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CHICKS WITH DECKS (EXCERPT)

By Elizabeth Gilbert
GQ
August 2000

Within the macho world of high-stakes poker lie some hard-and-fast rules of survival. Tutored by a shrewd Chanel-wearing woman, Elizabeth Gilbert learns to hold ’em against the big boys.

My poker coach is a brilliant woman in her mid fifties, and her name is Wendeen Eolis. One of the many interesting things about Wendeen Eolis is that she hums while she’s playing poker. And Wendeen plays some really tough poker, too, often gambling in games where a person may win or lose on a single hand what many of us do not earn in an entire year of more traditional labor. But Wendeen’s deportment at the poker table would never lead you to believe that this is any big deal. She just hums away as she gambles hum-dee-hum-dee-hum the way other women her age might hum as they putter about contentedly in their flower gardens. This is one of the many secrets I must learn from Wendeen Eolis during the months I shall spend in a dedicated poker apprenticeship under her wise tutelage. I must learn how to play it cool.

Poker is simply and obviously the sexiest and most dangerous male pastime a woman could ever penetrate, and I want to know how to play it. Especially considering the type of woman I purport to be (basically, this type: “Hello, boys! Let’s drink and curse!”), I’ve always felt it was a character flaw that I didn’t play poker. And I didn’t want to play any safe let’s sit-at-the-kitchen-table-and-pretend-matchsticks-are-money poker, either. I wanted to play serious poker, and thus I was very fortunate to find myself a serious instructor.

So allow me to formally introduce her: the Great Wendeen Eolis-a small, curvy, killingly smart cardplayer in her middle years, with lush red hair, jewel-encrusted sunglasses, a terrifically commanding voice and a personal history that makes the past five centuries of the freakin’ Balkan Peninsula seem tranquil by comparison. Wendeen was born in Queens to a pair of affluent Russian American lawyers. Mother was a stunningly gorgeous mathematical genius and a leading expert behind the Federal Tax Reform Act of 1969. Father died young, but stepdad was a dashing politician who also happened to be an avid cardplayer. (The marriage was, Wendeen reports, “high-stakes poker, both literally and figuratively.”) Wendeen’s uncle founded the Communist-based Workers World Party, but Wendeen has served as a high-level adviser to both New York’s Republican Governor Pataki and NYC’s Mayor Giuliani. She also runs her own highly regarded legal consultancy. She also used to be a card counter in casino blackjack games. She also was a Playboy bunny. She also has a grand history of famous men, a philosophy degree, an international table-tennis championship trophy and three languages at her fluent command. And all this with only one working lung! (A cancer survivor and a powerful antismoking lobbyist, Wendeen is famous for having collapsed at the World Series of Poker after inhaling secondhand smoke, then coming back to consciousness and playing her way to a world-record finish while wearing an oxygen mask.) Wendeen Eolis was the first woman to finish in the money in the final championship round of the World Series of Poker. And she is, finally, the only person I’ve ever met who has side-by-side framed photos on her mantel of her being embraced by Nelson Mandela and Wayne Newton. Hum-dee-hum-dee-hum.

I first met Wendeen Eolis at midnight in the poker room of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City (“the biggest and best-run smoke-free poker room in Jersey!”), and I instantly knew she was the one. During the past several weeks, I’d met a dozen or so professional poker players, but none had been willing to educate me in the ways of the poker ninja. This was not completely surprising, given the nature of professional poker players. (One must have preternatural comprehension of mathematical risk, yes, but also razor-sharp insight into the human condition, a gift for self-concealment, no fear whatsoever of losing money and no moral aversion to destroying your fellow man. So, no, they’re not natural teachers.) I’ll never know exactly why Wendeen Eolis took me on as her student. I like to think she recognized a hot spark of brilliance. It’s probably closer to the truth that she just thought my questions (“Is a straight the same thing as a flush?”) were amusing. Regardless, we came to a fast understanding. I would entrust my supple young brain (along with the $1,000 GQ had kindly bankrolled me) to this woman, and she would teach me how to play.

The exact game I asked Wendeen Eolis to teach me was no-limit Texas hold ’em-“the Cadillac of poker”-the game they play every year at the final event of the World Series of Poker. Deceptively simple looking, Texas hold ’em is actually a savage, subtle, tricky, elegant and 100 percent American game. And I’m goddamn patriotic, so I set forth to make it my game. It also happens to be Wendeen Eolis’s game.

