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Stud champ’s a femme!

May 11, 2004 1:21 AM

It’s a cliché to say that the two finalists in this tournament both "deserved to win." But if ever there were a situation in which two players earned a championship through dedication and perseverance, it was the $2,000 buy-in Seven-Card Stud High-Low Split event at the World Series of Poker.

In the final match-up, Cyndy Violette, a high-limit professional poker player based in Atlantic City, opposed Pete Kaufman, an 80-year-old Vegas local most commonly seen playing in small-buy-in tournaments.

Both players effectively "earned" the event’s one and only gold bracelet through decades of persistence. It took 20 years, but Violette outlasted Kaufman and finally won her first World Series of Poker event and the corresponding gold bracelet.

In fact, she becomes the first female player to win at the World Series since Jennifer Harman won in 2002. Overall, she is only the eighth female gold bracelet winner in history.

Violette, now in her 40s, started playing poker professionally at a time when most young, good-looking twenty-something’s were either graduating from college, or getting married and starting families.

She started out dealing blackjack in downtown Las Vegas back in 1982, and gradually moved her way to the other side of the table as a player. Violette played low- to middle-limit poker around Las Vegas and California during the poker boom in the 80s.

Just when it looked like she might become poker’s youngest and brightest star, she got married and quit playing poker for a two-year period. Living in Washington state, Violette was away from the poker scene and gradually realized she missed the game and the freedom of the poker playing lifestyle.

After her divorce, her life took a drastic turn when she visited Atlantic City in 1993, shortly after poker was legalized. She immediately packed her bags, moved East, and made a fortune playing $75-150 seven-card stud, which later evolved into games with much higher stakes — sometimes as high as $2,000-$4,000.

She was featured in national magazines and on television, her photographic smile and humble sincerity, a glaring contradiction to the image of the "professional poker player." Violette stood out in the testosterone-laden Taj Mahal like a flower inside steel mill. Her 100-pound frame and Meg Ryan-like looks fooled more than a few card players, who took one look at her and wondered what in the heck a woman was doing in the big game.

Yet for all of her financial accomplishments, the one thing that had eluded her, at least until last week, was the coveted World Series of Poker gold bracelet — the benchmark of achievement in the poker world.

She had cashed at the WSOP eight times, and came close to winning a few times. But, she always came up just short. Violette came into the final tale second in chips with $65K, to (then chip-leader) Gene Timberlake from Houston, with $102K. Eliminations from the final table proceeded as follows:

Robert Turner had plenty of chips with two tables left, but then came in to the finale with the second-lowest stack. On his last hand, Turner had a pair of 7s for high and a made-low, but lost when Violette and Joe Wynn cut up his chips with better hands. Turner, a.k.a. "Chip Burner," has 22 cashes at the WSOP, and over $350,000 in lifetime earnings. He added $11,540 to that amount for 8th place.

Joseph Wynn: Two players were eliminated on a single hand when Violette picked up two pair and bested Wynn’s pair of 10s. Wynn was the shortest stack at the time, and took 7th place. Wynn, who cashed in this event four years ago, received $16,080.

Lance Edelman busted on the same hand as Wynn with two pair — jacks up. Violette’s kings up prevailed, and the 28-year-old Las Vegas poker pro was out as the 6th-place finisher. He collected $20,200.

Andrew Blumen was desperately low on chips, and he tried to complete a spade flush, but fell short and finished with no pair. Violette had busted yet another player, this time with a powerhouse pair of deuces. Blumen, an attorney with four cashes at the WSOP, received $25,560 for 5th place.

John Hoang went out with two-pair, which lost to Pete Kaufman’s trip-queens. Hoang had a straight draw to go with tens and nines, but missed on the end. Hoang, from Alhambra, Calif., won $30.920 in prize money.

