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The First Lady of Poker

Linda Johnson Graces the Poker World Stage

by Scott Huff |  Published: Dec 06, 2006

How does one earn the moniker "The First Lady of Poker"?

As a player, Linda Johnson survived two decades in the male-dominated, cutthroat world of professional poker. She started her journey in $2-$4 limit games, and eventually grinded her way to and beat games with stakes as high as $100-$200. Although she has victories in many major tournaments, the highlight of her career came in 1997 when she joined the short list of women with a World Series of Poker bracelet from an open event when she won the $1,500 razz championship.

Aside from being a player, Johnson is one of the most successful and diversified poker entrepreneurs in the business. She was publisher and part owner of Card Player magazine for nearly eight years, and is still a prominent figure in the poker business world as part owner of Card Player Cruises and the studio announcer for the World Poker Tour.

However, perhaps more important than her play or business acumen, her role as an ambassador and educator of the game is what Johnson is best known for. She helped start the Tournament Directors Association (TDA), the World Poker Industry Conference, and the World Poker Players Conference, and is a figurehead in the fight for no-abuse cardrooms. Earlier this year she was the recipient of the Brian Saltus award - given annually to a member of the poker community who - in the words of one of poker's greatest ambassadors, Mike Sexton - "brings class and dignity to the game."

Card Player sat down with "The First Lady of Poker" to get more details about her path to poker greatness, both on and off the felt.

Scott Huff: How did your journey in poker begin?

Linda Johnson: My father was a recreational player, a military man, and he supplemented his income by playing. As soon as I turned 21 and started playing blackjack, he said, "Linda, you have to learn how to play poker if you're going to gamble, because in poker, if you play better than your opponents, you have a positive expectancy, and that's not necessarily true with the other casino games." So, I heeded his advice and was basically self-taught in the beginning. I bought Sklansky's books, taught myself, and never looked back. In 1980, I entered the World Series, and had determined ahead of time that if I did well, I was going to quit my job and move to Las Vegas, and I did. From the beginning, I was always successful playing, and never regretted the decision.

SH: When was the moment that you knew, "I'm good at this game; I can do this"?

LJ: By the time I was 25, I was winning consistently, and mind you, I had never played a hand of poker until I was 21. I'm not a very impulsive person. In fact, when I first started playing poker, I probably took longer to move up. Most people move up quickly, but I didn't. I made sure that I was winning for a long period of time before I moved up. By the time I was 25, I knew it was meant to be.

SH: Where was the biggest change in limits when moving up?

LJ: I started recognizing a big difference in the players when jumping to the $10-$20 limit in the early '80s. If you think about it, $10-$20 is not a high-limit game, but back in the '80s, $10-$20 was a big game; that's what the pros played.

SH: You were a winner in that game?

LJ: I was a winner in that game, yes. I was very fortunate to have a knack for poker. A lot of players have long losing streaks and have gone broke, but I've never experienced that.

SH: Really?

LJ: Well, I've had losing streaks. Anyone who tells you he wins every day is full of bologna. But I never had prolonged losing streaks.

SH: So, the supposed rite of passage that everyone goes broke …

LJ: Everyone goes broke did not happen to me.

SH: What was it like being a woman in poker before the poker boom?

LJ: The first tournament I ever entered, I think it was in 1978, was at the Las Vegas Club. I think it was a $44 buy-in tournament, and I'll never forget it, because as I was signing up, all the men were like, "Oh, honey, if you win, you're gonna get a free buy-in for life." I was the only woman in the tournament, and, I think, the first woman who had ever played in a tournament there. And then when we got down to the final table, everything changed. It was like eight men ganging up against me, and they were talking on breaks, "OK, we really gotta get her out of here." It really was that bad back then. Well, you're not going to find that today. Today, women are welcome at the table and are treated like ladies, and it's a very nice environment.

Johnson sustained herself as a poker pro for nearly 15 years; however, her legacy in the game will likely come as a result of her efforts off the felt. Her role as an ambassador of poker began in 1993 when she and her partners purchased Card Player magazine.

SH: What were your goals when you took on Card Player? What kind of product did you want to put out?

LJ: My goals for Card Player were to represent the industry in a positive light. Back in those years, poker wasn't as popular as it is today, and people didn't respect it as much as they do today. My goals then were really to elevate the status of poker through the magazine, and that's what I did. Behind the scenes if there were problems, I'd work with cardrooms. Instead of putting things in the magazine, I would call them. I didn't just push everything aside, but I didn't believe all the negative things needed to be publicized. I was very upfront that Card Player was to promote the industry.

