Poker loss is a win for cancer-awareness effort

Posted: September 19, 2009

ATLANTIC CITY - In the glitzy, high-stakes world of tournament poker, there are some unwritten rules among gamblers.

One of them is: Don't enter tournaments where you may not be an appropriate player.

So when Nicole Rowe, physically exhausted and emotionally battered from a recent struggle with breast cancer, drove here last weekend to enter a ladies' no-limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament, she was surprised to see Abraham Korotki in the field.

For Rowe, 40, of West Windsor, N.Y., the prize money was just one reason to make the trip to the Borgata. She also looked forward to bonding with other women and telling them about the importance of early detection of the disease.

Rowe, who is scheduled to undergo a double mastectomy at the end of the month, urges women to get a sonogram in addition to an annual mammogram.

Two years ago, before being diagnosed with breast cancer, Rowe, a veteran gambler who plays poker about three times a week, came in second in the Borgata tournament. This time, she was determined to win it.

But Korotki, a 63-year-old semiretired real estate developer from Ventnor, took home the top prize of nearly $21,000 last Saturday, and a trophy. In a field of 260 players, each of whom had put up $300, Rowe came in second, winning just under $12,000 after taxes.

Korotki said he thought he saw other men signing up for the women's-only tournament and, besides, he wanted more practice time to get ready for when the World Poker Tour (WPT) rolled into town this week. That event attracts hundreds of top gamblers from around the globe, who come to participate in more than 40 WPT-sanctioned tournaments in Atlantic City casinos through Thursday.

"I didn't do this for the money," Korotki said. "I'm preparing to go into a main event this week, and I needed some practice time. I hadn't played in tournaments in a while."

Korotki, who doesn't describe himself as a professional poker player, has pocketed more than $650,000 in poker-tournament winnings in his lifetime, including a gold ring in a World Series of Poker event here.

Rowe said she took Korotki's presence in the tournament in stride, and even struck up a kind of friendship with him. But other women who had been seated with him as the competition became narrower and narrower over a 14-hour period left the casino angry, feeling a man had muscled his way into a place he did not belong.

Rowe uses the gambling term "side pot" to describe Korotki as a blessing in disguise. The flap brought by the incident - from mainstream media down to poker Web sites and blogs - has garnered more attention for Rowe's breast cancer awareness crusade.

"It was a gift that he entered the tournament," she said.

She said that "in that moment of losing, I realized why everything had happened the way it did. God revealed to me why this happened. Why I ended up sitting at a women's only tournament next to a man - and he won - and I came in second, again. I was able to bring so much attention to breast cancer."

Rowe said she would use the money she won for living expenses during the three months she will be out of work from the operation. She is employed by the U.S. Military Academy as an optician.

"I prayed that I would be able to take care of my family," said the mother of two, who, with her husband, who works in real estate insurance, has suffered financially because of the economic downturn. Rowe said the amount she won matched what she would have made at her job.

The Borgata has agreed to make a trophy for Rowe, too, because she came out as the top female player in a women's tournament.

A Borgata spokesman said in a statement that the casino does offer specialty tournaments - such as senior-citizen events and ladies-only - and in the "spirit of the event would have hoped that only women would have participated in the ladies-only event."

"However, given legal requirements, we must allow anyone who is over the age of 21 the opportunity to participate," Joe Lupo, the casino's senior vice president, said in a statement.

The casino has pledged $5,000 in Rowe's name to Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

Korotki has agreed to donate all of his winnings from the women's tournament to charity, including a third to the Komen foundation in Rowe's name. The rest will go to a children's charity and an animal-rights cause, he said.

Lauren Failla, cofounder of the High Heels Poker Tour, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based women's poker academy and tournament tour, said Korotki's behavior is why she started her business. While poker isn't exactly arm wrestling - not brawn, but luck and cunning lead to victory - women's events should remain so, she said.

Without such exclusive events, some women may never begin playing poker, because they don't like playing with aggressive males. Others are attracted to the women's-only games because they enjoy the camaraderie of other women, Failla said.

"I just think that what he did was in poor taste," Failla said. "This just shows that someone like him can create a ruckus for nothing and at the end of the day, the fact remains that he should not have played in this tournament. It wasn't necessary."


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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