From the Poker Vaults: Betty Carey

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Whatever happened to Betty Carey? In the late 1970s and early 1980s she was one of the most feared no-limit hold’em players on the planet. None other than Doyle Brunson attested to how ruthless she was at the poker table when he said, “She used to flutter those blue eyes at me until I got to know how cold-hearted she was. It took me a year to wake up. Now don’t get me wrong. She’s a nice person away from the table, but at that table she’s all aggression. She’s very tough.”

Carey was the Jennifer Harman-Traniello of her era. Beyond being two of the most feared cash-game players the game has ever known, both of them grew up in the west and were introduced to poker by their fathers at an early age. Carey’s dad owned an auto repair shop in Cody, Wyoming and fancied himself something of a gambler. At the very least, he looked the part, driving fancy cars — mostly Cadillacs and Lincolns — and wearing $500 boots made from iguana skin.

After suffering an injury to his leg, Carey’s father moved his family to Las Vegas, where he worked as a seafood importer for some of the restaurants downtown. When he died in a car accident, his daughter was inconsolable, skipping school, and, much to her mother’s chagrin, moving out of the house when she was just 14. To pay the $60 she owed in rent each month, she took a job as a carhop, and during her free time she discovered the game of poker. The first time she played she sat down at a $3-limit seven-card stud game and won, a victory she called “a fluke.” She would eventually attend three different colleges but never graduated from any of them. “My mind wasn’t on school,” she explained. “It was on poker.”

The lifestyle of a professional poker player suited her. “The real luxury of life is being able to wear blue jeans anywhere I go,” she said. “I’ve got completely personal freedom. I don’t have to impress anyone anymore.” While embracing the pros of such a life, she also came to terms with its many cons. The biggest was getting hijacked. She once got robbed in a hotel room in Billings, Montana, but she didn’t spend any time crying about it, thanks mostly to the .357 Magnum and the .38 she carried. “He grabbed my purse and we struggled,” she explained. “The straps broke and he took off. My gun was in my suitcase and my bullets were in my curler case. I finally found two bullets and went after him. And then a horrible thing happened. I fell down, and he got away. If I’d have caught him, I would have killed him.”

With this kind of kill-or-be-killed mindset, she quickly rose through the ranks until she was regularly playing in some of the biggest cash games in the world. In Lake Tahoe she once won $90,000 in just three hours playing heads-up against Bob Stupak. In perhaps her most famous matchup, Jimmy Chagra, the famed drug dealer, staked her $100,000 to play Amarillo Slim Preston heads-up at the Las Vegas Hilton. Before they sat down to play, Preston casually asked her how she liked the tea she was drinking. She responded, “It tastes really good.”

Later, when a big hand arose between the two of them, Preston asked her, “How do you like your hand, Betty?”

“Boy, this is a real good hand,” she replied, but to Preston’s ear her response didn’t sound the same as before. Suspecting she was bluffing, he called and won the hand. The next time they played, she wore earplugs so she wouldn’t be distracted by his incessant talking, and the tactic worked. She busted him in less than ten minutes.

When she wasn’t playing in Las Vegas, Carey could often be found in Texas. She owned a townhouse in Houston and often made her way up to Dallas to play in Charlie Bissell’s game. One night she raked in one of the biggest wins ever recorded in that game, winning $51,000 in a $5/$10/$25 game of no-limit hold’em. “She had all of the hands in the right spots,” said T.J. Cloutier, “and the guys weren’t giving her credit for being the player she was. She ate them alive.”

While she was mostly a cash-game specialist, she also enjoyed some success in tournaments. In the $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em event at the 1983 World Series of Poker she finished third. While that result might have pleased some players, it was devastating to Carey, who became so depressed afterwards she slept for two straight days. “I hate it when people congratulated me for coming in third,” she said. “They don’t understand that this game is about winning, not coming in third.”

And then, just as it appeared that she would be a fixture in the world of high-stakes poker for years to come, she suddenly retired. In the late 1980s she retreated to a ranch in Wyoming where she could raise her daughter in peace and never suffer a bad beat. In 2008, she emerged from her sabbatical to play in the World Series of Poker and finished 36th out of the 716 players who entered the $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em event. The 25-year gap between her two World Series cashes is believed to be a record. While it was good to see her back on the pro tour, her appearance provided more questions than answers, the biggest of which was: What if she’d continued playing all those years?

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