The Queen of Machu Picchu

It was 5 a.m. and despite being bleary-eyed, I found Shirley Rosario waiting for me in the lobby of the Sol Hotel in Cusco, Peru. We had flown in the night before from Lima and shook off altitude sickness by sipping coca matte before a four-hour drive in a packed station wagon. We passed rolling hills and farmland that was flanked by the ominous Andes Mountains in the background. Our ride let us off at the train station in Ollantaytambo. For two hours, the train crawled through thick jungle canopy before we arrived at a tiny village called Aguas Calientes, where we hopped on a bus that crept up a scary, windy road carved out of a green mountainside. The bus dumped us off at the mouth of Machu Picchu and we hiked the rest of the way to see the ruins. We were surrounded by puffy white and gray clouds, which blocked out the sun and gave the air a smoky, dreamlike quality to it.

We navigated a narrow trail and climbed several flights of stone stairs, before we reached the apex of Machu Picchu. I was utterly drained and drenched in sweat. I looked at a serene Shirley, who couldn’t have been happier. Even though we were road weary after an arduous journey that began 24 hours earlier, she had conquered many obstacles in her life, including beating breast cancer. Compared to that, the trip to Machu Picchu was rather simple.

“A piece of cake,” Shirley said.

You’d be shocked if I told you one of the best H.O.R.S.E. players in America was a single mom, cancer survivor, and a former cocktail waitress. Meet Shirley Rosario. She has one of the more compelling stories about how she got into poker. In a short time, she went from serving drinks to poker players to becoming a prop player and eventually a commentator at “Live at the Bike.” Shirley is also a savvy small business woman who built up a web empire during the glorious poker boom. Along the way, she battled and beat cancer, traveled the world on the international poker circuit, and eventually sold one of her websites for a nice chunk of change before Black Friday.

I’ve known Shirley for almost a decade and I often joke around that her life should be made into a Hollywood film. At the least, it warrants a performance from Julianne Moore in a movie of the week on Lifetime or the Oprah Winfrey Network. Hollywood is a sucker for rags to riches stories. It’s true. Everyone loves to root for the underdog.

“Way before the Moneymaker and the poker boom, I was working at Commerce Casino,” explained Shirley. “The Omaha games always seemed more complex and lively than the Hold’em games, so I liked to watch the play of the hands go down. Steve Badger was one of two players I watched regularly.”

At the time, Badger was a regular in the high-stakes games in Southern California and when Shirley expressed an interest in learning the intricacies of Omaha, Badger became Shirley’s mentor.

“We went to another casino and played very low stakes Omaha together,” Shirley said. “Then we’d talk about the session, and about the play of hands and how to manipulate players.”

At the turn of the millennium, online poker rooms sprang up and Badger’s brick and mortar Omaha lessons quickly expanded to online tutelage.

“The best thing about online poker,” Shirley said, “Is that it’s 10 times easier and faster for new players to learn the basics of the game from a friend. With online poker, it was easy for Steve to watch me play and then discuss the game as it was going on.”

Once Shirley got a firm grasp of the game, she was ready to take her first plunge into the hectic world of tournament poker.

“I started to play in casino tournaments. After making two final tables in my first three tournaments, I was hooked.  Tournament poker excited me and challenged me a lot more than regular poker.”

In February of 2003 one month before the first episode of the World Poker Tour aired on the Travel channel, Shirley made waves when she finished in second place in a $1,000 buy-in Omaha Hi/Lo event at the L.A. Poker Classic. She lost heads-up to Phil Hellmuth, who was impressed with her tenacity at the tables.

Today, in a post-Black Friday world, Shirley is primarily a brick and mortar pro. She plays Omaha and mixed cash games, but over the last few years she won three H.O.R.S.E. titles including two at the California State Championships (2009 and 2010), and one at the L.A. Poker Classic (2011). She was in search of exotic travel opportunities and took advantage of different international circuits. Shirley visited the Bahamas, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. I was fortunate enough to be one of Shirley’s travel companions for Peru. Just three days after she busted out of the LAPT Peru, we were hiking up the side of Incan ruins in Machu Picchu.

Fortunately for Shirley, many of her family members worked in the casino industry and didn’t look down upon the poker scene like most judgmental people did pre-boom. The biggest resistance came from Shirley’s mother because she felt as though she was underachieving. But her mother came around after realizing the fringe benefits of working in poker. For one, Shirley worked mostly at home as an online poker pro. That meant she was always around for her kids.

