Poker – a game created by men (commonly believed to be sailors in New Orleans) and, to this day, predominantly played by men. But that hasn't stopped self-proclaimed video game junkie-turned online poker phenom Jennifer Leigh from finding her way to the felt. The Wilmington, Del., native is proving that you don't need a Y chromosome to make it in the game. All it takes is personality, a little luck and grounding.
Online poker was never a thought for Leigh until she was introduced to the game by some friends during her first year at the University of Delaware.
“I had been into computers a lot,” she said, “and enjoyed video games. But I hadn't played a lot of card games.”
The first online poker game she won, she came in first place, and the rest, as they say, is history.
She began playing more small-dollar games and tournaments, and watched her bankroll steadily increase. Before long, she found herself placing in large tournaments online, and she began making appearances on the felt. Close proximity to Atlantic City served well for the young, up-and-coming poker player. Her online name, “Jennicide,” became a recognizable one among the high-rollers in online poker as a player of whom to be wary.
In September of 2005, Leigh nabbed her first big cash-out, making the final table of Event #14 of the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). Her first televised first-place finish came two months later on The Game Show Network's “Battle of the Ages.” She's even made the money in World Series of Poker play in recent years, and having just turned 27, she has plenty of years ahead, too.
After a brief hiatus from the game, she returned with steady, calculated play, most recently taking first place in Event #18 of the PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) in May of this year.
The transition from the computer screen to the felt was a significant one for Leigh, with a number of new factors coming into play.
“The style is completely different,” she said. “First off, in a live game, the buy-ins tend to be a lot higher, so the field of players is typically stronger. There are lots of new tells you have to start picking up on, too.”
Although being a female in a male-dominated game has its difficulties, Leigh said she doesn't feel that she holds a specific advantage.
“I have people skills, and I'm a talker,” she admitted, “so that's how I get my information. Even if someone's not responding when I talk to them, and they're breathing heavy and avoiding eye contact, there's a lot of information in that. It's crazy. Male poker players use the same technique, but when a girl does it, you can really see the dynamics. I can't really say that women who play the game have an edge over the men, but the chatter helps.”
Inevitably, Leigh has also seen the pitfalls of the gender divide many times in poker.
“Once in a while,” she said, “the chauvinistic side of the men at the table comes out. A lot of guys don't want to be beaten by a girl, and it's hard to get away with bluffing a pot. A lot of times, it works in my advantage, though, and I can get paid off.”
Online, the play has become even more of a challenge ever since Jennicide's reputation and notoriety has grown.
“I play a lot of limit poker,” she said, “and there, people will come along with any kind of draw. And now that people know who I am, they want to be the one who busts me out. They either respect your play or they gun for you.”
At the live tables, Leigh is still a recognizable face, but there are plenty of “old school” players who still consider poker a man's game.
“I hear it wherever I go,” she said. “Some of the older guys will see me sit down to the table and say something like, ‘Times sure are changing.' It never bothers me now. I'm used to hearing it.” While chatter helps her pick up tells and reads on players, Leigh said she prefers the familiar sound of her raking in a pile of chips to do her trash-talking for her.
As a young, head-turning blonde in the game, Leigh can get away with playing an aggressive style.
“It's just my nature,” she said. “My friends who introduced me to the game saw it in me. They knew I had the personality and character for poker. The aggressiveness throws people for a loop, too. They're not used to seeing a young girl sit down and check-raise a bet. I like that. It's unpredictable, and, in my eyes, if you play it right, any hand can win in poker.”
Recently, Leigh returned from Las Vegas, where she was eliminated from the World Series of Poker's main event on the third day, thanks to a cold-hearted deck of cards.
“I was definitely disappointed,” she said. “It's been nice to get back into the circuit, but I got unlucky a few times. My pocket kings ran into aces, twice! And it was all pretty much over after that.”
While the glitz and glamor of Vegas and the close proximity of Atlantic City back at home both provide Leigh with the level of poker she's grown accustomed to, she often humbles herself by returning to her familiar computer screen, where she becomes Jennicide once again. She has considered paying a visit to the table games in her native Delaware around Dover, Harrington and Delaware City, but when she's back on the East Coast, she prefers to pamper herself with personal time.
“I love Vegas,” Leigh said, “and the Borgata and Trump Taj Mahal are my favorite places to play in Atlantic City, but it's nice to get back to Delaware and see my family and friends and relax with poker online. I might make it down to some of the casinos in Delaware if they put on a charity tournament or drew in some other big names. That would be exciting. But when I'm home, I just want to relax. Why even leave home when I can play online?”
Leigh joins a new era of the game as Internet poker expands in popularity – one in which the fields are constantly growing and more and more players are taking their skills to a higher level.
“It's definitely the next generation of poker,” she said. “A lot of people my age are coming from small subcultures, whether through computer gaming and other groups. We're accustomed to working quickly with information and data, and that's an easy transition for young players turning pro.”
In 2003, Chris Moneymaker broke through the poker threshold, when the then-amateur qualified for the World Series of Poker Main Event via an online satellite tournament, before taking down the championship and the coveted bracelet.
“Before the Moneymaker boom,” she recalled, “it wasn't known that the everyday person could win the World Series. When Chris won his satellite entry, it gave people that ‘wow' factor. It amazed people that you could turn a few dollars into $2.5 million, just playing cards. It was no longer a pipedream. Amateur poker players started wanting that ‘Rounders' experience, and if you can make it deep in the tournament, there are sponsorship opportunities. It's not a bad idea.”
Leigh's growing reputation throughout the poker community has more than the average Joe recognizing her name and face. She has sat at tables with Chris Ferguson, talked strategy with Dan Harrington and signed autographs alongside poker legends Doyle Brunson and Hoyt Corkins. She's knew Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi and his brothers, as well as Tom “Durrr” Dwan when they were in their poker prime.
Leigh has also earned respect from four-time bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu – arguably one of the best pros at reading opponents, and she's been seated at a table beside Jennifer Harmon, one of the most respected females in the game.
“She's definitely one I look up to,” said Leigh of Harmon. “She plays some of the highest-stakes mixed games and, in my opinion, is not just the best female poker player out there, but is one of the best in the game.”
When she's not leading the pack at the table, Leigh is often cheering on fellow pros and friends in tournaments.
“I always want to root for my friends,” she said. “Poker is a competitive industry. But, at the same time, if you have a good circle of friends, you have a lot of support.”
Later this month, Leigh will head to the Mediterranean for the Full Tilt Poker Merit Cypress Classic, and, in September, will try her luck in the European World Series of Poker in London, England.
No matter where she is around the world, though, she has never forgotten the words her father spoke to her years ago.
“He has always told me to stay grounded,” she said. “It was the best advice I've ever received. He's not a poker player, but he saw it all, even before I was starting to get recognition. He said that, no matter what happens, whatever this crazy ride does to me, to stay grounded. And I'll live with that forever.”