Being a poker pro can be a difficult, stress-filled profession.
Being transgender makes being a poker pro look like a walk in the park.
Meet June Cuervo, a transgender professional poker player.[Editorial note: June uses pronouns “she/they.” Which I learned here means that she is comfortable with both. I will use “she” and “her” throughout this piece.]
I got a chance to talk to June while she was on vacation, resetting and relaxing prior to playing in the World Series of Poker Main Event. Which is a story in itself that we’ll get to shortly.
June discovered poker three years ago – the blink of an eye for somebody playing professionally – but she was a confirmed video game junkie for many years. In fact, she had been working as a video game designer (think “movie director”) in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was also playing a lot of Magic the Gathering (“MTG”), the card game that spawned the poker careers of Isaac Haxton, David Williams, Justin Bonomo, and many others. An MTG acquaintance introduced her to poker, and she was on her way. Interestingly, it wasn’t the money in poker that attracted her – it was the game itself. She was playing for stakes so low that they had no meaning to her financial existence, but she was a gamer – she knew the object was to win. Once she was beating those minimum stakes, she wanted to play bigger. “That’s what you do in any video game – you level up.”
At the time, she was living as a man. “I was a smoker and had a terrible diet. I was completely out of touch with my body.” She noted that there were – and had been – other red flags that she wasn’t living her “true” life. But it took reflection in another person to snap the entire picture into focus.
Shortly after she started playing poker online, she got a new roommate of non-binary gender. That roommate would sit and do their nails on June’s desk while June was multi-tabling $.50/$1 NLHE, and ask what a check-raise was. And June remembered that she had enjoyed wearing fingernail polish earlier in her life. She began to understand from the roommate that if she wanted to put on a skirt and go out, she could just do that – there were no rules.
As she was beginning the life journey from being a man to being a woman, she was also beginning a professional journey.
In early 2021, she was laid off from her game designer job. With time on her hands, she started playing live poker at the Oaks Card Club just down the street. She’d ride her bike there, lock it to the “No Parking” sign, and go grind $3/5 NLHE.
Simultaneously, she was interviewing for jobs in the gaming industry, and was down to final interviews for a couple of jobs. After all, that’s who she was – a professional video game designer working in the geographical heart of high-tech.
But life took a plot twist. By this time, she was married to a woman named Melissa. During that interviewing phase, June said to Melissa, “I’m not sure I can work for The Man forever.
“Okay, do what you need to do.”
June contacted the company where she was in a final interviewing round, and said, “Please remove me from consideration, and I’m sorry I put you through all that interviewing work.”
Just like that, “I had gone from cisgender male high-tech worker bee to transgender woman self-employed poker player.”
And you thought the switch to PLO was difficult.
A few months ago, June and Melissa decided to pick up and move to Las Vegas. This intrigued me because the Bay Area is legendary as an inclusive place; transgender people are “everywhere” in daily life. The poker… let’s just say that, within the poker community, Bay Area game juiciness is as legendary as its diversity and inclusiveness.
June immediately outed herself as a “game for its own sake” gamer.
“Poker players in the Bay Area are terrible. I’m just playing bingo with an edge against a bunch of people. It’s boring, and I’m not going to sharpen my skills playing that kind of game.”
I.e. “How will I level up if I’m always playing against the newbies?”[Editorial note: This is not a strategy article. But what follows is provably correct and important poker strategy.]
June wasn’t done on the topic of California poker. “Bay Area rake is extremely high. You have to play uber-tight, you can’t cold-call raises – you have 3-bet everything because if there’s a flop, the rake takes a big chunk out of the pot. You can’t play the blinds, and coming from an online background, I was used to aggressively defending the blinds. It just isn’t my kind of poker.”
So she and Melissa took a couple of exploratory trips to Las Vegas and decided to move there some months ago. And how was the transition to the new town?
“The poker is great. You can ‘walk’ from one poker room to another if you want a change of game or scenery. And the rake is much lower, which is a big win. Also, Melissa is playing full-time now…”
Wait. Your wife is playing full-time now too?
“Yeah, she saw me getting into it, so she got into it too. She’s a more exploitive player than I am – I tend to stick to the theory. She senses table dynamics and things like that better than I do and can capitalize on those opportunities.”
What about the weather and generally fun things to do. People to hang with?
“Okay, Bay Area weather is objectively the best weather in the country. But yeah, we’ve found a great community in Vegas. And there are some cool places to go. We really like the Arts District – great bars and restaurants, and the tourists don’t go there – it’s just locals and their friends.”
How about support as a transgender woman from players and staff in the Las Vegas poker rooms?
