At 74, East Hampton’s Lona Rubenstein has made a life out of competition. As a teenager, she was a world-class player of table tennis—that’s ping pong to most people, with “the best forehand in the world,” as she tells it. More recently, she has been a real estate broker and market watcher—perhaps more cutthroat and competitive a venture than any professional sport. For years, she has run a PR and political consulting business.
And in the last few years, she’s rekindled a once leisurely pastime, high stakes poker, and turned her competitive instincts into a money maker. In June, Ms. Rubenstein will sit among the top poker players in the world at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Ms. Rubenstein was invited to the WSOP, which hosts more than 6,000 poker players for a month-long series of tournaments each year, to play in the Ladies No-Limit Hold-Em World Championship by the “Queen of Hearts,” one of several teams that play the tournament for charity.
“I think I’ll do well, very well,” Ms. Rubenstein predicted. “Poker is not necessarily about being the most skilled player, it’s about being the one who lasts.”
As her confidence might suggest, Ms. Rubenstein is no stranger to the card tables. A former casual player who was kicked out of her regular local game because of her competitive nature, she said, Ms. Rubenstein discovered on-line poker in 2001. She said she was quickly hooked and fast became an accomplished player. In 2002, at age 68, she won a seat on a World Poker Tour tournament off a $29 buy-in game. She finished in the money. In 2003, she qualified for the same tournament and came home with $12,000 for her 26th-place finish, out of more than 200 players, and was the last woman still at the table.
In 2006, Ms. Rubenstein wrote “Getting Back in the Game,” a memoir of her discovery of poker and the online poker community. In the book, she explores aging and poker as an allegory for life.
“You can be whatever you want in cards,” Ms. Rubenstein said. “If somebody has no guts, you can push them to get out. If you think someone is scared, you can test them. It’s just like life.”
The tournament will be her first trip to Vegas. To prepare, Ms. Rubenstein said she is readying her body physically and not worrying that much about her card playing strategy. Long walks outside, healthy eating, aerobics and lots of stretching are the keys to enduring 10-hour stretches at the card table. If you can’t handle the marathon games, you will get impatient and lose your edge, she said.
Though she has not played online poker since her favorite site, PartyPoker.com, went dark in 2006, her competitive fire and sharp mind will take care of the card playing, she said.
“There’s no practicing the cards,” she said. “I’m not going to be playing against people here. Poker is a people game. You have to play the people not just the cards, especially no-limit.”
Playing no-limit is a bit different from the limit games she played online, Ms. Rubenstein said, because there is more opportunity to bully a weak player with big bets. Ms. Rubenstein, who grew up in Manhattan, is a former Canadian national champion at table tennis and member of three U.S. national teams. She is not scared by the cutthroat competitive atmosphere of no-limits games, though. It is where she excels.
“I’ve played in world championship tournaments before,” she said. “I’m like a pit bull.”