In all my years of consuming poker media content, one of the constant refrains I’ve heard, seen, and read is “Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher are the best; they’ve done SO much for poker!” In an era filled with so much divisiveness in the poker world, that sentiment nonetheless still seems to be universally agreed upon and I think that’s wonderful.
My relationship with Linda goes back a couple years, with our first correspondence being when Linda graciously agreed to participate as an interviewee for my 2014 feature piece on Women in Poker. Later on, I was introduced to Jan as well, with both ladies kindly sponsoring my Running Well campaign during the month of May 2015, and donating a total of close to $700 to the Kids Kicking Cancer charity.
I had the good fortune of meeting Linda and Jan in person this past summer in Las Vegas at the World Series of Poker. They were kind enough to join me and World Series of Poker Media Director Nolan Dalla for a most memorable dinner that I still have yet to write about (Ed. Note: I finally did, here). I’ll just say that forging and maintaining a relationship online is nothing compared to cementing it with a personal get-together.
With all of that said, and many in the poker world knowing the extent of their contributions to the industry, at least from where I sit it doesn’t seem like Jan and Linda have gotten too much coverage in recent years. So, I’d like to try and do something to change that. The 25th anniversary of their joint venture – Card Player Cruises – is coming up soon; what better time than now to check in with two poker legends and see what they’re up to and to “reintroduce” them to those who may not be as familiar with their stories.
I must say that I took great pleasure in crafting the questions for this interview. It’s a feature piece that I’ve wanted to have the privilege of working on for quite some time. Jan and Linda couldn’t have been more generous with their time. Just to note, both Linda and Jan answered my questions separately and didn’t see how the other responded. It was quite fun to work on the editing for this feature as, from a behind-the-scenes perspective, it was pretty cool to behold how best friends who’ve known each other for so long are almost totally in sync; sometimes right down to using the same wording and expressions in their answers.
Without further ado, and with much thanks for their time and effort in answering my many questions, here’s my exclusive interview with Poker Hall of Famer Linda Johnson and Women in Poker Hall of Famer Jan Fisher.
How did you first catch the poker bug and at what point in your lives did you decide that you wanted to be involved in poker full-time (either as a player or in another capacity)?
I had never played a hand of poker until I turned 21. At that time, I started playing blackjack. My father, who had a career in the Air Force, augmented his pay with his poker winnings. He advised me that if I wanted a good chance to be a successful gambler, I would have to learn to play poker. So, at 21, I bought a poker book (there were only a few available at the time) and I taught myself the basics of poker.
Next, I started playing with my post office co-workers until they got tired of me winning and asked me not to play. I was living near Gardena, California, at the time and I started frequenting the local cardrooms after work. Five-card draw was the only legal game in California then, so on my weekends I would make the four-hour drive to Las Vegas to play six-card stud and limit Texas Hold’em.
I loved poker from the start and it seemed to be my destiny. I beat the game steadily for about six years and then decided to play in the 1980 ladies seven-card stud WSOP event. It was my plan to quit my secure, high-salary government job if I did well; I came in fifth. Although they only paid three places that year, I felt confident enough to give my two-week notice and move to Las Vegas to become a poker player. I have never regretted my decision!
I started visiting Las Vegas with my mother when I was about 17 years old (but could generally pass for 21) as she and my dad went on junkets. In addition to being an MD in private practice, my dad was a nationally ranked tennis player and an actor (mostly amateur/local plays but some commercials and bit parts in movies). While he was also a junketeer, he obviously had lots of engagements that kept him from traveling with my mom. Enter – ME! My mom had two trips coming up that my dad couldn’t attend and so she promised one to me and one to my brother. To this day, my brother, Roger, never got his trip! I fell in love with Las Vegas.
Of course, we were casino guests – free room, food, shows, transportation, etc. Living in Seattle at the time, the days at the pool (before I knew about sunscreen) were heaven! I learned perfect basic strategy for blackjack and was able to run close to even in the game. It was great. I ventured into a poker room one day, having learned the game as a child from a family friend. With a rudimentary understanding of the game, I started playing small stakes. The game of the day was $1-3 seven-card stud and so that’s what we played. Hold’em was only on the horizon back then, in the early 70s. There was one memorable night, when I was 19, where I won $800! It was amazing and I was hooked.
Straight after that, I told my mom that I had decided to move to Las Vegas as soon as I turned 21. I worked for Eddie Bauer in Seattle, and as a Teamster I had a great job but I hated it; lots of heavy lifting and working in an all-male environment. When I turned 21 I gave notice, made arrangements, and moved to Las Vegas a couple months later, in the summer. I didn’t know a soul, didn’t know that once you rented an apartment you had to have the electricity turned on, and so forth. The first night there, even though I had an apartment, I spent the night on a couch at the MGM, as my apartment was too hot to be in. Oh, that and the darkness!
During my search for a job I decided to go to dealers school for a couple of weeks, as I’d learned that poker dealers didn’t share their tips and I knew I could be the kind of dealer players would want to tip. I wasn’t ready for the cruel brutality of dealing poker and how hard it was to get a job (it wasn’t what you knew back then, it was who you “blew”) and to keep it once you had it. A fire-at-will state, anytime there was an incident, the employee with no juice was the one to be fired. That was me… through about 15 jobs!
Linda, you were already a well-known poker player in the early 90s, but you first gained prominence away from the felt after having decided to start publishing Card Player magazine. What prompted that decision?
I never had any desire to be anything other than a professional poker player until I went on the first ever Card Player Cruises trip in 1992 with my good friends Scott Rogers and Denny Axel. We had so much fun that shortly after the cruise we approached the owners of Card Player magazine (Phil and June Field) and asked them how we could get involved so that we never had to miss another cruise. They told us that they were ready to retire and asked us if we wanted to buy Card Player. At the time, Card Player Cruises was owned by Card Player magazine. By the spring of 1993, Scott, Denny, and I had bought the magazine and the cruise business. Luckily for us, the Fields stayed on for six months and taught us how to run a magazine since we had no experience in that field.
We were lucky with our timing; poker was expanding around the country and the new venues would need advertising. We knew the cardrooms wanted exposure in a “real” magazine, but going glossy would increase our print bill by more than $100K a year and we had only made a profit of $2,500 during our first year in business. We took the risk and turned the magazine from a small black and white newsprint publication into a full-color, glossy magazine. Once that happened, the magazine became very, very successful.
Aha. So if you don’t mind my asking, why did you decide to sell the business a few years later and move on to other ventures?
From 1993–2000, I loved my job as the Card Player publisher, but it was very time consuming. We expanded the magazine to 132 pages. During those seven years, I visited more than 100 cardrooms. We founded the World Poker Players Conference and the World Poker Industry Conference.
(Ed. Note: In my research on those now-defunct conferences, I dug up this old web page, which is a must-visit for any longtime poker fan; some great “old school” pictures in there!)
We were hosting 5-6 cruises a year. Plus, I was trying to play as much poker as possible! Players during those years would see me editing articles at the poker table.
In 2000, Barry Shulman made an offer to buy the magazine. I realized that I enjoyed the cruise aspect of the business more than the magazine part so, at that time, we separated the two businesses; I sold the magazine, but kept Card Player Cruises.
Back to you, Jan. You got your start in poker as a dealer in 1977. Where did you deal over the years? What were your favorite places to work and why?
I worked at Foxy’s Firehouse casino, El Cortez, Thunderbird, Silverbird, Silver Slipper, Castaways, 101 Club, Golden Nugget, Horseshoe WSOP, the Las Vegas Hilton and a few other lesser-known places.
My favorite places to work – by far! – were the Golden Nugget and the Hilton. Eric Drache ran the Nugget back in the day and he was fair, didn’t expect us to put up with abuse (which was rampant back then) and actually saved my butt once when I wouldn’t take the abuse leveled at me and I walked off the shift. He let me keep my job and also told me “nice job”.