Gene Timberlake: The Houstonian wearing his trademark cowboy hat made a strong run, and was favored by many to win when the final table began. However, he seemed to run out of gas when play became three-handed. Timberlake, who plays big cash games, had been here at the final table before, coming up short a few years ago with a second-place finish. This time, he was knocked out when he ended up with two pair — 10s and 5s which lost to Violette’s aces up. "I play my best poker when the deck is running over me," said Timberlake, joking in a pre-tournament statement. Unfortunately, the deck did not run over Timberlake on this night.

"It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating," Timberlake said afterward. "How you feel depends on how you get eliminated. I thought I played well, but I got ambushed."

When heads-up play began, Cyndy Violette had about a 2 to 1 chip advantage over Pete Kaufman. Thus began a four-hour marathon, filled with drama and suspense.

Actually, it looked as if the match would end very quickly. Violette was clearly the more aggressive player early, since Kaufman wouldn’t call a bet unless he had what looked to be a strong hand. This gave Violette multiple bluffing opportunities, and she took full advantage of her opponent’s passivity.

Yet, on at least a dozen occasions, Kaufman was "all in" and somehow managed to survive. One of the most exciting moments occurred about an hour into the duel when Violette had a chance to scoop, needing a deuce to win her first title. She slowly peeled back the seventh and final card and saw a vast white spot on the face. It sure looked like a deuce. Milking the moment for all it was worth, she peeled the card up slowly and tabled — a three! So, close, yet again.

Violette had the chip lead during the match virtually the entire way, wavering between an overwhelming stack advantage at about 8 to 1, to rare instances when Kaufman was nearly even with his charming adversary. Just when it seemed Violette would close the deal and win, Kaufman rallied from the felt and staged a comeback. Had this been a boxing match, it would have been the equivalent of one fighter being knocked down for a "9 count" several times, then getting up off the canvas and continuing the fight for another ten rounds. Violette-Kaufman meet Ali-Frazier.

The key hand of the finale took place when Violette won a huge pot with a flush against Kaufman’s trip jacks. Violette made a flush on sixth street, and Kaufman had a chance to seize the chip lead if he could somehow make a full house on the final card. He failed to improve and reluctantly called Violette’s bet on the end, losing a large portion of his chips on the hand. After battling back yet again, Kaufman finally went bust with trips — this time three deuces. The final hand gave Violette trip 4s versus Kaufman’s trip 2s. Ten hours after coming back on the second day, and over four hours of heads-up play — it was all over.

Kaufman, showing no signs of his age (80), walked around the table and was the first to congratulate a radiant Violette. The crowd stood an applauded his gritty determination, having witnessed one of the most enduring struggles in the 35-year history of the World Series of Poker. In the crowd were many friends and associates who knew Kaufman, having seen him around town in the small buy-in tournaments held everyday in Las Vegas.

To say Kaufman is a "late bloomer" would certainly be an understatement. He made it into the money in the main championship event three years ago (at age 77), made a final table in Limit Hold’em last year, and became the runner-up in this event. It’s unknown whether or not he’s the only octogenarian to make a WSOP final table — but the prospect seems likely. He collected $69,100.

Violette was visibly emotional about winning her first championship title, and explained what the victory meant to her: "This was a personal breakthrough. I’ve felt like there’s been a block against me winning tournaments," she said in a post-tournament interview. "I’ve been working to break through and so this victory is really very important to me.

"My preparation this year has been different," she continued. "I started doing meditation, positive-affirmation, and other things (to help me)”¦.I’ve been a professional poker player for 18 years and having a bracelet is something that’s very important to me. Every time I call my daughter, I have to tell her I went out and didn’t make it. She keeps asking me, ”˜Mom, when are you going to win, already?’ My dad says the same thing. So, my family started to feel frustrated, too."

When asked if she had informed her daughter about the breakthrough win, Violette became even more emotional. She said that was a special phone call she had been waiting years to make. When the interview with ESPN ended, she picked up her cell phone and began dialing. One can only imagine the reaction back in New Jersey to the new seven card stud champ’s wonderful news.