Within just a couple short years, Valerie Cross has made quite the name for herself as a member of the poker media corps. Gifted with great reporting and storytelling abilities, you know the next few minutes of reading will be a treat once you see her name in an article’s byline. I’ve witnessed Valerie engaged in her craft in Las Vegas over the last couple of summers and it’s impossible not to respect her work ethic and the sheer volume of hours she puts into her job.

I’m very happy Valerie agreed to take part in my ongoing Get to Know the Poker Media series, which at its core is designed to shine the spotlight on those in the poker industry who always busy themselves with shining the light on others. It’s time we familiarize ourselves not just with the name in the byline or that constant presence at live poker tournaments, but rather Valerie Cross, the person.

Valerie Cross

How did you first get into the poker industry, and for how long have you been working in it?

I got into poker just playing. I started playing like 11 years ago, in 2007. It was during graduate school; I was working on my Masters degree at Indiana University (IU). So, I was there studying teaching English to speakers of other languages and Applied Linguistics, at IU. My brother and I started watching poker on TV because it was on so often and we started talking about it and playing online for free.

Which site did you play on?

I think we were on Full Tilt, and there might have been another one. I can’t remember. I just started playing for play money and I was doing OK, I suppose, just kind of getting some reps in online and watching a lot of poker on TV. And then I started playing these $60 tournaments at the Belterra poker room — it was like, this rural casino in small-town Indiana. It was a 90-minute drive from IU. So, every weekend I was just driving down to this casino…

Hoping to score something big?

Not really, just playing these $60 tournaments with these old dudes. I kept final tabling them, kept just experimenting and being like “Oh, being aggressive really works in these things,” and all that. And then I started playing at Hollywood Casino, which is in Aurora, Indiana, near my parent’s house.

So I got into it like that, but professionally, I started teaching ESL in college, in I guess you would call it the Bay Area, the North Bay. So I was teaching English. I couldn’t get a full-time job in that field, and I was just playing a lot of poker in the Sacramento area. Mostly Thunder Valley, and then Stones Gambling Hall. And then I met Brent Harrington, I think at maybe a RunItUp Reno event right before the summer of 2016, and he kind of talked about reporting.

And that entire time until 2016, you had been playing and teaching; a totally different life.

After I finished my Ph.D. coursework in Indiana and moved to California, I was teaching and playing on the side from 2012 until 2016. So I got into the reporting thing summer of 2016 and I quit my teaching jobs. I was like “OK, I’m going to go to Vegas, I’m going to report and play when I can.” Then I got the WSOP Circuit gig, so I just did that for the first year. After that I worked for PokerNews for a second summer at the WSOP, I started doing the editorial work for them full-time.

So, did you enjoy teaching?

I did enjoy teaching, but I didn’t enjoy all of the oversight. I really enjoyed one-on-one with students. I did a lot of tutoring; loved tutoring, you know, had a lot of success with my students. But especially with the community college, there were pretty big classes, too, and I prefer teaching smaller classes, a little more intimate. Especially with English language classes, I feel like you need to give people more opportunities to speak.

So was it easy or difficult to leave that job and start doing poker reporting?

It was relatively easy because I was commuting a ton, and it was a major grind because I just couldn’t get enough classes. Classes were kind of spread out; you had to take what you could get. So it was more of a scheduling issue. I would drive to the one job, and then I would take a BART, the train, to San Francisco to do my other part-time job. It was just such a grind. And so many of us were doing it, too. We were making it work, but it was not ideal.

So then you switched, and now you’re basically self-employed at this point? And a freelancer?

Pretty much. I mean, I’m on a contract with PokerNews. But it’s basically like a contractor.

What is it that you love about poker that keeps you so interested in the game?

I love the mental and intellectual challenge of it. I like that it brings together the math, the human elements of reading people and just intuition, and the psychology part of it, like all those things together. I also studied Psychology as an undergrad. But just how it’s always different, and you never know what to expect. I love how it’s so dynamic and constantly changing. I’ve always been more attracted to the strategy part of it. You know, you can watch hands and you can think about and even listen to how people describe hands or strategy or different ways you can play a hand. How you can just drive yourself crazy thinking about all the different ways you can… there’s no one right way to play a hand or to do anything in poker.