The Hilton, under Tom Bowling, ran a very clean room; NO abuse. The players knew it and they abided by it. We had the ONLY razz game in Vegas and there was no abuse. I’d like to mention some of the world-class asses who played in that game and behaved because they had to. There were props in the game and, for the most part, it was a who’s who of gentlemen.
Also, I have great memories of the Silver Slipper. We played/dealt $1-3 $6 on the end, dealers choice. That is where I became an amazing (if I do say so myself) dealer.
A follow-up for you, then, Jan: Would you say that conditions have improved or deteriorated for dealers over the last couple decades?
Oh my, not even close. They are SO much better. They aren’t perfect and I could easily point out the rooms that still allow the bad behavior but, for the most part, cardrooms try to do their part in eliminating it. A lot has to do with wanting more women in the room. Not that we need protecting, but many ladies lose interest quickly if they have to be subjected to abuse either aimed at them or even shot across the table at dealers or other customers. It’s just not worth it to them, and I don’t disagree.
Poker is a game for ladies and gentlemen. If you look at home games that have run for years, it’s all nice guys! Why isn’t that the rule rather than the exception in a public cardroom! Some parts of the world of public cardrooms have no bad behavior because they’ve never allowed it. It’s easier to start clean than to retrain your customers. Some people are just bullies and they’ll move their actions to another cardroom down the street. I hope they run out of streets!
In poker, dealers often seem to carry the short end of the stick. I think we can all agree that players and employers need to treat dealers better. What ways would you suggest the community as a whole do to improve the lot of dealers in today’s day and age?
In my opinion, if dealers are trained properly and do their jobs well, there should be no abuse. When dealers incite a situation, well, I feel a little differently. Antagonizing a gambler who’s already stuck isn’t smart, especially when you work for tips. Take pride in your job and you should be rewarded.
I think other players at the table should openly speak up when there’s an abusive situation. Not all “houses” want to hear from a dealer but you can be sure they’ll listen to their customers. People vote with their feet. If I get pissed off in a cardroom I won’t go back, but I generally tell management why I’m leaving and give them a chance to react.
Dealer and player abuse are two of my pet peeves. Abuse was much more rampant in the 70s, 80s, and part of the 90s than it is today. There were very few women who played back then; one reason was due to the abusive environment. Around the mid-90s, I approached the top executives of the WSOP and asked them to do something about the abuse. That year, they invoked penalties for bad behavior. These days, I am very comfortable encouraging women to play poker. I know that they will be treated with respect and will enjoy their playing experience.
In the few cardrooms today where abuse exists, I blame poker room management. If you allow abuse, you will have it. If you don’t, you won’t. Too often, poker room managers are worried about losing a few disruptive customers if they bar them for their behavior. They don’t realize that they lose even more customers who don’t want to be around that type of behavior if it is allowed to continue.
I also think players can help by speaking up (either at the table, or privately, to a supervisor) when someone is being disruptive at the poker table.
How did the two of you first meet? Did you start collaborating on business ventures right away or only after a time knowing one another?
We met in the early 80s when Jan was dealing at the Golden Nugget and I was playing. Back then, there were very few females in the cardroom so they tended to befriend each other. We were drawn to each other as compatriots and in knowing what we were up against, from both sides of the table. We became casual friends.
After I became Card Player publisher, she called the office to ask if she could work on our cruises. Jan was a great employee and rose through our ranks to dealer coordinator, then shift boss, then tournament director. Eventually, we became 50/50 partners in the cruise business. We have been best friends and traveled the world together for about 20 years.
We have collaborated on a few other poker ventures as well. We each worked for the World Poker Tour for its first six seasons and we taught WPT Boot Camp together. We were also involved in other ventures, including the Poker Players Alliance, partypoker, and the Tournament Directors Association (TDA). These days, we host the Ladies International Poker Series (LIPS) and the Senior Poker Tour (SPT), and host tournaments and seminars around the country.
