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Poker Face

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"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.

"Yes."

Really?

"Yes."

Even you?

"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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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