COVER STORY: Lauren Failla, the Queen of Queens

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. Aretha Franklin may have sung the line, but Lauren Failla toes it.

And what Failla is striving for is respect for all female poker players.

“I thought women needed a place or outlet to play,” said the Hollywood resident who moved here from New York in 1971. “There was a lack of emphasis on women who play.”

From that notion the High Heels Poker Tour was borne. The tour, established in 2007, gives women a chance to compete in an environment that relates to them while providing an opportunity to grow and receive recognition for their poker accomplishments.

But don’t misunderstand; Failla isn’t Norma Rae. You won’t find her outside Florida card rooms holding up an EQUALITY sign. It’s not about that, Failla says, because the game of poker puts everyone on a level playing field. Rather, she’s just trying to raise awareness for female players and earn them more opportunities to participate in a different setting.

“(The HHPT) brings more women to the game, and by doing events like these, it keeps them coming back to the properties that support women,” said Failla (pronounced fie-luh).”Let’s be honest, the focus on women and poker has never been at the top of most casinos’ priority list. Most of the time they cater to the masses, which are men, but now times are changing, and that’s what’s important.”

Failla, who writes a column for Ante Up and is a graduate from the University of Florida, says the strides women have made in poker over the past decade are unprecedented and deserve the spotlight.

“I do a lot of research,” she said, “and when I see articles, stories or highlights on women who play, it makes me believe these media outlets and casinos are seeing growth in this small yet strong demographic of the larger poker community, and that the realization that the numbers of women who play in live or online games is growing.”

Her tour predominantly visits Florida poker rooms, such as Dania Jai-Alai, the Isle, Mardi Gras and Hard Rock Hollywood, though it has been to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and Turning Stone in New York. One of its more recent trips outside the Sunshine State came in New Orleans at Harrah’s, as part of the Winter Bayou Poker Challenge. While there, Failla helped launch the Women’s Ultimate Poker Academy, which is now known as the High Heels Poker Tour Academy. It boasts such poker instructors as J.J. Liu, Suzie Isaacs, Karina Jett and the Queen of Poker, Barbara Enright, who holds the record for the best finish in the World Series of Poker Main Event for a women, grabbing fifth in 1995.

“Barbara has a wealth of knowledge and experience in this business and knows the good, the bad and the ugly,” Failla said of the Poker Hall of Fame member. “Her support and advice has been so helpful. She is a fantastic teacher and very engaging.”

The academy was designed to offer women of all levels of skill an opportunity to learn from the best female pros in the industry. With a focus on lab-based learning, players can experience true live hand-by-hand instruction and benefit from interaction in an intimate environment.

“The cost is normally $1,295 for a two-day academy,” said Failla, who has been playing poker seriously for about four years. “But with the economy as it is we’re cutting our prices by 30 percent and offering payment options to allow people to comfortably afford this experience.”

The next academy is at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood on March 6-7. Those who attend will be entered into the High Heels Poker Tour event at the Hark Rock on March 8.

“Not only do they get two days of pro instruction, but they receive a $225 buy-in at no additional cost,” she said. “It gives the students an opportunity to try what they’ve learned without any additional expense.”

Perhaps one of the HHPT students could parlay a victory there into a seat at the World Series of Poker ladies tournament, an event in which Failla has had some success. Yes, she’s a rounder (she plays regularly at Seminole Classic, Hard Rock Hollywood and the Isle), and in 2008 she cashed in the WSOP ladies event, finishing 63rd.

“I was hoping to go deeper into the tournament and 63rd was fantastic, but the game is the game,” she said. “I had a woman come to the table and stay in with cards that would make you scratch your head. Within a matter of two hours the chips were gone — the same chips that took me eight hours to accumulate. We always say we could have made it further, but I’ll never know. What I do know is I walked away with information. Sometimes when you get knocked out after the money, you take what you cash and be happy for the information for next year so the mistakes you made don’t happen again.”

This year’s WSOP ladies event will be June 7 and will cost $1K. But there were some rumblings last year that the event might get pulled from the schedule. How would that make Failla feel?

“They’d be doing the game a disservice,” said Failla, who prefers tournaments to cash games and likes hold’em and Omaha equally. “We are the fastest growing demographic and are the buying power in most families, so I think if the WSOP would take away this event, which I highly doubt, women might think twice about participating in others. Would the WSOP also take the seniors event away? Maybe, but for players who are older and who have been playing longer than the WSOP has been in existence, they would most likely be very angry. The WSOP is a fantastic organization with great plans for the future, which I hope means continuing the ladies event.”

Sometimes you’ll see men enter “ladies only” events, most notably Miami’s ex-baseball slugger Jose Canseco, who entered the ladies’ California State Poker Championship in 2007.

“All he wanted was attention,” she said, “and he got it. If you are so desperate that that’s the kind of attention you want, more power to him and the men who come after him.”

Would she object to Canseco playing in one of her events?

“Typically men don’t go near these events for fear of retaliation (laughs). But seriously, I only object about the reasoning. I cannot object if the venue allows it; I cannot turn anyone away, but I can tell you this: The women generally make it as uncomfortable as possible for them.”

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.