April 25, 2004
Hello, Ms. Chips: The New Face of Poker
"I really didn't know what to do with myself because I don't go to bars," Ms. Gowen said by the pool of the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. "So I started going to Shreveport on the weekends to play poker, and I was coming home about $400 to $800 richer every week."
A three-hour drive from Dallas, Shreveport, La., is a home of riverboat gambling. Not a novice entirely, Ms. Gowen had been indoctrinated into the world of straights and flushes by the parents of a boyfriend she'd had when she was 15. She made the regular trips to Shreveport for about year, until she met another man in Dallas, David Gowen, who would cause her to change her marital status again. But her interest in poker turned out not to be provisional.
Now a full-time professional poker player, Ms. Gowen is entering her first World Series of Poker, the celebrated monthlong annual competition here, which got under way on Friday. At 32 she is considered one of the poker world's rare rising female stars — a marketable franchise of attractiveness and skill arriving at a time that cable networks have been mining poker coverage as a new, lucrative subgenre of reality television.
Though Ms. Gowen's tournament earnings — $25,000 is her biggest single win to date — are dwarfed by those of her competitors, male and female, she is consistently cited by poker Web sites and expert followers of the game as one of the top 10 female players. It is a status due partly to the fact that so few women play at her level, but also to her telegenic visibility on the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour."
"Clonie's very popular because she is one of the few women we've seen on television," explained Shirley Rosario, who works at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles and founded poker-babes.com, a Web site devoted to profiling well-known players, male and female. "And she's definitely got more charisma than most of the other women around."
Created for television two years ago, the World Poker Tour consists of 14 tournaments and celebrity specials, all of them broadcast, culminating in an annual championship. The world tour made its television debut last spring to phenomenal ratings.
In June, ESPN broadcast the World Series, the game's most prestigious event and one that has been taking place at Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas for 34 years, also to a surprisingly large audience.
Ms. Gowen's breakthrough came when she was asked to participate in the World Poker Tour's Ladies' Night Invitational in September, a rare single-sex event aimed at the 30 percent of the tour viewers who are women, created by the poker tour's chief executive and founder, Steve Lipscomb. "I was trying to put together an interesting table of six women that would result in good TV," Mr. Lipscomb said. "Clonie had placed 10th at a W.P.T. tournament in Costa Rica" — her first tournament ever — "and I met her and liked her. She's beautiful and she's good TV and I couldn't think of a better iconic image for poker than a self-assured young woman."
But something utterly unexpected happened at the Ladies' Invitational, which was broadcast in December — Ms. Gowen won. She beat a tableful of more experienced and better-known contenders, among them Jennifer Harman, who is regarded as the best high-stakes women's player in the world, and the similarly distinguished Annie Duke, a former doctoral student in psycholinguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and a sister of one of the game's pre-eminent champions, Howard Lederer.
"It was the hardest game I've ever played," Ms. Gowen said. "First, because you're rarely playing with five other pros — there's usually always a soft spot — and secondly because women are a lot harder to read than men."
The victory awarded Ms. Gowen the $25,000 entry fee, or "buy in" to the World Poker Tour championship, which took place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas last week. Though she was knocked out before the final round on Friday, so too were the rest of poker's top women.
The image of a poker player in the minds of most people unfamiliar with the game surely bears a closer likeness to someone like, say, John Goodman than to Ms. Gowen, who is tall and blond in the manner of someone who might be invited to pledge Kappa Kappa Gamma. And yet, when Ms. Gowen arrived at the bachelor quarters of Phil Gordon, the commentator for Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," one night two weeks ago to play a few cash-free hands with five of her male colleagues, she was greeted no differently than if she were a U.P.S. man.
But very quickly, the evening upended most assumptions about the culture of professional poker and the social habits of the people who play. For his part, Mr. Gordon was concerned about whether he had correctly applied a match-equity analysis to hypothetical poker hands he had conceived for a book he is helping to write, called "Poker: The Real Deal." Mr. Lederer and another poker legend, Erik Seidel, turned to a calculator to figure it out. The evening ended with Ms. Gowen and another professional player, Jim Geary, who is also a Scrabble champion, exchanging pictures of their children.
The rise of amateur ladies' poker nights in cities around the country has led to the impression that women have become an explosive force in the game. But that's not entirely right. In high-stakes, no-limit tournament play, women represent only a tiny fraction of the entrants. Of the 1,500 players who will ultimately compete in the weeklong "main event," or final tournament of the World Series beginning on May 22, it is expected that only 50 to 75 will be women. Of the 63 money prizes awarded to victors in the World Series's main event last year, one went to a woman, Ms. Duke, who placed 47th. In the two previous years, no women won any cash prizes in the final rounds of the World Series.
"People are really intrigued by the differences between the way men and women play, but I always like to say that it doesn't take much muscle to lift two cards," Ms. Harman said. "If you have a woman who is intelligent, intuitive and very aggressive, I think you're going to get a good player. But I think a lot of women are scared to enter the World Series because they think the men will torment you — and some of the men will torment you."
The World Series consists of 33 tournaments, each requiring its own buy-in. Ms. Gowen is competing in all the Texas Hold'em no-limit and pot-limit events, 11 in total, which will cumulatively cost her $54,000 to enter. "Big-bet poker rewards aggression, and if you play passively you tend not to do well," explained James McManus, a writer and player himself, who chronicled the 2000 World Series in the best-selling book "Positively Fifth Street." "Certainly women are capable of aggression in short bursts, but I do think that it may be harder for them to sustain the kind of aggression required."
Ms. Gowen said that from a financial standpoint, she has approached poker conservatively and turned a profit every year for the nine she has been playing. The longest losing streak she had lasted about a month. "If I take a number of losses in a row, I take a break," Ms. Gowen said. Now that she no longer works as a travel agent, poker purses make up the entirety of her income, a figure she will not disclose, though some of the money she has made allowed her to remodel her house and put in a wrought-iron fence.
And her heightened profile has brought her new earning potential. She has been signed as a spokeswoman for Full Tilt, a planned online poker site, joining the company of Mr. Lederer and other celebrated players including Chris Ferguson. She also has private backers who invest in her as if she were a promising pharmaceutical stock, paying the costly buy-in fees for tournaments.
"Clonie seems to be very calm and in control of her emotions, and that's what you really need to be a good player," said Andy Bloch, another full-time pro. "Right now she needs to gain some more experience playing against the top players. But once she fine-tunes herself she'll be formidable."
And in many ways, still dealing with the kind of conflicts known to most working mothers. She travels about five days per month for games and tournaments and has to work out the logistics of child care. In addition to her daughter, now 11, Ms. Gowen also has a 2-year-old son. She has started writing a column about women and poker for All In, a new magazine about the game."Right now I'm worried about how I'm going to write," she said. "I agonize over e-mails."