Always remember, Barbara Freer will say afterward, they are chips. Small pieces of wood, round, blue for the five, green for the twenty-five, black for the hundred. There is no connection, there must be no connection, between the mortgage, or the car, and that long row of blacks stacked up twelve to a pile; Johnny Moss, the grand old man of Texas poker, says it plainest, swinging his right arm to show what he means, "You gotta push the chips THIS way." Toward the pot. Betting your intestines, betting your breath away, your face holding nothing.
The dealer, with his moist black pompadour and his low Long Island voice: "Any new recipes, girls?"
Freer, smiling thinly: "Not today."
She leans toward the table, mouth set, elbows wide, fists drumming softly on the felt. She has only one opponent left. Barbara Freer, 42 years old, caterer, cocktail lounge owner, former teen-age regular at the sleepless weekend poker marathons in the old man's place over the Bamboo Room Bar in Toledo, Ohio. She has black curls, high straight eyebrows, and eyes squeezed mean, except when she winks. The card room shutters are closed against daylight. Vegas whines and grinds by daylight, stripped of brilliance; better always to lock away the afternoon, keep it out of the casino. In the casino it is always 3 in the morning, dark and blurry, beginning to sweat. Red velvet ropes hold the tourists at bay and the sound is a clatter of chip against chip, mutterings of private victories, Ace-to-Five Lowball, Seven Card Rass, Deuce-to-Seven Lowball, HOLD-Em, Seven Card High.
The women play Seven Card High. Two cards face down, five face up. One woman will take $12,720 and the title, 1979 World Series of Poker Women's Champion, best in the world until the cards run wrong and it all starts to slide. No one settles, playing poker.
"Deuce," whispers Pat Savoia, watching seventh street, the last deal of the hand. "Such a lot of cards to make another pair, he gives me a dead deuce." Savoia exhales cigarette smoke, teeth clamped. Down to the wrists, her body is still; she cannot quiet her hands. The gold rings dance, dart around the blacks, halving each small pile, splitting, stacking, worrying the chips.
Dealer's hands. The twitch gives them away. Savoia deals poker at Caesar's Palace, graveyard shift, 2 to 10 in the bare Nevada morning. Raise. Call. "She's steamed," someone says softly, watching her face. Freer takes the pot, eyes still hard. Fifty-one women have already dropped from the tournament; now, in this casino, Binion's Horseshoe, where wives take pictures of their husbands standing near a glass-encased million dollars in 10,000-dollar bills, the dark-haired caterer and the blond dealer are playing for the title.
There are women in Las Vegas who live for poker, who wake every day in the gathering heat with the finest hand of the night before still perfect in their memories. That gorgeous 10 that turned a high two pair into a full house and took the pot. Vegas is gracious in its indifference: a woman can fly to this town from anyplace, run a comb through her hair, eat a 69-cent ham-and-eggs breakfast off a paper plate, and find some paid-by-the-hour swing shift job that another woman dumped the night before. Cocktail waitress. Casino cashier. Game starter, to pull in the tourists.
Terry King came from Tulsa, worked for a lawyer while she learned the game, went back once to Tulsa and breathed in the quiet like poison gas, came home to Vegas, and turned into a poker dealer.
Jane Lavelle-Drache came from England with a theater troupe performing Strindberg's "Miss Julie," married a professional poker player, and learned to make a living off gamblers who looked up from a card table and saw a beautiful woman with large brown eyes sitting down to join the game.
Mae, mid-40s, left her husband in Houston and came to Vegas, "only place I knew to get lost," works in a cashier's cage, and still likes to talk about the time she sat three whole days in a poker game because she was $1,500 in the hole and by God she was going to get a streak before she got up from that table. "Bill says, "How long you been here?" I says, "I don't know, Bill, couldn't tell you." He brought me a steak. You get struck enough, you're gonna sit here until you feel like you're gonna get a streak on. I got a streak on. Won all my money back in 30 minutes." And took it home, and put it aside, and brought it in the next night to ante up for poker.
Mouthing the words, shaking her head, Savoia looks out across the red velvet ropes: "She beat me." But not yet. All Savoia's chips are in the pot and everything depends on the call; if she loses, she has lost the tournament. If she wins she can stick out another hand and hope for a streak. Freer shows a pair of fives; the cameras move in. Savoia smiles, flips her cards: nines and eights, two pair. Patty Savoia, 33 years old, divorced, former waitress, afraid of fast cars and skiing and depp water....
