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In the tiny group of gamblers who have become top players at both blackjack and poker, there is only one woman. In her own words, Cat Hulbert describes how she got rich beating male opponents – and the casinos – and explains why in her view women are innately better at poker than men.
For 40 years, a well-known gambling author would, for fun, make bets at the poker table about whether the cocktail waitress would be able to answer commonplace questions. Questions like: Who is the vice-president? Or, what is the longest river in the US?
One day, this guru – who smelled like blue cheese – turned to where I was sitting, next to the dealer, and placed a bet about whether I would know who said: I think therefore I am. When I answered correctly – I have a degree in philosophy – he said, Youre the smartest woman Ive ever met.
This is the sort of nonsense I had to put up with throughout my whole career.
That a brilliant mathematician and poker author was so afraid of women that he felt compelled to denigrate them didnt surprise me. A friend told me he even kept a copy of How to Pick Up Women on his nightstand, with sections highlighted in different colour codes.
But though we strive for equality, chauvinism is a very good thing for female players. It makes us a lot of money.
To win at cards, each woman has to use whatever shes got.
If youre beautiful, men are going to be distracted with thoughts of how to get you into bed – which will give you an advantage.
Other women act more child-like, appealing to mens paternalistic nature. They ask innocent questions, nod respectfully and then catalogue everything Daddykins wishes to reveal about the way he plays the game.
I have this arrogant coating to me. A frosting. And the male opponent that sees no fear in a woman – that drives him crazy, his competitive desire to crush her is so high.
When I played poker, I dressed expensively because men cant stand a woman with money. In fact, they often felt compelled to ask where I got my money from, and I would try to make them feel uncomfortable by saying, Well, a trust fund – doesnt everybody have a trust fund?
One time, I had a $500 poker chip thrown at me as I sat down at the table – money to go away because one of the assembled men didnt play with girls. I sent it back with my own message: And I dont play with assholes – but I dont have a choice either.
Not all male players are like this. Im just talking about the ones who smirk instead of smile, who see your very presence at the poker table as an affront that they have deal with. Im talking about men who dont just want to beat you, they want to humiliate you.
With these players, I found I only needed to play straightforwardly to have them throw money at me. They would try to intimidate me by raising and raising. They raised me to the moon and all I had to do was call the bet, show down the hand and take their money.
If I was feeling particularly cruel, Id stack their chips with extravagant slowness, prolonging their agony.
Over the course of a game, I was able to turn my opponents insecurities into rage. The more they lost emotional control, the worse they played.
Even men who were not involved in a hand rooted against me and would openly cheer when I lost. I played against one Iranian man who would lean over and punch me every time I won his chips. He made it look like it was done in jest, but day after day I was going home with a black-and-blue on my arm.
Then one day something boiled up inside and I grabbed a water bottle and swung like Mickey Mantle on the side of his neck, knocking him right out of his chair.
So you could say that I dont mind confrontation.
We had no money whenI was growing up, but I never knew that because of the sacrifices my mother made.
She once told me that the most hurtful thing I ever said to her was, Wheres my college fund?
My mother was a nurse, my father a truck driver, and there were five other children apart from me in an overcrowded house.
I warred constantly with my mother, and at 15, I left home. I rented a room, and took a job working at a soap factory every day after school. This was in a podunk town in upstate New York: 200 people and only one channel on television.
I funded myself through university. There I was – an atheist who liked to spew Ayn Rand at any given opportunity studying morals and metaphysics in a Catholic college. I told you I was confrontational.
After graduating, I got a job working for the Senate minority leader in New York State. Because they knew that I had an obsessive interest in games of all sorts, they gave me a research job investigating whether they should legalise gambling.
I supported legalisation. In fact, I had always wanted to be a professional gambler, but I decided to go to Las Vegas to see what it was really like – to check whether it was good for the public. So I went for a holiday, to blackjack dealers school.
I had no intention of becoming a blackjack dealer, but I immediately knew the casino was where I belonged. So right after the course I quit my job, packed everything I owned into my Honda Civic, and headed out west through the biggest snowstorm Ohio had ever recorded. It was 1977 and I was 25.
I told the guy who hired me for the Plaza that I wanted to deal blackjack. He said: Lets see how the college graduate likes the Big Six.
You could say he had a chip on his shoulder about my education. The Big Six was a vertical wheel with numbers and spokes – you spin it, it goes click click click click click click click and lands on $20, $1, or whatever. Frankly, you could train a chimp to spin that money-gobbling wheel.
I was so displeased that I learned how to spin the wheel so it made a bunch of revolutions before landing on the highest payout, 40-1.
