On the table is a $269,000 reason to not judge a book by its cover. But poker does that; poker judges books, faces, hands, expressions, men and women. And that $269,000 reason? It was won by Robbi Jade Lew, a Saudi Arabian-born woman with a striking countenance and a whip smart brain, a former biopharmaceuticals manager turned poker playing savant. Last month, Lew won the hand in question by throwing down an unprecedented Jack 4—as the card players call it—and to the poker-uninformed, this hand is like seeing a leprechaun in Times Square. But there’s a catch here—a perfect storm, if you will—evinced by the moment’s maelstrom of media coverage from the BBC to CNN to The Los Angeles Times and all in between, wherein Robbi Jade Lew took part in what turned out to be no normal game of poker.
Let’s set the scene: Lew is surrounded by a half dozen or so men at said table. Again, she is a far cry from the slouchy, tired looking card slingers that surround her. And little does she know, she is about to be thrust into the card playing spotlight like no other player before, with what is being called the most insane hand ever played. The backlash has been fierce and incendiary from the moment she laid her winning hand down at that Hustler Casino live-stream table event. “It’s probably the biggest event in poker history,” Lew admits, eyes sparkling, hands shimmering like glass, “and maybe even more so because of the way I look, the way I am. And there’s only 5 percent of women that even play in professional poker, and even less that play in super high stakes.” As Lew’s hand drops, you can practically hear the hands on the wall clock tick. The man she won against, a seasoned winner, is white as a ghost. What follows is a bold accusation of her cheating, and an investigation against Lew announced by the casino, which is still ongoing and may never be solved for good, because, after all, with cheating or insinuations of: your word is as good as mine.
But, mind you, Lew has taken every possible measure to prove her innocence, even going so far as taking a lie detector test (which she passed swimmingly), and giving the money she won back to her (what can only be seen as misogynistically insecure) competitor immediately following the bombshell victory, based on his demeanor and the insinuations that something was afoul. The only thing Lew would have done differently, she tells us, is that she would not have given the money back if she knew she was going to be explicitly accused of cheating. Since the hand, Lew has done interviews with just about every major publication around, proclaiming her innocence from the jump, “I’m not nervous about any of this. I have nothing to hide, you know?” She said recently in The Los Angeles Times, “I feel like if I stay quiet and let the world come up with their own stories and their own story line, that for me mentally is more detrimental than coming out and speaking my own piece.”
It’s phenomenal to think that Lew only started really sinking her teeth into playing poker during the beginning of the worldwide Covid-19 lockdown. She studied passionately and started winning high-stakes private games. And it should be noted that it typically takes a poker player at least a decade or two to reach the professional ranks, and certainly the tables that Lew is now seated at. Watch (for either your own poker edification, or a display of full-blooded drama) the hand in question, available on YouTube and countless poker blogs, and is an absolute wonder of contemporary theatre—with characters not typically cast in such dominant roles.
Lew is no stranger to this game, though—not the poker game, but the game of women having to claw and fight for their seat at the proverbial table. Being a Middle Eastern woman, and coming from a culture that has notoriously treated women as second-class citizens in many aspects of life, this battle isn’t exactly new. “There is no other sport that has this kind of gender disparity,” she shares. “Most women feel completely unwelcome when they sit down at a poker table, and everybody remembers you when you’re a woman [because there are so few of us].”
Ultimately, Lew credits her father with telling her that she can be anything she wants to be, and breaking free of cultural restrictions, even recounting one story in particular where he told her she could even be the president of The United States. But I’m a woman, Lew responded. That doesn’t matter, her father encouragingly told her, you can be anything you want to be—remember that.
Lew isn’t going anywhere. She will continue playing hands at the biggest tables, and not only looks to put this scandal behind her, but hopes it will draw more positive awareness to a game that has been historically shackled by masculine gatekeepers. And she shares that the support she has been given across the world, from men and women poker players alike, has kept her fire ablaze amidst the furor. It encourages her to ride the storm, to continue fighting the good fight for a game that has long been itching for a new a star.
Photographed by Andi Elloway
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
Written by Augustus Britton
Hair & Makeup: TerraRose at The Wall Group