Although she played cards with her family as a child, Marsha Waggoner didn't get her start in the world of professional poker until 1976. A single mother of three, the 28-year-old native of Brisbane, Australia began dealing blackjack at a casino in Sydney as a means of keeping her family fed. Blackjack soon gave way to poker, which paid better, and on her days off Waggoner often found herself at the tables playing stud games. It wasn't long before Waggoner recognized in herself an aptitude for the game and began making better money playing poker than dealing it.
In 1977, just one year after she'd started dealing blackjack, Waggoner moved her family from Sydney to Reno, Nevada. The move was predicated on Waggoner's desire that her children be closer to their estranged father, but also provided her with ample opportunity to continue her foray into the world of poker-playing as a career.
In Reno, Waggoner returned to the poker tables and was immediately able to make a decent living for her family playing cards. From the beginning, she approached the poker tables in a serious frame of mind. "Playing cards was a job for me from the very start," she tells the World Poker Tour. "I pretty much played five days a week and was able to provide for my family quite well."
Somewhat surprisingly for a woman making inroads into a professional poker-playing career, it took Marsha until the early 1980s to make the jump from the card rooms in Reno to their counterparts in glitzy Las Vegas. Vegas at the time of Waggoner's arrival was turning into a Mecca for poker, thanks to the Binion family and their World Series of Poker, and Billy Boyd's efforts in the card room at the Golden Nugget. The action was fast and the money was good, and within a few years Waggoner had packed up her family and moved again, this time to take up residence in the City of Sin.
Marsha Waggoner: From blackjack dealer to talented poker player
While in Las Vegas, Waggoner began to exhibit her talent for tournament-style Hold'em and Seven-Card Stud events, and soon was establishing herself as a perennial contender in freezeout poker. "Back then it wasn't a big deal for me to finish in the money," Waggoner tells the WPT. "I guess I took it for granted because I was doing so well."
Despite her success, Waggoner's stay in Las Vegas lasted only one year. In 1987 she moved to Southern California while continuing to play poker professionally, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, continued to build a name for herself as a solid and patient tournament player whose results continually proved she belonged in the game's upper echelons. Among her high-profile victories was a $52,500 cash for a second-place finish in the Seven-Card Stud Hi-Lo event at the World Series of Poker, which was followed up by a $35,700 haul for a third-place finish in the Limit Omaha Hi-Lo event at the 1995 WSOP.
In addition to her professional poker career, Waggoner took a position as Executive Host at the Hollywood Park Casino in Los Angeles, just a short drive down the Glenn Anderson Freeway from her home in Downey Park, Calif. It was in this capacity as casino employee that Waggoner met her future husband, a struggling actor-turned-poker-player from Chicago named Kenna Grob, in 1997.
Their first meeting did nothing to reveal any romantic possibilities between the two, as it involved Waggoner accusing Grob of cheating in a tournament at the casino. Grob, who would subsequently take his father's middle name as his last name and become "Cowboy" Kenna James, denied committing any misconduct, and once his innocence was firmly established, began a friendship with Waggoner that would eventually blossom into romance.
Waggoner and James were married as James' professional poker career began to take off, and soon the Cowboy and the Grand Dame were traveling around the world as tournament organizers, directing, among others, the first poker tournament at the Cosmos Casino in Moscow, Russia. The duo joins Juan Carlos and Cecilia Mortensen, Phil Laak and Jennifer Tilly, and Michael Mizrachi and Aidiliy Elviro as husband and wife teams on the pro poker circuit. However, although both Waggoner and James support each others' endeavors at the felt, they're careful not to discuss the game at home for fear that their divergent styles will cause too much acrimony.
In 2001, now a grandmother, Waggoner began to suffer from repeated setbacks to her health that in 2002 were diagnosed as being caused by a brain aneurysm. Treatment of the aneurysm required brain surgery, which she undertook in March of 2002. After a period of recovery Waggoner was able to return to the poker tables with her health fully restored, remarkably claiming a 17th place finish in the $10,000 No Limit Hold'em event at the WPT's Five Diamond World Poker Classic in June of the same year.
Waggoner has never looked back after her recovery. She has currently banked over $480,000 in earnings, including an 8th place finish in the $500 Casino Employees Event at the 2006 World Series of Poker (Waggoner was eligible, despite her 30 years of professional poker experience, because of her affiliation with the Hollywood Park Casino). She is also a recent inductee into the Seniors World Championship of Poker/Poker Players Hall of Fame.
In addition to her dual careers as pro poker player and Executive Host, Waggoner enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, as well as dancing and playing golf. She has also been quite busy in poker-related endeavors, including working with her husband on, 8617 in which poker celebrities work to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that provides prosthetics and aid to U.S. Army veterans. In addition, Marsha has made an appearance on Susie Isaacs' poker tutorial DVD 7243, and, most recently, in the poker-themed Hollywood movie Lucky You, featuring Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore.