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Rita Ranch woman has become one of Arizona's best in poker


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Sep. 28--Growing up in Nebraska, family gatherings for Debbie Blair often included card games with fun names like No Peek and Baseball.

If there was any money involved, it was usually in the form of pennies and nickels, which pales in comparison to the payout Blair collected earlier this month when she won the first-ever Arizona Ladies State Poker Championship Sept. 16 at Casino Arizona in Scottsdale.

It was actually a few minutes after midnight on Sept. 17 when Blair, a 38-year-old mother of two who lives in Rita Ranch, was declared the winner of the 400-person event, which cost $275 to enter and earned her $40,000 along with a trophy and a necklace valued at $7,000.

"I kind of feel like I don't deserve the attention," said Blair, who is a senior manager for a local call center. "It's a poker game, I got lucky. I think there are a lot other people that are 100 times better than me."

Blair was bitten by the poker bug two years ago when she and her husband, Jeff, were at Casino del Sol. A friend suggested that she should try to play Texas Hold 'em, the style of poker that has become immensely popular during the last four years via massive TV exposure.

"I don't think I can pinpoint exactly how it hooked me," Blair admits.

Blair says her husband is not a big fan of the game, though he encouraged her to enter her first tournament in February 2004, a $40 event in Las Vegas. Blair got fifth place, winning $575, and soon after started playing tournaments locally.

This summer Blair said she decided to take a shot at a bigger event and entered the Ladies tournament at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. She said she didn't fare too well because she wasn't as experienced in bigger tourneys.

Enter Ned Shabou, a friend she had made at the poker tables in town.

"I thought I could give her some advice," said Shabou, 47, a graphic designer who has made televised final tables of poker tournaments. "She has two things that you need to become a great poker player: guts and skills. Most of the time in tournaments you see people that have skills but no guts, or they have guts and are very aggressive, but they don't have the skill. She's got both."

Shabou passed on some tips and hints about how to approach the game and how to read opponents.

"Before, I used to look at my cards and just play (based on) my two cards, and not worry about whatever anybody else had," Blair said. "If I saw I had three of a kind, I automatically thought I had the best hand. Now I am trying to look a little bit more at the other players and what they're doing."

Blair used Shabou's advice in the 12-hour Arizona Ladies State Poker Championship. She said every break in the tournament found her "running back to my car and calling Ned."

The good fortune continued for Blair in her first tournament back in Tucson when she won $1,259 in a $135 buy-in event at Desert Diamond Casino on Sept. 19, a tourney she got into for free after winning a promotion from a local restaurant.

"I just went out and bought $20 worth of lottery tickets," said Blair, who also played in the California Ladies Poker Championship Monday in Oceanside, Calif.

Blair said if she did not have young kids -- son Taylor is 6 and daughter Katie is 3 -- she would "absolutely do it as a living. But having to go to Las Vegas and be away from my kids just wouldn't be worth it."

Instead, she will keep playing local tournaments and occasionally go to California or Las Vegas for bigger events.

Though the vast majority of poker players are men, more women are taking up the game, said Gail Yazzie, senior shift manager for the poker room at Desert Diamond Casino.

"It's not like where you have to use your muscles (to play)," Yazzie said. "You use your mind."

That doesn't keep male opponents from still trying to pick on her when they're seated at the same table.

"I still think that women are taken advantage of," Blair said. "They don't like women playing. Even (in Tucson), I've had guys put their hand in my face because I beat them and took all their money and they didn't want to hear what I had to say. They'd say, 'Why would you call that?' Because I had top pair and a straight draw, that's why!"

She has two things that you need to become a great poker player: guts and skills. -- Ned Shabou, accomplished poker player

--Send sports and rec story ideas to Brian J. Pedersen at bjp@azstarnet.com or call 434-4079.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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