.... And ferris wheels.
The dealing started nine years ago, in the dim West Side apartment of a New York song writer - an illegal game, but so were they all, including the velvety East Side place where Savoia had first mixed drinks while the dealer slipped discreet face cards into more accommodating positions in the deck. Bust-out game. Cheater's special. Savoia thought a $5 ante was staggering back then, which amuses her now, but that first night at the West Side game, working alternate half hours for $2.50 each plus an average 5 percent of the pot, she made $313, all of it off the books and tax free. When it was over she got in the elevator and went down past darkened apartments into the Manhattan dawn. Out into the morning, on the streets, with a pocketful of cash and the soft damp smell of a morning in spring. Savoia drove home to Long Island, smiling.
Vegas was pure instinct, then; when her romance went bad, and she had lived for enough years in a town where the pharmacist knew her first name, Pat Savoia got on an airplane and got out at McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, Nev. Vegas is for women who want to crawl down out of the world for a year, for women who want to leave their men and everything that feels like husband, or the women who play poker, blood thick, figuring, the way men gamble. "Twenty-four hour town," was all Savoia said, being a little of all three.
She scrabbled from job to job. She wanted to deal poker, but in Vegas you do not get the good jobs, the jobs where the tourist money flows and the company pays you a Christmas bonus and the pit boss keeps his hands to himself, without juice. Connections. An out-of-town friend introduced Savoia to the road manager for the comedian who warmed up audiences for Sinatra, and the juice flowed and Caesar's Palace called her with a job.
She lives in a thick white slab of a building, not too far off the Strip. There is carpeting in all the rooms, a swimming pool down below, and a shopping center with a Sears and Broadway up the street. She has a best friend and a man, neither of whom play cards, and a 12-year-old daughter, who is in seventh grade and waits every morning for her mother to drop her at school at the end of the graveyard shift. Loretta Metzger, the daughter, says Savoia talks in her sleep. "I got kings up the river," she hears Savoia say. Loretta, who spends every summer with her father in New York, also says Vegas doesn't have any regular diners, or regular candy stores, or egg creams, or pizza, or White Castle hamburgers. Loretta says the town is full of Mormons. "They're all from Yew-tah," Loretta says, squirming with distaste.
Savoia remembers Manhattan in small shadows now, like night vision. "You'll smell a smell, you know," she says, with a cigarette in her mouth. "Like after it rains."
"Women," Amarillo Slim, the lean and raunchy poker legend with a golden map of Texas on his ring, explains during a break in the men's tournament, "don't have a heart as big as a pea.See? So I admire a woman that's got enough - that's not a nice word - enough gumption to risk them damn dollars playin" with a bunch of hairy-legged men. She can't win it, though. They just cannot go in the snow."
He is choosing his words for their shock value and he pauses, chewing on a mouthful of steak that a woman friend has shoved at him to shut him up. "Women's all right," Slim says finally. "Only place in the world you can beat one and not get thrown in jail is one of those poker tables. I think they should all make an agreement with me. I won't have any babies and they won't play any poker. I think that would be fair enough."
The tournament men are the main event, with their silent, excited posturing and the fat green bankrolls they prop casually behind their chips, but a few of them have watched with some interest as the women fell away. Starla Thompson, the frail-looking blond who placed second last year, got dumped early with two pair, nines and threes, not a bad hand until that Sandy somebody-or-other got a five on seventh street and turned a low two pair into a full house. Starla was only half conscious anyway, having won the mixed doubles the night before, teamed up with no less than "Texas Dolly" Doyle Brunson, whose $100 book on poker, imitation leather bound, was being sold not 20 yards away in the Binion's Horseshoe gift shop. Brunson was supposed to take half the $9,000 pot but tossed Starla the whole thing, saying something generous about how much he had cleaned up on his side bets; Starla dropped a $500 take for the dealer and sailed out of the card room to get drunk. She had played the very last hand, which made it sweeter - caught a third 10 on sixth street to beat Wayne Eister's pair of aces - and the moment it was over, Wayne's wife and doubles part ner, a zaftig arrangement of cleavage and black curls named Patricia "Sam" Eister, cracked under the pressure and burst into tears.