You say you were proud of being a poker player. In an article written by Nolan Dalla about you, you also said, "The only concern I did have was that after playing for so many years, I asked myself what I was contributing to society." Was it really important to you to help do something for the game by helping to grow it?

LJ: Yes. I believe my job is really to be an ambassador of poker, to introduce people to poker, to ensure that poker is respected, and make sure that people respect poker. I think that if I have any legacy at all, it will be contributing to the no-abuse situations that we now have, because years ago, it wasn't so nice playing in cardrooms. You had to put up with a lot of profanity, and a lot of player abuse and dealer abuse. It wasn't as much fun to play back then. With the development of the Tournament Directors Association that was founded by Matt Savage, Dave Lamb, Jan Fisher, and I, (abuse) was one of the things we made sure to take away.

SH: How bad was it for an amateur poker player before the poker boom?

LJ: Well, it was really a boys club back then. I started playing in public cardrooms in the '70s, and it was rare to see more than one other woman in the cardroom. So, a lot of the men were hostile, a lot of the men were flirtatious - it ran the full gamut. It was like being in a men's locker room back then - a lot of profanity, a lot of throwing cards, and a lot of player abuse …

SH: Why is it important to you to continue to grow and clean up poker? Why poker? What do you love about the game that you feel you need to share with others?

LJ: I love so many things about poker. I have three goals every time I go to play. One is to make money, one is to have fun, and one is to make sure my opponents have fun. I love the social aspect of poker. If you frequent a cardroom, you get to know the people you play with quite often, and they actually become like family to you. With our cruises, we have tremendous repeat business. I get to see people year after year, and their families and their kids are growing up.

SH: Considering your involvement as an ambassador of the game, what do you think of the current state of poker?

LJ: I think poker is at the best place that it's ever been. My mailman is delivering my mail and talking about Phil Ivey, and my hairdresser is talking about how a certain player is hot. America has really adopted poker as its favorite pastime now. I think it's like number three or number four for the most people involved.

SH: What is the difference between the way poker players are perceived now and when you started playing?

LJ: When I first started playing, people didn't understand. If I told them I was a professional poker player, they would say, "Oh, where do you deal?" People didn't really understand that (you) could make a living playing poker. Now, it's amazing; when the poker players are with the movie stars, a lot of times, people will come up and ask for the poker player's autograph rather than the movie star's autograph. The movie stars are even asking for the poker players' autographs. I'm proud to be a poker player. I'm proud that people now understand what that means, and that it's not something sleazy.

SH: What do you think of the poker role models who are out there, the guys who are winning all these WPT events, the people the public knows pretty well at this point? Do you think the image of poker is getting better because of the people we have in the limelight?

LJ: I think that most of the people we see on the WPT and in the World Series are role models. I think they present themselves very well. There are a few people out there who have realized that it can be income producing for them to put on a character of themselves as being a "bad boy" of poker. Personally, I have a problem with that, because I think people emulate what they see, and I really want them to see people behaving properly. I respect people who know how to behave themselves and put forth a good image so that the younger people will behave themselves.

SH: What improvements do you think poker still needs to make?

LJ: I think it's really important for the cardrooms to provide a friendly atmosphere and to provide adequate training for the dealers, so that they can maintain control of the game; and to provide a comfortable environment, good food, and nice playing conditions … They have a responsibility to the players, and the players have a responsibility to the cardrooms. Basically, it's to provide good service.

In August of 2000, Johnson announced that she would be stepping down as publisher of Card Player magazine. Among her reasons, she wanted to have more time to play poker. Six years have passed since Johnson made that decision.

SH: You left Card Player because, among other things, you wanted to play more poker. Are you back on the grind?

LJ: Actually, after I left Card Player, I really did intend to retire and play poker professionally, but it didn't work out that way. Immediately thereafter, I got involved in the World Poker Tour, as its studio announcer. That requires about 16 weeks a year of traveling and not playing poker. Then I got involved in the World Poker Tour Boot Camp. I'm still writing my column (for Card Player) and I get a lot of reader questions. I get about 300 e-mails a day. I'm also hosting different tournaments. The bottom line is, no, I'm not playing nearly enough poker, although I try to play every day. I play mostly online just because I'm so involved in business that I don't have time to make it to the cardrooms as often as I would like.

SH: What stakes do you play online?

I play online for stakes of $20-$40 to $100-$200 (limit poker), and $10-$20 no-limit. Since the new Internet gaming law passed, I have been playing only when I am out of the country.