And these are the type of stories or things you like writing more about or do you enjoy the live reporting aspect more? Maybe doing features, interviews?

Yeah, I guess… I mean, from a consumer point of view, I prefer to read strategy stuff. That’s always been my draw to poker, is strategy. But when it comes to actually having to write things, I kind of gravitate towards interesting stories. As you know, I like to write, I feature a lot of women. That’s one of the things about getting the PokerNews job; it was like, you know what, I could use this platform as a way to really promote women in the game, and showcase and highlight what women are already doing in the game. Not create things, but just kind of promote it.

So, obviously you’re a woman, but is that issue important to you for any particular reason? I mean, you sit at the tables, you report at tables, and see that it’s just 5% women at the tables. Why aren’t more people doing it? Even now, more people are waking up in the media to doing more to try and promote the game to women, but do you think it’s something else that inhibits women approaching the poker table in the first place?

For me, obviously I come at it from a player perspective. I’ve been playing for 11 years, in a lot of different regions, and you have that experience of being made to feel like you don’t belong there. And I’ve experienced that a lot, but for me, it like fuels my fire, like let’s go! And then I start three-betting them, and they hate it.

Maria Ho said something similar in her WiPHoF acceptance speech.

I see how uncomfortable they are. And it’s hilarious to me. And I’m sure it has something to do with me growing up with three older brothers and playing all sports all my life. It’s like, I like that about it. But I can see why the majority of women would immediately feel uncomfortable and not want to go back.

Would you say with the recent efforts to try and do more, and of course your own personal efforts to try to promote more women in the game, is it feasible within the next couple of years, with poker growing as it is, to grow the segment of female poker players from the current 5% to perhaps 20%? Is that doable?

I think we’re getting there. I think it’s part of an evolution of a lot of things, and just the progression in society as a whole, too. But yeah, I think women are really supporting each other in this industry and getting in groups together more and more, as men have done for decades in poker. You know, it hasn’t happened for women. That was always really hard for me, too, just, well, I don’t have this network.

I have a lot of guys that I’m friends with in poker, and they’ll oblige and talk hands with me, but I’m not in the “bro group,” like, I’m not in the “bro circle.” I can’t be. And maybe I don’t even want to be. So, there’s always been that, but now like a lot of women are starting to gather together in groups, discussing hands and strategy. It’s a huge thing.

I think that once you start getting that, and you start bringing people in that way, then there’s a community built in for women, and then I think it could be exponential growth, for sure.

Very cool. We’ll switch gears for a second. So you mentioned family a couple times. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your personal life, where you live now, family, relatives, anything like that?

I’m very close with my family back in Cincinnati, my parents and my three older brothers. They’ve always been really supportive of the poker thing. My dad’s always been the tough love. I’ve always had a problem with bankroll management, and he’s like, “Well, that’s a pretty big part of the game, isn’t it? You can’t do that, you can’t play.” And I was like, “Damn, Dad, you’re right.”

How did you end up in Northern California? What took you there?

I followed a boy out there and then got jobs teaching and it just kind of vibed; I felt good there. The poker scene was good, I started meeting people that way, and teaching was pretty good. The last couple years have been pretty interesting. So, me and that guy split, and then I’ve been a little transitory. I was thinking about moving back to Cincinnati, which I kind of did. I went back there in January and it just wasn’t really working for me. I hate the cold, don’t have like a ton of friends there anymore, but family’s still there.

Anyhow, I ended up going back to Sacramento for a bit before WSOP to hang out with some friends, play poker, and do some poker commentary at Stones and it was just so much fun. I met this great guy while I was out there too and we hit it off and got serious pretty fast. So all those things brought me back to Sacramento and I’m really excited for a fresh start there with an amazing partner.

Awesome! Good for you. Well, I hope it works out. How often do you play? Mostly cash games, tournaments, home games? What games do you play these days?

I kind of fluctuate between cash games and tournaments. Right now, I’m totally into tournaments, and I just feel like I’m more focused, more dialed in, more disciplined in tournaments right now. It’s hold’em only, and I can’t hardly stand hold’em cash right now, but it’ll come back. I can play PLO cash, but you know, PLO kind of ruined me a little bit for hold’em cash because it’s so much more fun to me.

