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."