“LESSON ONE,” Wendeen Eolis began. We were sitting in the dark Bombay Cafe restaurant at the Taj, eating chicken breasts and cherry Danishes at 1:30 in the morning. “Poker,” she said, “is a game of principles, not a game of philosophies. The more closely you listen to popular philosophies like `Poker is not .a game of cards; it’s a game of people,’ the more money you will lose. Because poker is a game of cards. At your level, that’s all it is. So learn your cards. Reading other people’s mannerisms and comprehending their hands is the true calculus of poker, and it is far beyond your abilities at this point. Would you attempt to understand calculus before you ever learned arithmetic? No. So learn your arithmetic first.”

STARDUST MEMORIES: Eolis and Gilbert play Las Vegas’s leading crooner, Wayne Newton, and his poker coach, Russ Hamilton, in a game of no-limit Texas hold ’em at the Stardust Casino.

Wendeen went on to explain that there were only a few hands I would be allowed to play in my first week of poker. “Tomorrow I’m going to put you in a limit hold ’em game, just to give you practice. You will buy in with $100. You will play for exactly two hours. You will play only the cards I have specified. My card-playing doctrine is the same as my general doctrine in life. In order to succeed, you must first survive. Tomorrow, you will concentrate only on survival. You will be a sightseer. You will neither win big nor lose big, but you will learn much, and when the game is over you will still have approximately $100 in your possession.” She downed her coffee., tipped the waiter handsomely. “And then,” Wendeen Eolis concluded, “we may proceed to lesson two.”

The next morning, I sat down at a casino table for the first time in my life. Wendeen sat beside me, tethered to me like a skydiving instructor… In the end, after two hours at the table and as Wendeen had foretold, I was up six bucks. Not only had I survived but I’d also earned nearly enough to buy myself breakfast at the Sultan’s Feast.

Over the next weeks, Wendeen put me on a strict training schedule. She had a plan. It was not the same as my plan. My plan was to learn poker and then go to Las Vegas to gamble my $1,000 in a glitzy whirl of showbiz extravagance. But Wendeen wasn’t too impressed with my plan. While she agreed that I should play some poker in Vegas, she didn’t think a glitzy game on the Strip would necessarily complete my poker education. Instead, she wanted to bring me down to Mississippi in a month to compete in Jack Binion’s World Poker Open. Playing tough poker against seasoned tournament champions, she claimed, would be considerably instructive for me. Moreover, she wanted me to visit Los Angeles, where the very most poker in the world is played, twenty-four hours a day, in the very largest poker rooms on earth. Secretly, I was pretty determined to go to Vegas, mainly for the glamour of it. But I kept this to myself as we commenced my weekend training sessions at the Taj.

Frighteningly soon, Wendeen started putting me in games without her supervision, saying, “Just fold whenever you’re in doubt… My first time at the table alone, I bought $100 of chips with a great show of confidence. Then the Pakistani gentleman beside me said, “You don’t belong here. Go play blackjack.” “Thank you,” I said, wincing. I didn’t know what else to say. Wendeen was always stressing the importance of good manners at the poker table.”You’re going to lose all your money,” he said. “Thank you,” I repeated.

I also took to sitting behind Wendeen while she was playing, so I could study her cards. Doing so, I also started to understand her identity at the poker table. Wendeen’s edge is her crushingly good manners. Dressed in a Chanel suit amid these hard-gambling men (who all look as though they woke up on a park bench), Wendeen always behaves with perfect refinement. She calls her opponents sir. As in “Sir, may I please ask you to not smoke at this card table?” She also forbids cursing. Profanity is not permitted under any casino rules, but nobody ever really enforces it. Except Wendeen. The first time a man says “Goddamnit!” after a frustrating loss, Wendeen will reply, “Sir, may I ask you to please not curse at this card table?” If he does it again, she calls over a floor manager and requests that the gentleman be reminded of the house rules on foul language. Now, if this “gentleman” is a poker player who uses his violent temper to intimidate opponents, he has lost his edge to Wendeen. She’s got him beat. He’s reduced to fuming silently as she sits there with her perfect manicure, raking in all his money. And humming.

