Fact: women play live poker in tiny numbers. Maybe they’re busy changing diapers or working three jobs or they live too far from casinos. Or maybe they’ve been harassed by tilted aggressive men and stay away—stories female grinders have regrettably shared.

I’ve been lucky. On New York’s underground circuit no one’s ever targeted or threatened me. I’ve endured the occasional sexist moment and even cried once. But mostly I give and get tremendous respect and have never been forced to confront rowdy verbal twisters. Suffice it to say when Freddie, a regular, ambushed me one night on his journey into rage head, I wasn’t ready.

I had arrived at this particular game tense and royally screwed up my very first hand. Distracted, embarrassed, and consoling myself over the loss, the night already felt crooked. A little while later I happened to win a big pot against Freddie with aces (he had shoved pre with a marginal hand). I had some momentary confusion at showdown and inadvertently slow-rolled him (an honest mistake and I felt awful). Freddie lost the pot. This happens in poker. But the tilt monster had beamed in. Ate his brain. Freddie uncorked.

Disappearing Zen

Good or bad, underground poker can be intimate. We gather for loving battle shoulder to shoulder in tight cramped rooms around single tables. (Nowhere to hide.) My inner-game, mental-game, whatever-game training vanished: mindfulness, focus, detaching, all of it went up in billows of thick fouled poker smoke once Freddie rose to howl against me for several long minutes while threatening to leave the game (he slow-rolled the leaving part with flair). The table remained silent. Frozen. No one intervened as Freddie somewhat viciously impugned my character and sense of poker protocol and various other personal traits I rather like about myself.

Freddie’s invective claimed most of the oxygen in the room. Ghostly and smug, the bullies that had littered my childhood suddenly appeared behind him. I briefly lost my boundaries and felt helpless, my heart puzzled and knotted. More urgently, I violated my own personal code of silence, relinquishing a cherished “mum” demeanor. Scanning for a strategy I landed on strong and maternal, encouraging Freddie’s calm, inviting him to rejoin the table which somehow brought more contradiction—in real time I felt weirdly proud of this compassion, protecting the sanctity of the game, choosing (consciously or otherwise) not to unleash the lash of my writerly tongue.

But the mom thing was ancient and I went there with regret, contorting into old behavior cause that’s how women endure. We’re socialized to fix and repair when sons, fathers, lovers, and howling poker Neanderthals careen out of control, annihilating much in their wake. Through the warped lens of instinctive female nurture I felt compromised. Would Freddie in his loose unprofitable ways ever unleash against a man? (Smile.)

For the record, a handful of veteran New York game runners would never let a tirade escalate—the beauty of hosts with authority and perfected social skill who oversee poker’s underground chaos with a magnificently gentle “parent touch” so players, especially women, feel incontrovertibly safe. (Twitter pals think the New York scene is all hoodlums and thieves. They’re wrong.)

Warm Down

When the game finally broke I left shaken and dazed. On the walk home I ran into civilian friends up late. My devoted ex-basketball pal Joe was like “you crushed his ass…you crushed him. He knows it. You know it. Here’s the face you bring next time that sack of garbage goes off on you.” Joe made his standard-issue fierce NBA face and I laughed for the first time that night and practiced the face with Joe and he put his elegant strong arms around me and I felt visible and cared for. The next day I called the game runner. I sensed I was teaching him about women in live poker…our realities, our truths. He was genuinely gracious and responsive and promised to address Freddie’s outburst and that felt lovely and right.

I also called my young pal Woodson, gorgeously wise beyond his years, a strong wonderful player who knows Freddie. Most boys are dopes about girl hearts. By some miracle Woodson goes to the emotional mat with me over and over and I adore him for that. Once we got past the feeling stuff Woodson cut to the meat of the matter. “Clearly Freddie’s scared to death of you and from now on you fleece him to the bone. Look at the intel he gave up…friggin idiot. Would any smart player in their right mind reveal that much panic?”

Grinders. Ever practical.

Whether or not I master NBA face, Woodson and Joe buffed out the smudge on my soul. In general I show up to a game and like most supremely neurotic serious players (and fiction writers), I’m hard on myself and compulsively humble. Win or lose, I’m rarely happy with my performance. Ironically (profoundly even) Freddie gave me a present. Through his victim rant he sanctioned my power and agency. As a woman on the felt still finding her way I don’t always know what I know and what I got. Surely I didn’t appreciate the rage fest. But Freddie delivered a sideways telegram—a message suggesting my skill and table image are clearly formidable enough to make some players temporarily lose their minds.

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