The casino is supposed to have about a 35% edge on Big Six – but not the way I spun it. The casino management – who are always very superstitious – decided I was an unlucky Big Six spinner and put me on the blackjack tables.
Before long I noticed that a few players seemed to frequently get a blackjack – two cards with a face value of 21 – after placing large bets. I began to wonder if they had a system and slowed my dealing down to try and help them – a kindness I later found was the opposite of helpful.
Then one day I just came right out and asked one of the players across the table what his system was.
Shh! he said. Come for coffee later and Ill tell you. But say nothing more about it here.
There is a subset of peoplewho are kind of removed from life because our brains focus so much on one area of thinking. We are misfits who cluster together because we understand one another, and we gravitate to the world of gambling and games in order to feel part of a community.
We are so very odd. I went out with a guy who could play 12 games of chess blindfolded, but he could not pump gas. When the service stations turned over to self-serve he had panic attacks. I knew another, one of the worlds greatest card counters, who thought Mozart was a baseball player.
The smartest people I have known in my life were blackjack players. IQs over 150. Some of them quit the game after a while because they were able to make a lot more money on Wall Street.
Others died. They died from drugs or depression or not taking care of themselves.
The man who Id spoken to across the table – I will call him Peter – was one such mathematical genius. He wore his trousers up high around his waist, so you could see his socks. Ive always found these arrogant, emotionally stunted people irresistible and he and I began a relationship.
Peter had a card-counting team which came to be known as the Czechoslovakians, because of the nationality of most of the members.
He thought it would be a great idea to teach a woman to count cards, because no casino would suspect a female of doing such a thing.
Cat Hulbert appeared onThe Conversation, on the BBC World Service
Every week on The Conversation women talk about the passions that shaped their lives
In blackjack, you play against the dealer. Adding up the face value of your cards, you try to come as close to the number 21 as you can without going over. You play your hand before the dealer plays his or hers, which gives the house a slight advantage.
But if you have an idea where the 10s, face cards and aces might remain in the deck you gain a slight advantage over the house. To count cards is to use a memory system that gives you a more precise idea of your chances of being dealt these cards at any given moment in a game.
Its not as hard as you might think. Card counting takes more guts than brains (though brains do help).
My first job for the team was seat-occupier – in other words, bimbo – sitting next to the famous card counter Ken Uston. That man was so egotistical, Im surprised he thought I was good-looking enough.
It was 1978, the year Atlantic City opened for gambling. New Jerseys state legislature had developed the citys rules for blackjack, but unfortunately they didnt employ a maths mind to look them over, and so allowed a technical rule that gave card counters even more of an edge.
Consequently, every counter in the world swarmed to the famous boardwalk. When the doors of the new casino, Resorts International, opened at 08:00 in the morning, there was a stampede for seats.
By putting me in the seat next to him, Uston was able to place bets on my cards and double his earnings. Naturally, as a woman I was not trusted to place bets myself – though the great man did have to ask me what the count was quite a few times after he lost track.
I was paid by the hour, but I invested $2,000 of savings in the teams bankroll, and after two weeks I had $10,000.
We played as a team so that we could pool our funds to place higher bets, and so the natural losses that players suffer along with wins – what gamblers call fluctuation – was evened out into a steady, marginal gain.
If people really knew about fluctuation before they decided to become players they would give up on the idea. Its possible to play correctly and lose for a grotesque amount of time. It might sound strange, but part of what makes a professional gambler is an ability to lose and lose and lose without going bonkers.
Being a professional gambler sounds so James-Bond-glamorous but it isnt. Sure, I travelled the world with Peter and his team of counters, but on economy. I played in swanky European casinos, but spent much of my time, with several other gamblers, in the back of a VW camper van that was constantly leaking oil.
Many times, I sat at a table and won $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, but that was my teams money, not mine. I was still going to eat in McDonalds, then going back to the camper van or some grotty youth hostel. Then on to the next casino, no time for sightseeing.
In blackjack the gains are so marginal that its only worth doing if you re-invest all your money instead of spending it.
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To begin with, in Atlantic City, we were all just openly counting cards, placing minimal bets, and then raising the stakes when the deck became more favourable.
But after casinos started to bar us, we adopted guerrilla techniques. For example, there was the so-called Big Player routine. My job was to play discreetly, placing low bets. But at the right moment, I would tap my earlobe and the Big Player would come in, all flamboyant and talkative with an outrageous girlfriend on his arm. He would act drunk and place high bets.
I would continue to place low bets, but the way I stacked my chips signalled to the Big Player how much he should bet.