I myself was still light-years away from playing such psychological games. One has no business getting “cute” (as Wendeen puts it) if one does not yet fully comprehend the basic concepts of poker. To that end, Wendeen set me up with regular teaching sessions outside the casino. She was very civil until T. J. decided to throw me a pop poker quiz. Wanted to see how much I’d really been learning from Wendeen. “OK,” T. J. said, “you’re sitting in middle position. There’s been a raise before you. You’re dealt the ace-eight, off suit. Whaddaya do?” Nervously, I shut my eyes. I couldn’t even picture what an ace-and an eight looked like at this moment. But he was waiting, so I replied with a cottony mouth, “I believe I would play those cards, sir.” Wendeen Eolis came out of her chair like someone had been shot. “NO!” she shouted, not only in horror but also in perfect unison with the other players at the table. “No! No! No!” they shouted. They were all furious at me, the way a mother is furious when her child darts out into traffic. I apologized. The table calmed down and T. J. Cloutier generously offered me a chance to redeem myself.”You got a pair of fives in the hole. You’re on the button. There’s been a raise. You’ve still got both the blinds in the game. So you will…” “Fold?” “NO! NO! NO!” the pros all shouted again. T. J. Cloutier set off on a patient explanation of how you always-always-call a raise with a pair if you have three or more people in the pot already. By this point, I could not even meet Wendeen Eolis’s gaze. “OK,” said T. J. Cloutier, “one last try. You’re in early position. There’s been a raise and a reraise. You got ace-king of diamonds. It’s your bet.” “Raise?” I asked. This time, nobody even protested. They’d lost the energy. Wendeen sat with her hands covering her face. “Now, honey,” said T. J. Cloutier, “you’re gonna want to fold that hand. You just wanna get out of there.” I just wanna get out of here. Wendeen just looked at me. She raised an eyebrow. “Just because you already taught me something,” I said, loyally rising to my own defense, “doesn’t mean I learned it yet.”

THAT NIGHT, AFTER a bath, a steak and a quick reread of chapter four of Tom McEvoy’s classic guidebook Tournament Poker, I entered my first super-satellite match. And it was a good thing I’d studied up, too, because sitting at my poker table was none other than the most notorious professional-poker celebrity of all time-the mythical Amarillo Slim Preston.. I’d been carrying a little piece of paper in my pocket, and on it were key words to remind me of Wendeen’s vital poker advice should I find myself in a fix. The paper read: “Patience. Table form. Raise or fold, never call. POSITION…” To this list, I added a truncated version of Amarillo Slim’s counsel.” I was ready to play.

I GOT NOTHING at first. I was dealt hands that looked like feet. I didn’t care. I had patience. It was a tight game, anyhow. I was a little nervous to be playing against the mythical Amarillo Slim. Everyone kept staring at him. Slim was wearing a diamond the size of a suppository on his wedding finger. A large man beside me admired the ring.Slim said, “Thanks, pardner. The young lady in the six seat bought this for me last Christmas.” Everyone at the table swung around to look at the young lady in the six seat. And then they all started staring at me. I stared back and attempted to look notorious. And then-right then-I got hit with my kings. .. I knew just what to do. I deliberately pushed my whole stack of chips into the middle of the table. I said, “I’m all-in.” Then the guy in seat eight went all-in with me. The lucky ——- hit two pairs out of nowhere. I was all-out. The World Poker Open was over for me. Just like that. Took about fifteen minutes. But no! As I was about to make my exit, Amarillo Slim pulled a fresh $100 bill from his pocket and passed it to me in his long, tapered fingers.”Hell,” Slim said, “I’d rather see an early frost on my peach trees than see this pretty young lady leave the table.”

