A favorite aunt started him on a path to poker stardom — then inspired his anti-cancer drive

Phil Gordon at the poker table
Phil Gordon at the poker table. Courtesy of Phil Gordon

Poker legend Phil Gordon hosts “Fred Hutch Poker Masters” on March 5 at the Palace Ballroom in Seattle. Proceeds benefit the breast cancer science of Dr. V.K. Gadi, a clinical researcher and oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Gordon has dedicated much of his career to raising money for cancer research. One person inspired that devotion.

I played my first poker hand with my Aunt Lib. I was 7. She took me for all I had – one hundred pennies she’d paid me earlier that day for raking her leaves.

Aunt Lib taught me the game. She taught me that you play for keeps, that you don’t whine about bad cards, bad plays or losing. She taught me about life. At the end of her life, diagnosed with liver cancer, she and I would play our last hand together. Five-card draw on her hospital bed. She would beat me then, too, even though I’d nearly won the 2001 World Series of Poker not long before. That made her laugh.

Her full name was Marie Elizabeth Lucas. She preferred “Lib.” Technically, she was my great aunt. But she was like a second mother to my sister, Ashley, and me.  We spent every summer at her house on a lake in South Carolina, an ideal place to hang out while on school break.  She was, by far, my most important influence outside of my parents, the one person in the world I didn’t want to disappoint.

Aunt Lib was an amazing person, a perfectionist at everything she did. She didn’t get into anything without dominating it. She had served in the military as an airplane mechanic during World War II. Her house was filled with a variety of trophies whether it was for being a champion horse breeder or a champion chicken breeder or a rabbit or parrot breeder. She was a painter. She was a gemologist who cut her own stones and whose collection ended up seeding the University of South Carolina’s museum. Whatever she did during those five-year stretches of her life, she was going to master it, be the best at it and learn everything about it to conquer it.

When I look back at my adult life, I’ve tended to have those same five-to-seven periods of intense study of something – get as good as you can then move on and try something else. There were my five years for the startup company, [Netsys Technologies], four or five years traveling, four or five years as a poker pro and author. Aunt Lib was truly an inspiring role model.

As a kid, during those summers at her house, she’d have my sister and me go rake leaves and pay us each a dollar, usually in pennies. After dinner, we’d sit around the kitchen table and play poker. Usually five-card draw.  When she was the dealer, queens, fours and one-eyed jacks were wild. So there were a lot of wild cards in the deck. You could always make a pretty good hand. And she busted me, winning all the money that she’d paid during the day for raking those leaves. I went broke almost every summer night of my childhood while I was learning to play the game.

She was intensely competitive and never let people win. The age of “participation trophies” hadn’t arrived yet and I think that served me well.  She had another favorite saying as the dealer. I would ask: “Anything wild, Aunt Lib?" She’d say, "Nothing wild but the dealer, baby.”

In 2002, she was diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 88. That fall, I went to visit her in the hospital near the very end of her illness. I had finished fourth in the 2001 World Series of Poker. But on that day, in her hospital bed, we played the same old game, five-card draw. Queens, fours and one-eyed jacks were wild, and the dealer was wild, too. She busted me. Then she started cackling about how she could beat the almost-world champion of poker – still – and that I’d never get the best of her.

I left there and was immediately on my way to Aruba for a poker tournament. The same hour that I won that tournament – my first win as a professional – she died.

After that, when I played poker on tour, I thought about Aunt Lib all the time. Soon, I became affiliated with the Prevent Cancer Foundation. It was obvious to me that we could use poker as a backdrop for both raising awareness and raising money for the cause. Over the course of the years, thousands of other players have donated to the initiative.

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred Hutch Poker Masters to raise money for Dr. V.K. Gadi's work, which is tremendously important. I hope everyone who comes has a great time. I’m going to make sure they get a little bit of a poker lesson. But they should also know that I’m playing to win – just like my Aunt Lib taught me.

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