How card champion Saundra Taylor beat the odds of race, gender, and the lack of a local poker scene

It’s 6 o’clock on an overcast evening, and Saundra Taylor answers her door wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses and a neon-green dress. It’s an outfit that doesn’t seem out of place, however, on the only woman ever to walk away with a first-place finish and a $30,000 purse at the 2000 United States Poker Championship, held in Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal Casino in December.

“This was my first time placing first,” remarks Taylor modestly about her win. A full-time staffer at Verizon, Taylor also travels regularly to poker tournaments in Las Vegas, Reno, and Mississippi. She won the December championship by dusting 150 entrants who had each paid $500 to vie for the title in a popular game known as “Omaha high-low split.”

Outwardly, Taylor is low-key about her talent as a card shark, but no player who’s beaten Men “the Master” Nyugen—ranked third-best tournament player in the world in a recent issue of Card Player magazine—can be entirely unassuming about her abilities. What’s even more remarkable is that Taylor, an African-American woman, is defying the racial and gender demographics of professional poker, which is dominated by Caucasian and Asian-American men.

For her part, Taylor believes that gender is a much bigger issue than race at the card table. “I look at all women,” she says, “black or white, as getting little respect as poker players.”

Taylor has adapted her game to cope with poker’s high level of testosterone. “With men, it’s a pride issue,” argues Taylor. “They don’t want to be beaten by a woman. When I’m in a hand, six or seven men are coming in after me. I lose a lot of pots because of that.”

Taylor observes that even the prizes in poker have a gender bias. She shows off the Taj Mahal championship watch, observing that “they had to special-order, because they hadn’t had any women’s watches made.”

Dan Kimberg, a former Maryland player who has migrated to Philadelphia, agrees that the chips are stacked against women such as Taylor in professional poker circles.

“Women have not, in general, taken to poker,” Kimberg says. He believes that this trend may change if poker becomes more popular and that a female champion at Las Vegas’ premier World Series of Poker might be in the cards someday. “I think in a few years,” Kimberg says, “we will see a greater proportion of women in the final event.”

Kimberg does agree with Taylor that race is less of a factor than gender. “Blacks are underrepresented in a poker room at the Taj,” he says, “but they are not desperately underrepresented.”

There’s something else that makes Taylor even more of an anomaly in poker circles: her D.C. address.

The District’s underground poker world has its share of rounders, but the 1400 block of 3rd Street NW seems like the last place you’d look for one. Here, in Dunbar High School’s gritty, institutional shadow, the battered collection of row houses offers a reminder that the city’s much-ballyhooed revitalization hasn’t quite reached the border of North Capitol Street.

Ask Taylor where she learned to play cards while so far away from the glitz of Atlantic City, however, and her answer conjures up a now-defunct oasis in the area’s poker desert.

“I learned at the casinos in Maryland,” Taylor says.

Taylor and Kimberg learned the art of the deal in Maryland’s once-vibrant—and now largely forgotten—firehouse poker scene, which was put out of business four years ago. The state’s 16 legal card rooms, whose profits benefited local charities, were shuttered when Gov. Parris Glendening won his legislative battle against casino gambling in 1997. The demise of poker venues such as Forestville’s American Legion Hall and the Knights of Columbus Hall in Oxon Hill led Card Player to label the Baltimore-Washington area the fifth worst place in the United States to play poker in 1999. It has forced local players to funnel their dollars north to Atlantic City.

“[Glendening’s war on firehouse poker] was an ignorant thing to do,” says Kim Eisler, poker enthusiast and national editor at Washingtonian magazine. Eisler learned how to play in 1996, when the firehouse game was still alive and kicking, and he was researching a story on it. “Atlantic City gets your money instead of Maryland, and you have to drive four hours in the fucking dark,” Eisler complains. “Any poker player dies in a car accident, you should charge Glendening.”

Such frustration at the death of Maryland poker is rooted in most players’ perception that poker is an elite game of skill where

combatants play for each other’s money rather than a house jackpot. For the crowd gathered at the seven-card stud or Texas hold ’em table, pastimes such as roulette, blackjack, and the slots are sucker games, designed so that the house gets everyone’s money in the long run.

Many players admit that the “charity games” sometimes lead to skimming and other graft, but the majority think that poker has

been unfairly targeted, while horse racing and the lottery—perhaps the biggest sucker bet of all—are allowed to continue.

“There was a pot of money for people to steal,” acknowledges Eisler. “But then the games went underground…[and, for example,] the Laurel Basketball Club doesn’t get a ball out of it. It just made

life miserable for people, and [games] less controllable, and less visible, and less comfortable for the players.”

“[The firehouse] games felt like everybody would feel welcome,” says Kimberg, who moved north to pursue a career as a brain researcher just as the firehouse scene took its final curtain call. “What was striking was that they weren’t big, corporate-run—or well-run—games….More than once I saw someone borrow money from their opponent to call or raise a bet.”

Maryland poker was once worth $30 million a year, but the state has no plans to resurrect this controversial form of gaming. The ban forces Taylor, who aspires to play consistently at a championship level, to hunt for pots elsewhere. Taylor even attempted to relocate and have a go at professional poker in 1998, first moving to Atlantic City and then following the money west to Las Vegas when the seaside resort’s summer tourist action dried up.

Though Taylor says that she managed to earn a respectable amount, a scuffle with an inconsiderate fellow player who refused to put out a cigarette soured her on relocating permanently to Sin City.

“I asked him not to smoke, and he went off,” she says.

Taylor recalls that she was playing with a cold and feeling particularly sensitive to cigarettes that day. “I asked to have him removed from the tournament [because of his bad language]. He threatened to have me thrown out. He went to touch me, and I hit him with a chair.”

Taylor says that the incident persuaded her that gambling for a living just wasn’t in the cards. “It’s not a lifestyle for anyone,” she says. “I think it’s a lot of stress.”

Taylor adds that some old-fashioned homesickness had as much to do with bringing her home, however.

“I was born and raised in D.C. and plan on residing here for the rest of my life,” she insists. “Maryland players are the best in the world.” CP