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RAISING THE STAKES: STORY OF THE POWER POKER DAME

By Wendeen H. Eolis

Poker Player Newspaper

May 8, 2005

Introduction: This part of Chapter 7 takes place at the 1988 Binion’s Hall of Fame Tournament. Wendeen, a legal consultant by day, has taken a respite from the stressful role of a crisis consultant to James T. Sherwin, Vice Chairman of GAF Corporation

, a defendant who is fighting Wall Street inside trading charges brought by U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. Her two worlds collide and strong friendships with both prosecutor Rudy and defendant Jimmy are tested in New York, while her poker skills are tested in Las Vegas as the first woman to reach the final table of a major tournament.

“She may look like a kitty cat, but there’s a saber-toothed tiger in there.” –The late Jack Keller, WSOP Champion (In Continental Airlines’ Profiles Magazine, Profile of Wendeen Eolis)

Far away from the stresses of the unprecedented case of The United States vs. GAF, (or, Rudy vs. Jimmy, to me), the poker elite were gathering at Binion’s Horseshoe for the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. Looking to take a breather in the few days before the trial, I hopped on TWA flight 149 for Las Vegas.

My intention was to socialize, to be seen, and to play a little Pot-Limit Omaha, on the side. Three consecutive winning sessions later, I bought into a satellite qualifier for the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em main event. Lo and behold I won a seat.

The competition looked tough with the usual suspects parading to their assigned places. There were Texas road gamblers, West Coast commuters, New York undergrounders, a few poker allies from across the pond, and plenty of resident Las Vegas pros. We filled thirteen tables. I was one of five or six women with the guts to mix it up with the boys.

My strategy for day one was survival. It was my first major tournament since the double-barreled break-up, first, with Suds (who was thankfully not at my table), and then with Paul. I was excited about the opportunity to show that I could stand on my own. I planned on playing big pairs and Ace-King without blinking, but I was going to turn down respectable hole cards like Ace-Queen offsuit to a raise, except perhaps in late position. Throughout the first day I edged up continuously, by betting and raising before the flop only with premium starting hands. Catching the Ace-King of spades, I “doubled through” Seymour Leibowitz, the part-time Potamkin car dealer and tournament regular. I felt even better when Berry Johnston, the 1986 WSOP champion, whispered in my ear that he did me the honor of taking out Suds. As day two progressed, I exuded a quiet confidence.

We were down to five tables and my chip stacks had risen nicely, putting me in striking distance of “finishing in the money.” Still resisting the urge to loosen up my play, I continued to jitterbug pre-flop in early and middle positions with only the best starting hands- AA, KK, QQ, AK, and AQ suited- and relied on a few well-placed steals in late position to continue my drive. As the field got whittled down, I reminded myself that if I had a difficult decision about whether or not to call, I was going to fold.

There’s an old maxim in poker that says that any day pocket jacks hold up will be a blessedly good day. I was about to find out what the poker gods had in store for me. I picked up a pair of jacks, and a good ole Texan called my raise. The dealer flipped up 9-7-2 on the flop. The cowboy leaned back as he considered his move.

He asked, in a cocksure voice that made me tremble inside, “Honey, how much more money you got?”

“The dealer can count me down,” I told him.

“Alrighty then,” he replied. “Dealer, count her down.” I stacked my chips neatly in front of me. The dealer let the table know I had him covered. Undeterred, my swaggering opponent said, “Honey, I’m putting it all-in,” as he shoved his stacks toward the center of the table. “Trust me, it feels better in.”

Was he thinking that I was just some sugar daddy’s honey who had no business in this game? That last little lasso of innuendo sealed my opinion about what to do. My two jacks had to be good. He definitely wanted me to fold. That was the perfect reason for me to call, immediately! Forced to show me his hand before I had to show mine, he turned over pocket tens. My jacks won. I quietly pulled in all of his chips. The next guy who came to the table to take the good ole Texan’s seat gave me the eye. Seeing that I had just taken over as chip leader he said, “Honey, I guess we’re going to have to play a pot here today.”

The dealer piped up, “The last guy that called her ‘Honey’ isn’t here anymore.”

One-by-one more seasoned pros fell. The day was going to end when the field was reduced to a final table of ten. Assuming that I did nothing too stupid in the next couple of hours, I figured that I was a favorite to get there. I had just one nagging problem: I was supposed to catch the redeye to New York that night to make it back in time for the opening arguments at Jimmy’s trial the next day. I left the poker room at the dinner break and sprinted ahead of the crowd to the public phone bank near the entrance of Binion’s Horseshoe.

