No mercy

There’s a reason Isabelle Mercier has earned more than US$600,000 in becoming one of Canada’s top professional poker players — and it’s not just because she knows how to hold ‘em.

Isabelle Mercier rarely has a chance to relax. She considers zoning out and watching a movie to be a luxury. And so it’s all the more annoying that when she can finally do so on a late August afternoon, a construction crew is pounding away outside of her window. “Why did they choose to repair the street the one week I’m here?” she says over the phone from her mother’s house in Montreal. Still, the disturbance is a small price to pay to be home. The rest of the year Mercier lives out of hotel rooms — and rakes in cash playing professional poker.

Her winnings total more than US$600,000 after four years on the professional circuit, and she now ranks among the top female poker players in the world. So much so that the 32-year-old from Victoriaville, Que., has earned a reputation for her steely gaze and aggressive style, which explains her nickname, befitting of a professional wrestler: No Mercy. Some players have bristled at her tough demeanor, particularly after Mercier finished first in the 2004 Ladies Night Out tournament in Los Angeles, pocketing US$25,000. “I had this look like I was going to kill everybody,” she recalls. “A lot of people criticized me for my attitude. But am I supposed to smile and look good and model? I’m playing poker.”

Perhaps her music choices help explain her attitude: each morning she walks onto a tournament floor, she has “Eye of the Tiger” blaring through her headphones. Even so, Mercier has since relaxed her death stare and learned to loosen up at the table. She’ll now crack jokes, sing and even dance, which, she says, some opponents find just as annoying as her former stoic style. Steve Paul-Ambrose, a fellow Canadian whose winnings total more than US$1 million, isn’t one of those opponents. He actually enjoys having Mercier liven up the table, describing her as a level-headed player, as opposed to some others who dive into as many pots as they can. “Isabelle is selective and seems to wait for good hands before getting involved,” he says. “In the pots she does play, she certainly doesn’t back down.”

In a game in which men make up the majority of players, Mercier says some guys aren’t used to being beaten by a woman. She’s developed a strategy to never bluff with such men, since they tend to call most of her bets. “For those guys, it’s tough when I raise a lot and have a lot of aggression,” she says. “They just cannot stand to have me dominate the table like that.” Other guys are downright flirtatious — and easier to bluff. “They’re going to fold, and they’re going to believe I have a hand every time,” she says. Players who are that easy to read tend to be amateurs, however, and playing against other pros requires an entirely different set of skills, which Mercier is still developing. “It’s one hand at a time,” she says. “They’re not going to let you raise and take control. They’re going to fold and fold.”

Mercier burst onto the poker scene as a relative unknown in 2002, capturing €50,000 (about $79,000 back then) in her second-ever tournament, the Master Classics of Poker, but her playing has faltered lately. Her outing at the World Series of Poker this past summer in Las Vegas was the worst tournament of her career. “In the main event, I was on tilt,” she says, a term used when frazzled players let their emotions take over. “That never happens to me.” Mercier admits she has a lot to learn from more experienced professionals, such as Phil Ivey and Gus Hansen, who has become her mentor.

Luckily for Mercier, she’s a quick study, and comes from a family of devoted card players. She was first introduced to poker when she was four years old; each Saturday, her father and uncles would gather in her family’s living room to wile away the hours playing cards. None of them found it strange when Mercier wanted to join in, nor when she won, though her father didn’t fold easily. The family played for keeps, and whatever money she lost was gone for good — even as a four year old. Mercier recalls one timeasking her father to spot her $55 so she could increase her bets. He refused, telling her she had to play with her own money. “I was really mad,” she says, “but they treated me like an adult.”

Later on, Mercier found playing cards was more challenging than school, and that includes earning a law degree from the University of Montreal. She never had much intention to actually practise law, however. She had to go to school for something, and law carried a certain prestige. But she moonlighted as a dealer at a Montreal casino while at school and, toward the end of her six-month articling position, mailed her resumé to casinos around the world. The Aviation Club in Paris was among those that responded. By that point, Mercier saw that law definitely wasn’t in the cards for her, and she gave it up after being called to the bar.

Yet it wasn’t until she had spent five years managing the poker room at the Aviation Club that the thought of playing professionally crossed her mind, and her entry into the circuit was a fluke. Her friend Bruno Fitoussi was forced to drop out of the Master Classics of Poker tournament in Amsterdam due to prior business commitments. He asked Mercier to take his spot the night before it began, and she pounced at the chance. Her second-place finish and the €50,000 she took home forced her to wonder why she relegated herself to just dealing. She then honed her poker skills online for a year before quitting her job and devoting herself to playing professionally.

Mercier says her poor performance at the World Series of Poker last summer wasn’t because she was in over her head, but rather that her head was in another place. She had been a devout practitioner of mediation and yoga, a routine she let slide, and she was also investing more time into developing her brand as a poker player rather than her actual playing. Mercier is releasing an instructional DVD and a book in January, in addition to creating her own poker-themed fashion line for women — for example, bracelets made from poker chips.

She’ll have to focus on her game again to win the Asia Pacific Poker Tour this fall, which will take her to Korea and Australia, or to play against her family on future trips back home. Her father, who Mercier considers the best poker player in Victoriaville, is still a tough competitor. But things have changed, she says: “Now I’m the person to beat.”