The Commerce Casino is no place for Mom and Pop Kansas to stop on their way to Los Angeles, which lies just a few minutes south on the freeway. Keep driving down to Disneyland; make sure that family Truckster doesn't find itself veering toward the off ramp. Don't pull over thinking you've just wandered into a little bit of Las Vegas dropped in the middle of an outlet mall and wholesale warehouses and smoke-farting factories. The farther you get away from this place the better, Pops. Yeah, maybe you wanna play a little poker, like you seen on TV. Pops, be warned. Inside the Commerce Casino, with its miles of green felt tables and not a slot machine in sight, they will pick your pocket down to the lint and have the nerve to ask if you got anything else left. Keep driving. Keep away.
The Commerce Casino, with its menu of familiar card games (Texas hold 'em, blackjack, seven-card stud) and exotic alternatives (21st Baccarat, Razz, Joker's Wild, Pai Gow), draws the degenerates and the dilettantes, the poker pro who spends hour after hour after day after night losing and winning fortunes at the Big Money tables and the bus worker trying to double a meager paycheck before his next shift. Grannies in pantsuits play alongside college kids in baggy jeans and cholos from East Los Angeles. Not a smile traded among them, just chips being passed back and forth and back and forth till they either cash out or bust out.
But downstairs on this day, all the talk is about what's happening upstairs, behind closed doors on the second floor.
"Hey, man, is it true Ben Affleck's up there?" asks one of the UCLA frat rats, who grabs the World Poker Tour tournament press credentials dangling off my neck. "Yo, I hear Jennifer Lopez is gonna be here." The guy clearly does not subscribe to People.
But, yeah, holmes, Affleck's upstairs, where the World Poker Tour has spread out its tables, set up its cameras and laid out its platters of cold shrimp for the Celebrity Invitational, which will be broadcast on the Travel Channel on June 2. The WPT has helped make poker, specifically no-limit Texas hold 'em, the most popular home card game since Go Fish; right now your 10-year-old son who stayed home "sick" is online in a $10-$20 game--go check. It has also made celebrities out of pale poker pros for whom things like "outside," "exercise" and "daylight" are abstract concepts. Until the show began airing a year ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking Howard Lederer, Sam Farha, Amir Vahidi, Hon Le, Phil Hellmuth Jr., Phil Ivey, Scotty Nguyen and Kirril Gerasimov were United Nations delegates.
A few years ago, the players were cult heroes to the home-gamers who dreamed of playing in the World Series of Poker but thought making it there as unlikely as walking on the moon. Now, to the few million glued to the Travel Channel on Wednesday nights, they are as adored and admired as the people they're playing with today in this tournament, which cost $25,000 to enter.
Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Jon Favreau, Mimi Rogers, Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley, Jennifer Tilly, 7th Heaven's Stephen Collins and James Woods are among the 100 or so movie and TV stars playing alongside the pros in this tournament. They're in awe of the poker players; some have even hired them to be their coaches. Word is Affleck has two, one being Vahidi, whom he shares with Maguire. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Norm MacDonald says he thinks Maguire's a good card player not because he has a coach, but because he has "a doll's eyes."
The pros refer to the actors as "land mines": Beware the lucky son of a bitch who doesn't know when to get out of a hand and stays in long enough to draw out a winner--then it's kaboom, ya stepped on a land mine, bye-bye time. An hour into the tournament, the smoking tent outside is filled with pros who've been knocked out--men and women who have made it to the World Series of Poker's final table, who have won WPT events and were invited to play in the tourney without having to pay the exorbitant buy-in, who make more money playing poker in a year than you will at your desk job in the next five years. Kafreakingboom.
