Interview with Suzie Isaacs
By Dana Smith
If ever a player "walked the talk" in poker, it's Suzie Isaacs, a fact that became even more apparent to me when I interviewed her around the pool (the one that she paid for with the money that she has won in poker tournaments) at her tastefully decorated Las Vegas home, replete with office draperies in a playing cards fabric, trophy display shelves in the breakfast room, garage wallpapered with all of the Card Player covers from the first issue onward, even a teakwood chip and dip set with bowls in the shape of card suits. And her distinctive cardroom attire -- where does she get it all? "You see that sequined vest hanging there?" she asked in her Tennessee drawl. "I admired one like it that an elderly woman was wearing in a tournament at the Commerce Club. A week later, she sent it to me." Other fans have given her many of the brightly decorated poker shirts, hats, and dangle earrings that have become her signature apparel in poker parlors across the nation.
After winning the ladies event at the WSOP, she even gave herself a piece of jewelry: a gold pinky ring with the ace of diamonds and the ace of hearts (her winning WSOP hand) framing its center diamond, a perfect match to the gold and diamond bracelet that Binion's awarded her. "When Jack McClelland saw my ring, he said it was lucky that I hadn't won with a straight or a flush," she laughed. "Now I'd like to win one of the open WSOP events and a man's size bracelet -- I could wear it as a matching necklace!"
But Isaacs is a lot more than fluff and bluff. She is a woman who has made it on her own in a highly competitive world that is as foreign to the one that she was born into back in Nashville as poker is to Mother Theresa. On her income tax return, her main occupation is listed as writer and salesperson, but she also is a "part-time professional poker player" to the IRS. "I have three jobs," she said. The third one? She's writing a novel, but more about that later.
Dana Smith: I know that you learned to play poker as a child in games with your male cousins, but how did you begin playing in casinos?
Susie Isaacs: I played a lot of poker when I lived in Atlanta and beat the game about 90 percent of the time. I would save my wins from those home games and bring the money to Las Vegas. But it wasn't until my third trip in the early 1980s that I worked up the nerve to sit down in a casino game. I wanted to play so badly, but I was totally intimidated.
DS: Is that one reason why you have become known as a women's advocate in the poker world?
SI: Absolutely! The first time that I sat down at a casino poker table was at the Las Vegas Hilton. They had those big mahogany high-back chairs; I mean, the whole poker room looked like a man's domain. And in 1982, it was. I spotted a table with three women who were laughing and having a good time, so I asked if I could sit at that table. I played for three hours and had so much fun losing $20! After we moved to Las Vegas, I discovered a ladies tournament at the Tropicana, and that was a turning point for me.
DS: You don't appear to be a woman who is intimidated by very many things these days. Have you become a totally self-confident person?
SI: I have evolved into this person that you now know. For most of my adult life, I was the "Southern Belle," subservient to men. That's the way that I was raised in my Southern Baptist home. The men were the leaders, and the ladies followed: That was instilled in me in Bible study classes and that's still the way it is for many people. But I was forced to become totally independent in midlife and it was the most terrifying experience I've ever had.
DS: What scared you so much?
SI: The world! Being out there alone, having to take care of me: I'd never had to do that before. I was a nurturer, a mother, a wife not the person that you know today. I had to become this person to survive. And as it turns out, I've never been happier. It's true that I have become somewhat of a feminist, but I'm not a "femi-Nazi," as Rush Limbaugh would say.
DS: Did you just wake up one day and say, "If it's to be, it's up to me?"
SI: Actually, yes. And that's when I became serious about my job at Card Player and about playing poker. I knew that if I worked harder and did better, I could win a little extra money at the poker tables. So poker went from social to serious, even though today I still play in a lot of low-limit games because I get so much of my writing material from them.
DS: Do women today still have the kinds of hesitations that you had 10 years ago when you entered a poker room?
SI: I know for a fact that they do because I talk to them all the time. I see women hanging on the rail, often in pairs, and I just know that they want to play but they're afraid to sit down at a table. They're accustomed to playing kitchen-table poker where it's laid back, nobody's going to yell at you or tell you to hurry up, and no man's going to be grumpy if you're talking to someone. Then, to go into what looks to them like a "professional" game is scary.
DS: So it's their perception of casino poker that keeps them back. Is that a reason why you advocate women's tournaments?
