A Poker Life is a new series for CardPlayer.com that looks beyond the felt and into the untold stories of poker’s biggest names.
A 12-year-old girl sits at her dining room table with her family playing nickel, dime, and quarter poker. The most that can be won or lost in this friendly home game is a couple dollars. It’s all for fun, but she is determined to improve. She goes out and buys a book, How to Win at Poker, and thereafter, meticulously keeps track of her results on the inside cover.
If that sounds like a poker superstar in the making, it’s because it was. Kathy Liebert was that young girl.
Liebert was born in Tennessee but grew up as a middle child to two brothers in Long Island. After high school, she attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduated with a degree in business and finance. She went to work for Dun & Bradstreet as a business analyst, but didn’t find passion for her job. Her mother encouraged her to find something she really loved to do.
Unsure of what her true calling would be, Liebert relocated to Colorado, where a few communities in the mountains had just legalized gambling. It was then that she discovered $5-limit poker.
“I didn’t have any plans when I moved to Colorado. I just wanted to try something different, so I guess my destiny was to become a poker player,” said Liebert.
Liebert rekindled the love she had for the game as a child and began playing more and more frequently both in casinos and in home games. From running in the poker circles, Liebert became close with a number of poker players, and one day, a friend invited her to go to Las Vegas to play some tournaments.
Her first tournament was an Omaha eight-or-better event during a tournament series at the Gold Coast Casino in 1994. She got heads up and made a deal to split the prize money. Just days after that, she got heads up again, but this time in a limit hold’em event. Liebert chopped the money again, and in her first week of tournament poker, she earned more than $34,000.
With a tremendously successful start to her tournament career, Liebert continued traveling to different series. She accumulated a number of small cashes, but her first six-figure prize came at the 1997 World Series of Poker $3,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em event. She came in second for nearly $124,000.
Leibert grinded a living in tournaments and cash games, and then, in 2005, at the Party Poker Million limit hold’em championship, she found herself at a final table vying for a first-place prize of $1 million. A number of previous second-place finishes motivated her even more to take down the event.
“I had the chip lead when we got heads up, but at one point I got low — almost out. I just said to myself, you know what? I can’t give up. I can’t finish second. I have to come back, and I did. That felt really good, mostly because I didn’t give up.”
The win vaulted her up the money list, and she became the first woman to win a $1 million first-place prize. In 2002, Liebert got redemption for her second-place finish at the WSOP and won her first bracelet in the $1,500 limit hold’em shootout event for more than $110,000. Always a threat in any tournament she plays, Liebert has also gained a tremendous amount of respect on the World Poker Tour, as well. She has a total of 13 cashes, three of them being televised final-tables finishes. In her latest WPT appearance, she finished third at the 2008 North American Poker Championship in Niagara for just over $319,000.
With more than 300 major tournament cashes, Liebert found herself just shy of $5 million in lifetime earnings after her 12th-place finish at the 2009 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event. She traveled to the WSOP Circuit event at Harrah’s Tunica with intention of surpassing the incredible $5-million marker.
Near the bubble, with 20 players left, Liebert was put to a decision. Equipped with a decent chip stack, she looked down at A 10 under the gun. She looked to her left, and an aggressive loose player was in the blinds. He’d been a chip leader for much of the tournament but had recently lost a large portion of his stack.
“I realized that if I played this hand, it was likely that he’d move all-in into me. There were 20 players left, and it paid 18, so my first instinct was to fold. Then I thought it was unlikely that he would have a big hand, so I raised. He did go all in for almost all of my chips. I decided to call, and he had pocket aces.”
Failing to improve, the hand left Liebert crippled and nearly all in in the big blind the very next hand. She was dealt a dismal J-3 and was eliminated. Her devastation didn’t last long, as she soon found out that another player was eliminated in the same round of hand-for-hand play. They would split 18th place money. Liebert took home $5,519, pushing her over the $5 million mark by a mere $577.
“It was really exciting, and I had to call my mother to let her know,” said Liebert.
For the past 15 years, Liebert has been one of the most consistent tournament players in the world, man or woman. She’s by far the winningest female tournament player in the world, but doesn’t necessarily agree with the focus on gender.
“I kind of wish they didn’t distinguish between men and women. It seems like people don’t expect women to be good. It’s almost too much, the whole idea of focusing on the sex thing, but there obviously are not that many women who play, and there are not that many women who are successful, so I can understand why it stands out a little bit more.”
Because poker is an ever-changing game, Liebert attributes the success she’s had to her ability to observe and adjust.
“I think that it’s common for people to fall into a rut and follow the same patterns. If you get too predictable, it’s a bad thing, and I think that I mix up my game quite a bit,” she said.
More Poker to Come
The highs and lows of poker can become tiring, but Liebert says she still enjoys the game she fell in love with as a kid in Long Island.
“Sometimes I get a bit tired of it, but I’ll take breaks where I won’t play for awhile. I think as long as I continue to have good results, I’ll keep playing.”
In addition to her commitment to always try to improve her game, she’s also recently shifted focus to her health.
“I just decided to get healthy. I’m eating right, waking up early. I think it’s going to help both in life and in poker.”
Over her long illustrious career, Liebert has had a number of impressive accomplishments, and she expects even more.
“In the future, I’ll continue to play the big tournaments, but maybe not so many of the small ones. I expect to win a few no-limit championships, hopefully this year and beyond.”
Photos Courtesy of PokerKat.com
Previous installments of A Poker Life: