Playing the Damsel In Distress Card

Life has a way of putting us in situations that can provide answers to our most perplexing inner conflicts, if we choose to connect the metaphoric dots. As a poker playing female, I derive great pride from being strong, brave, and independent. Yet, somewhere between Palos Verdes and Torrance on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle, I realized I needed to stop beating myself up for the fact that my current choices have muddled that identity.

I was on my only planned vacation for the year – an overnight scooter trip to Los Angeles for the Swerve ‘n Curve scooter rally – and had been scootering for more than four hours (including pit stops) when my bike started acting up. I drive a rebuilt Kymko Like 200 – a Vespa knockoff with a Chinese engine – which has been growing increasingly sluggish each time I’ve used it for a longer trip, similar to the way my finances had endured further strain every month I’d declared myself to be a writer.

I had noticed a bit more oil than usual splattered across the engine case when we stopped to refuel before the big rally ride, but the “no worries” state I’d willfully induced led me to shrug it off. I was sure my mechanic/coworker had properly prepped my bike for the occasion and “knew” such spillage was just the normal exhaust from the breather tube in high volume. Still, as my scooter began to lurch like an epileptic, half-stall, and lose steam sporadically, I found myself issuing a familiar self-scolding: Did you really do everything you could to prevent this from happening, Rachel? What are you going to do now to ensure it doesn’t end in complete and utter disaster?

Although I was riding with over 200 scooterists at the time, only one of my close friends was anywhere I could catch him (behind me) and his scooter has a saddle built for one. I didn’t pull over the moment the check engine light lit up because I knew I would be stranded and couldn’t afford to cab it (or Uber) to the end. About a minute later, my rational brain regained control and made me surrender to the moment. I told my wing man to leave me there and send back help. It might take an hour, but one of my friend’s boyfriends had followed us down in his truck and could get me home eventually.

I’d hardly shed my safety gear when my wing man phoned to say he’d lost the pack. I texted him the address for the end party (thankfully, I had brought a copy of the rally ride map and directions they’d handed out) and started leaving messages for my other friends in the ride to circle back for me when they could. I didn’t have the man with the truck’s phone number and my sister had been texting me requests to translate Spanish phrases, so I called her with the answer to her question so I could simultaneously whine about my predicament while I waited.

As is generally the case when my sister requests translations, she was at work. She gave me two minutes to whine and offered to phone a friend we knew in LA, but I told her I would be fine. I was overlooking a beach side golf course. I wasn’t in any immediate danger. To begin proving (once again) what a strong, resourceful woman I was, I decided I might as well push my scooter up the road to a better temporary storage spot. Just as I started to roll it up the hill, a motorcyclist pulled off into the bike lane ahead of me and asked if I needed any help. “Well… I could use a ride,” came out of my mouth before I even processed why I’d chosen to trust him.

He had a kind voice and didn’t appear to be a daredevil. There were faster routes he could’ve chosen for his journey – his enduro (or dual sport?) was clearly capable – but he’d chosen the mellow scenic route instead. I hadn’t been a big fan of such “function over form” bikes in the past, partially due to the personalities I knew who drove them, but it was definitely an appropriate time to make an exception. My knight in non-shining armor secured my bags on his rig and waited patiently while I phoned three different friends to say I was on my way to the party and not to worry. I left messages for two, spoke directly to my wing man, then hopped on the back of his bike. (On a “normal” day, I would’ve texted a picture of his license plate and profile to all three friends at once, the quicker and safer communication route.)

His Garmin (thankfully) led him over the same hills I remembered from the year before and he proved to be an extremely courteous escort, making it easy to relax and enjoy the city views. It wasn’t quite the same from the back seat – looking straight ahead posed certain difficulties – but it did remind me that when you’re always in the driver’s seat, you can’t fully appreciate that which lies in the periphery. The knight in non-shining armor carried me safely to my friends, then disappeared into the sunset (metaphorically speaking, at least).