Brunson had figured that would happen. Brunson had been leaning on Sam, knowing she was afraid of him, raising her and double-raising her just to play on that blood-pounding pressure that filled up her head and made her crumple. Never mind that Sam was a human cardrack, one of those God-sparkled poker players who can sit there any day of the week with an off-suited 4, 5, 7 and 8, four chances out of the whole deck for a straight, and catch that 6 like a tired trout from an overstocked pond - what Sam didn't have, and Brunson knew that when he sat down, was the cast-iron belly of a Longworth, Texas million-dollar poker king. Brunson couldn't figure these women in the card room anyway. No woman ever learned to play like Texas Dolly Brunson, gambling town to town with police on your tail and an occasional loaded shotgun muzzle for congratulations. The easygoing young men with their Rutgers and Dartmouth brains were bad enough, the Bobby Baldwins, the Eric Draches, the late '20s-early '30s professionals whose minds worked like lyric computers while they won and won and won. A whole new generation, combed, scrubbed, no time yet for a giant poker girth, hardly a single Texas jail cell scar in the lot. But women. Women learn pretty well, but they play so tight, so true to the cards. What are you going to do when the language turns to sewage over the felt and there's a woman sitting right next to you? Or worse, if she threatens to cry, like Sam Eister? "Big tears come to her eyes and I feel like - oh, take it. In fact she did. She cried."
For a while this woman has been telling Vegas stories, about old people living on Social Security checks plus occasional pots from no-ante poker, about busted-out players in line for the $2.69 steak-and-potato special, about downtown hotel rooms and 24-hour supermarkets and swaggering men with their mouths full of promise and their heat all gambled away. "I'll tell you what a poker player is," says the woman, smiling some. "The night I became a grandmother and got a straight flush, I didn't know what I was more excited about."
Barbara Freer is not a Vegas player. She lives in El Cajon, Calif., where she runs the Flinn Springs Inn. "I like two things," she says, in the almost-testy voice of a woman who has had to explain herself a lot. "I like to cook and I like to gamble." Her father, a Greek restaurant cook, taught her the first; a neighbor in Toledo named Joe, whose proximity and genteel manners made him acceptable to the Greek father, taught her the second. Joe took her up to the games over the Bamboo Room. All the men smoked cigars. The old man who lived up there stood by the poker table in his dingy long underwear, watching. Barbara Freer was 17. The games lasted through Saturday night and ground on into Sunday and if Freer got up winning, her hair matted down and foul with cigar smoke, the men would whine, "Where you goin", hon, you coming back?"
"I like to beat the men," she says.
She will enter the open tournament, playing against the men, when this one is finished.
Already Joe has called twice, busting with pride, listening to her win.
Freer raps her knuckles against the felt, waiting for cards. The penny she set yesterday on one stack of blacks is still there. Savoia's mouth is tight and she shakes her head to someone in the crowd. It is five minutes to 8.
Savoia is going for broke.
On the last card of the seven-card deal, Savoia has pushed in all her chips. In the hole - dealt face down - she has a king and a nine. In the cards she has showing - dealt face up - she has a king and a nine. A high two pair. Freer shows nothing - a six, an eight, a four, a queen.
But Freer has a six and an eight in the hole. That gives her a low two pair. Only two cards could win her the pot - another six, or another eight, to fatten her hand into a full house.
The last cards fall and Savoia sees it before the crowd understands. "It's over," she says, and gets up quickly from the table, Barbara Freer has caught her eight.
"I had her, that hand, until the last card," Savoia says softly, but the cameras already are crowding around Barbara Freer, and Jack Binion has put his arm around her with his hand full of hundred dollar bills, and some reporter with a notebook is shouting What-are-you-going-to-do-with-the-money over the crowd noises engulfing Barbara Freer. "Play poker," she says. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Finalists in the women's World Series of Poker (above) surround the dealer at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Runnerup Pat Savoia (left) ponders her next move and winner Barbara Freer (right) studies her cards. Photographs by Ulvis Alberts for The Washington Post; Picture 4, Barbara Freer and Pat Savoia during the final hand, by Ulvia Alberts for The Washington Post.