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American dream

If you asked any regular Joe what qualities would make up his dream woman, itís pretty likely that beauty, brains and ability to hang with the boys would all feature pretty highly; but while many men would counter that such a perfect female couldnít possibly exist, we can assure you she does Ė and whatís more, Gamblingís Duncan Wilkie interviewed her. Gentlemen, we give you Miss Erica Schoenberg

Itís not every day that you get to pick the brains of a woman whoís learnt to count cards with the MIT blackjack team, been taught poker by the biggest names in the game and once went Ďau naturelí alongside Carmen Electra live on TV Ė so when Gambling was given the opportunity to interview Full Tilt-sponsored beauty Erica Schoenberg, naturally we seized the opportunity with both handsÖ so to speak.

For those not familiar with the world of tournament poker, Erica is a professional player hailing from Akron, Ohio. From an early age she was introduced into the world of gambling Ė be it making prop bets for household chores or learning to handicap races Ė by her father, and those formative years under his wing would ultimately provide the basis that would see her consistently beat casino blackjack and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars at the World Series of Poker.

Having recently taken a breather from a disappointing (by her standards) summer in Vegas, Gambling managed to catch up with Erica ahead of her next poker expedition to London for the World Series of Poker Europe and talk about how she became the big name that she is today, how being a woman has helped her succeed in an arena dominated by ďcrummy-looking dudesĒ and how she just wonít quit until she bags that elusive major title.

Erica, tell us a bit about how your background and how you first came to be involved with cards and gamblingÖ

Well, my parents met at a racetrack, so I guess my career started before I was even born Ė it was always going to be in my genes! My dad was involved with the ponies and he would definitely be described as a gambler, so I was exposed to various forms of betting from a very young age. I always had that around, so I guess thatís where it all stems from Ė I learnt most of my maths from handicapping and playing blackjack.

And blackjack, of course, is something that you went on to become very involved with as you continued to grow upÖ

Yeah, that kicked it all of for me. Once I met the members of the MIT blackjack team on a gambling TV show here in the States called ĎThe World Series of Blackjackí, they referred me to one of their colleagues because I was living in LA and he taught me how to count cards, so we started our own team. This was about six years ago and that was really the first time that I considered myself a gambler as a profession per se. From there I fell into poker.

Were you playing poker while your were doing your work with the MIT blackjack team or is that something that came in afterwards?

No. That came in afterwards. I wasnít playing poker at all at the time and it was actually on a TV show that I first got started Ė on the sister show to the World Series of Blackjack in fact. They only asked me to play because I was involved in blackjack and I said I knew how to play poker; which I kind of did, but only recreationally. It was a half-truth that soon got exposed when I went on the show and played against David Williams and the Grinder [November Niner Mike Mizrachi]! I got crushed. It was terrible Ė it was so embarrassing that I decided to start playing poker seriously simply because I couldnít stand looking like such a chump. It was getting harder and harder to make a living out of blackjack and I was ready to make a change.

How did you go about improving your game to begin with and when was it that you felt youíd finally arrived as a Ďprofessionalí poker player?

It was when I got my first sponsorship with Mansion Poker. I hadnít done anything remarkable in poker, but the deal allowed me to play some big tournaments which Ė to be perfectly honest Ė at that stage of my career I had no business playing! After that, I got lucky at the Bellagio. I had just met David Benyamine and he had been helping me, but during this tournament he was afraid of giving me advice in case it jinxed it. It was the Five Diamond Classic in 2006 and I came 16th Ė that was my first six-figure cash and from there I just kept going.

Do you think playing in tournaments of that size while relatively inexperienced helped your development as a player?

When I look back on it, itís funny when I consider my knowledge and understanding of the game now compared to when I was playing that WPT tournament. Itís amazing to me Ė I knew a fraction of what I know now, but sometimes knowing a lot about the game isnít always beneficial. Back then, I felt there was something to be said for the fact that I didnít know what the hell I was doing, so no one else was able to figure me out either. These days perhaps Iím over-thinking things instead of going with my gut.

Aside from your gambling background, you were also involved in modelling when you were younger Ė do you think being an attractive, marketable young lady made it easier to get yourself a deal when you first started?

Oh, 110% yes. Letís be brutally honest, I would never have gotten my Mansion deal were it not for the fact that I was a woman. I hate to say it, but itís just being realistic and being honest. Itís a definite edge to be a young woman in a field thatís dominated by crummy-looking dudes!

After your deal with Mansion finished, you moved over to Full Tilt Ė did you find that being part of their stable of pros provided you with more support?

Yeah, I was pretty lucky. Itís been great to be able to play on Full Tilt, but I think my situation is unique in that Iíve been able to watch David [Benyamine] play; Iíve been able to sit in Bobbyís Room in the Bellagio and watch Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson and the late Chip Reese; Iíve gotten to see the best poker players in the world play at the highest stakes. However, that doesnít always translate into good tournament skills and there was a period of time when I was really confused about what I was seeing and I struggled to apply it to the games I was playing, so it was kind of a catch-22. Full Tilt definitely afforded me the ability to enter more tournaments and they gave me that bit of confidence, but it was more that I had an opportunity that 99% of players donít get.