A few hours later, the truck which had followed me southbound early that morning added my scooter to its return load. The mechanic wouldn’t be back to work for a few days, but I left my problems at his doorstep just after sunset. All in all, it was a fairytale themed day. I’d been rescued twice. When I left on the trip, I was feeling a bit guilty for expecting life to bring me such unlikely experiences, as if my writerly tendencies were getting the best of me somehow. By the time I nestled my scooter into the maintenance lineup, that guilt was nowhere to be found.

If there’s one thing that trip taught me, it’s this: breakdowns can be breakthroughs. Perhaps it’s only natural that a poker playing lass who thrives on the highs and lows endured on the felt would believe in fairytales. Both are manifestations of a firm belief in happy endings. Perhaps “reliable and affordable” isn’t my favorite way to ride. Perhaps my life path is a bit more rocky because, if it wasn’t, my Prince Charming would have no need to swoop in and save me and I’d never get the happy ending my heart desires. It certainly seemed that once I let life force me to play the damsel in distress card, it was able to send me a happy ending.

Willy’s Game

When discouraging forays at the felt freeze your bankroll, there’s nothing quite like wandering into a penny poker game to revive your spirits. It was a Monday afternoon and I’d been cooped up with my own thoughts for more than 48 hours. I’d been on the hunt for more humorously titled poker stories in America’s news archives for a piece I wanted to write and playing play money poker online with all of my free time all week. I was in dire need of some actual human interaction to enliven my spirits. I didn’t know there would be a game that day. Willy doesn’t plan in advance or send out an invitation. If the right people show up and want to play, then they play. He’s one of those seemingly eternal bachelors that it seems half the town enjoys spending beer-thirty with. The odds that I would be the only person to stop by on any given week day are extremely low, however, most of the time everyone is just drinking, smoking, and trying to ensure their tales of woe and wonder are heard over the TV and other competing conversations. There is rarely a hand towel to dry your hands with in the bathroom, but there is always enough beer and tequila to go around and plenty of left field ideas to revive an uninspired writer. I like to go there to clear my head, usually with a coffee in hand. I find it impossible to sit there unchanged with so much enthusiastic nonsense happening right in front of me.

I was ecstatic when I wandered into Willy’s back room “bar” that day to find him enjoying a bit of dealer’s choice pocket change poker with Liz and Glen. I didn’t try to hide my excitement as I asked if I could join (assuming my WSOP ball cap had already given me away), but Glen seemed to be having as hard a time noticing those obvious tells as he was remembering my name. (I only bumped into him once or twice a year and that clearly wasn’t often enough for him to associate his sister’s name with my face, though he assures me every time we meet that he will remember the next time… for sure!) I hadn’t gotten to play poker with that crew in more than a year, but I remembered they really like to gamble and it wasn’t a true penny poker game. There are no blinds and the dealer chooses both the ante amount ($0.25 to $0.50 on average) and the variation he or she will deal. It doesn’t even need to be a known variation. You can elect as many wilds as you want and there are usually Jokers in the deck. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed games with so much luck mixed in, but ever since I watched Jennifer Harman play at a mixed table, I’ve been wanting to change up my game.

Without trying, I had wandered into the perfect place to do just that while testing my skills – three true poker fish vs. one wannabe poker shark. I pointed out my World Series of Poker hat to Glen before I sat down, then pulled up my selfie with Jen to show off to Liz as we began to play, feeling hiding my perceived talents would wreck my chances of playing with them in the future. I recalled cleaning up the last time we all played, when they’d mostly chosen Texas Hold’em, and wasn’t there to beat up on my friends. It was recess and I wanted nothing more than to be the cool kid on the playground – the really cool kind that didn’t prey on misfits. They’re inhibitions were being lowered ten gulps per minute and would induce them to verbalize their missed hands in no time.

I started with $5, folded after seeing a few flops, then nearly doubled up on one good hand of Hold’em just before the deal got to me. They seemed a little relieved when I said we should change things up and play the games I never play, i.e. no more Hold’em, unless they really wanted to. They were already laughing and saying they were willing to donate to a good cause ( my novel), but I could see the strain in their smiles. I wanted to keep the money flowing around the table a while and hope it ended up in my lap at the end, not snatch it all right off the bat.

