Oustanding Woman in Poker: Billie Brown
The Women in Poker Hall of Fame debuted in 2008. I was honored to be one of the original inductees that year, along with Barbara Enright, Susie Isaacs, and Marsha Waggoner. There are many women who made huge contributions to the poker world who should be honored in the Women in Poker Hall of Fame. However, they may not be well known to most of today’s players for a variety of reasons … perhaps they have passed away, or retired from the industry years ago, or they work hard behind the scenes rather than in the limelight, etc. I would like to write a series of columns highlighting some of these ladies. I would love to see them receive a lifetime achievement award at some point for their tremendous contributions to poker.
The first subject of this series is Billie Brown. I had the pleasure of being Billie’s friend for about 30 years before she passed away in 2004. Billie was a pioneer for women in poker, though her background before she became heavily involved in the poker world was amazing.
Billie Brown was, first and foremost, a teacher. She started her career as an educator choosing to teach mentally handicapped children. Throughout her life, she would continue her commitment to community service and her emphasis on the importance of education.
After graduation from UCLA, Billie found work as a Ford model and quickly moved into the role as couturier, taking world famous fashion designers’ clothing lines around the world. Her clients included Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. She coordinated major fashion week shows around the world for famous designers including Mary McFadden, Albert Nipon, and Ralph Lauren. Billie even traveled with the infamous Rat Pack, dating Peter Lawford for a spell.
Her work took her to all corners of the world, most notably Saudi Arabia, where she worked with Dr. Nabil El Ramly, creator of the desalinization process, turning salt water to usable drinking water. She aided Dr El Ramly and the Saudi government with the implementation of this pivotal project, and set up a center in the United States to provide training for Saudi students who would one day run the country’s desalinization plants.
In Las Vegas and her home base of Los Angeles, she perfected the game of poker that would change her life. When I met Billie in the mid-70s, she was one of the few women in the cardrooms of Las Vegas. We spent many hours together over the green felt. When we were done playing, we often went to the craps table…we considered it our entertainment.
Within the poker industry, Billie Brown achieved the title of visionary. She established a solid reputation as an innovator, creating exciting tournaments and promotions that changed the face of poker. In the early 80’s, Billie was the first person to create a guaranteed purse in a major poker tournament. She committed a major casino, the Riviera Hotel, as the tournament venue. The “Draw for the Gold Tournament” guaranteed $350,000 in its first year. The second and third year guaranteed $450,000 and the fourth year had the first $1,000,000 guarantee. That promotion built a player base of 2500 people, unheard of in those days.
She parlayed that success into creating an ongoing business of bringing players from New York and Los Angeles to Las Vegas. She worked with Commerce Casino creating promotions including “Play for the Gold,” and worked with several of the Indian casinos in San Diego, assisting them in building their poker rooms and Asian games.
The last decade of her life was committed to helping market and expand Ocean’s Eleven Casino in Oceanside, California. As the casino’s Marketing Director, she created and hosted the beloved California State Ladies Poker Championship, an event that still draws women from all over the country. Her tournament wasn’t just about poker; it was an opportunity for women in the industry to bond.
I remember how much attention to detail Billie put forth to make the CSLPC the best woman’s tournament in the world. She insisted that everything to be first class for the ladies. She spent hours selecting just the right player gifts, meticulously folding the napkins, custom decorating the room for every meal. Billie loved hanging out with the players during and after poker. She believed that women were an important force in poker and she was a mentor to many of us.
Her greatest legacy will ultimately be her commitment to the community of Oceanside and her advocacy to special needs children and educational efforts. She championed important causes including St Claire’s Home in Oceanside and the Martin Luther King Scholarship Program. Most near and dear to her heart was Ivey Ranch Home for developmentally disabled children. In fact I remember that she got angry with me once for a practical joke and the only way I could get her to forgive me was to write a check to Ivey Ranch.
Billie Brown set the highest of standards both for herself and others and best of all, as the song says, she did it her way. She will be remembered as a savvy and accomplished poker player, a poker visionary, and a mother of three daughters and grandmother of three. Her influence lives on today, as poker continues to grow exponentially with opportunities for so many . . . just as she envisioned.