Card counting is not illegal and its not cheating. Were not peeking at the dealers cards, were just using our brains. But casinos thought any money you took out their doors was cheating. So they got together and contracted the Griffin detective agency to create a book of photos of undesirable people, to be escorted off their property as soon as they were spotted.
I used to joke that I was the Griffin Book centrefold, but a few years ago I saw a copy of the photo they had of me, and realised I was wrong. I had been photographed in the Sahara Casino wearing a dress I had bought at Marshall Rousso – it was cinched at the waist and had gold braid – but in this shot I look more Baader-Meinhof gang than Playboy.
For this article, I asked a few friends what I looked like when I was 29. Let me quote from one email: Fantastic skin, tanned, stylish interesting hair, sometimes longish, other times pushed up. Always black, black as night with roguish curls and waves defying rules and regulations, but always under control.
Another friend wrote: A brunette beauty, she could have had her choice of men and had it made. But that wasnt her style. She made her own way. This friend goes on to allow that I may be a little fluffier now.
To be fair, I am often covered in cat hair. And some of my hair is now a violent shade of pink. But while you cant stop the process of ageing, its good for the soul to stay in touch with people who remember what you looked like at 29.
Actually, it turned outthat having a girl counting cards was not good camouflage after all. I stuck out like a sore thumb. For many years I was the only one – and women generally are looked at more closely than men.
There isnt a blackjack player I know who hasnt used a disguise, but I couldnt grow a beard or get false teeth like my male friends.
Casino management scrutinise games from an area called the pit. You knew you were in trouble when a casino pit boss came over and barked Break the shoe!
All the cards would then be removed from the shoe – the device from which the cards are dealt – and shuffled. Not only did this kill your count, it meant the jig was up and you were in danger of being back-roomed.
The back room is dismal – no windows, no clocks, just a steel bench with rings for handcuffs and an empty desk. The brawny head of security would begin an interrogation and your job was to act confused by their accusations.
If I was detained too long, I would ask them to call the police so they could charge me with an offence. They never did.
This happened to me at least 50 times. As horrible as the experience was, my main worry each time was whether my chips would be waiting for me after I left or whether the casino would confiscate them.
I can remember like yesterday the moment the pit boss at the Hilton in Las Vegas came to my table, threw out his long arm and yelled, Deal past that girl! Then two guards picked me up under my arms, dragged me over to the craps table and pressed my face against the felt, snarling, You want to play craps, little girl? How about using that stolen money to play some craps?!
Then they dragged me over to the roulette wheel and did the same thing, before shoving me out the front door on to the sidewalk.
I walked away shaken. Looking back, to check whether I was being followed, I saw the neon sign above the entrance: The Friendliest Casino in the World.
I flew to New York City and paid a theatre company to teach me how to carry myself like a man. I bought a professional disguise of moustache and beard. Then I flew back to Las Vegas, re-entered the Hilton – and was picked out almost immediately.
Disappointed does not come close to describing my feelings at the time.
I became rich at blackjack- but this cat-and-mouse routine with the pit bosses, and all the travelling around, wore me out.
I moved on to the lowest and dirtiest form of gambling there is.
In Vegas they had banks of mechanical slot machines hooked up together, and when they got close to their pay-out it became worth investing. Because I got barred from doing that – yes, I actually got barred from playing slot machines – I recruited some geriatrics to do it for me.
This is the only time in my life I have been an employer. Let me tell you it was a damn pain having to deal with the Internal Revenue Service. My geriatrics were paid contractors but they were always messing up their tax returns.
The main attribute that someone had to have if they wanted to work for me was that they be over 70 years of age.
Ive always liked old folks. And I found that if you hired young people, and paid them $12 an hour to pull on a slot machine, they had a hard job parting with $23,000 when the machine hit the jackpot. But my team of geriatrics seemed happy to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle of professional players, pulling that handle as fast as they could.
Unfortunately they didnt pull it nearly as fast as I would have liked. And they got tired. Then Id have to do a shift swap, and they didnt move very quickly.
After a while I got fed up sorting out their tax affairs and packed it in. And now Im a Weeble like them, wobbling back and forth. In fact, my respect for these slow-moving people has risen immeasurably as Ive grown older and more like them.
It seems I inherited my mothers joint problems as well as her brains.
Ive always wished I was more like my father. He was a silent man who got Parkinsons very young, so he was bedridden for the last 20 years of his life. But he never complained – you could ask him how he was doing and he would say, Right! Just wonderful! Top of the day, I can still hear the birds singing!