I got us started with Seven Card Stud (which was apparently so old school Liz had never played it), then they began pulling out every variation they could think of – seven card flip-up Baseball, Five Card Draw with three wilds, and something they called Glen’s Game. I kept introducing more traditional forms, beginning with Omaha and Pineapple (which both fascinated them and pissed them off, due to the need to choose a discard pre-flop), then brought up Lowball when Willy said he couldn’t get any high cards. It turned out to be the hit of the evening.

I first attempted to teach them Badugi, but learned after the fact I gave the wrong rules… so let’s call it Badummy. They loved it so much they kept dealing it three of four hands, despite the fact I was winning just as often. So, I looked up the rules for Deuce to Seven Triple Draw on my phone and added that to the mix. (I suppose overconfidence had kept me from doing the same before introducing Badugi.) Despite the frequent change up of games, a new player, and a long break for horseshoes (which I was beyond terrible at), the money just seemed to keep coming my way. Willy had to pull out a second mug of change he’d hidden under the bar. Glen emptied his pockets and traded me a scratcher worth $6 for $5 of cold hard cash to get back in the game.

I felt a little guilty going home with a bit over $21, but I couldn’t help it. My minuscule knowledge of odds and uninebriated wits wouldn’t allow me to lose. It was painfully obvious when any one of them had me beat. They sat much more still and confident when ahead and swayed or slouched whenever behind. There was no point in bluffing as none could be bullied out of seeing a flop with a halfway decent hand by some silly three-bet and you only stood to win $0.75 by scaring everyone out with anything larger. So, in essence, I had played the entire evening similarly to a game of limit poker. I’d stuck with the odds and it had paid off big time, relatively speaking.

As I stowed away my precious pocket change that night before bed, I couldn’t help but wonder if my kindness and empathy for my fellow man has been getting in my way. If only I played in more games like Willy’s, I might be more successful. Perhaps I should seek out more local games and continue staying away from the casino? Also, maybe I should branch out and play more variations more often? Like so many, I thought I could only feel that poker rush I love so much from games of No Limit Hold’em, but experience had repeatedly shown me I felt the same joy no matter the cash involved in the game. Perhaps choosing where to play should be treated with as much care as choosing who to date. I don’t seek romance where I don’t feel a spark, so why should I gamble where I don’t feel like a shark?

I concluded that it’s time I cleaned off grandpa’s poker table (home of Rachel Hoyt Inc.) and dealt a few hands of my own. My usual casino only deals No Limit Hold’em and the occasional table of Omaha. I want more than that, so I’ll have to create it for myself until I can afford to venture to a casino that offers me more. There must be someone I can talk into squaring off with me in the mean time, if for no other reason than to say they contributed to my writing career. I’m flexible on stakes and have yet to cross “play strip poker” off my bucket list. All I need are some suitable opponents. If someone could please create a Match.com for the poker playing community, it would really help me out. Of course, you understand I expect the site to screen for wolves in sheep’s clothing.

From Fish to Horse

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One night several years ago, while working at a catered dinner party, a complete stranger convinced me to keep an open mind about poker staking. (We had been discussing the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and my desire to write a novel about a woman finally winning the main event.) When he asked me if I would ever play, I’d told him I couldn’t imagine spending $10,000 on a tournament, but that I would love to win my way in through a satellite (like thousands of other people). When he suggested that someday I might find a backer, I admitted I didn’t think I would play well with that added pressure and hinted at the dismal odds of that possibility coming true. (At the time, I had yet to take first place in any tournament at my local casino.)

He seemed surprised I thought the chances were so low and proceeded to explain how all investments are the same to people with plentiful equity and that they calculate a certain amount of risk into their overall investment plan each year. He was certain there were people who might buy me in without expecting a dime if I lost, just for the chance of being on the winning team, so to speak, if I managed to prevail. His logic made sense to me, but I still doubted my modest skills would draw any backers’ attention. To my surprise, just a few months after I began playing at the local casino more regularly, that stranger’s prediction came true.

