Jane Hitchcock stares at her cards in disgust. Another bad hand. She tosses them at the dealer, frustrated.
“I feel the cards, and this table’s no good,” she says, shaking her head.
An hour earlier, 151 poker players had walked into the Maryland Live casino to compete in the final day of a $215,100 World Poker Tour tournament. More than 550 people had already been eliminated; the remaining players hunched around the poker tables are primarily young and male. Only eight are women, and Hitchcock is one of them.
Hitchcock started playing poker seriously just eight years ago. It was an unlikely hobby for a Georgetown socialite, but the game quickly became an obsession, a balm, an entry into a new and fascinating world. She’s still not a great player, she admits, but she’s competitive and wily and has won almost $40,000 over the past four years.
Few of her opponents ever know that she was once a Park Avenue debutante, a close friend of Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s. They probably don’t care about her best-selling murder mysteries or a lifetime of jet-setting with the rich and famous. And most have no idea that she’s 70 years old, a fact that doesn’t faze Hitchcock at all. “When anyone mentions my age at a table,” she says, “I say, ‘Darling, I’m not old. I’m a vampire.’ ”
Now she studies a young player two seats away. The two are locked in battle, and he has made a huge raise. Hitchcock looks at her cards, considers, and calls the bet. Her rival flips over an ace and a jack. Hitchcock shows an ace and a nine, losing the hand and about half her chips.
She sinks back in her chair, takes a breath and waits for two new cards. After six decades of regrets and disappointments, poker has taught her to shake them off and move on to the next hand.
“Poker is like life,” she says. “At the poker table, everyone makes mistakes, everybody plays hands wrong. It’s a game that teaches you about not dwelling on the past, but also learning from your mistakes. You play the next hand as it comes.”
Every poker player has stories, usually about a great hand they won or should have won. Hitchcock likes the one about the dealer who joked that she couldn’t be intimidated. “Yeah, she’s aggressive,” he told the table. “She put a guy in jail.”
That guy was Ken Starr, the New York accountant-to-the-stars (not the Lewinsky scandal prosecutor of the same name) who defrauded clients out of millions of dollars over three decades. His crimes were so brazen that Starr became the subject of his own Vanity Fair profile and an episode of CNBC’s “American Greed.”
It was Hitchcock, then married to a cousin of Paul Mellon, who introduced her parents to Starr in the 1980s. Her mother was a former actress; her stepfather, Arthur Stanton, earned a fortune as a Volkswagen importer. They recommended Starr to all their friends. When Stanton died in 1987, he left his wife about $80 million, and Starr took over all her finances.
It was many years before the family suspected that something was amiss. By the time Hitchcock went to the New York City district attorney, Starr had bilked clients such as Bunny Mellon, Lauren Bacall, Sylvester Stallone and Uma Thurman out of millions. Hitchcock estimates that her mother alone lost tens of millions. “He just betrayed her on a cosmic, galactic level,” she says, still furious.
Starr was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty to running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Hitchcock’s mother died in May 2009. “Mortal Friends,” Hitchcock’s fifth novel, came out a month later. It was her first set in Washington, a roman à clef skewering the city’s social pretensions and nouveau riche. Married since 1995 to Washington Post contributing editor Jim Hoagland, Hitchcock was both part of the Washington A-list and a scathing critic of it.
“Money is a matter of luck, and class is a matter of character,” she likes to say. Some people loved the book and some resented it, but in the end, Hitchcock was dropped by a number of her social friends.
It was a hard summer. Hitchcock found herself in her home office, staring at an online site called Poker Stars. “My grandmother said, ‘Love the cards and the cards will love you.’ I know what she meant,” she recalls. “The cards loved me when I needed to find an escape.”
That escape was Texas Hold’em, the game that spawned the poker boom of the past decade. In it, each player is dealt two cards facedown, while five cards are dealt faceup in the middle of the table. The player with the best five of the seven cards wins the pot. The strategy and skill is in betting as the cards are revealed: extracting chips from your opponents if you have a winning hand, successfully bluffing when you don’t, and knowing when to fold.
Online, Hitchcock created an entirely new persona to intimidate other players. “I wasn’t an old bat in curlers and fuzzy slippers,” she says. “I was a 24-year-old, out-of-work, disaffected guy who was mad, bad, dangerous to know and more dangerous to play with. I was very, very aggressive.”
She played for hours a day, having a blast and spending up to $100 a week. She won some, she lost some. But the money wasn’t an issue — despite Starr, she’s still a wealthy woman — or the point.
“I did that instead of going to buy shoes,” she says. “It was either shoes or poker. And poker was more fun.”
The party ended in 2011, when the feds shut down the biggest online poker sites for illegal gambling. Hitchcock was depressed for a while, then decided to try playing live games as a mad, bad, dangerous sexagenarian.
Hitchcock walks into the tournament room at Maryland Live to a flurry of hugs from her poker buddies, other regulars she’s competed against for the past four years. They know each other, like each other, and love to beat each other.
