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October 25, 2006

Gambling Granny Writes Again An Interview with Lona Rubenstein



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In poker, "tells" reveal something about a player: how she thinks, what risks she is willing to take, and, at some level, who she is.

It is telling, then, that Lona Rubenstein describes her most memorable poker hands as two where she accurately read the play of her fellow cardplayers and folded, even when she had great cards – because she had guessed, correctly, that their cards were better. For Rubenstein, the thrill of competing and playing well has always been as rewarding as winning. "It's always so nice to make a good read," she said.

And competing at the highest levels of poker is something that the 72-year-old East Hamptonite has been doing regularly since she started playing the game on the Internet more than two years ago. Kicked out of a regular local game – "I don't know if it was because I was too competitive or that I was a Republican" Rubenstein turned to Internet poker, and proved to be something of a whiz.

In her new book Getting Back in the Game . . . Finding the Fountain of Youth in Cyberspace, Rubenstein details her journey from retired grandmother of four to high stakes roller and ranked poker player, while offering thoughtful, poignant and often humorous ruminations about the connections between poker and life. "This whole poker thing opened up a whole other world for me. It had nothing to do with being old anymore," she said.

The thrill of competition was very familiar to Rubenstein. As a champion table tennis player in the 1950s, she traveled the world playing for the U.S. National Team. And she had a great table tennis face, so to speak: her teammates "would say I was the only player who you couldn't tell who won the match by looking at their face because if I played well, I'd be smiling," Rubenstein said.

But the memory of the spirit of competition faded somewhat in the interim years while she earned her Masters in Philosophy, raised a family, and worked as a real estate broker. All the while, she continued to play poker, a game she had learned from her grandmother. "When I played it was a respite from my everyday world and persona," she writes in the book.

She continues: "In playing poker I had the joy of competing once again as I had in my youth."

In becoming serious about poker at the age of 70, Rubenstein's perspective about the game is more philosophical than most. Poker, she said, is "life in microcosm."

In life "things can go wrong when you do everything right, and in poker that can always happen, you can do everything right, make all the right decisions and it can still go wrong," Rubenstein said.

Understanding that making right decisions is better than struggling for control, in poker and in life, means "you know the score," she added.

And she proved very good at making the decisions online, a great equalizer that allowed her to beat people the world over without having "to put your teeth in, take your slippers off," as she writes in her book.

"If on the Internet they knew that they were playing with me at my age, they would have treated me in a certain way," she said.

Playing on partypoker.com, Rubenstein won a seat on a poker cruise in 2004, where she finished 90th out of 547 players, earning $2000 and the respect of her fellow players, some of whom were a bit surprised to find themselves playing next to a "Gambling Granny," as The Independent, which carried a series of articles chronicling the experience, dubbed her.

Moving out from behind the computer screen, Rubenstein used her unconventional status to her advantage. During the cruise, Rubenstein was at a table with a N.Y.C. police sergeant who "was ignoring me because they ignore older people." During a pause in play, the man asked her where she was from. Told she was from East Hampton, he instantly recognized her from her online profile, which reveals the hometown of the player.

"He said, 'I'm the guy you beat to get into the tournament. And he couldn't believe that it was me . . . a 72-year-old woman,'" Rubenstein recalled.

"He bought my first book."

But even the seasoned competitor was not immune to unsettled nerves. In advance of her first tournament, she asked her son David, who had played in poker competitions, what she should expect. "What he said was, 'You've competed in tournaments. You're going to know.'"

He was right.

Rubenstein will give a reading at Bookhampton in Sag Harbor on November 11 at 6 p.m. Her book is available at Bookhampton, Canio's and Amazon.com.

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