It was already past 10 PM and I was down $200. I had been playing smart, but getting busted in nearly every battle I braved. I knew the text books said that my conservative play could eventually triumph against the table full of aggressors, but I had a budget to stick to. I stood to leave, but my newest friend insisted I couldn’t go and pulled out his wad of hundreds. I’d attempted to warm up to him in hopes of subduing his aggressive tactics on the felt a little and had managed to sweet talk him into the seat on my right (so I would rarely have to act before him). He had also allowed me infinite peeks at his hole cards when I wasn’t in the hand.

Gaining insight into the poker room pariah was unexpected enough. The moment he pulled out his money on my behalf, the experience turned surreal. Sherif not only offered to front me $100, he didn’t expect a share of my profits nor anything in return if I lost. It crossed my mind that he likely hoped a date was part of the package, but with nine witnesses to vouch for the official agreement, I sat back down. I was getting tired and beginning to lose steam, but felt it would be wrong to dismiss such an opportunity, even if it came from someone I didn’t trust, hardly knew, and wasn’t sure I liked (though he was growing on me by the minute).

I ended up all-in against my backer and one slightly smaller stack a few hands later with pocket queens. Sherif (once again) stole the pot with an inferior starting hand, but he immediately threw down another $100 to forbid me from heading home just yet. By that time, I was beginning to believe his unending aggression was destined to prevail against the more conservative players like myself that evening, but I sighed and accepted his additional advance. Fearing he would simply throw down yet another c-note if I busted again, I cranked up my conservatism another notch and settled in for the long haul. Before I knew it, I was paying back Sherif and going home with $165 in my pocket.

Yet, as satisfying as it was to recoup my evening’s losses, the real thrill was having someone believe in me and being able to live up to my backer’s expectations. Although Sherif did eventually prove that he had hoped the experience would earn him a date, it only served to boost my belief I might get the chance again someday, somewhere bigger. In my quest to improve my game and study the personalities that converge at the felt for my novel, there was no telling who I might meet and what doors might be opened just by being myself. After all, I was merely trying to befriend Sherif when I stumbled into the first opportunity. I hadn’t flattered him with a pack of lies to procure his favor. I just told him who I was.

A little less than a year later, that bigger, better, far more surprising opportunity I had predicted finally arose. I was in Las Vegas to visit the World Series of Poker for the first time in my life, though primarily to observe and research my novel, as my bankroll had been on empty for months. I was in the Amazon Room at the Rio, surrounded by green felt jungle warriors, thankful for the intrigue my Chumash Casino ball cap seemed to have added to my outfit. My favorite poker playing author, James McManus, had agreed to meet me while I was in town and had been chatting with me in-between hands during his tournament. I was bubbling with excitement because he had offered to take a peek at any poker stories I had to see if they were worthy of being passed on to an editor (despite the fact I had none written) and pondering where I would lay down my final hundred or so dollars for poker with the help McManus’ table mates (in hopes of procuring a story worth writing). Everyone there agreed the afternoon deep stack tournament, starting as we spoke, was the best value – $235 to win $50k or more – but that was out of my price range. If I hadn’t “wasted” $80 that morning on a super satellite, I could’ve played, but it was too late.

Apparently, one sharp female observer saw my inner conflict in my eyes, because she approached me while being shuffled her off to another corner of the room. “Do you want to play in tomorrow’s deep stack tournament?” she asked in the sort of whispered tone spies use in the movies. “Meet me here an hour before and I’ll buy you in.” I had a hard time believing she wanted to back a total stranger, but I gave her my number anyway, just in case. To my surprise, this benevolent stranger did call… and she showed up the following day, true to her word.

Her stated reason for backing me was that she could see I really wanted to play and she wanted to make that happen, despite the fact her friends had advised her to back out when I’d demanded a 40% share of my winnings. She told me that to have offered an unknown like myself 35% was quite generous and she had decided to take a chance on me anyway. I felt that “greedy and naive” might be an accurate assessment, so I quickly revised the contract – a photocopy of my Driver’s License with the agreement hand written below – giving her back the 5% I’d strong armed over the phone the night before. I took a photograph of her ID and her signing the agreement, then handed her the only copy of the paperwork. (Ideally, I should have brought two copies, but I didn’t think of that until I arrived.)

