November 01, 2006

Between The Covers

"A winter's night, alone in the house in East Hampton." That's the opening line, indeed the opening paragraph of Getting Back in the Game, long-time East Hampton resident Lona ("Gambling Granny") Rubenstein's deliciously wry, self-deprecating (but don't let the so-called "old lady" fool ya), breezy account of her life with poker over the last three years.

As the subtitle of this slim, savvy, funny mini-memoir puts it, playing poker online led to "Finding the Fountain of Youth in Cyberspace." And if a 73-year-old grandma could do it — move off the recliner, away from reruns on TV (she was up to the Nazis celebrating the Anschluss on The History Channel), chowing down quarts of ice cream, and hanging out mainly with her two dogs and her husband when he was not out playing poker, well, why not anyone?

And so this book, reprising in part a number of articles Lona Rubenstein did in 2004-06 for The Independent and The Southampton Press about her rise from solitary couch potato to prize-winning poker cruise player and media star.

Though some chapters — thoughtfully flagged as "warning, mostly for poker buffs" — may be too technical for those unfamiliar with Texas Hold `Em, the "Cadillac" of poker — two cards dealt unseen and five face up for all to see — the overall narrative proves engaging for a number of reasons, not least of all for what Lona Rubenstein doesn't fully need to explain: Getting Back in the Game is not only a shrewd analysis of the attractions of poker and competition, especially for the AARP set, but also a thank you to her family — "Just do it, Ma," said "older son David," who encouraged her to get going by playing poker online.

A world table tennis champion at 19, but at 70, despite active years, including lecturing in philosophy at CCNY, Rutgers and Stony Brook (she can bop out references to Kafka, Kant, Sartre), working as Special Assistant to then NY State Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea, and selling real estate, Lona Rubenstein was not doing much with her life and needed to get away from days at the tube. "My friends were dying all around me and I could not drive at night." Did she ever rise to the challenge!

Chapters repeatedly convey her surprise at her late-life good fortune in connecting again with the game of life, at first using the computer. On the Internet everyone is ageless, without gender, without reputation.

Getting back in the game meant more to Lona Rubenstein than just playing poker, however. She had played cards with her family as a child and in later years enjoyed games with "the girls," but was thrown out for bad attitude. The requested departure is not hard to imagine, given her sardonic style, on admirable display here, replete with clipped remarks, dropped definite articles, witty metaphors. Eventually, growing in confidence, she moved from winning monitor play to travel and poker cruises.

She may have seemed at first to the young sharpies she met to be a harmless little old lady, but no way did those whom she bested ever repeat their presumptive mistake: Lona Rubenstein, despite her good-natured diffidence about seeming aggressive, was — and is — one shrewd, analytical games player, a woman of psychological acumen and intuitive expertise.

She unabashedly approves of competition for money. Though her favorite online site, which launched her new career, PartyPoker.com, has free games, she states unequivocally that playing poker without money is like "playing baseball without the balls and strikes." She's heartwarmingly honest.

Although she struck out winning big in this year's cruise competition (not to mention being banned from her grandson's games), she's psyched for 2007. At 73, Gutsy Gramma will be once again going for the gold in Limit Hold 'Em, and advocating along with Poker Players Alliance against the recent ruling by the House of Representatives outlawing poker on the Internet. Goodbye Mr. Chips, Hello Mrs.

Lona Rubenstein will be reading at Bookhampton in Sag Harbor on Saturday at 6 p.m. and at other bookstores and various Hampton libraries in the coming months.

Getting Back in the Game: Finding the Fountain of Youth in Cyberspace by Lona Rubenstein, 105 pp., including appendix, photos. $20.

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