How Dana Castaneda and Loni Harwood made poker history in Las Vegas
In most live poker tournaments with open registration, women tend to make up between three to five percent of the fields on average. Math is hard, but the odds on one of them winning those events are slim. So when a woman plows through a tough tournament field and ends up as the one player left standing, it deserves mention.
At the World Series of Poker this summer, two women did it. Out of the 61 tournaments open to both genders, two of those gold bracelets went to women, both in No Limit Hold'em events and both by women who entered the final table as the short stacks. And neither was won by Vanessa Selbst, who won a PLO event in 2008 and 10-Game Mix last year.
It was the latter half of the WSOP when Dana Castaneda won a $1,000 buy-in NLHE tournament. She played the Ladies Championship first and made the money, cashing in 94th place, and she cashed in a Carnivale of Poker side event. But Event 54 was hers, along with the bracelet and more than $454K, as she became the first woman since 2007 to win a NLHE event. She's 31 years old.
Meanwhile, Loni Harwood was making history as the WSOP moved along. She cashed in Event 6, finished in 43rd place in Event 18, then final tabled the $1,500 PLO Hi/Lo tournament (Event 31) and ended her run in sixth place for close to $40K. She cashed in Event 36 before making a deep run in Event 53, a NLHE event in which she finished fourth for more than $210K. And then she won Event 60 for the bracelet and more than $609K. Not only did she tie Cyndy Violette's 2005 record for most final tables at a WSOP by a female, but she won more for her Event 60 win than any woman has ever won for one WSOP tournament. She's 23 years old.
For most female poker players, Dana and Loni were fun to watch. They overcame chip deficits, played solid poker, and bunked the odds to win coveted poker titles.
As much as they have in common in those ways, they couldn't be more different, however.
Dana Castaneda is not a full-time poker player. She is from the Western United States, mother living in Laughlin and father in Las Vegas. When she married in 2007, she moved to California near the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa. Though her husband supported her, she was often bored at the beginning of the marriage and began to work as the assistant to the Morongo Chief of Police. In recent years, she also worked as a cocktail waitress, a familiar place for her as prior work included dealing poker, blackjack, and games in the 21 pit.
Between the time she married and began working, her father moved to California to keep her company and taught her how to play poker. That led to small cash games and low buy-in tournaments at Morongo. She was then going to treat herself to a WSOP tournament when she arrived in Las Vegas this summer to visit family. On the way, she stopped in Laughlin to see her grandma, who had suddenly become ill a week or two before.
"I'm going to play the World Series of Poker, Gram," Dana said. And her grandma told Dana that she would win. "Thanks, Gram. You kind of have to say that, but thanks!" And the woman who was born in 1920 and lived a full life passed away two days later.
When Dana made it to Las Vegas, she was heartbroken. Her grandmother helped raise her and supported her during troubled times. "She was always there for me," Dana recalled. "She was my rock throughout my whole life." She even took her grandmother to Morongo recently. Dana sat behind her in a $2/$4 LHE game and helped her win a big pot with a straight flush, at which point she told her grandmother to yell, "Ship it!" to the other player. She didn't understand, but she did remember the words, along with winning the pot, $100 high hand bonus, and special Morongo jacket that she wore with pride since that day.
Dana played the Ladies Championship event and cashed. She played a Carnivale of Poker event and cashed. Then she played Event 54.
"I just set small goals all the way through the tournament," she said of her inexperience with playing this type of large event for the first time. "I wanted to make the next break, then I wanted to make the dinner break, then I wanted to bag my chips for the first time. When I went to bed the night before Day 3, I couldn't believe there were only 14 of us left, and when I made the final table, I thought I was going to be the first to bust. I had a baby stack, but I kept going and doubling. It was during four-handed play that it started sinking in that I could win, that it could be real."
Her rail included her father, her brother who called in sick from the Hard Rock Casino, and his roommate. Her mother and aunt drove from Laughlin, and she found others on her rail that she met and played against throughout the tournament. Their lively support, which had included heads-up opponent Jason Bigelow's wife until that point, spurred her on to victory. And there was the voice of her grandmother in her head saying she would win it. Dana often patted her upper left arm that bore a tattoo of her grandmother's face throughout the tournament. "It was a silly dream between my grandma and me," she recalled emotionally. "But it came true. This was all for her." And then, with a laugh, she added, "I should've told her I was playing the Main Event!"
Dana's victory was bittersweet. Though she was surrounded by loved ones, she missed her grandmother terribly. And it so happened that her husband served divorce papers to her just before she won, though he didn't tell her until after the tournament was over.
But Dana is a strong woman. She decided to move to Las Vegas. She immediately sorted out her divorce paperwork amicably with her soon-to-be ex-husband. And she took her 12-year old daughter on a shopping spree. She will be just fine.
Loni Harwood is a full-time poker player and college graduate. The Staten Island native attended college at the State University of New York at Albany and obtained her degree in finance. Meanwhile, though, she was learning to be a poker player, courtesy of her father. Her dad was a games player, from backgammon and bridge to poker. He started playing online, and Loni followed his lead, playing really small but winning a few hundred dollars a week before she even left for college. "I thought I was rich," she said with a smile.
At college, she turned her focus to live poker games, but she was too young for most casinos, with the exception of Turning Stone on a nearby Indian reservation. She played $1/$2 or $2/$5 on weekends to hone her game. She played her first small tournament there with her brother, who she says is now her biggest fan.
Upon graduation, Loni moved to Florida in 2012 to play more live poker. She started with a bankroll organized by her father and won enough money playing $2/$5 to pay him back within the first money and have enough left to enter the WSOP Circuit tournament, a $345 NLHE event. And she won more than $30K and a gold ring. The next month, she won a tournament at the Battle at the Beach series, then won another one at the Seminole Hard Rock Showdown the following month. She began traveling along the Circuit, winning another event at the New Orleans stop in May of 2012 and final tabling numerous others.
This summer, she took her talents and growing bankroll to Las Vegas, though she did have some investors for her full schedule. After she made her first final table of the WSOP, she began to worry. "My friends were talking about how hard it is to make just one final table at the WSOP, and I was kind of sad that I wasted my one final table on Omaha and not Hold'em, which is my main game," she said. She was disappointed at her next final tables because she got caught bluffing to exit in fourth. On the next final table, she took it slowly. "I took it one step at a time, but I decided I really had to win it. When I won with A-K versus aces, I thought the tournament was really mine to win."
Loni, too, had a solid group of people on the rail. Though her family was virtually following her progress, she could look to the audience and see boyfriend Phillip Hui, friends, like Carter Myers, Tripp Kirk, Kyle Cartwright, and other friends from the Circuit. Their support for each other always means a lot to her, but it was especially encouraging on the WSOP stage.
She won the tournament and celebrated with her friends who are "like family," and she claimed that victory on her brother's 27th birthday. After a fairly quick exit from the Main Event, she traveled back to New York to share the joy with her family, promising to buy her mother a new car and consider the future. "I like having the money and the degree to fall back on," she admitted.
For a very young woman in poker, Loni has a great deal of experience and education under her belt. She will be fine.
Congratulations to both women on their outstanding accomplishments this summer!
Jennifer Newell is a PokerStars freelance contributor.