Kathy Liebert says she never set out to pave the way for women in poker but after more than two decades crushing live tournaments, that's exactly what she did.
Liebert's first cash was in 1994 and since then she's racked up more than $6 million in live tournament earnings.
She was the first women to win a $1 million first-place prize, although she filled us in on the deal she made in that event, and when she started she was one of the very few female players traveling the live tournament circuit.
Liebert has finished 17th in the WSOP Main Event twice, won a WSOP bracelet in 2004 and made six WPT final tables. This year she made it deep in the Main Event again but busted on Day 5 in 251st place for just over $40,000.
"I Wasn't Trying to Pave the Way"
After her elimination Liebert sat down for an extended interview with PokerListings.com, covering what it was like in the early years of her career as one of the only women in the game and the effect she had for female poker players who came after.
PokerListings.com: We're sorry to see you bust but what was the experience like for you today?
Kathy Liebert: I was in a pretty good mood today. I was not miserable. It felt good to be there and have a shot.
Sometimes you're playing these tournaments and it can be grueling and frustrating but I felt like I had a shot so today was fun.
PL: Does all your experience make it easier to brush yourself off and do it all over again after busting out deep in an event like this?
KL: I'm used to it. I used to play a lot more. For a long time I traveled and played most of the WPTs, and I did get a little burned out. I was running really bad for a while and it seemed like I was always getting coolered and taking ridiculous beats.
So I cut back a little and I'm playing more locally, not traveling the world playing every big tournament.
But if I don't feel like playing I don't have to play. I'm not grinding to pay the bills anymore.
PL: Your results go all the way back to the mid-90s. What was it like back then being a woman in the poker world?
KL: In the 90s there were hardly any woman at all. They were saying I was the best woman player which was a compliment but there were only a few women playing. So when people called me the best woman player I'd say, “Can you even name five other woman players?”
It was a compliment but at the same time being one of the best women was kind of a joke because there were so few.
There were a few names that had come before me like Marsha Waggoner and Barbara Enright. They were good, successful players but they weren't traveling the circuit. We would see them once in a while but I was one of the very few women who was actually traveling and playing all the events.
When the World Poker Tour started I was playing most of them and sure, there'd be a couple women in the field but I can't think of another woman who was traveling and playing the big buy-in events regularly.
PL: Did you face additional challenges being a woman in a game with pretty much all men?
KL: I do think in general most people don't think women are as good but I just went and played. I didn't really worry about fitting in or whatever. I just did it.
Sometimes I felt a little disrespected but it didn't really bother me that much. I ignored it and just did my thing.
PL: Have you seen the poker world's attitude towards women change since then?
KL: Now I hear the whole 'She's a good player, for a women" thing a lot less. There are so many good female players now who are winning. Now if you're good people just say you're good.
Back then there were so few women playing that I really stood out. Now it's not that unusual.
PL: Do you see yourself as a pioneer for women in poker?
KL: I wasn't trying to pave the way for anyone. I just liked to play and I was doing well. I definitely heard from women who said stuff like, "If you can do it I can do it" and I did get a lot of support from other women.
It's tough. A lot of time you're not going to be happy. You're going to be frustrated. It's a tough lifestyle so it's really valuable when you have people encouraging you or looking up to you. But that wasn't the reason I was doing it. I wasn't trying to do it.
PL: Whether you were trying to or not, you did pave the way for women. Why do you think we see more women in the game now?
KL: Well, when you started being able to play on the internet a lot more women started getting good.
It's expensive to learn playing live so the internet was a huge factor. A lot of information became available online and a lot of the good women players today learned playing on the internet.
When I first started playing I wasn't able to play online or watch training videos or anything like that. I do think it's a lot easier for everyone now.
And the really good players embraced all the information that's available now and learned a whole new way of playing without having to go through the ten years of experience.
PL: We wanted to ask you specifically about the partypoker cruise where you won the $1 million first-place prize. Did you really take $1 million?
KL: We made a deal. When we got nine-handed it was suggested to even out the money a bit because it was a million for first and like $8,000 for ninth but the shortest stack didn't like the deal because he wasn't going to get that much more.
But I think we evened it out a bit once he busted and I swapped some action with some other players.
When we got four-handed a deal came up again and actually this kid that had a lot of chips was beating Phil Hellmuth in every pot and holding over him.
The kid had never won anything in his life and he wanted to make a deal. Hellmuth and I refused to take any money out of our equity to make a deal so the kid actually sacrificed like $50,000 to make the deal.
I don't remember the exact amount I took but it was a lot less than a million, $400k, $500k maybe. But it was a huge win for me.
PL: How did that win influence the course of your career?
KL: Before the cruise I had had a fair amount of success but at the time I wasn't running great and was thinking of cutting back on playing. But because of that win I decided to play more and was able to play bigger buy-ins.
I was usually pretty conservative in terms of bankroll. There are people out there who win $100k and go out and play every $10k but if I had $100k I'd feel like I could risk like $20k and I'd put the rest in the bank and in stocks.
Having that win allowed me to play a lot more and a lot bigger.
PL: Have you ever gone broke as a poker player?
KL: I've had times when I've run really well and times when I've run really bad. But I've never gone broke because I never put it all on the line.
When I won money I always invested part of it. I know a guy who won a million here at the WSOP and now he's traveling everywhere, playing $25k and $50k tournaments. And okay, you might be a great player but it's very easy to go through a lot of money.
Even though I could afford to buy-in myself I also sold a lot of action because I never wanted to go broke.
Now I don't have to play to pay the bills. My goal was always to achieve financial freedom. I never felt like I had to go out and prove myself and try to be a superstar or something. I know I'm a good player and I don't have to play the biggest buy-ins to prove that.
I'm really happy now to have financial security and have the freedom to play when and where I want.