Longform

Poker Face

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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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