker Championships and the World Series of Poker, where Violette is also a familiar face, consists of the best card players in the world--almost all of them men.

"Sometimes it's an advantage to be a woman poker player," Violette confides. "Seeing a woman across the table seems to trigger something in a lot of male egos. They either want to beat you hard or take it easy and soft on you. Either they don't give you any credit for your ability or they give you way too much credit. Women get much more action than men, a lot more hands get paid off." Violette smiles.

Is it just her sex that puts men on tilt, or is it her appearance? "Being attractive is a productive distraction, I guess," Violette admits. "But I think it would work the same for a good-looking man."

During her recent U.S. Poker Championships victories, Violette did not suffer any of the indignities she has sometimes endured at poker tables in the past. No verbal barbs; no overt rudeness; no mean-spirited potshots. She has earned the competition's respect over the years and, particularly in Atlantic City, she is something of a card-playing celebrity. "Winning in front of my friends and family was nice," she says. "But I like winning anywhere."

Besides her daughter, one of Violette's biggest fans is the owner of the casino where she most regularly works: Donald Trump. Violette, Trump says, is one of his favorite Taj Mahal regulars--for obvious reasons. "I think it's tremendous that she's such a fine player," he says. "And the fact that she's a woman makes it even more tremendous."

While Trump is no poker player himself, he professes a deep respect for the skills that a world-class player like Violette possesses. "I think people like Cyndy who are used to making big decisions under pressure would do very well in the business world." The casino magnate, in fact, has solicited her advice on several Taj poker-room-related issues and, according to Violette, has acted on her suggestions.

Still, Violette makes regular visits to Las Vegas. "And even if I'm not based there permanently, you can bet I'll be at the World Series of Poker every spring," she promises. "It's the best action of the year. Besides, I've got to play in the women's world championship event. Because I've done a lot in poker and had a lot of success. But," she says, shrugging, "I've never won a ladies tournament."

Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist and the author of The Man with the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories (Huntington Press, Las Vegas).