It took about an hour for Clonie Gowen, WPT winner and poker pro and housewife and mother of two, to get knocked out of the tournament--by an actress who learned how to play poker just last week, thanks a goddamned lot. Her name's Andrea Parker, and she's a regular on ABC's Less Than Perfect; she used to be on NBC's The Pretender, for what that's worth. Never mind what the hand was that sent Gowen to the smoking porch; it's not important. Gowen, sitting opposite Lou Diamond Phillips, wasn't thrilled about having flown in from Dallas to get knocked out of the tournament in an hour, but at least she lost to a woman. That softened the blow. She's joined by the best in the world, many of whom were toast before lunch.
So she got knocked out of a tournament. Big deal. Happens every week to hundreds of brilliant players. As Gowen likes to say, "The game will be there tomorrow or next week. It will always be there."
It wasn't long ago that the woman born Cycalona Ann in November 1971 was like anyone who just watches WPT on the Travel Channel--or the World Series of Poker on ESPN, or myriad knock-offs airing on Fox Sports Net or NBC or Bravo or Nickelodeon or the Food Network--and dreams of sitting at the table with the big-timers. She owned travel agencies and played poker to supplement her income. She takes care of her ailing mother. She's what they call "good people" in her native Kiowa, Oklahoma.
But not so long after she hopped aboard the tournament circuit, Clonie Gowen is very much the future of poker, and not because she's the best at the table--though she could be, one day. She is not even the best woman in a game long thought of as the good ol' boys' pastime.
But she's been crowned a champion on television, when the Travel Channel aired the WPT's Ladies' Night event in January. And she has a good story to tell--former Waffle House waitress makes good at the card table. And she's articulate, thoughtful, animated, funny. And, let's be honest, she's beautiful, which is a pretty good weapon to bring to a table full of pale, pudgy, balding men sick to death of looking at other pale, pudgy, balding men all day.
"She is a very special person, and people have to come to perceive her as that," says Keith Fleer, Gowen's Los Angeles-based business attorney. At this moment, Fleer is talking to several mainstream companies, with no ties to poker, about making Gowen one of their spokeswomen. Fleer will not say which companies he's talking to, but it's not hard to see in which direction he's headed--to cosmetics companies, to clothing designers, you name it. His dream is to get Gowen selling things to women who have no idea what it means to go all in with an A-7 off-suit or why they call the best hand in poker "the nuts."
"You can go to potential advertisers," Fleer is saying, "and tell them, 'Here's this beautiful woman who is lovely and articulate and a woman who is very close to her family and looks on one hand like a typical housewife but who has nerves of steel and will play cards for a lot of money riding per hand.' That is something special."
As they say around the card table, it's a pretty good starting hand.
It's the stat most cited when people talk about the rising popularity of poker: 50 million people in the United States play the game at least once a week. Said so in The New York Times not long ago; it must be true. About 49 million of those folks probably started playing sometime last year, when the World Poker Tour debuted on the Travel Channel and turned an audience of curious novices into a nation of experts who became enamored of the terminology ("He got a gut-shot straight on the river--cracked my pocket aces") and mythology and the promise of easy money. Or maybe they watched the show then ran out to Borders and bought copies of Doyle Brunson's Super/System, David Sklansky's Hold-'Em Poker, John Vorhaus' Killer Poker. Used to be you had to learn by experience. Now all you have to do is watch a TV show and read a book.
Clonie Gowen reads all the books, too. When you sit down and play with her, tell her which books you've studied, which authors you admire. That way she'll know how you're going to play. You just read Super/System? Then you're going to be aggressive, betting everything, raising instead of calling, trying to drive out the best hands with your big bets. You just read T.J. Cloutier's self-published books? Excellent. Then you're going to be a super-tight player, moving in with only the most quality of hands. So tell her what you know. She knows more. She knows how to make something out of nothing. She knows how to make everything out of just the slightest bit of something.
She started out with not much of anything, a story familiar to most anyone who grows up in a religious family in the small-town South. It has all the makings of classic tragedy, at least as much of it as Gowen will let you know. Much of her story must stay off the record, lest the telling of it reopen old wounds that healed and disappeared a long time ago. Let it be said only that she was born into a family of devout Southern Baptists, and her father was in construction while her mother worked as a nurse. Dad wasn't around too long: He died when Clonie was 11, leaving Mom to support the family. She wasn't around too much back then, even after she remarried.
