Rosaria Pipitone reached across the green velvet tabletop, scooped a rainbow pile of poker chips into her stack, and waved goodbye to yet another victim. He had bet everything he had left to try to scare her off, but Pipitone knew better than to back down from such an obvious ploy.

The right cards can always beat a bad bluff in poker, she thought to herself.

Now all of his chips belonged to her, and he removed his sunglasses as he got up slowly from the table to join the spectators. He would have to be satisfied with a third place finish.

At last, two players remained in a No-Limit Texas Hold’em poker tournament that had lasted nearly five hours; the sun was about to rise outside the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Pipitone was not thinking about the time. This 21-year-old red-haired, wide-eyed Staten Island girl had outlasted everyone else to find herself head to head with the only player left – a middle-aged Spanish man, wearing a black polo shirt and a baseball cap, who was older and much more experienced at the game of poker than she was.

“He was really good,” says Pipitone, now 24. “He knew how to bluff. He taught me a couple of things. You know, you’re at the table and you start talking as you play. He became my friend in the tournament, but I don’t even think I asked him his name.”

Even in a game where everyone plays to win and every man looks out for himself, Pipitone and the Spaniard had built up a fragile rapport over the course of the night. As more players were gradually eliminated and the tournament numbers shrank, she and the Spaniard remained steady at their table. Now, they found themselves staring across at each other, and only one could walk away with the money. Her temporary friend had instantly become her greatest threat.

* * *

By now, most people are at least casually familiar with poker in general and Texas Hold’em in particular. The World Series of Poker is a major televised event on ESPN, online poker is gaining new virtual gamblers every day and it seems that almost everyone either plays in their basement or knows someone who hosts a weekly game. But for the uninitiated, a brief rundown of the rules:

Each player, whether at a table of eight buddies or a tournament of 300 pros, gets dealt two cards face down. Then there is a round of betting. The next three cards are community cards, common to all the players’ hands, and they are placed face up in the middle of the table. This is called the Flop.

After the Flop, there is another round of betting. The fourth card, called Fourth Street or the Turn, is also a community card dealt face up in the middle. Another round of betting follows. The fifth card, called the River, is the final face up community card. The final round of betting comes after the river is dealt. Players must make their best possible five-card hands out of the two in their hand, and the five on the table.

When she went to Vegas, Pipitone knew the rules but lacked significant tournament experience. She had read poker legend Doyle Brunson’s Super System (“It’s the best poker book, hands down.”) and every other poker book and magazine she could get her hands on.

“Her room is a shrine to poker,” says Pipitone’s roommate, Veronica Caruso, 26. The walls are painted as red as a heart or a diamond. Cascading along a wall are foot-long plaques of card suits – a heart, a club, a diamond and a spade. Inspirational poker quotes are displayed everywhere: “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour, then it’s probably you;” “Let the games begin.” Her rug is poker-themed. Playing cards are strewn everywhere. Even her drinking glasses in the cupboard are decorated with cards and jacks and queens and kings.

“She also has these pajamas,” Caruso adds, “with cards all over them that she wears every night and washes every day. They’re red, white and black, and they say ‘Lucky Lady’ on them. It’s insane. There are cards everywhere.”

Pipitone always played casual weekly games with friends and family, but it wasn’t until she reached high school that she began to take the game seriously, even playing as an underage girl in a handful of Atlantic City events.

She took her mother’s Borgata card and a fake ID to get into the casinos before she was 21, and played to learn the skills that she knew would help her later.

“I remember saving the $200 for my first Atlantic City tournament,” Pipitone says. “And I realized, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ Because it’s a learning experience. It’s like school: you have to practice a lot.”

The day before her first Atlantic City competition, Pipitone woke up at 7:00 a.m. and drove to the Borgata. She checked into a room by herself and made sure she was well-rested for her big debut the next day.

“No way you’re gonna go to your first poker tournament and win,” Pipitone acknowledges. “I would say the odds are a little bit worse than hitting the lotto. These people have been playing for years. They know what they’re doing. They can read my facial expressions and figure me out before I know it.”