Given your lengthy involvement in the TDA over the years, how do you feel the poker world as a whole benefits from having such an association?
While we helped found the TDA, along with Matt Savage and Dave Lamb, and were instrumental in its growth and adoption of rules, we’ve actually officially stepped down from the Board.
The TDA has been very good for poker. It has standardized rules so that players know what to expect when they enter a tournament. Prior to the TDA, each cardroom would have its own rules on things like forward or dead button, number of raises allowed in limit poker, and a multitude of other issues.
Just to note, we had tried to make consistent rules for cash games as well, but it never panned out.
What do you feel are the TDA’s most important functions? Do you feel the TDA’s authority/influence is weakened because the Board only meets infrequently?
The TDA’s most important function is to establish standard rules in the best interest of the game. All tournament players should know the rules in order to protect themselves and other players.
It obviously would be better to meet every year, but the TDA is a volunteer organization. There are no dues charged to members. It takes a lot of time and money to host a summit so we’ve only been able to gather together every two years. On a positive note, I do think there is more participation because it is a biennial event.
In general, having TDs enforce the rules and not get soft on them is key. If and when a TD decides to unilaterally make changes to the accepted rules, it hurts the TDA’s integrity. Plus, there are greater ramifications such as lack of consistency, which leads to lower turnouts.
How did the idea germinate to start Card Player Cruises? Who is your target audience?
Cruises had been run for a few years before Card Player got on board. Though the initial market was small, over time the cruises became more and more popular. Card Player’s brand grew and nowadays we’re by far the leader in the industry.
Our target audience is anyone who enjoys travel/cruising and playing poker; mostly recreational players. Poker players are adventurous and like to travel so it’s a natural fit; what better vacation can one take? Of course, we do also get some professionals on every cruise. On certain cruises during the year, there are more professional players due to larger buy-in main events.
We cater to retirees and families with kids, as well as young singles and everything in between. We’re proud to boast about 40% female players in our cardroom. We attribute this to the fact that ours is a fun, no abuse cardroom. We also showcase the best staff on the planet bar none.
We play low- to middle-stakes games but have a few larger cruises done in conjunction with some of the poker tours (such as HPT, iHost, etc.) where we’ll spread larger games.
Can you give us a few numbers/milestones to help chart the course/growth of Card Player Cruises over the last quarter century?
It’s been an incredible 25 years. Card Player Cruises is the #1 poker cruise company in the world. We’ve been in business the longest and hosted the most players. We’ve organized more than 160 poker cruises and traveled with more than 50,000 poker players on vacations all over the world.
We’ve actually chartered entire cruise ships four times that allowed us to bring more than 2,500 poker players at a time on a cruise. We hosted the first ever $1,000,000 guaranteed limit Hold’em poker tournament in the world.
Our staff has evolved to be a thing of beauty…I truly believe that if there was a cardroom Olympics, our staff would win the gold medal! Our customers are awesome too – they become friends and we do amazing repeat business.
The game mix has evolved over the past 25 years. We used to be mostly a cash game entity, but that, too, has changed. We offer a lot more tournaments these days than we used to.
The game mix has changed over the years. It used to be seven-card stud and limit poker. Nowadays, no-limit is king, though we still spread limit poker, Omaha/8, mixed games, and any game that enough players want to play.
We’ve expanded from 4-5 cruises a year to 7-8 cruises a year and added a land-based event in conjunction with the Card Player Poker Tour. The third annual Maho Bay Classic will take place at the beautiful Maho Sonesta all-inclusive Resort on St. Maarten from March 30-April 9, 2017. This event is made for tournament lovers as we host 31 tournaments over 10 days plus a $100,000 guaranteed main event.
We’ve been to awesome ports. Most years we go to Alaska, the Caribbean, New England, and Mexico. We also host at least one “exotic” cruise a year. We’ve been fortunate enough to go to places like China, India, Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand, Dubai, Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, the Greek Islands, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Russia, Estonia, Morocco, Indonesia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and most of the European countries.