The religious stuff didn't do much for Clonie. You probably already figured that out.
"I remember just the hard-core kind of 'You're a sinner, you have impure thoughts, you're going to hell, the devil's going to get you' and all that stuff," she recalls.
So it's only natural she became a poker player.
"Right," she says, grinning. "Of course."
Gowen was one of those girls who just wasn't cut out to live in a small town, so when she was 15 she headed down to Corsicana, where an older sister was living with her husband and kids. Gowen put herself through high school, where she played varsity hoops. "Basketball was the one thing in my life that kept me so interested in school," she says. "It was a good time in my life." She took jobs waiting tables at the Waffle House and the Sizzler. She got an apartment, for which she paid $275 a month, "which was like a million dollars then," she says. She wasn't like all the other pretty girls in high school--except, yeah, she was a sophomore with a senior boyfriend, Tony.
Tony came from an upper-middle-class family; he thought he was going to rescue this girl working two jobs, paying her own way through life. She didn't need the help, but she appreciated the gesture. But Tony was responsible for her becoming a poker player. His old man introduced Gowen to the game. She picked it up like it was a basketball.
"But I don't think I would say that was the time that I realized that I really loved playing poker," she says. "Tony's parents introduced me to seven-card stud, Texas hold 'em, Indian--you know, where you slap the card on your forehead? I love that game. I won a $70 progressive pot on Indian. That's where I really found out that I love to play poker." She laughs. "I'm just very competitive, and I love money. I mean, who doesn't? I like to win money, and I like to be rewarded, and I guess those are the reasons why I liked it. And it was interesting, very interesting. Tony's dad played very well, but he never really taught me anything. Nobody ever sat down and said, 'OK, this is it. Here's the secrets of life right now, and here's the secrets of poker.' I never had anybody do that."
By the time Gowen was 18, she had moved to Dallas, gotten married to a man a few years older and had been to Las Vegas, where she sat at her first poker table and lost her first 40 bucks. By the time she was 23 years old, she had a daughter. Not long after that, she got divorced. Then, in 1995, she met David Gowen at Cowboy's on Gaston Avenue. Clonie was on a date with someone else--someone whose name you might recognize, if only she would allow it in print. All she will let you know is that, in front of David, she refers to leaving that date for David as her "billion-dollar mistake." David reminds her it was "well worth every penny." Clonie grabs his hands, squeezes, smiles and repeats, "It was well worth every penny."
Around the time Clonie was meeting and falling for David, who is 11 years her senior, she was opening her own travel agency with a $4,000 loan from her mother. Within a year, Clonie says, the business was enormously profitable, and she opened a second office. She was all of 25. She never stopped playing poker. She could no more stop breathing.
She would find games around Dallas--home games, private games, games that go on every day in this town that you will never know about. She was playing with gray old men and freshly scrubbed kids with white-collar gigs, diamond-studded pinkie-ring weekend pros and gold-chain-and-jogging-suit phonies, not to mention the ashtray-fresh rounders grinding out a living at some table somewhere every freaking day.
Clonie played every week, usually more than once. She wasn't so good at first. Her game had no discipline, she'll say now, no patience. Then she got good, the same way every other pro gets good--by playing the game and paying attention. She learned to read players, learned to see through their cards, learned how to rake in the dead money in a live game.
Then came October 2002. Then came Costa Rica.
It started out as a family vacation. A little sun, a little scuba diving. And, of course, the poker. The World Poker Tour Costa Rica Classic was under way, and for $500 you could purchase a seat--a cheap buy-in, almost a gimme. Gowen ponied up the dough, along with dozens of other players--most pro, some newbies lured by the cheap thrill and chance at a $100,000 first-place finish. No one knew her. No one gave her a shot.