Now, I should say here that my teacher, the great Wendeen Eolis, has some very strong opinions on this sort of thing. She doesn’t think it’s a good policy for a woman to take money from a man at a poker table. She thinks it’s a weakening gesture. But I was realizing that my own poker persona-as it was gradually developing-was going to be something rather different from Wendeen’s. I could never pull off Wendeen’s firm, elegant, self respecting manner at the poker table. Given my real-life persona (quick review: “Hello, boys! Let’s drink and curse!”), my poker persona would naturally reflect the same. I was gonna be the good-time girl of high-stakes poker, and good-time girls traditionally aren’t very fussy about taking men’s money. With this thought in mind, I made my first decision independent of my teacher. I smiled my thanks to Slim, accepted his cash and bought myself back into the game. Then he clearly mouthed three words to me: “Don’t run off.” Don’t run off? I thought this over. I decided that Amarillo Slim, having watched me lose all my chips, thought I was on tilt, that I was steaming, and he didn’t want me to “run off” and bet so wildly anymore. And since he’s the most notorious professional poker player of all time, I took his advice. I didn’t play another hand for twenty minutes. I folded everything. I folded like an Irish laundry maid. I folded low pairs, middle pairs, suited connectors. I folded away a whole damn court of Versailles in terms of kings, queens and knaves.

Then at a break in the play, we all got up from the table and Slim murmured in my ear, “Don’t Ohhh… that kind of “don’t run off.” “Why, Amarillo Slim,” I said. “I’m married!” “Well now,” he drawled. “That’s a tie.” “Amarillo Slim,” I said, and I couldn’t help smiling. “There’s forty years of age difference between us. You’re a betting man what do you honestly think your odds are with me tonight?” “I’ll tell you what, little girl.” He was smiling, too. “I’m not as big an underdog here as you might think.” Then the break was over and we returned to play. .. So we went back to the table. I was {soon} flat-out busted, deader than beef. There were no more buy-ins allowed, so not even Amarillo Slim could save me anymore. My peaches had done been frosted. “Friends,” I said, “it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” Without even looking up from his cards, he said, “Go git yourself a nice piece of chocolate cake and a cup of coffee, honey. I’ll come fetch you as soon as I’m done here.”

WITH MISSISSIPPI UNDER my belt, I was now even more determined to play big, glitz poker in Las Vegas. Wendeen kept encouraging me to try the big poker temples of Los Angeles, where, she insisted, “real poker lives and breathes.” But I realized in Mississippi that I was starting to understand this game, that I had not been the worst player at the tournament and that nobody was ever going to tell me to go play blackjack again. In other words, I was starting to feel like a lady poker ninja. I was getting cocky, and. I still wanted to go to Vegas and play poker against some big, flashy celebrity. Wayne Newton seemed the obvious choice.

So I called Wayne’s people and presented my invitation. Which is when I found out something really funny: that despite all these decades spent ruling the Strip, Wayne Newton is not a gambler at all. Mr. Las Vegas, his people said, can’t even tell a club from a spade. This game was looking better and better. Slyly, I assured Wayne’s people that I didn’t really know how to play poker, either. But I did promise that Wayne could have a world-champion poker coach with whom to consult during the match. Just so long as I could consult the great Wendeen Eolis. And so we made a deal. Mr. Las Vegas and me, with our coaches, in a one-hour game of freezeout, heads-up, no-limit Texas hold ’em action, to be held at the Stardust Casino. With a stake of a grand each. Winner, needless to say, taking all.

Now I had to tell Wendeen Eolis that we were going to Vegas. I wasn’t sure how she would take it, but I figured she’d be impressed that I’d scored Wayne Newton. I told her I “knew people” and I’d “had some strings pulled.” She just got a bemused, miles-away look on her face. And then she agreed to go. “You’ll see,” I said. “It’ll be very glamorous.”

We decided to fly to Vegas for only one night. Fly in, do the job, nail the win and fly home. Like it was a business trip. We arrived at the fantastically deteriorating Stardust Casino in the late afternoon .A crowd of tourists somehow amputated themselves from their slot machines to watch us play. Wayne’s coach was Russ Hamilton, the 1994 World Series of Poker champion.. I sat down with Russ and we gossiped about last week’s hot poker action down in Mississippi, and then Wayne Newton showed up. The crowd said, “Ahhh!” Trim, tall, outstandingly tan and sporting that lush black pompadour of showbiz hair, Wayne Newton looked just like pictures of Wayne Newton. The tourists on the rail went nuts. He bent down and kissed me. He smelled superb.