Whereís your favourite place to play in Europe, as well as back home in the States?

In Europe I love playing in Monte Carlo. The place is incredible and you know how the casinos are in Europe Ė I can pretend that Iím in a Bond movie, so itís always fun playing there. Back home, I love playing at the Bellagio because itís where Iíve had the most success and I really like the new Aria as well Ė but at the end of the day, a casino is a casino. I donít give a crap where I am as long as Iím winning, so I could be in a tent for all I care!

Further to that, do you have any preferred tablemates from the poker world or is it better to play with complete amateurs?

I always find it fun to play with really good players even though itís obviously more difficult. That said, it can be difficult against amateurs sometimes too, because as I said before, when youíre playing against someone who doesnít know what theyíre doing, it can be really hard to figure them out. I enjoy playing against players whose games Iím curious about or that I really respect, because I just feel that you can learn so much more from them. It might not be the best situation because itís a lot tougher, but itís just so informative and itís the only way to really get better.

What do you consider to be the most significant milestone of your career so far?

Itís hard to say. It might be the first tournament that I won, which was a $2.5k WPT preliminary event at Mandalay Bay, just because winning your first tournament gives you so much confidence. Sometimes it seems like an insurmountable task and you start to ask yourself: ďWill I ever actually be able to be the last person standing here?Ē It feels so daunting, but when you finally get there itís a great feeling. So itís really close between that and my first and only World Series final table Ė where I came third out of 2,778 Ė for pretty much the same reasons. It gave me that confidence where I could say to myself: ďHoly cow! I can do thisĒ. Thatís really important because even though everyone tells themselves they can do it, most people wonít do it and itís not going to happen often; so itís definitely one of those two.

Despite making a small cash in a mixed Holdíem event, it was a pretty rough year for you at the WSOP Ė will you be looking to bounce back from that in London when the WSOPE comes to town?

Yeah, Iíll definitely be over for the WSOPE and EPT London. I really like the EPTs and I think theyíre getting better fields than weíre seeing in the States at the moment. Normally I just play it by ear when it comes to selecting tournaments because it just depends on how Iím feeling and Ė as always Ė how my bankroll is feeling too! That definitely determines how cocky Iím going to be with the number of tournaments I play in London, but without a doubt Iím going to be there for the WSOPE. Now and then, you wake up in the morning and just know that you shouldnít be playing a $10k tournament Ė unfortunately, I donít always listen to that instinct!

What did you make of Shaun Deeb and a few other pros protesting against the ladies event at this yearís Series Ė do you think it was justified?

I think that anyone whoís a real poker player should recognise that anything that brings more money and more people into the game is a good thing. If thatís through having a ladies-only event, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It actually kind of annoys me, because I honestly donít see what theyíre really protesting against. I donít see any downside to creating bigger fields and getting more people interested in the game, because the more people who are interested in the game, the more people will enter tournaments and the more money there will be in the prize pool. At the end of the day, theyíre protesting about inequality in poker, but thatís ridiculous because thereís no equality in poker anyway Ė itís a game thatís dominated by men because 98% of the players are men. Thatís just the way it is.

Would you say events like those at this yearís WSOP create a stigma around ladies-only events that results in them not being taken seriously?

Yeah, theyíre definitely not taken that seriously, but thatís fine though; itís true. The stigma is correct Ė they are softer fields and thatís why I love playing them. Whatís wrong with that? If thereís an event where I think I have a really decent advantage, I want to play it and I donít understand where the shame is in that. I think if you are a real poker player, you want to play where you have the biggest edge Ė be it a ladies only event or any other type of event Ė and if I think Iím going to have an advantage over the rest of the field, Iím going to seek it out!

While weíre on the subject of ladies-only events, I have to ask you about the Carmen Electra Strip Poker InvitationalÖ

Ö That was clearly my evil twin! I donít know what youíre talking about!

Ö looking back on that now, do you have any regrets and do you think that being on the show caused people to take you less seriously?

All I would say is that if you were to pick ten figures in poker and look at what they were doing a decade ago, Iím sure theyíd have done some things that wouldnít reflect on who they are today. I think thatís the best way to put it because I donít really regret anything that Iíve done up to this point in my life, because even the mistakes that Iíve made Ė and I wouldnít even call that a mistake necessarily Ė have all led me to where I am today. Whether they seem like good or bad decisions in hindsight, Iím still really happy with where I am in life.

With that in mind, do you think youíll always be content playing poker or will you eventually grow tired of the game?

I think Iíll always play poker because even though itís become my profession, itís still a hobby and still something that I enjoy doing Ė just as I enjoy golfing or reading or any of my other hobbies. Itís something that Iíll do until I donít enjoy it any more.

And when you look back on your career, is there anything youíd like to say that youíve achieved or do you think its bad practise to set yourself goals in poker?

No I donít think itís a bad practice at all. I really just want to win a major tournament Ė I donít care whether itís an EPT, a WPT or a WSOP, just something big! Iíve got a WPT preliminary event under my belt, so now I need to win a main event.

Weíll be keeping our fingers crossed for you in London next month.


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