She finished 10th, in the money. She pocketed $3,410. Suddenly, people wanted to find out who she was, what she was doing there...and whether this nobody from Dallas was any damned good.
"When she almost made the final table," says WPT announcer-analyst Vince Van Patten, "it was just like, 'Wow, who is this person?' She's such a charming lady, and it's a breath of fresh air in the poker room when Clonie plays. She plays a world-class game, and I think that's part of the fun of watching her play. Great poker instincts. She's sort of like a flower at the poker table--just a thing to see, you know?"
In April 2003, Gowen sold her travel agency. David was a mortgage broker and taking care of their new son, Seth. He had to. Mommy was now a poker pro, and poker pros ain't home a whole lot. There are the out-of-town tournaments and the local games that last till day turns to night turns to day. It isn't easy. You can imagine.
"Obviously I like being with her as much as possible," David Gowen says. We're sitting outside the Commerce. Celebrities on one side--hey, isn't that the kid from Six Feet Under?--and poker pros on the other, all chain-smoking till tourney time. This is one of the rare trips David has made with Clonie. He figures he travels with her about 25 percent of the time. He wishes it were more.
"I certainly have things to take care of at the house," he says. "I'm taking care of Seth, running my business. We prefer being together, although there are some times where even if my own work didn't prevent me from going, I wouldn't necessarily always be there, because in a casino situation, I wouldn't always want my son there. However, sometimes we stay in nice places..."
"Away from the casino," Clonie adds.
"Yeah, away from the casino," says David, still holding his wife's hand. "And Seth and I go off and do things during the day, you know, in the nicer areas."
"There was never a point that I ever considered myself pro," Clonie says. She wants to make it clear that this was never a career path she intended to follow. She will often repeat that it happened, well, sorta by accident. It's like, what else was she supposed to do?
"It was someone else saying I was a pro, not me," she insists. "I sold my company last April, so then, technically, what am I doing for income? Well, poker at that point. I didn't have any other source of income, so my supplemental income became my main source of income, but there was never a turning point where I said, 'I'm going to play poker for a living.' Nobody ever should do that. Trying to make a living playing poker is hard, no matter how good you are. But poker's my passion. I get exactly what I want from it. It's a battle between my family and my passion. When I come to an event and I don't have my son and my husband and my daughter with me, I'm thinking about them. But yet I do still know that this is what I'm doing now."
By no means is Clonie Gowen considered by her fellow pros to be the best female player out there. There are several other women on the tour considered far superior, as good as any man--which is, yeah, as sexist as it sounds.
For starters, there is Annie Duke, a mother of four who completed her doctoral thesis in psycholinguistics before turning to poker. Then there's Jennifer Harman, the first woman to win a no-limit title during the World Series of Poker. And there's Kathy Liebert, who once won a million-dollar tournament. Any one of them is a favorite to win when they sit at a table, regardless of how many guys are in the round. In his book Positively Fifth Street, Jim McManus calls them "chicks with decks."
Yet Gowen beat them all, as well as vet Maureen "Mo" Feduniak and pretty comer Evelyn Ng, at the WPT's Ladies' Night event, which was broadcast last December and made an instant star out of Gowen. Announcer Mike Sexton kept referring to her as "The Texas Terminator." Between her 10th-place finish in Costa Rica and her Ladies' Night win Gowen went from player to Playa, in the time it took the board to pair that 7 sitting next to her ace, which was good enough to beat Ng's measly K-3.
"She's beautiful and has a fantastic personality," says Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the longhaired Marlboro Man who outlasted Dallas' T.J. Cloutier to win the 2000 World Series of Poker. "I think she's fantastic, I think she's wonderful, I think she does a lot of good for poker."
Cloutier, considered the best no-limit player in the world, says damned near the same thing: "Everybody thinks highly of her. She's a beautiful girl, good for poker, got a great personality. Any good-looking girl is going to be great for poker. There's some very nice-looking women, don't get me wrong, but I meant we needed some for a cover-girl type of thing. I guess she'd qualify. And the report I get from other people is that she plays pretty damn good."