It’s simply awesome to be on a cruise ship, get to see lots of amazing places, play poker in an incredible cardroom with great people, and only have to pack and unpack once.
In Mike Sexton’s book, Life’s a Gamble, he told a doozy of a story directly relating to you and your involvement helping put together the original partypoker Million (pp. 96-101). Could you please share your side of the story and what it was like for your company to be involved in what was at the time an incredibly ambitious venture?
As the book says, Mike came up with the idea of the partypoker Million. He presented it to Card Player Cruises and we agreed to host the party/tournament. Card Player Cruises lost a total of $400,000 on that venture which almost led to us going bankrupt before we ever had a chance to get established…scary times indeed! We each had to dig deep to pay that money but it luckily took off from there.
Have either of you got any other fun/interesting stories about Mike Sexton that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
Life’s a Gamble is a great read. Mike Sexton is a wonderful story teller and a very good friend of mine. Our friendship dates back at least 30 years. I take pride in being the one who gave him his first job in the industry. I hired Mike to write a column for Card Player. This gave him exposure and led to him being hired to be the voice of partypoker. From there, he gets all the credit for becoming poker’s greatest ambassador and visionary. By the way, Mike is the most humble man I know. During our six years of traveling together on the World Poker Tour, he was approached by thousands of players asking for pictures, autographs, etc. Mike is never too busy; he looks each person in the eye and speaks to them as if they were the most important person in the world. He’s a great dancer too!
I’ve got so many fun Mike Sexton stories. I guess a highlight for me was the first time I got to dance with Mike. OMG! People who watched us later told me that they didn’t know I could dance. Well, I can’t, but Mike just grabbed me and swirled me, twirled me, dipped me, and made me look like a star. It was so very cool!
As mentioned at the outset, part of the impetus for putting together this feature interview is in celebration of Card Player Cruises’ 25th anniversary. You have a special event planned to mark the occasion. Tell us a bit about your upcoming 25th anniversary cruise.
It’s set to start on Linda’s birthday, October 14th, and it will feature a $25,000 guaranteed main event. The itinerary is the Western Caribbean and it will take place on the biggest ship in the world, the Harmony of the Seas.
We chose this ship because it has so much to offer: a Broadway theater, rock climbing wall, Aqua theater, skating rink, Central Park, 24 restaurants, a zipline, miniature golfing, a Boardwalk, a 10-story slide, bionic bars, and much, much more. We hope that many of our repeat customers will come celebrate with us.
As always, we will host the cruise as well as some shore excursions. We will, as always, see to our customers’ every need and provide the best run cardroom anywhere in the world.
Join us as we celebrate our 25th Anniversary in style on the Harmony of the Seas. R/T Ft. Lauderdale Oct 14th, 2017. pic.twitter.com/Ph4fGlf3SV
— Card Player Cruises (@CardPlayerCruis) December 14, 2016
In 25 years of cruising and playing poker around the world, what are some of your fondest memories?
There are so many awesome memories of places we’ve visited. In Thailand, I got a massage from an elephant and went into a cage with seven tigers. I attended the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. I went up the highest building in the world in Dubai. I experienced the slums in Mumbai. I got to scuba dive with sea lions and stingrays in the Caribbean. I’ve visited orphanages in Vietnam. I’ve ridden elephants in Indonesia. The memories go on and on. I truly feel blessed.
My favorite memories, however, involve passengers who have become like family. We have some players who go on every cruise with us; others go multiple times a year. We’ve seen their children and family members grow up. I’ve had the awesome experience of teaching more than 2,000 passengers how to play poker. I’ve arranged private excursions for our group on every cruise. At every farewell party, Jan and I have given out awards for the top 10 silliest, funniest, or dumbest things people said and did all week. We’ve hosted some of the most famous poker players in the world: Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Mike Sexton, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth, Scotty Nguyen, and many others. It’s been a great journey!
