Aces high for Valley's poker champ mom

Two years ago, Carmel Valley mom Claire Craig got a group of girlfriends together to play some casual poker. Only one of the girlfriends knew how to play and taught the game to the others.

The group has since disbanded, not because they grew bored of the game but because they all got so good than not even their husbands will play them anymore.

Craig has gotten so good at the game that she now has a trophy and thousands in cash prizes to back it up as she won the California Ladies State Poker Championship at Ocean's 11 Casino in Oceanside on Sept. 21.

The $10, 940 Craig took home more than made up for the $250 tournament buy-in she had been fretting about - it was the largest tournament fee she'd ever paid.

"I was telling my husband, $250 is a really nice pair of shoes," Craig said.

The win also gave the mother of three a $1,000 buy-in at the World Series of Poker next year in Las Vegas.

Not bad for a player who'd never played poker in a casino before last November. Before then she'd always stuck to the slot machines.

"She did quite a remarkable job," said her poker teacher Tom Gallagher.

Craig started taking classes from Gallagher last year after seeing him teach at a Learning Annex class.

"I'm very competitive," said Craig. "The more I learn how to do something, the more I want to be the best I can possibly be at it."

He noticed right away at the seminar that she was quietly absorbing everything like sponge. He told her in six months, he could make her an above average player and it turned out he wasn't bluffing.

"She is unbelievable, sharp as a whip, very focused," said Gallagher. "As an instructor, this is what you're looking for."

Gallagher said he has increasingly turned his focus toward teaching women to play poker.

"They learn faster and they don't have an ego problem," Gallagher said.

For Craig, the biggest lessons she learned were how to not give off "tells" - unconscious habits that reveal information about a hand - table positions, what hands to start with, and how to be more aggressive at the table.

She didn't want to give away too many of her secrets about what makes her such a great player but said the keys are to be focused and to be patient.

"People tell me I'm really hard to read," Craig said, meaning her poker face is an ace.

When she plays, she always wears her favorite Maui Jim sunglasses, not just to hide her eyes.

"I like to be able to look at other people," said Craig. "I'm never bored. Even if I'm not in the hand, I'm always watching people."

In addition to her solo play, Gallagher has also recruited Craig to play on his women's poker team. They plan to start training at the end of the month to start competing in local tournaments.

Craig said she hopes that her big win will inspire more women to come to the table.

"I hope to get more women playing because we can play just as well if not better than men," Craig said.

   
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