What Ferguson and Cloutier are saying is that Clonie Gowen may be the most marketable poker player in the history of a game that's been played in the United States since the early 1800s. Gowen's hot at the moment--a hot commodity, a hot player and "just hot," says one of the men on the pro circuit, trying his best not to sound like a sexist jerk. Hers isn't the most unique story: Annie Duke's a mom. Jen Harman's pretty. Kathy Liebert and others have won big tourneys. But no one on the circuit is as telegenic or vivacious as Gowen, which becomes more important as poker goes prime time.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of a woman sitting in a high-stakes poker game was unfathomable--and, to the men, unconscionable. Women, it was believed, weren't as aggressive as men. They didn't have the balls, in other words, to play for big money, to raise instead of call, to go all-in instead of throw their winner into the muck. It was the game of cowboys and killers; it ain't called Dead Woman's Hand, padnuh. Ladies were meant to serve the drinks and make the sandwiches, not deal and steal pots from their husbands and boyfriends.
"When I go to some of these card rooms," says actress Mimi Rogers, "I'm usually the only woman at the table, and there will be people who sit down at the table who, because I'm a gal, they'll just never believe that I have it. And I actually welcome it, because those are the people I win a lot of money off of."
Linda Johnson, familiar to WPT viewers as the woman usually calling the games, started playing poker in 1974, when she was just 21. Back then, she was usually the only woman at the table, and the fellas didn't like it one damned bit.
"I remember the first tournament I ever entered," she says. "They were all, 'Oh, honey, if you win, we're going to give you a free buy-in for life.' And as I got closer and closer to winning, it changed from the 'Oh, honey' thing to 'You better not win.' There was a lot of hostility at the final table, nine men against me, and they wanted me out of there. I actually won that tournament. And then it was really brutal. Then it became 'Why would you think you can play poker?' And they became, actually, very hostile."
Johnson noticed that things began to change in the mid-1980s, when card rooms began popping up all over Southern California--the Bicycle Casino, the Commerce Casino, the infamous Hollywood Park Casino. Suddenly, the kings had to make room for the queens. "It was," says Johnson, "a whole different ballgame, just like that."
Maybe. But not everyone has become so enlightened. There are still some men on the tour who believe poker's a man's, man's, man's game and that it's no place for a lady. Just ask Scotty Nguyen, the 1998 World Series champ with lifetime earnings well above $7 million and one of the most flamboyant, charismatic players on the circuit.
Before the celebrity tournament at the Commerce, I corner Nguyen to ask him about Gowen. They're not friends, but they've played together a few times, and there's some mutual respect there: Gowen thinks Nguyen's a good card player. Nguyen thinks Gowen's a "nice, good-looking girl." So, that's something.
"When I play with her, I saw her improve a lot," Nguyen says in his imperfect English. "The ladies' event prove can play with the best, and that's good. But she sit down with a man there, that's a different ballgame. What you do with woman is different ballgame. What you do with man is different ballgame. It's not the same; it'll never be the same. Men we don't want to get beat by a woman. It's embarrassing to get beat by a woman. I try to stay away from it because I hate to beat a woman, and I hate to have a woman beat me, period. I'm kinda like, just don't stand in my way, and I don't stand in their way. This way we can get along better. I don't try to push a woman down. I let other man do the dirty work, not me."
I ask him if he's ever laid down a winning hand, the nuts, to a woman.
"Even me." He flashes the infamous grin of a guy who knows he's saying something you don't want to hear. "I mean, c'mon, man, women take over almost everything already. Damn. They can't take over the poker game, baby. Nah. Maybe 10 year from now, maybe, because think about it: For every one good woman, they have 20 men. It's hard for them to be number one. Hey, if a woman wins the World Series, I would be happy about it, because it make poker better and bigger."