She handed me the cash and I went to stand in line, officially a horse in a race for the first time. Again I had been lucky enough to find a backer who didn’t require make-ups (repayment of lost entry fees) and this time the potential payout was enormous. Greg Raymer (2004 WSOP main event champion) was mingling with the common folk just a few feet away from the cage as I waited to purchase my seat. As I watched the fishies swim over to bask in his greatness, I couldn’t help but think the fact that I had just finished interviewing Jennifer Harman and shaking Johnny Chan’s hand when my backer phoned to finalize our agreement had helped me seal the deal. I hadn’t yet proven my abilities on the felt in any grand way, but I was beginning to prove my ability to utilize my skills in real life. Perhaps the fact that I’d gotten to spend an hour in Bobby’s Room and, in so doing, fluffed my own ego would propel me to the next level as a player.

What I didn’t know until after the tournament started is that re-entries would be allowed for the first two hours and twenty-five minutes. If I had known, I might not have felt as confident in my abilities as a horse. Personally, I hate re-buys and re-entries because the players willing to reinvest always make it extremely difficult for those of us trying to survive on a single buy-in. They play like Sherif. It’s rare to find yourself battling for a modest pot when re-entry is an option. However, once again, I got lucky and was seated at a fairly mellow table of moderately conservative players for the first two hours. Unfortunately, I got few playable hands and zero premium cards. When we reached the first break, I was down but not completely out, standing strong with a bit more than ten times the big blind.

I ran into my backer in the restroom and learned she was on similarly shaky ground in the tournament . We both felt we were putting up a good fight considering the hands we’d been dealt. We exchanged encouraging words and went our separate ways. Just after the tournament resumed, I got moved to a new table and began feeling pressured to make my move. I felt I needed to make my presence known and ensure no one thought I was a weakling. I shoved against an opponent who had raised pre-flop when I nabbed a pair of tens with my ATo and was quickly eliminated by pocket Kings. I suppose I was hoping he would think I had flopped trips, but perhaps he did and didn’t care. He had me covered. I knew better than to push with anything less than trips or top pair with a straight and/or flush draw, but I did it anyway.

I left wondering if my backer’s friends were right – she shouldn’t have risked her funds on a nobody like me – but wanting to believe I played a nearly perfect game up until the moment of ultimate blunder. Had the turn or river been a ten or ace, I would’ve won the hand. It was far from the worst odds I’d faced that day. Perhaps there would have been a better time to make my move a few hands down the line, but I couldn’t be sure the end result would have been any different. It wasn’t my day to win, at least, not there or right then. I still had $100 of my own money with which to make a move and I decided to venture to the Aria because Jen said she had played there before meeting up with me at the Bellagio the night before.

It took well over an hour to get a seat for $1-$3. The waiting list was forty to fifty people long the entire time I was there. There were only two other women in the poker room and the men had been eyeing me hungrily for quite some time when I finally got a seat. They were buying in $300 at a time and clearly thought they could easily nab my only $120. I was deep in conversation with the table’s self-proclaimed shark when I doubled up against an overconfident young fish the first time. As the shark babbled on about his seven card stud skills to bolster his Hold’em reputation, I doubled up again, against the same fish.

Shortly thereafter, the silver haired Chip Reese fan left for the evening, citing a self-imposed curfew as the reason he exited before battling me on the felt. He was replaced by a younger, less mouthy, stalwart opponent who had his girlfriend in tow. He and I seemed to sense there was no need to battle each other. He and his girlfriend seemed to be the only two able to see the stars aligned in my eyes. They watched with amazement as I was dealt a stream of playable pockets that I deftly used to my advantage. I left $765 richer in just over two hours – my biggest cash game win to date. I pondered calling my backer to offer her some reimbursement, but decided a real poker player would never cave in to that guilt. (Plus, it was really early in the morning.) Instead, I let fate decide.

