Poker’s ‘femme fatales’

May 16, 2005 12:33 AM

With her soft green eyes and heart-shaped face, you wouldn’t think Isabelle Mercier (even her name has a sweet ring) has an aggressive, intimidating poker style. Think again.

Mercier’s nickname is "No Mercy," bestowed on her by World Poker Tour commentator Mike Sexton. You have to be pretty formidable to earn yourself a nickname in the poker realm, and anything that adds to her opponents’ fear is fine by her.

"I have a very aggressive style of playing, and that disturbs people," Mercier told the Guardian newspaper. "When we draw seats for a tournament most are relieved to see they are not on my table, because when I play live, most of the time I’m the most aggressive player at the table."

Aggression is crucial to playing poker, especially at the tournament level. And because poker has become so fiercely competitive, women — who now account for about 5 percent of the tournament players, up from 1 percent three years ago — have had to sharpen their skills as well as their tongues.

Mercier, 29, admits she has developed a more hostile style over the years: glaring at opponents, staring them down and generally unnerving them so much that they throw in their hand.

The petite, 5 ft. 2 inch French Canadian says her appearance also works in her favor as some male players underestimate her bite.

Gary Jones, poker pro and commentator, says that anyone who underestimates a woman’s ability to be aggressive does so at their own risk.

"Women’s poker is moving on. They are no longer being perceived as the timid calling station they might have been a few years ago," Jones says. "Nowadays you see a woman at the table and you give her the full respect that she deserves."

The one thing women don’t tend to bring to the table, says Jones, is their ego.

"So many poker players play off the back that it’s almost a personal affront to their manhood if you bluff them out of a pot," he says. "I don’t think a woman’s like that. When she comes to the table she’s there to play and she’s there to win. She doesn’t care if you bluff her out as long as she plays a good game. "

A big help is to land a sponsorship deal. Mercier — a law graduate who has played poker since the age of four — has been hired up by PokerStars.com, which now fronts the money for her tournament entrance fees (up to $50,000). After that, though, she’s on her own: one month she might win $100,000, stay in the best hotels and fly business class, then the next three months, nothing. But, she says, "I have nothing to lose, as I have nothing anyway."

Mercier lives out of a suitcase, moving from hotel to hotel — staying in 40 different hotels in 20 different countries in the past year — going to bed anytime between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., leaving little time for anything personal. When not playing live, she plays a tournament a day as practice.

"It’s like a sport — not physically, but it’s a discipline," she says.

And she even dreams about poker — setting herself a poker problem to contemplace while she sleeps, then writing down the results in the morning.

"The poker world has changed phenomenally," says Lucy Rokach, one of Europe’s top female players. "The money now available to be won is life-changing. You’ve got sponsors offering you deals, celebrity players as in other sports and there are more women, which makes for a much pleasanter atmosphere."

When Rokach, 56, first started playing poker 18 years ago it took her just four months to lose everything. She was forced to mortgage her house and borrow money, but she carried on. "I perceived it as a challenge. I didn’t like losing and I thought, ”˜Well, it can’t be that hard’."

Rokach has had her share of testosterone-laden matches over the years, although she says the presence of more women is improving the game’s table manners.

"I’ve had face-to-face arguments several times with fellas I know would have liked to have hit me, but I’ve stood my ground and they realized it was a no-win situation for them," she says.

Rokach’s style, she says, is "aggressive and fast," though she adds, "It’s got to be controlled aggression. There’s no point in being all-in, all-in, all-in. That’s not aggression, that’s kamikaze."

Another formidable femme is Xuyen "Bad Girl" Pham, whose game has earned her both a nickname and a much sought-after sponsorship deal.

As one of Xuyen’s opponents wrote: "Across the table from me is a woman wearing a T-shirt that reads: ”˜Pham "Bad Girl" Xuyen, Pot Limit Hold’eEm World Champion, Is Proudly Sponsored By William Hill Bookmakers.’ This is not a T-shirt one ideally wants to see across the poker table."

Pham is a housewife with three children and, with only two years of professional poker experience, has already won a major World Poker Tour championship.

When not playing live, Pham, 36, plays online from about 8 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m., then gets her kids off to school before heading off to bed.

Pham’s chief ambition now is to win the prestigious World Series gold bracelet — poker’s equivalent to the World Cup.

And as for treating herself when her winnings roll in, she says, "I can’t drive, so I can’t buy cars. I don’t have holidays as I travel so much with poker and go back to Vietnam every two years to see my parents, so I buy diamonds set in white gold. They call me the diamond collector."