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.