SI: Definitely! And many women are appreciative of my stance on that issue. What the Bicycle Club does for ladies and this huge ladies weekend that the Commerce Club sponsors are terrific. If 300 women enter those tournaments, and then if just 15 of them start playing poker regularly, that is a significant addition to the player pool.
DS: Tell me about winning the WSOP ladies title.
SI: I have entered it seven times and have placed in the money four times. This year when McClelland passed the bracelet around the final table for us to see, I said, "I don't want to see it, I don't want to touch it because every time I do, I come in third or fourth."
DS: Sort of a superstitious reaction to luck?
SI: Actually, I hadn't thought much about luck until I got a few extraordinarily lucky breaks to win the ladies title and saw that some players got unlucky. Then Dateline NBC interviewed me for an upcoming program they're doing on luck in poker. As a result, I really put some thought into luck. My conclusion is that I not only believe in luck, it has become so much a part of my poker life that it's like breathing. Luck turned things around for me in the World Series.
DS: Was it that lucky third deuce on the river? Frankly, I was surprised that you played a pair of deuces at the final table.
SI: Those deuces looked real big to me at the time. I'd been short-stacked throughout the tournament and had to take a stand, make a move. Also, I thought that Esther Rossi might be bluffing, trying to convince me that she had a pair of kings when she did not. I opened with a deuce showing and an ace-deuce in the hole, she raised, and I reraised. By fifth street, I was committed to the hand and figured that I had five outs, two deuces and three aces, to make the hand. At the river, Esther had kings-up and I caught that beautiful third deuce. When it dropped to the table, I almost dropped to my knees because that was the first major pot that I had won. I now had some ammunition and could come out of my survival mode and play to win.
DS: So with your respect for the power of luck, you must have felt empathetic toward Rossi?
SI: Oh, yes! When we were at two tables, Marsha Waggoner, Karen Wolfson, Nikki Papler, and Rossi -- four top-notch WSOP winning players -- each had mountains of chips. I never even fantasized that with my short stack, I could win the tournament. But a series of circumstances, unlucky ones, diminished their stacks.
DS: Do you set goals for yourself in tournaments?
SI: Yes. Let's say that there are three tables left. I figure that if I play just right, I can make it to fifth place. There are players, Barbara Enright and John Bonetti for example, who play only to win first place. I don't: I initially play for a money finish. Earlier in my career, once I got to that fifth place position, I would relax. I don't do that anymore -- now I go for the next step up, and so on. There are two diverse styles of tournament play that get there a lot. One style is aggressive, like Eskimo Clark, whom I never can put on a hand. The other is similar to Vince Burgio, who plays an extremely cautious game, solid, careful. They arrive at the same place, but take different routes. I am more like Burgio.
DS: It seems to me that your conservative tournament style is quite different from the public perception of you as a rather flamboyant, assertive lady. What is the real Susie like?
SI: The real Susie Isaacs keeps changing on me. Even though change sometimes is frightening, it's not all bad. The person that I was, the person that I have become, and the person that I may be tomorrow is forever changing. Life would be boring without change.
DS: So what do you see for yourself in the future?
SI: I am now in a position to become a national advocate for women in poker. What I try to do in the speeches that I make at public functions is encourage women to either play and enjoy themselves socially, or to improve their games through study. I want to increase the public's awareness of how clean the game has become, as I tried to do on Larry Grossman's radio show, in other media interviews, and on the NBC Dateline show. Another of my dreams is to have enough time to truly travel the tournament trail all over the world, and to write more. In fact, I have just finished writing my first novel.
DS: Is your novel about poker and sex and all that good stuff?
SI: I wanted to write a book that would appeal to the masses, including my poker audience. I've tried to include enough poker, conspiracy, blood, murder, mayhem, and sex to make White Knight, Black Nights universally appealing. I never had written anything about sex, and learned that it's difficult to write a sex scene that doesn't turn to smut. In fact, I probably spent more time on the sex scenes than on any other part of the novel.
DS: Do you mean writing them or practicing them?
SI: (breaking into laughter) Writing them! After working on my book in the early morning hours, late at night, and on weekends for two years, the manuscript finally is complete. My editor and I were thrilled to death when I typed the final period. Now I have an agent who is waiting to read the final draft, which we currently are working on.
DS: Well, save one of the first copies for me, Susie. And autograph it, "To Dana, who knew me back when ..."
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