Helen Ellis has just come back from a weekend of playing poker in Atlantic City. It wasn't the best weekend, but she is in good spirits telling me all about her poker adventures. And they are adventures. She is a prim and proper Southern lady, always impeccably coiffed, almost never in jeans. I already know not to underestimate Helen by her perfect housewife demeanor because I've read American Housewife, her latest book, a collection of short stories about domestic life, biting and full of subversive wit.
When I learn that she is also a poker player, I am initially surprised, but not shocked. Poker is the perfect vehicle to destroy your opponents without messing up your hair. It's all "head games," a show played for oneself, and also for the audience at large, as I learn when I later talk to her. After we finish talking, I am determined to learn how to play myself, but also determined to make sure if I ever have a daughter, she can take the boys down while wearing pearls too.
Laia Garcia: When did you first start playing poker?
Helen Ellis: I started playing poker at six years old — my niece is six years old, and I am chomping at the bit to teach her how to play. I learned at the kitchen table beside the lazy Susan of my granddaddy's house, with my grandmother making oven-heated Ore-Ida French fries.
It was Granddaddy and Papa and me, at six, learning how to play Seven-Card Stud. Granddaddy used to tell me, "Helen Michelle, I go down to the men's club, and all the grandfathers brag about their granddaughters. They say, 'My granddaughter is a ballerina' or 'My granddaughter can twirl a baton, and that baton is on fire.' I say, 'Well, my granddaughter can play poker and drink out of a can.'"
Ever since then, I played. On my 21st birthday, my father met me in Las Vegas. We stayed at the Mirage; it was brand new. There was [a] Siegfried & Roy [show], there was the huge erupting volcano outside. We walked through the casino on the way to the buffet. My father put $5 on the roulette table on the number 21, and it hit. Then he took me to the Strip, sat me on Caesar's statue. He told me, "Look around," and there were the lights of The Strip and the stars in the sky. He said, "Helen Michelle, this is the center of the universe."
To this day, my father and I meet twice a year to play poker. We go to Vegas, or, because he's in Alabama, we'll go to Biloxi, Mississippi, or Tunica, Mississippi.
LG: Do you remember what it was like when you first played in a tournament?
HE: I have two that come to mind. The first one that comes to mind, I think it was 2008, which really got me playing tournaments proper. All these casinos that have poker rooms, they have nightly tournaments, which are $55, $105, small tournaments with 100 people, if that. For years, I would play these nightly tournaments. I usually would go to these, play cash, no limit, put down $200, and as soon as I won my entry fee for the tournament that night, I would quit and then play the tournament.
One of the first ones I played was in Tunica. I started out playing women's events, or, as they are called in the poker world, Ladies' Events. Women make up, at most, 4 percent of the poker players in the tournament world, [so] a really nice way to become comfortable in that arena is to play the Ladies' Events. It's a nice way to get your toe in the water. I would encourage any woman to do it. It's not as aggressive. When you walk in as a woman, you are noticed. It is intimidating. Think about when you walk into a mosh pit of all men. They're a little bit better behaved because they're seated, but they immediately see you as prey, until you quietly reach across the table and slit their throat.