“Mostly, I’d call it ‘Well-intentioned ignorance.’ People understand the concept of supporting transgender people, but they’re not sure what they should do or say. And I’m okay with that as long as we can have a good conversation about it. The dealers have gotten to know me and have been great about using ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns, which gives a heads-up to the rest of the table. I also want to give a special shout-out to Resorts World for being especially supportive – it’s why I give them a lot of my play.”
I switched topics to her social media presence. June has an Instagram account (@JunePlaysPoker). And that piqued my interest. I noted that social media is not exactly a big warm fuzzy hug of tolerance, diversity, and understanding.
“Heh. No, it’s not. Mostly I post hand histories and strategy thoughts [And the occasional chip porn. Ed.]. But I’ve begun to slide some transgender education and ‘trans-literacy’ into the mix. If I want to get a point across, I try to find a good source and link to that – somebody saying what I want to say, but better. And sure, I get some amount of hate mail.”
“But you don’t have to do this. You could go to those 4-5 poker rooms where they know and respect you. And, bluntly put, protect you from idiots. Put your head down and do your job.”
“I could. But I’m stubborn. I know zero other transgender poker players in Las Vegas. Perhaps I can set an example for somebody else, let them know that they can be out as transgender and still be welcome and active in the poker community.”
“I played the Ladies Event at the WSOP, and that was mostly a good experience. I rocked up to the registration window, showed the person my ID, and they said, ‘Cool. Gimme $1,000.’ Of course, it’s $10,000 for a man to enter that event, so there were no issues there.”
“But what was really weird is that I was routinely mis-gendered at the table. Somebody would say, ‘Sir, how many chips do you have?’”
“Wait. You looked like a male grinder with sufficient ego to lay 10:1 on himself?”
“Right? That was the weird part. You’d have thought that the context would have made mis-gendering unlikely. But overall, people were supportive, and it was a good experience. And good practice getting ready for the Main.”
Which brings us around to the top of the article. June made it clear that she’s a cash game player, and not really a tournament person. And yet, here she is, getting ready to play the ne plus ultra of tournaments – the WSOP Main Event.
“A bucket list thing, I guess.” Her Twitter feed (@JuneCuervo) also alludes to the undeniable attraction of the event: “I really see why people… fire a $10k bullet into the main event that they can’t [really] afford. It’s so hyped up, and people get so excited about it, I feel the pull myself.”
Which Day 1?
“I’m playing Tuesday, November 9th – ‘Euro Day.’ It’s the first day that the European players will be able to play because U.S. travel restrictions got dropped. I know everybody is afraid of a flood of European crushers, but there are whales over there too, and honestly, I’m not intimidated.”
I don’t think June needs to be worried about European crushers – she can certainly hold her own there. But I do have a different worry, and put it to her this way:
“If you’re playing cash and somebody is aggressive or inappropriate toward you because you’re transgender, you can just step away from the table, take a lap around the casino, whatever you need to do to recenter. In a tournament, you’re kind of glued to your seat. Even if the tournament staff (appropriately) penalizes or boots the bad actor, you have to find a way to still play your A-game after the incident.”
Her answer was dead on point.
“You know how, if a poker player loses a hand, you’ll hear them say, “Nice hand,” maybe pat the table. It doesn’t even necessarily mean, ‘nice hand.’ But what they’re saying is, ‘This hand is over. I am done with it, and I’m moving onto the next hand.’ The top poker players, really the strongest people in life, have that ability. To put bad events behind them and move onto whatever is next. It’s a kind of compartmentalization, but you need to do it in the moment.”
“If somebody gets aggressive or inappropriate with me because I’m transgender, I will put it behind me and continue to play my A-game. If I need to take a self-imposed one-lap penalty, I’ll do that. There will be time to go home and cry later.”
I’ll close with a brief perspective of my own. I played my first hand of casino poker over 35 years ago. In the early days, the racist, misogynistic, homophobic things I heard were unspeakable. To a point that now, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t say something, or at least get up and walk away. I’m sure if transgender issues had been on the table back then, I would have heard horrific comments about that, too. The environment is dramatically better now than it was back then. But still, June says, “In terms of inclusion and tolerance, poker lags behind video games and board games, which are lagging behind society as a whole.”
I still hear racist and homophobic comments at the poker table. And June has documented far too many (i.e. greater than zero) direct attacks on her at the table because she’s transgender.
If you are a poker player or poker room staff member reading this piece, I hope you’ll take something away from it. If you hear or see inappropriate behavior toward somebody because of their dress, age, gender identity, race, whatever – say something – do something. I shouldn’t be writing an article about June, the transgender woman, playing the WSOP Main Event. She’s just another grinder, moved to Las Vegas to ply her trade. She’s just another regular poker player, called inexorably to the Main Event like a moth to a flame.
That’s the objective: for June Cuervo and everybody else who is “different,” to be a non-story. How and when we get there is up to us.