Alicia Spencer is one of those rare female grinders who succeeded at the trade for several years. She learned the game in Minnesota where she grew up, initially playing tournaments in bars and achieving some great results, including winning the first tournament she ever played.
When a job landed her in Washington, D.C., she sought out home games and continued to do well. She remembers that first night playing $1/$2 No Limit when she won a big pot. “It was pocket Aces vs. pocket Kings vs. pocket Queens vs. pocket Jacks. I had the Aces, and although a Jack did hit the board, the player with the Jacks was short stacked and I took most of the money. I left over $800 ahead, and they invited me back,” Spencer says. She continued to take their money.
The first two times she went to Atlantic City, she finished first in both tournaments she played. The third time she had to settle for fourth place, but that was in a WSOP circuit event.
After that, she started entertaining the crazy idea of moving to Las Vegas to play poker for a living. She was good at the game and wanted to see if she could pull it off. “I was young and thought this would be a good time in my life to do something crazy.”
So, in May 2009 she packed up her SUV with everything she could fit into it and drove all the way to Vegas. Spencer played poker every day once there. It didn’t start too well. “I lost $2,000 in the first two weeks. I didn’t know anyone in town. I wondered if I made a big mistake,” she says.
But she started making friends and started having some better results at the table. Although she preferred tournament poker, she had to play cash games in order to make a living. “It was too risky to invest hours in a tournament that could too often result in leaving empty-handed. Those hours were better spent at a cash game where I could make money more regularly.”
Even in the cash games, she’d win a little more than half the time. She had to be disciplined and learn to minimize her losses. “I would say, ‘I’m going to do two or three buy-ins. If I’m done with two or three buy-ins, I’m done for the night.’” Playing $1/$2 NL on the Strip, she’d frequently leave with an $800-$900 profit, and when she played $2/$5 she would often take away in excess of $1,500.
Playing on the Strip meant encountering a few good local players and plenty of tourists. And the latter’s where she made her money. “I divided tourists into two groups. Really bad players and really, really bad players. I preferred to play against only the really bad players. The really, really bad players were too unpredictable.”
She was in Vegas for the 2009 WSOP and played in a few events without cashing. The next year, she decided to play in the Deuce to Seven Triple Draw bracelet event. “It was an unusual move since I had virtually no real experience playing that game. I had learned it watching a friend play. Despite that, I cashed, placing 21st.” For that, she got a $6,000 payday. She cashed the next year in the WSOP No Limit Hold’em Shoot-Out event.
Her skills started impressing a few people willing to back her in these events. Professional poker player Bill Chen – who won two bracelets at the 2006 WSOP – was one of them. He not only became Alicia’s backer, but her mentor too.Alicia never read poker books; she was a natural and learned by playing. Her specialty was the psychological, emotional aspect of the game. She could read the players well, not only to determine what they were likely to be holding but also how they would react to any move she made. And she was real good at it.
She didn’t really pay much attention to the mathematics of poker until Chen worked with her. Chen has a Ph.D in mathematics. He gave Alicia a better understanding of the odds. Once she added that to her game, her results got even better.
She stood out in the very much male-oriented sport and took advantage of her table image. Male players usually have pre-conceived notions of the average woman they see at a table especially if, as in Alicia’s case, she is young, pretty and blonde. They automatically assume she lacks skill and plays timid and tight. She’ll only bet a hand that is really good…they assume.
Alicia took full advantage of that stereotype. She bluffed like crazy. She was a ruthless, take no prisoners type of player. “I rarely got called down because I was aggressive and confident. I would three-barrel with air over and over again.” (i.e. bet the flop, the turn and the river heavily with absolutely nothing).
A few times, Alicia experimented with more overt ways to exploit her femininity at the poker table. She’d put on a dress – instead of her usual comfortable jeans and sweatshirt – and act like she’d never played before. For someone so comfortable at a poker table, it was a difficult ruse to pull off; she had trouble stopping herself from handling her chips and cards like a pro. She did find that it was even easier to bluff when she tried this, but ultimately, it wasn’t necessary. She went back to dressing like a poker player and not a girl heading off to a club.
Many female players report sexist, hostile comments directed at them from the men at the table. “I never encountered anything like that—or if I did, it didn’t really register. Oh, I was hit on constantly while playing, but that was it. I think the male players were upset with me because I was an aggressive, successful player, and not because I was female.” Although it’s likely the fact that they were “losing to a girl” might have made it easier for some guys to go on tilt.
The guys she met away from poker were all fascinated to learn what she did for a living; most of them thought it was great. They wanted to play poker with her. A few even wanted her to teach them to play. She actually charged them for lessons.
If being a professional poker player sounds glamorous, Alicia will tell you otherwise. “It was a tough existence. I was ever mindful of my bankroll, and I knew that a few bad sessions in a row could be devastating to it. The pressure to play and win was overwhelming.” She played 50-60 hours a week, mostly on the Strip. Most often she would start early afternoon and finished a little before midnight.
Unlike some grinders she knew, Alicia never found herself playing just because she had a bill coming due. Her bankroll was never that low. Instead, she sometimes found herself buying in when she shouldn’t have. She’d walk by the poker room after doing something else and decide to play for a little while. She wouldn’t really be in the right frame of mind. “I remember one time when I walked right past a poker room coming out of a club. I decided to play for just a little while. I lost $500 in 15 minutes. I had to learn the discipline to avoid that type of situation.”
The lifestyle of Vegas was a culture shock for her. She hung around with other poker players and gamblers, and they didn’t seem to value money the way she did—or at least the way she did when she first moved to Vegas. Eventually she started to realize that money was meaning less and less to her, too. Everyone she knew seemed to be just looking out for themselves, and she was beginning to include herself in that category.
After a little over year living in Vegas, she had had enough. “I realized I didn’t like the person I had become. Playing because you have to rather than because you want to was taking the fun out of the game for me.” So she decided to move away from Vegas and get a real job. She still visits Vegas frequently, and enjoys poker a lot more now that she’s back playing it for fun. And yes, she’s still very good at it. In May she cashed in a Bracelet event at the WSOP. But then she flew home and went back to work.
Rob Solomon is Ante Up Magazine’s Las Vegas Ambassador & Columnist. More of his work can be found at www.robvegaspoker.blogspot.com.