Poker Face

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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