But I was always more like my mother. And as she got older – I mean really, what a nightmare!
In 1964, I crawledinto a snow bank at the back of my house with the intention of freezing myself to death. I was 14 years old and my boyfriend had left me.
Was this anything other than attention-seeking histrionics? Probably not, but it signalled the start of a lifetime of see-sawing emotion. At 18, I made the mistake of answering truthfully when someone asked if I ever thought of harming myself. I was put in a mental hospital on 72-hour suicide watch.
There have been times in my life when I have had a lot of fun, but made poor life decisions and alienated people. At other times, I have been so depressed I have been in physical pain.
At the age of 40, in 1990, I discovered why I seemed to think so differently from other people when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Since then, Ive spent half a million dollars on therapy and Ive never come off the medication. Those pills are fun-blockers for sure – they take the edge off my personality and I have gone from needing four hours sleep to nine. On the plus side, they have saved my life.
Being bipolar is not ideal in my world. When you play cards you already have a seat on that pendulum between mania and depression. To switch metaphors, some of the time youre the puncher, other times youre the bag.
This is especially bad in poker, which I had started to play by the time I was seeing my psychiatrist.
In that game, youre constantly fighting to maintain composure. The more you lose, the less confidence you have, the bigger the target on your chest. Seriously, one large error will cause you to lose for a whole day.
Blackjack is entirely mathematical – every hand has a particular way it should be played. Sometimes the cards arent in your favour and you lose, but you at least know for sure that you didnt make any errors.
You dont have this in poker. Theres a lot more judgement, and more opportunity for self-blame.
At least, that was my experience. In fact, too many poker players blame everyone else for their errors – the woman at the table, the tourist, the dealer. You would not believe the amount of abuse dealers are subjected to, and its often racist.
That was something else I struggled with. I was used to working with people of the highest integrity, like Peter and the Czechoslovakians – I travelled with them as a team and trusted them completely. But when I started to play seven-card stud poker, I found myself in a fishbowl of piranhas feeding off one another, borrowing money and stiffing debts.
I had to deal with constant crudities at the table, an endless flow of inane misogynistic remarks. I would get drawn into fights too easily, forgetting that I wasnt at the table to change the world, but just take peoples money.
Despite all this, for us game-oriented people, few things in life are more absorbing or exciting than poker. Every hand I was dealt had the allure of an unopened present. Even in the dull periods when I didnt have a playable hand, I would watch other peoples choices and behaviour and play along mentally, figuring out their puzzles for myself.
Blackjack had given me a big bankroll and a big ego. The first three years I played poker I lost and I lost and I kept losing.
Then I met David Heyden, who was regarded as the worlds greatest seven-card stud player. Actually, I stood up at the end of a talk that he was giving and, in front of everyone, asked him out on a date.
Besides becoming the great love of my life, he taught me how to play.
I went back to basics, and steadily built up my skills and my betting limits, until I was really very good. In 1996, Card Player magazine included me in their list of the worlds top seven-card stud players.
David steered me towards a calmer and more regimented lifestyle. I played for five days a week, then had a weekend like a normal person. I did not drink the night before playing, and in the morning I did not take calls or make plans to see friends. I just focused my mind with mental exercises and took careful stock of my mood.
I would arrive at the casino at noon and, if I was losing, leave no later than 8pm.
Having to go home and walk my dogs saved me from a lot of bad situations. Its very hard to get up from the poker table when youre losing because all the while you sit there your emotions are in the deep freeze. You tell yourself that by playing on you might break even, but really youre just putting off the inevitable.
I cannot describe how excruciating it is to walk out the door of a casino into the bright desert sunlight after you have been up all night losing.
I wore the most outrageous outfits. They were costumes really, and I actually did have a different one for every day of the year.
I had a baseball-themed one, a cowgirl one, a biker chick one. Id be Cruella de Vil one day, the Queen of Hearts the next. The bags and shoes and jewellery all had to match. In fact, if anyone really wanted to mess with my mind at the poker table, all they had do was wear mismatched clothes.
Playing poker is like taking a drug that makes everything fascinating, especially when you start to observe the profound differences between the male and female brain.
As a feminist I blush to admit it, but for most of my life I have preferred the company of men. Im talking about the good men – you know, those super-clever ones with the miswired brains and the trousers pulled up so you can see their socks.
But after I started giving poker classes to women, I began to enjoy the splendours of female companionship.
I do believe we are innately better players than men. We are more reflective and intuitive, and seem to have more guises at our disposal.
Maybe its because weve always grown up to think, Oh whats my boyfriend thinking? Why isnt he calling? Men dont think that way.
