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Women staking their claim at the poker table

LAS VEGAS -- No woman has won the prestigious no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the World Series of Poker. In fact, in the tournament's 35-year history, only one woman has made it to the final table.

But this year, several women have established themselves as top contenders ready to conquer the world of green felt and show this no longer is just a man's game.

''I think that this is the first year that it is actually possible," said Shirley Rosario, who runs the poker-babes.com website. ''If a woman wins this year, they'll finally have to stand up and recognize that we can compete with them on their level."

Topping the list is Jennifer Harman of Las Vegas, one of the most feared players at any high-stakes table. She finished second in a World Series of Poker circuit championship event this year.

She is among the women who should be taken seriously when the cards are shuffled at the World Series of Poker's most well-known event beginning Thursday at the Rio Hotel and Casino. An estimated 6,600 players will compete for about $62 million, with a first prize that could reach an eye-popping $10 million.

''She definitely has a shot," said Daniel Negreanu, perhaps the world's best poker player. ''She's been tearing it up. Jennifer is already among the greatest players in the world -- men or women. She's a killer. She's a pit bull in a Chihuahua's body."

Joining Harman is Annie Duke, who beat out her older brother and eight other poker legends last year to win $2 million at the World Series of Poker's Tournament of Champions.

And watch out for Cyndy Violette and Kathy Liebert, an expert at throwing off opposing players with her quizzical expressions and the first woman to take home $1 million in a poker tournament.

Mirroring poker's national surge in popularity, the main event at the World Series of Poker has grown dramatically among both men and women. Three years ago, only 631 people registered to play.

But since then poker has exploded, thanks to the game being dealt into homes through nightly TV shows and a pair of poker phenoms who learned how to play on the Internet and won in 2003 and 2004.

Suddenly, one of the most difficult card games became accessible, and anyone willing to practice could become a winner -- a big winner.

Also, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the largest gambling company in the world, bought the rights to the World Series of Poker and created the popular championship circuit. Company officials decided to move the tournament to the Rio's cavernous convention hall and announced this will be the last year the finals are held at the historic Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel.

Cowboy gambler Benny Binion began the poker tournament in 1970 to establish the world's best player. Then, only grizzled veterans stood a chance of being crowned king. Binion probably never imagined a woman could win the World Series of Poker's most prized bracelet.

Last year, Suzanne Carpenter finished 21st among the 2,576 contestants who entered the main event -- which requires a $10,000 buy-in. Women made up about 5 percent of the 2004 field, said Nolan Dalla, the tournament's media director.

Dalla expects that figure to rise slightly this year, meaning the top women players still face long odds.

''We are all very competitive," said Liebert, who won a ''Battle of the Sexes" episode on the Game Show Network in March. ''It's a long shot for anybody. You gotta play your best game and you can't be afraid to lose."

Even winning this year's ladies no-limit hold 'em event that had more than 600 entrees -- almost three times the number in 2004 -- was no easy task. Actress Jennifer Tilly took the title and $158,625 last Monday by topping Liebert and Violette.

Liebert and Violette both have finished in the money in some of the other World Series of Poker events held in Las Vegas in the days leading up to the main draw. Violette won $295,970 in a $2,000 no-limit hold' em showdown after finishing second among 1,403 players.

Such success at the table has earned women respect -- sometimes grudgingly -- from men.

Duke no longer has to endure a guy sticking his tongue in her ear or others making sexually charged comments -- unsavory tales from her poker past.

''I'm easy to yell at because I'm not going to beat you up," said Duke, a mother of four who graduated from Columbia University and went on to study cognitive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Duke said men like to think they can steamroll women and it's ''odious" to them to lose to a woman player. Those attitudes can create advantages and disadvantages in a woman's game, according to Negreanu.

''The average woman overcompensates and is too aggressive," he said. ''They often assume men are trying to bully them."

When facing a woman, men fall into two traps, he said.

''They play nice-nice with women or resent the fact the women are there," Negreanu said.

They play nice, Duke added, thinking they can get a date.

Harman's ability to read her fellow players makes her the favorite among the women.

Harman, Duke, and the other women will need more than ability if they want to make history. As with the men, they'll need Lady Luck.

''You have to be very patient to win this tournament," Duke said, ''and get really lucky."

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