Sure enough, she did not win her first tournament. Nor did she win any after that, although she continued to improve her play and work up enough confidence to climb the ranks each time she sat down at the tables. She would not have been able to collect any prize money with a fake ID anyway; so when she finally turned 21 in November 2003, Pipitone wanted to go to Las Vegas and play to win.

* * *

Pipitone flew to Las Vegas on January 2, 2004, with her best friend Estee Smoler. (They waited until the day after New Years, because the flight and hotel stay would be cheaper and they could save some cash for gambling.) The bright lights and glitzy glamour overwhelmed the girls at first, their initial rush of excitement mingling with the intimidation of a place that dwarfed the more humble New Jersey casinos they were used to.

As soon as they walked through the door of the Luxor, though, Pipitone found what she was there for; she grabbed a tournament schedule.

She entered a tournament at the Manderlay the next day, but only made it about halfway through before being ousted. Not discouraged, she entered another tournament the following night at the Luxor.

“Hold’em tournaments, that’s my game,” Pipitone says. “No-Limit Hold’em tournaments are my favorite. It involves math; it involves probability; it involves strategy; it involves reading your opponents. Anything with strategy, I like, and it’s big time on strategy.”

Pipitone has translated her love of strategic thinking into her schooling, studying Pre-Law at John Jay University in New York. Her future career, whether as a lawyer or a casino card dealer, will involve the same skills she has learned from years at the poker tables, she figures: knowing how and when to bluff, reading other people’s tells or nervous tics, and especially knowing when to fold.

“You ever see that movie Rounders?” Caruso asks. “She aspires to be like Matt Damon in Rounders – the law school student who plays poker to pay his way through school.”

But before she sat down to play that night at the Luxor, Pipitone did several things wrong. First, she knew playing at night was bad. Your concentration slips, and you generally can’t focus as well as during the day.

Worse, the girls went to a fancy French restaurant for dinner and drinks, where Pipitone had two espresso martinis before the tournament. “I was a little tipsy,” she remembers. “Never play when you’re drunk or tipsy – ever. My mistake. But when I was tipsy, I did have more patience and I got that little extra confidence. If you think too much about it, you get scared. You need to be a gambler when you’re in the tournament. A few drinks kind of puts me at ease.”

Legendary poker player Amarillo Slim says never to play with money you can’t afford to lose. Pipitone worked full-time as a hostess and waitress at Johnney’s Bar in Battery Park, to pay for her full course load each semester. She usually saved enough to prepare for any tournament or house game she played, or she would occasionally borrow money from her parents or charge to the credit card.

This time, though, she was “in a bit of a financial pickle,” and did not even tell her parents that she dropped over $100 to play in two Las Vegas poker tournaments. If she lost again, she would have barely enough to make it through the rest of her time in Vegas.

“Ro was so excited and acting overconfident going into the tournament,” Smoler says. “But I know she was nervous, because she only acts confident to cover up her nerves.”

* * *

Pipitone did have one very important advantage over her competitors at the Luxor: she was the only woman at the table.

“There are so many advantages to being the only woman,” says Clonie Gowen, former Miss Teen Oklahoma and one of the best female poker players in the world. “For one thing, I think that we’re more patient. Men are naturally more competitive and aggressive. Women can still be aggressive, but we’re less likely to let our egos get in the way.”

Gowen says that men tend to treat women one of three ways at the poker tables. Some just want to flirt and get the girl’s phone number. While they’re busy talking and trying to impress, they probably won’t be paying much attention to their cards.

“There was one guy that was flirting with Rosaria at the tournament,” Smoler says, “but I remember her face was so serious, it made me laugh out loud. She has a funny face when she plays poker. She looks like she’s reading something.”

Other men just want to escape their wives for the night. The last thing they want to see is another woman, so they will aggressively try to take your money and knock you off the table. This also means they won’t be very careful and you can take advantage of their mistakes.

“You get a lot of, ‘Wow, this girl can actually play,'” Pipitone says. “And guys will definitely pay to see my cards, and they’ll stay in a hand after they probably shouldn’t, just because I’m a girl. They’re so curious it eats them up.”

The third type of gambling man, according to Gowen, is “The Protector.” He feels like it is his job to protect the woman, and he will be honest with her about his cards and his betting. Men don’t show this kind of behavior when they play against other men, but they will try to be supportive of a seemingly defenseless woman.

