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Queen of hearts: Women are chipping into the poker craze

Karen Goncalves of Abington calls the poker explosion among women “fabulous” and says she used to be “the only girl at the poker table.” Photo by Debee Tlumacki

Throwing down chip after chip over the course of two days and beating out 204 entrants was a cinch for Karen Goncalves, 35, of Abington.

She walked away with $32,018 at the first World Poker Tour Ladies No-Limit Hold ‘Em Championship at Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Conn., recently, after beating out pro Kathy Liebert.

“I was so short-stacked that I shouldn’t have even come in 10th-place, never mind winning it,” said Goncalves, referring to the low amount of chips she had.

In a game predominately played by men, an increasing number of women are ponying up to the tables with aces up their sleeves.

Kat Kowal, director of casino and player relations for the WPT and a South Boston native, said that about 10 percent of poker players on the professional circuit are women.

“There’s a general trend in poker rooms around the country,” Kowal said. “They’re really trying to make it a friendly environment for women.”

The Foxwoods tournament was one leg on the first ladies tour the WPT is sponsored. The tournament it kicked off in January at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J. Goncalves’ win earned her a seat at the championship tournament at the Bellagio in Las Vegas that was held April 13-14.

Calling that tournament the quickest one she’s ever been in, Goncalves was knocked out in two hours.

“I didn’t do well at all, but it was an absolutely unbelievable experience,” said Goncalves, who is a staff accountant for Sentient Flight Group in Weymouth.

Like many women, Goncalves took up poker when she was young. She said she remembers sitting on her father’s lap as a youngster to watch him play.

“Ever since then I’ve always played,” Goncalves said. “In junior high I started playing nickel-and-dime games with boys.”

Goncalves calls the poker explosion among women “fabulous.”

“For the longest time I was usually the only girl at the poker table,” she said.

Although she has played in tournaments before, Goncalves said that she likes to play smaller venues.

“I play in home games, little weekend games. I think the biggest buy-in I did was a $100, and this one was $600,” said Goncalves, referring to the entry fees for the tournaments.

Goncalves said she’s not intimidated by the men and said she feels more anxious playing against women.

“I’ve always played with guys,” Goncalves said. “The guys - they get their ego in the way, you can catch them. With a girl, you can’t put a read on them.”

The WPT’s Kowal said women do make it to the final tables in mixed tournaments.

“They have been very successful on our tour,” Kowal said, adding the reason women were not as abundant at poker tables in the past was often due to their hesitance to play against men.

“I think in general, the intimidation factor influenced women,” Kowal said.

However, she said that this phenomenon also goes the other way.

“Men will often say women are harder to play - their intuitions are a little more tweaked and fine tuned,” said Kowal.

Kowal said women poker players is tend to be very cautious and play smarter than men.

“Women in general will hold on to their chips a little longer when at the table,” Kowal said.

Playing in a different tournament than Gonsalves during the recent Foxwoods’ Poker Classic was 59-year-old Susan Mosser of North Reading. Mosser played the $600 limit Texas hold ‘em and took home $22,500 on March 27.

Mosser said she grew up playing five-card stud poker with her family.

“My family is a very gambling-oriented family,” Mosser said. “My dad was a big poker player, as are my brothers.” Mosser said that she would frequently go to Las Vegas to play stud poker. On one occasion while in the casino, she was constantly looking over at the Texas hold ‘em table when an older man noticed her interest.

“He leaned back in his chair and said ‘Girly, you interested in this game?’” said Mosser.

The older gentleman taught a then mid-30ish Mosser the basics of hold ‘em and told her the name of a book she should read to brush up on the game, Mosser said.

“He was a really nice old guy,” Mosser said. “Every time I would go to Las Vegas I would meet him and have lunch or dinner, and then we’d go gambling together.”

Since then, Mosser has played in several major tournaments at Foxwoods, and other smaller poker competitions. She said that the most she has ever won at a tournament was $36,000.

And, like Goncalves, she likes playing against men.

“I feel more at ease with men,” Mosser said. “I’ve been playing with men for a long, long time.”

The rise of women playing poker in casinos is becoming more apparent, said Mosser.

“There are a lot more coming up in the world.”

Mosser said that because of the increased popularity of online poker, women are able to easily learn the game.

“They can learn at home with their husbands or their boyfriends,” Mosser said. “You could really learn a lot when you’re sitting with someone else who’s trying to teach you.”

After her win at Foxwoods, Goncalves is now considered a professional player and is ranked 54th in the world. Though her first big Vegas tournament was a bust, she’s happy to have gone.

“It was a dream come true.”

By ERIN OLIVERI