“Of course, some people might look down on me, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the health and well-being of me and my daughters. They have both benefited greatly from my choices. They realize how lucky they are that their mom can provide a good life for them and be at their school functions and activities. The flexibility of poker has allowed me to be there for my kids in ways that a 9-5 job wouldn’t. They also have been able to travel to all over the world which is probably my greatest gift to them.”

Shirley created one of the most successful poker-related websites in the history of the Internet. She was one of the few players who had the foresight to understand the financial significance of the Moneymaker Effect and subsequent poker boom.

Shirley’s mentor, Steve Badger, was also an experienced poker writer. Kathy Liebert suggested to Badger that he should create an online index of all of his print articles. That random remark was the genesis of the first of many websites Badger eventually created. In addition to poker mentoring, Badger unselfishly shared his vast knowledge of the nebulous world of e-business.

“Having been in the casino industry for a while even before I played poker, I knew the money was in the business side of poker, and not necessarily as a player,” Shirley said. “I noticed that Steve often consulted with various cardrooms, so when he wanted to develop another revenue stream by working with me, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to get in on the action.”

In 2000, Badger created a couple of poker strategy websites. Although playwinningpoker.com looked rudimentary in aesthetics, it became one of the most heavily trafficked poker-themed sites on the web. At the time, there was virtually no poker strategy content on the web and Badger instantly filled that void. Within a short time, he had a monopoly on traffic, mostly from poker neophytes, which he to converted to revenue through affiliate deals with major online behemoths at the time including Party Poker and Paradise Poker, in addition to a cultivating a strong bond with a fledgling PokerStars.

Under the watchful eye of Badger, Shirley created poker-babes.com where she published player bios of popular players — both women and men. She wrote player bios while Badger focused on search engine optimization (SEO) and different marketing schemes to drive traffic to her site.

“My original idea was to build the site around poker player profiles,” Shirley said. “While new strategy sites like Steve’s were popping up, there were no online websites that focused on players. I knew that after seeing players on TV, curious viewers would search the web for more info. When Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event in 2003, I had already written dozens of profiles on poker-babes.com, which ranked first in Google for notables like Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, and Moneymaker.”

In 2004-05, you couldn’t do a Google search on a well-known poker player without getting a hit for Shirley’s site. But all of that wasn’t pure luck. She understood the successful combination of fresh, original content boosted by SEO. During the height of the boom, Shirley essentially held two jobs as a webmaster and a poker player, all the while trying to maintain a healthy family life. All that diligent work paid off when she made a well-timed decision to sell her site.

In 2010, exactly one year before Black Friday, Shirley and Badger sold their websites to PokerStars for an undisclosed amount of money. She cashed in at the perfect time before online poker’s landscape in America was decimated by Black Friday.

Shirley’s website became a safety net when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. In early 2006, after a long session of online Omaha, Shirley cooled off by watching TV. While sitting on her couch she discovered a lump in her breast. She went to the doctor, who ordered a biopsy. She was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer, but the doctors caught it before it spread. She had a tumor removed and spent the next six months undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Shirley’s website allowed her to support her two kids while she was recovering from cancer. She was fortunate that she had a steady flow of alternative income because she was not playing poker under optimal circumstances.

“I played a few tournaments while undergoing chemo and was playing online all the time,” Shirley said about the tumultuous days in 2006. “My only regret was posting a losing year while doing chemo. It was foolish of me to think I could play the same limits ($30/$60 Omaha) as I was before while being sick every single day. I should’ve dropped down to small limits and just played to pass the time instead of letting my ego get in the way.”

Despite the downswing, Shirley re-emerged the next year and got back on track. In March of 2007, she final-tabled an Omaha event and later that summer in Las Vegas, after getting shut out for a couple of years, she finally cashed in her first-ever WSOP event. In the fall of 2007, she won an Omaha event at the Bike and never looked back.

Shirley has always been a fighter and she’s not one of those people who thrived on eliciting attention when they are sick. She’s the direct opposite. Although her closest friends knew of her illness, it took her almost four months to publicly admit on her blog that she had cancer. Those dark days helped her become a better poker player and a stronger person.

“I learned that things that happen in your life have a direct impact on what happens on the table,” said Shirley. “If you are sick or having serious problems (away from the tables) then it is almost impossible to separate it all and your poker game will suffer. But more than that, I learned that I am a lot stronger than I ever imagined. I can do anything, including kicking cancer’s ass. Kicking men’s asses at the table is a piece of cake compared to beating cancer.”

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September 2012