On the downside, women are more compassionate, and there is no room for that at the poker table. We also lack brute strength, which may be one reason I have been robbed numerous times, including once at gunpoint behind the Peppermill in Vegas.
I taught the game to more than 200 women, and I went on to write a book, Outplaying the Boys. When my copies came in the mail and I saw them for the first time, it was the greatest feeling, far above any winning session I had experienced.
For 30 years, I had pleaded with my mother to feel proud of me. She was in the hospital, close to death, when she asked somebody to go up to Barnes and Noble to get a copy of my book. She wanted to show it to the nurses.
A card gameis a coming together of luck, brains and temperament, and to really enjoy the complexity and nuance of poker you must play face-to-face.
But I also found that with the arrival of online poker in the late 1990s, it was very enjoyable to play cards in my pyjamas, smoke cigarettes until my lungs oozed tar and take my finger off the curse-control button. Suddenly I didnt have to put up with lowlife company for eight hours at a time, and if I became short-stacked – that is, found myself on a losing streak – none of my opponents was any the wiser.
It was also a huge adrenaline rush. I would play for 16 hours straight, multiple games at the same time, 300 hands an hour, up to $600 a hand. The routine I had established for playing in casinos, with David Heydens help, didnt apply in my own home.
Friends would call me on the phone. When I stopped picking up, they came to the front door and I sent them away. One time I missed Thanksgiving dinner because I was playing – and I was the one who was supposed to take the turkey.
It became clear to everyone except me that I was going to lose all my money, my friends, and my self-respect.
What is the difference between passion and addiction, really?
All through my career, after games, I would replay the hands in my head and I could remember every single card. That made me a better player. Was it an addiction?
The fact that I had previously won more than I lost, did that mean I wasnt addicted?
If these were the questions online poker was leading me to ask, I was starting to feel differently about the casino game too.
When you sit down at the poker table the first thing you do is assess each opponents weakness. But this is not good for the soul, to be always evaluating people in a how-can-I-hurt-them-if-they-hurt-me-first way.
After more than 20 years of playing poker, I realised my nerves were becoming frayed, my temperament was turning sour and facing the public each day had made my brain ill with contempt. I had become a people-hater.
I think back to the 1970s, when I went to Las Vegas to investigate gambling. If the state of New York were to ask me now whether they should build casinos, I wouldnt hesitate to tell them No.
Only 5% of players have the ability to win at poker, and Ive seen many, many lives ruined. Watching the destruction of a good man or woman by gambling addiction is just heart-sickening.
How have I made the world a better place, playing cards? It is a takers profession. People say: If I dont take that persons money somebody else will. Well, thats the same with pulling the handle on the electric chair. The point is, do you want to be the one that does it?
My last proper poker session was a month-long stint at The Borgata in Atlantic City in 2010. The first day I lost $22,000 but I didnt lose a wink of sleep because I knew it was going to be easy, if the cards held up, to win my money back. The East Coast tourist players were wealthy and their skill level was god-awful.
But my luck only worsened. Every day the hole got deeper, and my wires for money became more frequent.
I lost heart that month. In the final analysis, its a game of stamina, and I realised I just couldnt take losing one more hand that was 90% certain to win. The fluctuation had finally got to me.
This is very hard to talk about or even acknowledge. I wish I had retired at the top, with my self-confidence intact, but I didnt. I retired beaten-down like a prisoner.
Unlike thousands of AmericansI did not lose my home, my self-respect, or my family to my addiction. The reason I am not flat-broke is the same as the reason Im not rich – I was never willing to risk everything.
I live in a nice house with lots of unique art objects. I swim, watch Yankees baseball and Netflix, read, write and care for my animal buddies. My best days are when I have no interaction with the human species whatsoever. If it turns out that I havent lived a worthy enough life to get into human heaven, thats fine with me, Ill ask St Peter if he can send me to animal heaven instead.
I have no clue – truly I dont – why any woman would choose to have a child rather than adopt an animal. I have never regretted that decision, not even on Mothers Day.
But I accepted two marriage proposals because I was so damn flattered to be asked. The first time it lasted nine months the second only two weeks.
The nine-month marriage came soon after David Heyden and I broke up. The sex was good, but he was as dull as a doorknob.
I knew my second husband less than a month before accepting his romantic proposal at the Redcoats Return Inn in the Catskill Mountains on Christmas Eve. I suggested we set a wedding date for the next Friday the 13th, whenever that might be. Inappropriately enough, it turned out to be February 13th, the day before Valentines Day.
My friends proposed faking a kidnapping. I should