Every entrant paid $360 and received $15,000 in chips to play in this mid-April tournament, all hoping to win the top prize of $39,388.
Less than 15 minutes after they start playing, the poker gods smile on Hitchcock. A nine, a five, two jacks and a 10 sit on the table. Richie Smith, a longtime friend, bets all his chips and she calls, matching his bet. He grins and flips over two tens, giving him a full house. She turns over two jacks, beating him with a rare four-of-a-kind.
“Richie is never going to forgive me,” she says to the other players as she scoops up the pot. “I’m going to hear about it until my dying day.”
But Smith, a contractor, has nothing but praise: “Great player,” he says ruefully. “She played that hand very well against me.”
Women are still a rarity in poker, less accustomed to the naked aggression and strategic deception required of great players. Of the top 50 poker professionals, only one is a woman: Vanessa Selbst, a Yale Law School grad who has earned $11 million.
“We’re trying to make women feel more welcome in the poker room,” says Mike Smith, director of poker operations at Maryland Live. “It can be intimidating. We have all races, creeds, religions who play cards. But you look, and there’s just not a lot of females.”
Poker, says Hitchcock, has made her braver and more focused. She was always competitive; now she takes more risks. She bluffs more. She uses the stereotypical image of older female players — cautious, patient, only betting premium hands — to her advantage.
She once beat a player holding two aces, knocking him out of a tournament after calling his raise while holding just a seven and a five. “How can you play that?!” he demanded furiously. “How can you call that huge bet?” The man, she explained proudly, “absolutely did not expect me to make that move because I am an old lady.”
The fact that Hitchcock does not look like an old lady is beside the point. To the majority of the aggressive young men in the game, she’s almost quaint — until she wins their chips. “That’s the story of my life,” she says. “People have always underestimated me, from Ken Starr to, in some senses, [book] reviewers. So this is my way of saying ‘Be careful.’ ”
Poker also confirmed something she’d suspected for a long time. “The people that you underestimate in life will very often do the bravest things,” she says. “And the people who think they’re so great sometimes are just a lot of hot air.”
Hitchcock survives six hours of play and qualifies to move on to Day 2 of the tournament. Instead of driving home, she spends another $360 to enter that evening’s qualifying round in hopes of amassing a higher chip stack. After six more hours at the table (fueled by roasted nuts and energy bars), she has $75,900 in chips — more than any of the eight women who advance to the final day.
After online games were shut down, Hitchcock thought her poker days were over, until a friend invited her to a home game a year later, with eight guys around a dining-room table.
At the end of the night, one of the men told her that she had wonderful card sense but didn’t know anything about betting. After a few lessons, she was playing with lawyers, accountants, even a Supreme Court justice (she won’t say which one).
She entered her first casino tournament in 2013, then started making trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas. She adored playing and the fact that it got her mind off Starr and the ongoing legal fallout.
But she wanted more. A friend introduced her to a nightly game run out of an apartment in Cleveland Park. New players had to be referred and buzzed in. This game was more serious, the players more aggressive. “They would play any two cards,” remembers Hitchcock. “That’s where I really learned poker.”
Eventually, she found herself at the film noir version of the game: a seedy space above a restaurant just off Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the World Bank. To get there, she had to walk down a dark alley and up a flight of stairs, where her name was on a list. She loved the guys, who were very protective of her, but the game disbanded after an armed robbery.
“I just found a whole new world out there of people that I would have never met,” she says. “I would trust some of those guys before I would trust people I’ve known for years in ‘society.’ Social friends are very fickle.”
All this has found its way into Hitchcock’s new book-in-progress, “Bluff.” It’s a murder mystery, but really a thinly veiled dissection of Starr’s betrayal. Poker — the strategies, the players, the lies — is a central theme and key to the plot.
“Poker’s like a big theater,” she says. “Every hand is a scene and everyone’s an actor. But it’s supposed to be that way. That’s the joy of it, that’s the thrill of it and that’s the game of it.”
Hitchcock has survived many tournaments where her prospects looked grim. Thirty players are knocked out in the first hour of Day 2 at Maryland Live, but Hitchcock is still optimistic.
Her heart skips a beat when she looks down to see two queens — a great starting hand — and she pushes all her $30,900 in chips toward the middle of the table. A call could reverse her fortunes, but the other players fold, leaving a few more chips for her.
The end comes soon after, and swiftly. Hitchcock finds herself with a short stack and a pair of nines. She bets it all and is called by a player with a massive pile of chips — and two kings.
The dealer turns over five cards. No more nines, no miracle cards to win the hand. Hitchcock’s tournament is over, and she hasn’t won a cent.
“I’m not sad, because I couldn’t have played the hand any differently,” she says. “It was just bad luck that he woke up with kings and I had a big pocket pair. But that’s the game. It’s fine. It’s poker.”
Besides, there’s no time to dwell on the loss. There’s another tournament starting in 30 minutes.
“Next hand,” she says.