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In Memoriam – Cecilia Russo-Bottoms

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Jan 25, 2012


Roy CookeThe poker world lost very a special person member this month when Cecilia (“Cissy”) Russo-Bottoms suddenly passed away on December 1st. “The Witch” as she was affectionately called, was a stable in Las Vegas’s limit hold’em games through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, kicking ass with the best of them. Noted poker authority David Sklansky once ranked her not only as the best female player, but also ranked her amongst the top players of either gender. Wade Mathias, a close friend of Cissy’s for over 25 years wrote the following eulogy in memory of our friend Cissy…May she rest in peace.

On Thursday, December 1, 2011 the poker community lost one of its more skillful competitors and classiest practitioners. That day, Cissy Russo-Bottoms succumbed to a heart attack at the beloved Atlantic City home in which she had grown up. She was an exceptional poker player who played several different games, specializing in limit hold’em. Those who knew her better also recognized that “the witch” who could stir up a brew in her cauldron capable of turning macho men into “squeamish school girls” at the tables, had a softer side as well. This intense competitor who would systematically attack her poker opponents with the cutthroat ruthlessness of a pirate was likewise capable of immense sensitvity. The same person who sent many a card player home busted during her career also had a soft spot for the truly helpless. If any of the feral cats she adopted over the years could speak they should gladly testify to that. Cissy had a passion for cats and an unwavering devotion to those she took in. As she reached the end of her seventh decade of life and began to ponder her own mortality, it was always her cats, three at last count, for which she expressed concern. Just days before she died, Cissy wondered aloud about how the cats would fare if anything were to happen to her.

Cissy was a truly multifaceted individual, and even those close to her really tended to know only select facets of this exceptional human being. She had friendships across the board from all sides of the philosophical and political spectrum. Her marriage to Avon Bottoms, which matched a northern city girl with a southern country boy, was likewise something of a metaphor for her wide range of friendships. Her circle of friends (actually a number of circles, some of which might have contained only one individual) ranged from ultra-liberals to ultra-conservatives as well as others who didn’t define themselves politically. Whereas most who were acquainted with her met her at the table and will remember her as a great poker player, she had lifelong friends in her native New Jersey who likely never turned a card nor even seriously noted Cissy’s poker accolades. And, even her poker buddies traveled in different circles. She must have often found herself at the table on occasion with two or more close friends who didn’t really even know each other.

Likewise, her range of interests was much broader than someone who recognized her as a perennial fixture in the card rooms might expect. Long before she played her first hand of hold’em, she learned at a very young age to play the piano. As a child growing up on the Jersey shore, she would sometimes skip school and “hijack” the neighbor’s rowboat for a day in the bay with a friend. She never outgrew her fondness for the beach. Later, in her teens, she began to frequent the racetrack, a practice that helped foster her interest in gambling and led her to the more lucrative game of poker with the local “old ladies.” Then, as an adult, even as she plied her trade as a hard-nosed poker player, she developed more than a casual interest in yoga and accordingly thought it was bad karma ever to peek at another player’s hole cards, even if he was flashing them to the whole table.

She was as street smart as an alley cat, yet her persona sometimes revealed the naiveté of a kitten. This last trait was largely due to her assumption that others could always be counted on to be as honest as she was. And, it was this bare-boned honesty, along with her farsightedness in regard to poker that made her a champion of integrity. Cissy not only played by the rules; she helped write them. And when asked for her input whenever a casino was opening a new poker room, she would always advocate making the rules as hustler-proof as possible, to prevent local pseudo-pros from shooting angles at novices and tourists. And, it was because she could always be counted on for an honest and meaningful opinion, that Cissy gained respect not only from players, but also from management. She saw poker as a win/win proposition for players and the casino, and therefore was highly regarded by the dealers and floormen alike.

Spending most of her career in Las Vegas, Cissy first came to town over three decades ago back before the World Series of Poker could garner a field of as many as 100 players for the main event, and long before this year’s winner, Pius Heinz, was born. In those days, still years before California legalized hold’em and even further away from the advent of Internet poker, Las Vegas was not only the best place to test your skills at poker; it was clearly the poker Mecca. In Las Vegas, “everybody was a champion from his own hometown,” and many local heroes who moved there with great aspirations were sent packing with their tails tucked. There have been many wannabes and pretenders over the years, but Cissy was one of the small number who really made it. Back then, tournaments were only occasional events, and while Cissy successfully dabbled in them in the years to come, it was the cash games in which she thrived. Texas hold’em was the game of the time and looked to be the game of the future as well. While the no-limit version had been more popular in earlier years, by the time Cissy got to town the limit game had taken over as the clear number one.

Although she did occasionally play other games, it was in limit Texas hold’em that Cissy held court. Interestingly enough, whenever even some of the best no-limit players would choose to sit in her game, condescendingly claiming to have to “gear down” to limit poker, Cissy would immediately seize the moment to relieve them of their money and send them in need of a new “transmission.” While they could see only a limited version of the big-bet game, Cissy’s vision went much deeper. To the extent that the structured betting limited them, it presented opportunity for her. And she would weave for them a tapestry of subtleties which differentiate limit from no-limit, and ultimately strip their gears.

Although Cissy clearly had a good working knowledge of the mathematics of the game, her approach tended to be more intuitive than technical, and she would claim with a laugh, but not totally in jest, that she had a third eye with which she could not only read her opponents’ cards but also peer into their souls. She played poker with a confidence that bordered on arrogance, a trait that appeared to be belied by the fact that throughout her life she maintained a propensity to under-sell herself. It was often her husband, “Bottoms,” who had to push her to the next level. This enigmatic competitor would bask in the limelight yet alternately shun the spotlight. It is at least arguable that only the reality that she was not compelled to do so kept her from reaching the highest rung of the poker ladder. Whereas many of today’s rising stars might not even know who she was, she enjoyed the greatest respect of her contemporaries, several of whom have taken their places in the Poker Hall of Fame. And, it is a safe bet that if it could hypothetically be arranged for all 42 members of that elite group to sit in Cissy’s game, she would be one of the favorites. She was that good.

But as her game of limit hold’em fades in popularity, and no longer holds the position of the world’s favorite poker game, Cissy has left us. And now we who knew her must bid her farewell.

So goodbye friend. You always enjoyed the crowds, yet you needed your space. In your entire life you never really lived alone, yet you were something of a loner. You were many different things to many different people, and others might eulogize you in ways largely unrecognizable to the picture presented of you here. But you were undeniably one of a kind. We will always remember you Cissy, and the game you loved misses you already. ♠

Roy Cooke played poker professionally for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas real-estate broker/salesman in 1989. Should you wish to get any information about real-estate matters — including purchase, sale, or mortgage — his office number is (702) 396-6575, and his e-mail address is His website is You also may find him on Facebook.