Pipitone says that she often acts like she has never played before, asking men to explain the rules to her or tell her which hand will beat another. Before they know it, they’ve fallen into her trap and are being hustled right off the table.

“Rosaria’s a welcome addition to any table,” Caruso says, “because they’re not intimidated by her at first. They don’t focus on her until they realize, ‘Wait a minute, this girl’s got all the chips.'”

* * *

Pipitone started the tournament that night at the Luxor on a roll by winning her first ten hands in a row.

“The first ten hands went so fast,” she says. “When you go to the poker tournament and you get a momentum – it felt to me like 20 minutes. It was probably much longer. It sounds weird, but you don’t really have a sense of time when you’re at the poker table.

“And it was just like I set the tone for the table, and that’s where I got my confidence. When you play poker, you need that. It’s all in your mind. So I was in a state of mind where I was like, I’m gonna win this. I gave myself a good name at the table, and I put some fear in people. And then the showdown began.”

In a room full of poker tables, Pipitone quickly found herself at the center of a revolving door of cardsharps. She had taken control of her table, and when most of her competition had been eliminated, players from other dwindling tables were sent to her. Smoler soon went to bed upstairs, and Pipitone and The Spaniard vied for control throughout the night.

She realized that she was learning to read people when a young man joined their table midway through the night.

This guy can’t play, she thought. He swallows; he’s nervous.

For the first time that night, she knew that the sucker at the table definitely wasn’t her.

Pipitone also knew to change up her game as she went after reading Super System. Play it slow, then play fast. Play loose, then tighten up and bet only on the hands you know you can win. Keep them guessing.

“When you’re on a roll, and then you slow down, they’re curious,” she says. “Sometimes you have to fold a hand that you know you might want to play, because you gotta change up your strategy. You want people to get confused, wondering, ‘What does she have?’ Once people start guessing what you have, you’re gonna lose right away. My whole objective in a poker tournament is to keep them curious. If I can master that, I can win.”

She knew she would have to bluff to stay in the game when she went head-to-head with a young Surfer Dude midway through the tournament. Surfer Dude bet half his chips after the Flop showed Ace-Jack-Ace. Pipitone had nothing in her hand, but she could tell immediately from his reaction that he had a Jack. She placed her bet after him and went all-in, meaning that she bet everything she had -more chips than he could match. She hoped to make him think she had an Ace.

Sure enough, he folded. She had bought the pot.

“I knew it was an appropriate time for me to bluff,” Pipitone says, “because I was playing pretty tight. I was playing good hands. So people thought if I played, I was playing something good. I wanted to bluff them out to show them I could.”

* * *

Born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to Sicilian parents who had emigrated to New York just a few years earlier, Pipitone moved to Staten Island when she was still a toddler. After nearly 30 years living in the United States, her father Diego is still “completely clueless to the English language,” and her mother Concetta prefers to speak in her native Italian.

“I started kindergarten not speaking English,” she says. “It took me a few years to fully comprehend the language because I would go to Italy every summer after the school year was over and I would return confused when I came back to the States. But my mom says that from the day I was born, I was playing cards.”

Every year, Pipitone and her family would visit family in the little coastal town of Castellamare del Golfo, Sicily. It was an opportunity to play cards with the adults. The Pipitones would play Italian card games like scopa, briscola, cinque cento (similar to rummy) and briscola cinque (a five-player game comparable to poker).

Pipitone was a prodigy, quickly learning them all. But when she discovered poker, she also found that she had a preternatural knack for the specific combination of strategy and luck involved. More often than in any other card game, young Pipitone was able to beat her entire family again and again. She kept playing, and she kept getting better.

Her aunts and cousins would come to the table to see if she wanted to help them in the kitchen. Her grandfather beamed proudly each time she shooed them away to play another hand.

“If you don’t know Sicilians,” she says, “poker is in their blood. That’s one thing I’m proud of – not the mob stories, but I’m proud of the poker stories.”

* * *

Now that it was just the two of them, nearing the end of any gambler’s greatest endurance challenge, Pipitone and the Spaniard stared at each other across the table as the dealer dished out their cards. One to him, one to her. One to him, one to her. The Spaniard would have to bet first.

