Cashing In

Realizing that parenting resembles playing poker.

While newly pregnant with my first child, I moved to Las Vegas to pursue a career as a professional poker player. Then my brother Howard asked me a startling question. “Is your pregnancy going to affect your play? I don’t want all those mothering hormones to make you want to ‘mother’ everyone else’s chips.”

Panic set in. I wasn’t sure how to answer him.

My big brother Howard is not merely one of the best poker players in the world; he is also my idol, and I find myself wanting to please him as much as I want to please my parents. Howard started playing poker a good ten years before I did. There is no way I would have ever become a poker player myself without his encouragement and nurturing. So, when Howard asked that question, I had this horrible feeling that I let him down. He had invested a tremendous amount of time in me while teaching me to be a good player and be profitable in a tough game. And now, I was going to let him down because, clearly, a mother could not be a good poker player. At least that’s what my panic-stricken mind interpreted his question to mean.

The fact is that I was ambivalent about having children in the first place. I was obsessed with poker at the time, new to the game and hungry for experience and knowledge. I wasn’t ready for children; I was still establishing my career. And a poker player for a mother? It seemed so bizarre. I think I was already thinking what my brother asked. Would it be possible to maintain the killer instinct, the all-consuming drive it takes to be great at any career— including poker— with kids in the mix? Isn’t this a question that all women grapple with?

I worried about my career versus caring for my child over the next seven months. During labor, I had panic attacks with each contraction, feeling the weight of the responsibility I was about to incur— the weight of the commitment to this child who was about to come into the world. I worried about whether I would be a good mother, whether I could still be a good poker player and whether my brother would be let down.

After my daughter Maud was born, I took time off— a kind of maternity leave in a job where I had no boss, no schedule, nothing to take leave from really. I nursed her, cuddled her, loved her and found myself in no hurry to get back to the tables.

But when Maud was a couple of months old in April, the World Series of Poker started, and I took my first reluctant plunge into poker playing as a new mother. My brother’s mocking fears and the fears inside my head were about to be put to the test.

Terrified to discover how poker and parenting would mix, I entered the world’s largest poker tournaments that month. Why take a small test when you can fail much more spectacularly?

My ex-husband would bring Maud down to me on breaks from the tournaments I played, allowing me to nurse her once every two hours. After nursing, I would return to poker play until the next break, when it was time to nurse again. In that sense, I already knew that poker and motherhood were not going to mix well. As I sat in Binion’s coffee shop nursing my 2-month-old baby, I could feel the disgusted glares of the old-time gamblers who, without a doubt, thought this world was no place for me. I was a new mother, nursing my baby with no shame for the process— no matter what stigmas were attached. It was my passion and I didn’t care what any of the other players thought— except for my brother.

Amazingly, the first four World Series tournaments I played, I cashed in, making two final tables on the way. I actually set a record that year for most consecutive cashes in tournaments. That answered Howard’s question with an exclamation point on whether or not being a mother was going to have a negative impact on my poker playing abilities. It turned out I was playing great poker, focused poker, patient poker, and having wonderful results.

Howard’s question was certainly tongue in cheek, but I had taken it seriously because he was fanning the flames of my deepest fears. These were fears I did not dare express to anyone because they sounded so old-fashioned. I exited that year’s World Series of Poker with a feeling of confidence. A feeling that the balance every woman strives to find could be found, even in a career choice as eccentric as poker. I knew I could succeed at both playing poker and being a mother. I had managed to excel in the tournaments and balance my mothering, enabling my baby to stay exclusively on breast milk. I considered that a huge accomplishment. And for the first time since before I had her, I felt the panic slide away.

That was in 1994. By the end of the decade, I was the winning-est female in the history of the World Series of Poker. I also welcomed my son Leo to the family in 1998. In 2000, I took tenth place in the WSOP’s main $10,000 buy-in event, while nine months pregnant with my third child Lucy, who arrived two weeks after my big finish. My fourth child Nelly arrived in 2002, and I played through my pregnancy with her as well.

What I discovered over the years was that poker and parenting are not like oil and water; they are complementary activities. Poker is a game that requires extreme patience, as is parenting— especially parenting four children. In order to be successful at the game, you must be willing to wait, to allow bad events to just wash over you and slide off your back. You have to learn that you have control over certain things, such as whether you have the best hand when all the money goes in the pot, and you have no control over other things, like someone hitting a hand when that person only has two cards in the whole deck that beat you. You quickly learn not to sweat the stuff you have no control over. If you do sweat the small stuff, you will often be upset and stressed about things in which you cannot change the outcome. You will be a losing player.

Sound similar to parenting? It should, because poker playing is. That kind of extreme patience, that kind of understanding that there are things as parents we can control and things that are completely out of our control, has informed my parenting in the most positive way.

So, to answer my brother’s question, “No, Howard. Being a parent is not going to hurt my killer instinct at the tables.”

And to answer my own doubts and fears, I have learned that being a poker player— or choosing whatever career path a woman desires— doesn’t negatively impact an ability to be a good parent. Your career will only support your parenting in the most positive way. I am glad to finally have those questions answered.