All aboard the Waggoner train

Marsha Waggoner

There's a reason Marsha Waggoner is called the Grand Dame of Poker. When you first meet her, you instantly get the impression she's all smoothness and class and you can tell she brings a sort of gentility to a poker world filled with a lot of rough edges.

Her soft-spoken nature, however, doesn't detract from how she plays the game. Decades of being part of the industry have given Marsha the status of poker royalty as well as the experience to know you have to use every advantage you can at the poker table.

Marsha Waggoner took time to chat with about her career and the current state of poker before she embarks on another hectic World Series of Poker.

How long have you been playing poker?

I started to play 30 years ago in Sydney, Australia, which is where I'm from. So I've been playing pretty consistently since then. I moved over here in about 1978. I moved to Reno and I spent 10 years there. That's where I got involved in poker in the U.S. It was very different in those days - quite different from now.

Were you mainly a cash game player when you started?

That was my introduction to poker, to play in cash games. Of course, I became interested in tournaments when Amarillo Slim brought his tournament to town to host his annual tournament up there in Reno. I was kind of intrigued by that and started to play tournaments.

I felt that I did well, and I'm fortunate to be one of the minority, I would say, of tournament players that succeed in cash games. I find that most of the time tournament players are strictly tournament players because the cash game is a completely different game.

The strategy is completely different. I feel lucky to be able to have mastered both of those games and have done well.

Was it intimidating when you first started playing, since it is such a male-dominated profession, especially back then?

It was a little intimidating for me - not when I started in Australia, but it was when I came over to this country. I felt a little intimidated because I didn't really know the games they were playing here. I had to be prepared to just jump in, and did so, but started at very small limits - $3/$6.

Do you see a difference from when you first started playing to now, with more women in the playing field?

It's extremely different now. In those days, women were few and far between in poker. I started and I got to become successful early on, and I did earn the respect from the guys, so I didn't feel intimidated anymore. Also being one of the few women who competed with the guys, I got a lot of recognition after a while, and that was fun.

I've often opted to keep kind of a low profile. I haven't promoted myself, so to speak, where I probably should have. But who knew poker was going to take such a turn. I was really just going with the flow and enjoying the ride. Then poker just exploded.

With the advent of the Internet poker, that had a huge bearing on what happened. Particularly all the young people came into the poker world via the Internet. It was like, "What's happening to our poker world?" It's been taken over.

Do you find there's a big difference between the Internet players and those who gained their experience offline?

Yes, I do notice a difference. I notice that a lot of the players that came through the Internet are the young guys. I say guys because those are the ones I really notice. I also notice that they seem to get to know each other over the Internet. They seem to develop a very aggressive style of play.

It's funny sometimes to come into a tournament that has (players who have) never played live before. Although they're very experienced at playing poker, they don't know how to handle the chips.

This can be a little confusing, because you think by watching them - and as a live player you do watch people and watch the body language - you do see somebody coming into a game who doesn't know how to handle the chips or the cards, and you basically judge them as a new player, as an inexperienced player.

That's just one of the things I've noticed about playing with them.

Are you planning to play in many events this year at the World Series of Poker?

You know, I haven't decided. I'm going to play in some of the events. I haven't decided which ones yet. It's overwhelming actually, the World Series of Poker schedule. It's too much, it's too big, so I have to sit down and study it and decide which ones I'm going to play.

You're also married to a professional poker player, Kenna James. Do you do anything to try to find some balance so your whole life isn't about poker?

Well, yes. Since I've been in poker for so many years, it's not always my favorite topic 24/7. Where my husband is quite a few years younger than me, he's quite new to the game in comparison to me.

He's much more excited about being a poker player than I am these days. So, I've tried to take a back seat to him and let him forge ahead and grab the limelight, which is what he enjoys anyway because he's been in show business and that's what he likes.

Having more experience, have you ever given your husband advice?

Oh yes! Particularly early on. We've been together for 10 years now, and early on we met in the casino at Hollywood Park in California, and he was working there as a tournament director and trying to break in as a player.

So I was able to take him by the hand, so to speak, and show him the ropes a lot of the way. I was able to take him abroad, because I was traveling to a lot of tournaments around the world. I was able to take him along and open his eyes not only to the rest of the world but to the rest of the poker world.

I was able to introduce him to the high-limit players, seasoned players that I've been playing with for so long. That was a great advantage for him.

Now that you're taking more of a back seat in the poker world, are you exploring other interests?

(Laughs) I'd like to retire. But there's always things out there that grab my attention business-wise. I also have five grandchildren who I like to spend time with, and I'd like to take it easy a little bit now. I don't have that luxury just yet.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Waggoner may be looking forward to retirement, but the poker world isn't yet ready to see her leave. She's still making her presence known in the tournament circuit, including two cashes in WSOP events last year.

She has yet to earn herself a bracelet at the World Series, but we'd certainly like to see her take one down to cap off a long and successful career.

Good luck this year, Marsha!

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