“Hi Jimmy, it’s Wendeen. You’re never going to believe this, but I’m still in the poker tournament, and I have a good shot of making the final table. No woman has ever made it that far in a major tournament before!”

Jimmy had encouraged me to make the trip. He was a well-known gamer himself (twice placing third behind Bobby Fischer in the U.S. Chess Championships), but I had never known him to put extracurricular activities ahead of professional obligations. So, I told him that I was thinking about abandoning my chips (leaving them on the table) and hitting the road.

I insisted, “I could be in court by morning,” This was a dangerous gambit since I had yet to sort out what I would say or do, if he called me down.

Jimmy told me he wouldn’t think of my leaving. He virtually ordered me to stay and play my best game. I was relieved and ecstatic.

Next I called Rudy to let him know how well I was doing.

“Wendeen, that’s wonderful!” he said. I told him that this meant I might not be in court for the opening day of the trial.

“Why that’s even more wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Good luck!”

“Thank you. I gotta go.” I was not amused. En route back to the poker room, a New York Daily News reporter caught up with me. I knew who he was,he’d been working on a story about poker players from New York. He showed plenty of interest in pros like Steven Zolotow, Stiltman, and Suds of course, as well as others like Howard Lederer, Eric Seidel, Mickey Appleman, and Dan Harrington. The reporter previously hadn’t paid me any mind, convinced by some of the Mayfair boys who had been beating up on me earlier in the month, that I was as good as chopped liver at their underground poker tables. But as day two rolled into night, I wasn’t just the only woman still alive, I was the only Mayfair player still in the hunt. Shortly before midnight we were down to the final nine players. I was one of them.

On the third and final day of the tournament, the poker room was overflowing with spectators. Women poured out of the bleachers to wish me good luck. My opponents included the likes of Brad Daugherty, a seasoned pro, two-time World Series Champion Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth, a very young “poker brat.” I crippled the twenty-four year-old rising star, an hour into the action, with an Ace-8 suited against his pair of nines.

Right before this hand, I had decided that it was time to adjust my ultra-tight strategy. Shifting gears effectively, however, is more easily said than done. It wasn’t until an Ace dropped on the last card that I was vindicated for my over-the-top, super-aggressive play. My winning pair of Aces put Phil on the brink of elimination.

With seven players remaining, I counted down my opponents’ chips. I was in third place. I realized that if I played my cards right, I could actually take down the championship. Phil bit the dust on the next hand. Down to six, I peeked at the corners of my hole cards and saw a pocket pair. I had two imposing black kings. I was in late position, and knew exactly what to do.

Brad Daugherty raised in front of me, I re-raised, and he called. Three innocent little cards fell on the flop. I knew that Brad was thinking I was a scaredy-cat he could move off almost any hand. No sooner than he bet, I pushed every last one of my chips into the center of the table and announced, “I’m all-in.”

He called.

Ah, ha! Brad showed Ace-Jack. I was way ahead … until an ace appeared on the turn and a jack added insult to injury on the river.

I finished in 6th place and took down almost $20,000 for my three days of work. The women in the bleachers gave me a standing ovation as I got up from the table.

“Another historic finish for Ms. Wendeen Eolis, ladies and gentleman,” tournament director Jack McClelland said over the public address system. I took a moment to soak up the applause, unabashedly euphoric about having yet again smashed through the gender barrier in poker. But the joy was short-lived, as I knew I couldn’t hang around to watch the tournament’s conclusion from the rail. I was shifting gears once again- this time to contemplate the higher stakes poker game that was being played out in the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

As I left the card room, I heard a frantic voice behind me.

“Ms. Eolis, Ms. Eolis!” It was the previously dismissive reporter from the New York Daily News. “How does it feel being the first woman to make it to the final table?”

“Very nice, thank you” I said, stepping lively. I looked back and flashed him a smile and a wave. “Sorry, I have to catch a flight. Good luck with your story.”

Wendeen H. Eolis was one of the six women selected for WPT Ladies Night 11 in 2004, has seven recordsetting performances for a woman in major tournaments to her credit, and is a member of the Professional Poker Tour. By day she is CEO of EOLIS International Group, Ltd, which reviews lawyers and law firms for companies, partnerships and governments worldwide.