Proudly, I turned to introduce Wayne Newton to my coach, but he spotted her first. And they absolutely fell into each other’s arms.”My God, Wendy!” Wayne Newton exclaimed. “You look beautiful!” Now, I thought the only person in this world allowed to call Wendeen Eolis “Wendy” was Wendeen Eolis’s big sister. This was all very interesting. Wayne Newton and “Wendy” certainly seemed very happy to see each other, as demonstrated by a lot of hugging and wiping of the eyes and murmured speculations about where all the years had gone. What the hell was this all about? Then I remembered the photographs on Wendeen’s mantle, Nelson Mandela, Wayne Newton … of course, she already knew the guy! Rather well, by all appearances.

I only hoped all this nostalgic chumminess wasn’t going to dull anybody’s competitive edge, because I, for one, intended to play some serious poker tonight.. So we began. Wayne Newton had about fifteen seconds of instruction, then caught his first hand, peered at his cards coolly and said to his coach, “Let’s bet on this one, Russ.” Gosh, but Wayne Newton seemed awful confident.”You’re sure you don’t know a spade from a club?” I asked Mr. Las Vegas. “Well, I do know what a club is, because I’ve been playing in clubs my whole life,.. Truth is, I have played some penny-ante poker in my time….” The game was fast.

By the time the clock had ticked to where Wayne Newton had to hop onstage any minute, we each had a stack of chips still standing before us. Only he had more chips, which was really pissing me off. Next hand I got was the jack-seven. Not exactly a big mitt, but I wanted to play it anyhow. Because that’s why they call it gambling. “It’s not a winning hand,” Wendeen advised, “but do what you need to do.”So I pushed it all-in. Dove off the bridge to check the depth of the water. Russ Hamilton, who isn’t a world champion for nothin’, knew immediately that I didn’t have anything in my hand but perspiration, so he nudged Wayne Newton all-in, too.

“Wayne,” Wendeen announced grimly, “all we’ve got is jack-high.””Us too, Wendy,” said Wayne Newton.”What’s your kicker?” I asked.”Seven of spades,” Russ Hamilton said. No way! Wayne Newton and I flipped our cards over simultaneously to show the spectators the unbelievable truth: We had exactly the same hand! Now the crowd really did go wild.. “It’s a tie!” we kept saying, even as every serious poker player in the room grimaced. Every serious player knows there’s no such thing as a touchy-feely tie in the cold economic Darwinism of the poker world. But Wayne Newton and I didn’t care. Wayne Newton and I just split that pot right down the middle and both walked away with the same $1,000 we’d brought into the game.

After the game, Wayne asked Wendeen if she and her “friend” would care to watch his show in the Stardust Casino’s sizzling Wayne Newton Theater. She graciously accepted (and so did I), and Wayne gave us stageside seats. He blew us kisses all night. He even dedicated a song to Wendeen and me. It all was very flattering. Although secretly I could tell he was really thinking of her during the whole song. Well, a song and a medley, to be completely precise.

TO WAKE UP in Las Vegas and realize you didn’t lose 1,000 bucks the night before is a very special feeling indeed, and it makes a girl want to run out to the Strip .and gamble some more. But Wendeen said with a gentle smile, “You didn’t think I’d really let you go home without playing poker in Los Angeles, did you?” So this was it. She’d come this far for me and now I had to go the distance for her, by jumping on a forty-five-minute shuttle flight to L.A., where, she promised, “the biggest poker rooms in the world are just a limo drive from the airport.”
Thus, two hours later, here we are. Wendeen has led me into the venerable Bicycle Club, and she has sat my ass down in a game against seven solemn Asian gentlemen. I play for two hours, and then Wendeen takes me and my winnings to the biggest room in the world, the Commerce Casino, for another game at even higher limits. Finally, she leads me to the Hollywood Park Casino. I have only two hours before my red-eye to New York, so I buy myself in with $400 to a serious pot-limit Texas hold ’em game already well in progress. I feel so steady here. I bring to this game everything I have learned in Atlantic City, Mississippi and Vegas and over the Internet.

Wendeen stands behind me like a boxer’s cut man in my corner of the ring, but by now she is only confirming my play. In hesitant moments, I sometimes flash her my cards, but she just says, “You know how to play that hand,” and she is generally correct. I make my own choices here, and I can feel my teacher-it’s almost a physical sensation-is beginning to recede from me. It’s a good game. The dealer coughs discreetly to catch my eye. His hand has paused in that pretty moment right before he releases my first card. “You in?” he asks. Oh yeah, buddy. I’m all-in.

photo credit: Victor Schraeger