SH: What is your opinion of the new Internet gaming law?

LJ: Regarding my take on the prohibition, it absolutely disgusts me that our government can be so hypocritical as to say that you can gamble on the lottery or on horses online, but not on poker. It's so sickening to think of the millions of Americans who enjoy playing online who now will have to stop. I have a friend by the name of Jackie, from Florida, who is undergoing chemotherapy, and her biggest joy in life is playing online poker; she sits and plays $5 sit-and-gos all evening long. What's the harm? How dare our government tell her she can't play! What about the millions of elderly and handicapped people who play for enjoyment? And how about all the online pros who have uprooted their families and moved to states where they want to live, rather than having to live near a brick-and-mortar cardroom? They now have to move again. Many people have lost their livelihoods over this travesty. Think of all the online party planners, media personnel, affiliates, SWAG suppliers, and so on who lost their jobs overnight; it truly sucks! Also, the way the bill came about disgusts me. I have always been a flag-waving American who supports my government, and the distrust and disgust that I now feel is what makes me the saddest. I really could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.We all need to join and support the Poker Players Alliance (, in an effort to continue to keep poker available online, in charity events, and in our homes.

SH: What stakes do you play live now?

LJ: When I play live, I play in the $75-$150, $100-$200 range, and Omaha eight-or-better is probably my game of choice. I also love Chinese poker, but it's hard to find a game a lot of times. And, of course, razz, (the game) that I won my bracelet in. Although, it seems like the only place you can find a razz game anymore is at the World Series. But I play all games. I really enjoy mixed games, as well.

SH: Do you play any of the big buy-in events anymore?

LJ: I can't play any WPT events, but I still play in the World Series, but because of my travel schedule, I was able to play in only four events at the World Series, but I'm going to try to play in more next year.

SH: Do you still consider yourself a professional poker player?

LJ: I don't consider myself a pro anymore. I'm more of a semipro, because the bulk of my income comes from the business side of poker. I never had intended for it to go that way, everything just kind of fell into my lap. I went on the first poker cruise, and ended up buying Card Player magazine, but my intention was always to remain a professional poker player. My real love in poker is teaching. I teach poker on the cruises, as well. I've probably taught 1,500 people how to play.

SH: Let's talk a little about Card Player Cruises. You're still the owner of Card Player Cruises?

LJ: When I left Card Player, we separated Card Player Cruises and Card Player magazine. They became separate businesses, and I'm involved in five poker cruises a year. I'm a partner in Card Player Cruises with Jan Fisher and Mark Tenner. We're all equal partners. Card Player Cruises for me is a really fun way to enjoy playing poker. I get to see a lot of foreign countries and ports. Since we have so many repeat cruisers, it's really like a family. People are under the misconception that cruises cost thousands and thousands of dollars. We have seven-day cruises that start at less than $600, so they're very affordable. There's no abuse, and don't come if you don't want to have a good time.

SH: What's the demographic of the cruisers on one of your cruises?

LJ: We have a wide variety of passengers on a regular cruise. There are probably a few more men than women, but we have a lot of married couples. The average age might be 40. So, we run the gamut; we have young, old, and middle-aged. We have tournaments - $100 and $200 buy-ins, instead of $10,000 - and our game mix includes anything our cruisers want to play.

SH: Do you still have any poker-playing aspirations; things that you want to achieve in the game, considering that you've already achieved so much with your endeavors outside of the game?

LJ: Most of my career goals have been fulfilled. Winning the bracelet was probably the biggest one, and I've been able to do that. I just want to continue to become a better and better player, but there's no real tournament, per se, that I say, "I have to have this bracelet." When I retire from the WPT, I would like to start playing in those events, and, of course, I'd like to win a WPT event, but other than that, no.

SH: What do you miss about being a professional poker player and what don't you miss?

LJ: What I miss most about being a professional poker player is that now I have to set an alarm clock sometimes, and I never used to. The freedom. I have deadlines now. I have commitments. I have rough travel schedules. When I was a professional poker player, I could sleep until noon. I had a lot more free time. My time now is taken up. I'm busy. I just don't have time to watch all of my favorite shows and to travel for pleasure as much anymore.

SH: What does the future hold for Linda Johnson? What about that free time?

LJ: I'm just really looking forward to the future, and as I said in 2000, just being able to play more poker, and I think it may be happening very soon. I'm involved with a huge poker project that is about to be announced. Stay tuned. spade