first ladies of poker
They're not interested in Vegas glitz,
just the glory
by CHUCK HOWITT
WATERLOO (Jul 23, 2005)
Jan Fisher has a tried and true way of telling when someone
has been playing poker too long.
"We call it the sniff test," she says, to loud laughs
from the audience at a Waterloo luncheon yesterday.
When a person's body odour gets so bad, you know it's time
they threw in their cards, she says.
Fisher's own personal record is 24 consecutive hours, but she
hasn't done that in 20 years.
Linda Johnson once played for 32 hours straight, and used to
regularly play for 12 hours at a time when she started out in
California because the betting limit was so low, it took that
long to earn decent money.
The Las Vegas-based pair don't have to log long hours at the
gaming tables anymore because they're two of the most talented
and successful poker players on the planet.
They're also very shrewd business people who are being credited
as the marketing geniuses behind the exponential growth of the
world's largest online poker site -- partypoker.com.
You'd never know that Johnson or Fisher are champion pokers
players by looking at them. They are the antithesis of glitz
and Vegas glamour. Dressed modestly in blouses and slacks, they
look like your average next-door neighbour who would sit down
for a game of hearts.
Johnson's jacks to jackpots story started in Gardena, Calif.,
when she was 21 and working at the post office.
She went to Vegas for a holiday and played some blackjack.
She liked it. When she came home, her dad told her to switch
to poker because it required more skill.
She started reading books and taught herself the game. She
played friends at work and pretty soon they didn't want to play
Nine years later in 1980, she was still at the post office.
She entered a World Series of Poker event in Vegas, telling
herself if she finished at least third she would quit her job
and become a full-time player.
She finished fifth, but quit anyway and moved to Vegas. Since
then, she's "never looked back." She played for 12
years competitively and then went into the management side of
Now known as the "first lady of poker," she still
plays three times a week when she's not travelling in order
to stay sharp. In 1997, she became only the second woman in
history to win a World Series of Poker open event.
Johnson says any successful poker player must be:
A mathematician to calculate card combinations and odds.
A psychologist to read opponents.
Of even temperament and patient.
Aggressive and know when to bet big when the time comes.
Fisher says the game has changed "exponentially"
since she started playing in the 1970s.
At that time, smoking, bad behaviour -- a player once urinated
on a dealer under the table -- and "big house cuts"
Big house cuts meant the casino took a healthy share of the
pot. At one time, the drop slot was in the middle of the table
slanted toward the dealer. When he or she pulled in the cards,
some chips would fall into the slot, Fisher said to chuckles
from the crowd.
In the old days, when asked what she did for a living, Johnson
said "mathematician or statistician." Fisher called
herself a "croupier" in Vegas. The foreign language
made it sound better.
Now "it's an honourable industry," Fisher says. "It's
finally earned the respect it deserves."
They attribute the current poker boom to three things.
Two years ago a Tennessee accountant named appropriately, Chris
Moneymaker, turned a $40 Internet entry fee into a $2.5-million
victory at the Word Series of Poker.
Secondly, TV poker has taken off with the popularity of such
shows as the World Poker Tour, on which Johnson and Fisher are
announcers. The show's popularity has been helped by the "lipstick
cam," a tiny camera in the table that shows the players'
Lastly, online poker has become hugely popular. A few years
ago, there were 30 games on the Internet. Now there are 300,
When asked how long the poker boom can last, both are optimistic.
Years ago the average age of a player was "deceased,"
Johnson quips. Now it's 20 to 22.
The pair acknowledged that compulsive gambling is a problem
that can't be ignored.
It's a lot like alcohol and drugs, Johnson says, noting that
there are more "compulsive bingo players" than poker
But she said the industry has programs to treat gambling addicts.
Indeed, the partypoker.com website has a section on responsible
They were brought to Waterloo by entrepreneur and poker-playing
enthusiast Tim Jackson to speak to Communitech, a group of business
people from the local tech industry. Later they participated
in a private poker tournament at a Waterloo restaurant.