So you think that will happen?
"No." He laughs. "OK, maybe."
It's important to keep in mind what the great T.J. Cloutier says: "Cards don't know what gender's looking at them, so if the person has the skill, it doesn't matter if they're a man or a woman."
No one's quite sure how good Gowen is just yet; even she says she isn't sure. Her fellow pros haven't played with her long enough to find out. She's an unknown among veterans and legends, heroes and villains. She's never won a major tournament, never finished in the Big Money. The guys on the tour don't consider her a player just because she won the Ladies' Night event; hell, a woman was bound to win that thing, ya know?
But she is fun to watch--and even more of a delight to play with. She has different personae for different settings. Among the pros, who have polished their games for TV, and the rounders, Gowen plays it straight--no bullshit, no messing around. She'll coffeehouse all day long, chatting it up and down, but she won't act too silly, too goofy, too girly. Once, Jim McManus recalls, Gowen tried to make a bluff: Clad in a black cocktail dress, she said to the men at the table, "You guys have the talent, all I got is this cocktail dress." But nobody bought it. They never do.
When she's played in our rinky-dink, low-limit Thursday-night game, she's been a totally different player--a flirt who has one glass of wine and pretends she's had three, and then just as quickly the pro who tells the guys remaining in the pot precisely what they're holding just by how they've played their hands. (She has never once been wrong, which always seems to frighten the guy holding the superior hand into folding it.) She's ingratiating and intimidating at once, the prettiest girl ever to stack all of your chips in front of her. Some guys are almost too delighted to lose to her. One Thursday-night regular, let's call him "Stan," seems to believe that he can buy Gowen's heart by giving her all his chips. She is, needless to say, hardly so easy.
"It's too early to tell how good she is," says McManus, who mentioned Gowen in a story that appears in the new issue of Esquire. "She's certainly good enough to hold her own at those events. She's very vivacious at the table, and she's an attractive woman. That's a factor. Poker's popularity is going to be spread in a number of ways. The main way is the lipstick cameras now enable the audience to know who's bluffing and who's fiddling the nuts, and the audience can much more easily identify with the action, so it becomes an entertainment experience and an educational experience. But the other reasons for its popularity are the psychological and physical interest in the players contesting the pots. These are human beings with interesting life stories who look a certain way, and if a woman is very easy on the eyes, that's going to be a factor in audience interest in the game--though, technically, it has nothing to do with who's going to win the hand or the tournament."
But Gowen doesn't want to be the Anna Kournikova of the poker world--the pretty face who brings in the fellas, and maybe a few young women, and rakes in the sponsorship money but has nothing to prove her worth besides her looks. She's delighted that Keith Fleer is out there chasing down the mainstream money. She's delighted to have just signed a deal with FullTiltPoker.com, a new Web site due to launch during the World Series of Poker in May, where she will join Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, Erik Seidel, Phil Ivey and other greats doling out advice and playing online games against subscribers to the site. She's delighted to have one of the Los Angeles card rooms courting her, hoping to land her as one of their representatives.
But if she doesn't win, be it at a table in a Dallas card room or at a WPT event in France or the World Series of Poker in Vegas, all of that other stuff won't mean anything. To the pros, she'll be a pretty face in the right place at the right time and nothing more. And to herself, Clonie Gowen will be someone who played the right hand the absolutely wrong way.
"Keith's ambitions for me, well, if that stuff happens, great," she says. "But my main goal is I want to play poker. If that other stuff happens, oh, it's wonderful. But bottom line is I am not an actress. It's always good to dream and have goals, but I didn't get into poker to become a famous whatever. I play poker to play poker. Sure, who wouldn't want a contract with Revlon? Who wouldn't want to be a spokesperson for some big company? It would be fabulous if it happened.
"But the bottom line is you better win, or you're going to have your critics that say the only reason why you got there is because you're good-looking, that you can't play a lick of poker. Any time that you are attractive and a woman, you better win. You better win."
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