By Virginia Breen

New York Daily News

July 10, 1999

Throughout her Manhattan apartment, scattered photographs make it clear that Wendeen Eolis is a woman to be reckoned with. There she is shmoozing with Gov. Pataki. There’s Eolis with Mayor Giuliani.

And isn’t that her again with former President George Bush? . “My game,” she said during a recent visit, pausing to shuffle a deck of cards with French-manicured hands, “is No-Limit Texas Hold-‘Em.”

Eolis, who runs a blue-chip legal recruiting and consulting firm, happens to be one of the world’s top-ranked female poker players. After a six-year hiatus from the game because of respiratory problems, Eolis is training for next year’s World Series of Poker, where renowned gamblers gather in Las Vegas to vie for the world champion title and a pot in the millions.

Before her sabbatical, Eolis, a 54-year-old grandmother, became the darling of the poker world by becoming the first woman to finish in the money in the 1986 contest. She made headlines in Card Player magazine and even became tabloid fodder for the National Enquirer (“Card-shark Granny is Queen among Poker Kings!” barked a Jan. 22, 1991, story.)

Her shining moment came in 1993, when she finished 20th out of 220 card sharks in the 1993 World Series. She left with $ 12,000 in winnings and the respect of the game’s old-boy network. Eolis’ performance was all the more remarkable because of a chronic respiratory illness that caused her to collapse on the table and to complete the final rounds wearing an oxygen mask.

“It was so quiet, the only sound you could hear was the clicking of the chips in the final rounds,” she recalled. “I wasn’t as smart as a lot of the other players in that room, but I was extremely disciplined. Everybody cheered.”

In the last few years, the number of world-class female players has grown to 15, but they are still a rarity in the male-dominated pool of 393 top professional players, said Tony Shelton, a World Series organizer.

How did a Queens girl, the daughter of two lawyers, enter the high-stakes world of poker and political intrigue? Like any true card shark, Eolis maintains an air of mystery, never allowing anyone to see her entire hand. She reveals bits and pieces of her past but dodges queries that she considers too personal. She ran away from home at 15, put herself through New York University by working as a Playboy bunny, lived in London for many years and became the single parent of three children, now all grown.

In the late 1960s, she hooked up with Ken Uston, a legendary professional gambler and former stockbroker. The card-shark couple gained notoriety after they developed a card-counting system that consistently beat the dealer, eventually forcing the casinos to change the rules to erase the advantage.

At age 24, Eolis started her own legal head-hunting firm. Over the years, she concentrated on nurturing lucrative connections with A-list clients in the world of casinos, white-shoe law firms and politics.

She knew Giuliani back when he was a prosecutor and “counseled him informally” during his first term. She became an adviser to Pataki during his first year as governor. “I had the opportunity to be in the corridors of extraordinary power,” she said. “It was quite phenomenal.”

Along the way, she developed her poker skills. In 1985, after seriously studying the game, she sat down at a poker table while visiting a friend’s club.

“I raised all the eyebrows there wasn’t a single woman in sight,” she said. “One man told me, ‘You don’t belong at this table, sweetheart.’ Then I got lucky and won a big hand.”

The man at the table, whom she would identify only as “one of the finest players in the country,” became her poker mentor, teaching her the finer points of the game. Within months, she began making a name for herself in international competitions. Her strategy involves dogged concentration, a keen understanding of probability and a willingness to “negotiate from strength.”

“Bluffing is an overrated strategy,” she said. “The more macho players assume I can’t play as well as they can, and they try to bully me out of the game. I’m very aggressive from a position of strength, but I’m more willing to fold the hand and wait for another if I’m not in a position of strength.” She takes calculated risks, which she calls “semi-bluffs,” betting on “potential and position rather than bluster and guts.”

“Negotiating from strength both in poker and in the business world is a better, and less stressful, way to play,” she said. “You [avoid] bad judgments automatically.”

As for her chances in next April’s Millennium World Series, Shelton classified Eolis as a top contender. “She’s as good as any of the top players, and a classy, elegant lady to boot.”

Graphic: Photo of Wendeen Eolis

Graphic Caption: World-class poker player Wendeen Eolis is at home with a deck of cards.

She’s planning to return to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas after six-year break