It was a little more than a month ago when two-time defending Nevada State Ladies Poker Champion Ruth Hall knew something was wrong.
As she was helping her husband Keith pick up sticks he just trimmed off a crape myrtle tree growing in their Round Rock, Texas yard, the 63 year-old grew increasing tired and had to keep sitting down to catch her breath.
Three days later, a trip to Urgent Care quickly evolved into an emergency room visit after she was told she was experiencing congestive heart failure. At the hospital, she learned the jarring news that her heart was functioning at 10%.
It was damaged from pumping blood filled with chemo drugs that helped Ruth fight three bouts of cancer over the last 23 years.
A harrowing experience for anyone, there’s still a champion’s optimism and amusement in her voice, a sort of wonderment within the “what’s next” in her life, and she actually chuckles as she opens up over the phone.
“I don’t know if you know my health record — it’s pretty poor,” she says, deadpanning. She then laughs. “I’m still 29 in my head is the problem.”
On Tuesday, a little more than a month after her most recent diagnoses, Ruth boarded a plane to Las Vegas to not only defend her title at the Ladies International Poker Series (LIPS), but to see the many friends she made as one of the leading ambassadors for women in poker.
The first day of the $360 Nevada State Ladies Championship begins today (Friday, April 21), and Ruth will be part of the field that hopes to be playing at the final table on Sunday.
She’ll be the one wearing the Live Vest defibrillator and a very big smile.
“It’s been a mess with health and it kind of put a damper on poker. But, yeah. I’m always going to be a glass-half-full type of person,” she says.
The birth of ‘Ruthless’
Ruth grew up in a house of card players, and some of her earliest memories is sitting on her mother’s lap, holding her cards during games.
“So I think the’s where I got the bug,” Ruth says.
At the age of nine, she learned “old school” poker while at campgrounds, playing seven-card stud and five-card draw for candy.
It was nearly 30 years later when Ruth’s life first shifted drastically. She was 36 and told she had stage-three breast cancer.
Married and living in Illinois at the time, she decided she needed warmer weather, got a divorce, and moved to Texas, eventually settling in Austin with Keith.
Ruth worked as a corporate account executive for a high-end moving company that catered to corporate bigwigs, and was also the mother to two daughters.
Flash forward to 2003, the year Chris Moneymaker turned a $86 satellite into the World Series of Poker Main Event victory. One day she watched Keith log onto an online poker site and told him “Oh, I know how to play poker.”
She started mucking around online, which was her introduction to no-limit hold’em.
“I always blame Keith for my no-limit hold’em poker addiction,” she says. “To be honest, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him. He’s my hero.”
Card rooms in Texas didn’t yet exist, so the two eventually started playing tourneys at bars. The soft games gave Ruth some confidence and she kept making deep runs, but it took until 2007 before Ruth decided she wanted to try to play at a casino.
She saw Hard Rock Tulsa spread some ladies events, and thought that sounds like a whole lot of fun.
“I’m the pasteboard person for LIPS,” she says. “Not because I work for LIPS, because at the beginning, when you’re learning poker and you’re trying to get into the casinos to play, there’s a little intimidation factor there, regardless of gender.
You don’t want to do something wrong, you don’t want to be embarrassed, it’s just one of those things that whenever you want to try something new, it’s harder.”
Two years later, Ruth won the first of her two LIPS grand championships and began to travel and play more tourneys, focussing on women’s events.
Through study and a passion for poker, Ruth’s game got better and better, and she had a very good 2015, the first year she won the Nevada State Ladies Poker Championship.
She also won her WSOP Circuit ring that year in a ladies event in West Palm Beach.
And then, after 20 years of dormancy, the breast cancer came back in 2016.
“That put a damper on my poker, and 2015 was a really good year. Working full-time and playing poker as a hobby, I still did quite well,” she says.
And then in 2018, an MRI found the cancer spread to her brain. Oh, and that was also the year she started to experience severe dizzy spells so bad it cut short her WSOP vacation. It took four years, but she now pretty much has her Meniere’s disease under control. The cancer, a lurking memory.
Despite all this, Ruth continues to do quite well at the poker table. She says she had her best year in 2022, cashing more than $100,000 (nearly $420,000 lifetime, according to the Hendon Mob). To top it off, it was her best year for her health in a long time, she says.
She now has several weeks of taking five pills designed to increase her heart pumping capacity to 35%. If it gets there, she won’t have to have a defibrillator and pacemaker installed.
Creating a space for women players
Even with obvious poker talent and an outgoing personality, Ruth wasn’t immune to the nervousness and trepidation that comes with entering the sometimes aggressive and bullying world of poker that’s dominated by men.
“I was one of those women who didn’t feel comfortable playing against the men because I was scared a little bit, and I think that’s why my passion to encouraging more women to play is so prevalent to this day,” she says. “I don’t want women to feel intimidated, I want them to give it a shot and know if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
This led Ruth into several leadership roles in the poker world. Besides being an avocate of LIPS, she became a founding board member of the Women’s Poker Association (WPA) in 2018.
She also co-founded the Austin Ladies Poker Group nine years ago. It started with about 25 women who played tourneys in homes, to a group of more than 250 who get together and play tournaments monthly.
Including Ruth, there are four members who have won WSOP Circuit rings.
This was the first year they played at The Lodge in Round Rock (suburb of Austin), and they often attract 75 players each event, “women who wouldn’t normally play,” Ruth says.
They earn points for their own Player of the Year prize, and also raise money for local charities.
In November, they collected toiletries for a children’s home, in December, it was a Toys for Tots drive, and in February, they replenished the Round Rock Food Bank with canned goods and nonperishables.
The group even awards a trophy to the woman who does the most for the fundraisers.
Ruth had to spend a week in the hospital after her recent heart diagnosis. She got out on a Friday a few weeks ago. The next day, she showed up at The Lodge for the final tournament of the Austin Ladies Poker Group’s season to play and also give out the Giving Heart Award to member Deb Shaw.
“They were like: ‘What are you doing here.’ I was like: ‘I just need to be here,’” she says.
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