He bent only the corners of his cards, leaving them on the table as he darted a glance. Pipitone kept her eyes on him but did not expect to notice his reaction; he had one of the best poker faces she had ever seen.

A young man sidled up to Pipitone as she was about to look at her own cards. It was the third place winner, the same man she had eliminated just a little while ago. His sunglasses obscured his eyes while he studied the table.

Without saying a word, Pipitone slid her cards towards Shades. He took the hint. In one quick motion, he snuck a look and pushed them back into the middle of the table. No one else had seen, and he offered no reaction.

That’s a bad sign, Pipitone thought. Or, it could just as easily be a good one. Impossible to tell.

The Spaniard went all-in before the flop. Pipitone followed suit, without ever looking at the cards she had been dealt. Whether she won or lost, she knew that this would be the final hand. Every chip in the tournament was in the pot. At that point, there was no other choice anyway, so might as well make things interesting, she thought.

“I’m not looking!” Pipitone shouted with a theatrical flair.

Ten. Ten. Ten.

The cards flopped on the table one by one, and Pipitone’s fingers shook in anticipation. Her own two cards remained face down in front of her, sharing their secret with only the green velvet tabletop.

“When you are heads up with someone – which means that you’re down to the final two players at the table – it’s a flip of a coin,” Pipitone explains. “Whatever you have and whatever they have, you bet. And you never fold, because the pot odds are against you after that. And the blinds and antes are so high that you just have to go all-in, and go for it.”

The pot odds are determined by the amount of money in the pot compared to the amount of money a player must put in the pot to continue playing. If Pipitone had folded rather than match her opponent’s bet, she would have still had to put down an ante, the mandatory bet that everyone at the table is required to post before each hand. That would have been giving the Spaniard free money – and also would have meant that she would not have enough chips to continue playing. There was no other choice.

All-in.

* * *

Phil Hellmuth, Jr. is Pipitone’s favorite professional poker player. He has won nine championships at the World Series of Poker, and is considered one of the best all-around players in the game today. He categorizes all poker players into five different “animal types.”

According to Hellmuth, the mouse plays extremely conservatively, bets only on very strong hands and rarely bluffs. The lion plays tightly as well, but uses more imagination and style and knows when to bluff. The jackal is loose and unpredictable and plays like a maniac, and he will win big and lose big in equal measure. The elephant plays loose but doesn’t pay attention to bluffs and never folds when he is supposed to. And the eagle is a rare bird – one of the top 100 poker players in the world. Most players will never sit across from the eagle, but you will know when you do.

Pipitone considers herself a lion in the cardroom. She mixes up her play, has learned when to bluff and when to fold, and feels confident against most types of poker players. She met Hellmuth at the casino before she entered the tournament. Even though he was not playing in a tournament that would have been, to him, such small potoatoes, she felt flushed with excitement at the encounter and was energized when she laid her money down. But when she made it to the final hand at the Luxor, all bets were off.

All-in.

Ten. Ten. Ten.

Every chip was already in the pot. Since there would be no more bets, the Spaniard flipped his cards. Pocket Aces. The best possible starting hand. That gave him a full house, with three tens and two Aces.

Pipitone leaned back in her chair and reached for her cards. For some reason, she still had hope of a first place finish. The odds were strongly against that now, though.

She looked at her cards for the first time. 10-2. The Doyle Brunson hand. (Hall of Fame poker player Brunson had won two back-to-back World Series of Poker Main Event wins with the same hand, 10-2. It’s been called by his name ever since.)

Pipitone now had four of a kind. Her cards beat his full house.

The dealer laid down the Turn. Nothing. He laid down the River. Didn’t matter. Pipitone had won.

“All I saw was that 10…10…10.” She says. “That’s what I kept saying. I kept looking, and it was the best feeling ever. Not even to win the tournament, just to see that you got 10-2 and you won. That was so great.”

The Spaniard said, “If I’m going to lose, I’d rather lose to that. I’d certainly rather lose to that.”

Pipitone walked away with $2,300 in winnings, more than enough to pay for her next semester of college. She didn’t spend another cent of it in Vegas.

This story was written March 2007 for the NYU Journalism class “The Big Story.”

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