It never gets old, some of the goofy things that happen. Many years ago, we had a guest bring his dog on the ship. This was well before 9/11, so the rigors of air travel weren’t in force, but they smuggled the dog into Canada with no paperwork or needed medical certs. Once the hotel manager realized there wasn’t much he could do, he didn’t want to kick them off the ship, we ended up with the dog in lots of cruise photos!
On a different note, we’ve had serious injuries that, because they all turned out OK, are pretty funny looking back. We had one of our regular customers have the day from hell when he went ashore in Cabo only to fall off the pier, hurt his arm, come in, and get stitched up. He went back out and a pelican landed on him and pecked at the wound! It never gets old.
Back when you started out in the poker world, the community was a lot smaller and tighter-knit than it is today. It was also, quite frankly and sadly, a much rougher environment in which to try and make names for yourselves as women. To what do you attribute your success and longevity in the industry?
Neither of us are wimps. Truth be told, I needed the jobs dealing poker as I was never going home with my head down. Linda decided to become the businesswoman she is today and help to solve the problems. In some ways, as a dealer, I did that too by refusing to take the crap and always pushing through despite adversity.
I attribute my success to my passion for poker. I love poker! I look forward to the next time I get to sit down at the poker table and look at my cards. I love talking poker. I love teaching poker. I respect the game.
One of my strengths is that I’ve always managed my poker bankroll well. I probably took longer to move up in limits than most players because I respect money. It’s been said that all poker players have gone broke at one time or another; I disagree with that premise. I’ve never played at higher limits than I can afford.
After all these years, you’ve both still got plenty of gas left in the tank to keep on thriving. You’re both living legends in the poker world who have accomplished so much. How do you see the next 25 years playing out? Do you still have any goals or dreams you’d like to achieve either as players or on the industry side of things?
I’ve achieved my poker goals of winning a WSOP bracelet and being inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame and the Poker Hall of Fame. I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing the poker world become a kinder and gentler place in which players and staff are treated with respect. The only as-of-yet unrealized goal of I can think of is to help get a documentary that currently is being filmed about women in poker completed. It’s time to start winding down my involvement in the industry side of poker and make way for the younger generation to step up and take their turn to improve the poker world.
I want time to play more poker. Although I hope to retire soon and cut back on my business workload, I see myself continuing to go on all the poker cruises as well as some non-poker cruises. I want to travel more, go to the theater more, and relax more. I want to do more volunteer work. Most of all, I want to spend more time with my family and friends.
I don’t know that it’s true that we have plenty of gas left in the tank; we’re getting older and more tired. There always seem to be new battles to fight and while we will never turn our backs on the industry that’s been so good to us, I feel that there are younger, tougher, more “us 35 years ago” people around nowadays to take on the giants more successfully. There is still so far to go with dealer/player abuse, rules and their enforcement, safe and friendly environments for everyone, good lighting and accessibility needs for many, etc.
My goals, I guess, would be for the new generation(s) to continue to work to make poker even more respectable than it is now. When I started out in the 70s, it wasn’t a field your family boasted your involvement in. Now it is, and it can be so much better.
Many players’ hopes and dreams revolve around bracelets and that type of glory. Mine don’t. I want to be able to play poker in a comfortable room with good staff and equipment and equal and fair rules enforcement. I never got into this field or did any of the things I did for any type of recognition. I just acted as I have so that the errors of the past aren’t reintroduced to the new players and so that everyone would be proud to bring his mother into the cardroom with him.
This feature started off with a mention of the universally held axiom in the poker world that “Linda and Jan are the best”. While it ought not to take much more at this point to convince any reader of that, I feel compelled to end with Nolan Dalla’s recent Facebook post, which illustrates that “the best” extends far beyond the realm of poker when describing the fantastic duo of Jan Fisher and Linda Johnson.
Disclaimer: Please note that neither Card Player Cruises nor Card Player magazine are affiliated with this Cardplayer Lifestyle poker blog in any way.