I wagered that if I ran into her during my final visit to the WSOP area at the Rio before leaving town, I was meant to return the money in full. If she was nowhere to be found, I was meant to keep the funds and keep playing poker. When I became a regular at my local casino, my original bankroll was a mere $1,000. I’d won two-thirds of it back in a single sitting and that seemed like a sign of its own. I made one final long, slow lap through the WSOP area of the Rio that Tuesday morning before I left town, stopping for coffee and souvenirs, but my backer was nowhere to be found. (Truth be told, the odds were in my favor there. It was far too early in the day for most poker fiends.) I left Vegas feeling confident that stranger had played an important role in my poker career which and determined to prove her instincts correct and make her proud of her investment.

That’s what I think both of my backers share in common – a desire to be the one who noticed something special in someone before anyone else. It turns out, gambling with money is fun, but gambling on people is far more exciting… and I find the life of a horse suits me better than I ever imagined. I don’t care if I get to keep all of my winnings. I just want to play. I no longer doubt there might be others out there willing to put me in a game at the risk of gaining nothing. I long for more opportunities and feel confident they will come. In fact, I also look forward to the chance to do the same for other promising fish some day. Knowing these strangers could see my tenacity at moments when I could hardly feel it myself has brought the type of hope that money can’t buy. I’ve been turned completely. I’m a happy horse who hopes to become a stable master some day. May what goes around come around. The poker world could always use a bit more kindness. Heaven knows it won’t be found at the felt.

Searching For Buried Treasure

One sad and desperately lonely summer night, I stumbled onto a new way to subdue my poker addiction – searching news archives for buried poker treasure. It began as an attempt to uncover information on Vera Richmond – the elusive heiress known as one of the first women to match bankrolls with the founders of the World Series of Poker – but quickly evolved into an open-ended, full-fledged treasure hunt. By the time I found enough entertaining headlines to put together this article for Listverse.com, I was beginning to feel a bit like a noble pirate. I’d dug up the unthinkable – a jury that played poker while deliberating, possibly the first instance of strip poker ever, and eight other better-than-fiction century-old news stories.

They say women didn’t start playing poker until much more recently, but I’m beginning to wonder if that was a yarn the men spun to discourage their most feared opponents from flocking to the felt. The Salt Lake Herald reported in a post-retirement interview with Lucky Baldwin in 1897 that he stated,

“Now, I don’t want to say a thing against the ladies, but they are natural born poker players. They have been made such by nature – so coy and designing, and dissimulation for them is not an acquired art. It is their second nature. Deception is easy for them to acquire, and they gracefully outwit men. They size up men more easily and quickly than we can fathom their thoughts.”

If you add take that quote and extrapolate its “truth” based on the fact that Amarillo Slim is known as saying he’d slit his throat if a woman ever won the World Series of Poker, despite the fact he was likely directing that insult at Vera Richmond (the poker playing heiress I was unable to find any news on), you can see why I am now suspicious of poker history as we know it.

I believe there are many stories of female poker players we don’t yet know – locked away in aging minds, dusty journals, and descendants hearts – and that somehow I will find them. If my theory is correct, many of these women didn’t play for high-stakes and were therefore led to believe their stories weren’t important. I beg to differ. I think their stories are worth studying on a sociological level and have begun brushing up on qualitative research methods in preparation for the data’s arrival. I never thought I’d be searching for buried treasure without a map or precise description of the prize, but my poker player instincts have spotted a tell which I aim to prove either true or false. Shoot me an email or leave a comment if you have any clues you wish to contribute.

Hello world!

I make no promises as to precisely what subject matter the stories or articles this site will contain. True, I’m a bit obsessed with the game of poker and two wheeling on my Kymko Like Whatever scooter, but I have many interests beyond that which may creep in from time to time. Here you will find interviews, short stories, essays, and other random thoughts that have no other place to call home just yet. This is the site where my writerly instincts know no bounds.