‘The First Lady of Poker’ remembers when women were encouraged to fold ’em

The buy-in for today’s Ladies No-Limit Hold ’em Championship at the World Series of Poker at the Rio Convention Center is $1,000 for women and $10,000 for men, who are discouraged from entering the event.

Still, there is expected to be at least a few guys who will pay the prohibitive price to play with the gals.

Linda Johnson, aka “The First Lady of Poker,” doesn’t have a significant problem with that.

“I don’t like the idea of it,” she said. “But if they’re willing to pay $10,000, it does help the prize pool.”

Johnson, 59, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1980 and played poker for nearly 40 years, remembers when women were not welcome in poker rooms.

“When I first started playing, it was not nearly as nice an atmosphere for women as it is today. It was rough, and women were not treated as nicely,” Johnson said. “A lot of men felt women shouldn’t be playing poker. I do think that’s turned around now and women are welcome.

“They don’t have the adverse conditions we were subjected to 30 or 40 years ago.”

A Poker Hall of Famer who has a WSOP gold bracelet and 13 WSOP cashes, Johnson was the only woman in the field of the first tournament she entered, in 1978 at the Las Vegas Club.

Greeted warmly when she registered for the event, Johnson said the atmosphere became cold when she reached the final table.

“It was like, ‘You better not win,’ ” she said. “On breaks, the men would meet and figure out how to get me out of the tournament. They ganged up on me.”

Openly mocked by men then, Johnson said she hasn’t been harassed like that in more than 20 years.

A Long Island, N.Y., native, Johnson used to work for the U.S. Postal Service and visit Las Vegas to play blackjack before her father convinced her that poker was her best bet because it’s not played against the house.

After entering her first WSOP in 1980 and placing fifth in the Ladies Seven-Card Stud event, Johnson quit her job and moved to Las Vegas, where she has been a professional poker player — among several other jobs — since.

Johnson, who has won more than $300,000 playing poker, was editor and publisher of Card Player magazine for eight years before selling it, revitalizing the publication while trying to improve poker’s image.

She worked as a studio announcer for the World Poker Tour’s first six seasons, and helped found the charitable website PokerGives.org and the nonprofit Tournament Directors Association, which was designed to establish industry standards for poker events.

In the mid-1990s, Johnson helped convince the directors of the WSOP to implement a penalty for bad behavior.

“If you do something out of line, like throw your cards at the dealer, now they give you a penalty,” she said. “I feel I had a role in that.”

Johnson also runs Card Player Cruises, teaches poker seminars and is an instructor for the WPT’s Boot Camp.

She advises beginning poker players to only play very strong starting cards.

Johnson, who won her WSOP gold bracelet in 1997 — earning $96,000 for winning a $1,500 Seven-Card Razz event — was dubbed “The First Lady of Poker” by fellow pro Mike Sexton for her long association with the game.

“It’s not my favorite nickname because it makes me feel like the old lady of poker, but I know he meant it as a compliment,” Johnson said. “I’ve always tried to be an ambassador for poker, not just for women but men as well.”

Despite her busy schedule, Johnson still tries to play poker as much as possible and has played every day at the WSOP, winning $12,459 on June 21 for placing ninth in a $1,500 Seven-Card Stud Hi-Low Split-8 or Better event.

“I still love to play,” she said. “I still feel I can compete at the highest level.”

■ NOTES — The One Drop High Rollers tournament, which began Wednesday with 166 players, was whittled to 108 on the first day. The players each paid $111,111 — the largest buy-in at this year’s WSOP — for a total prize pool of $17,891,148. Five millionaires will be made at the event, and the top 24 finishers will be paid. The winner will take home $4,830,619.

Brandon Steven of Wichita, Kan., was the first-day chip leader. Several multiple WSOP bracelet winners were eliminated early, including Sam Farha, Michael Mizrachi, Brian Rast, Erick Lindgren and Erik Seidel.

Because of the larger-than-expected field — which featured entries from 15 countries — the tournament, originally scheduled for three days, is expected to end Saturday afternoon.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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