Do you play any other of the mixed games?

Not yet. I have torched—I have lit a bunch of money on fire learning and playing and having fun, like, trying to learn the games. A few times, like, a few sessions, nothing huge or expensive.

But you’re open to not just hold’em. That’s important!

I’m planning, long-term to learn mixed games. I want to know all the games, deuce-seven, all those. It seems really fun, and I’ve watched at least a few hands played in all the games.

Alright, well, we’ll invite you to the $4/$8 media game mix next time it runs.

I usually have a few drinks and donate a couple hundred, for sure.

What’s the biggest misconception that people have about poker writers or poker writing?

I feel like people who are fans and kind of casual players, when they hear that I work at PokerNews or just writing for poker, they’re like “that has to be the most amazing job, that sounds awesome.” It is pretty great. I joined my passions of writing and English and grammar, being a grammar nerd, with my passion of poker, which is my biggest passion. So it is awesome to be in this industry, and this is my daily life.

But, it’s not always glamorous. Sometimes, especially with the reporting thing, it’s a little bit of a thankless job, with really long hours, and could be grueling at times. That’s the tough part of it.

And then also from the professional players’ perspective, sometimes I feel like they don’t think that we know how to play, or they don’t think we understand poker on a high level. From my experience, a lot of media people do. The people who come at it from poker and the writing part of it.

What other hobbies do you have besides playing poker?

I really like to just be active. I like to play like pretty much any sport. I like to get out and play tennis, get out and throw a softball. I really love baseball, so I like to go to baseball games whenever I can. Anything near the water I really like, so just cruising around on boats, kayaking.

What’s something that you have not yet done or accomplished in poker that’s on your bucket list?

I want to win a major. That could be WPT, HPT, MSPT, whatever.

Have you had any successes thus far that are encouraging you? Are you working towards that goal?

Yeah, I mean, I kind of told you I go in spurts with tournaments and cash, and I took a pretty long break from tournaments, and then the first one I played here I ran deep, in a $600 Venetian event, and you know, it all starts coming back to you. You make some mistakes, and you’re like “Oh, yeah! Oh yeah, I remember that mistake now, OK.” You know, you dust the rest off. So I feel like, with, you know, I’ve gotten away from studying, I just haven’t had the time. But I’m feeling confident that I can get to where I need to get if I can put in some volume, you know, make some deep runs.

How about on the professional side? Any goals that you have for yourself that you want to cross off?

Yeah, I feel like the promoting women in poker is basically my main cornerstone goal, and I feel like I’ve done pretty well to push that. PokerNews has given me a really good platform to do so, and support, and everything like that. I would like to take it a step further, and really start rallying the troops in certain ways, start finding ways to really bridge people together, especially in Northern California. There’s so many women who play up there, but there’s just kind of a loose network right now, so maybe I’ll do something to bring everybody together on a more official kind of platform. Plus there’s the strategy thing I was telling you about; forming groups in which women can help each other with strategy.

OK, final question. Let’s pretend the entire poker world is your audience. Go ahead and let loose about something you just have to get off your chest, that’s very important to you. What’s your message to everybody?

I would say, going from being a player and then having to cover tournaments as media, and writing about poker…

Well, some people if the hand’s reported wrong they’ll act like it’s the end of the world. Guys, let’s keep everything in perspective. You get to play a game for a living. You’re a professional poker player; it’s pretty awesome.

You can kind of tell from the media side, who kind of has that in perspective and appreciates that opportunity, and who kind of just takes it for granted. Don’t take it for granted, that’s what I would say; just being in this industry, too.

One more thing: I feel like most men recognize that there’s a lot of value in having more women at the tables, but then, when they’re actually at the table playing with women, you have to be cognizant of that and think about how are your actions being perceived by the people around you, particularly women.

I feel like a lot of guys are sitting at the poker table thinking “this is a Man Zone, and you can say whatever you want.” At the WiPHoF luncheon, the thing that Matt Savage said about poker, “The poker table is not the locker room.” It’s a place for men and women. So, maybe think about your actions and make it a place for men and women, and make it welcoming.

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