PARIS — Her black hair is pulled back into a bun, and she's wearing a pair of hoops and light lipstick. It's 10 p.m., and Sima is leaving her Parisian apartment to go to work. She takes a cigarette from its pack, the first of many on this particular night. Relaxed, she walks along almost deserted streets, as though the city is hers.
Her phone rings. It's a friend calling to say she'll pick her up to go to the Cercle Clichy Montmartre, a poker group, or "circle," situated in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. "It's my second home," Sima says.
Her two youngest daughters —7 and 9 years old — are in bed at home with her partner and her 22-year-old daughter. "During school, I leave every evening around 9 or 10 p.m., after I kiss them goodnight," Sima explains. "They know I'm going to play. The youngest one kisses me and tells me, â€˜You're going to win, Mom. Don't be scared of all those men.' I come home the next day around 6. I can prepare breakfast, drive them to school and go back to sleep until 2 p.m."
Sima has three daughters by two different fathers. A professional poker player for four years, she recently joined Roger Hairabedian's Ladies Team. Hairabedian, known as "Big Roger," is the only Frenchman who holds the double champion title. Sima's gambling winnings currently constitute her only income, which pays her rent, feeds her family and earns her enough to spoil her daughters.
Sima, 40, has a degree in sociology and can intersperse her conversation with long excerpts of Russian, Persian and French literature. In the mid-1990s, when she arrived from Armenia with her first husband, she initially worked as a saleswoman and a waitress. That was before a staph infection confined her to a hospital bed for a few weeks and nearly erased some of her memory, she says.
She also tried to create a nonprofit organization to offer chess lessons to disadvantaged children, but that project stalled when she couldn't find office space. She arrived in Place de Clichy after the separation from her second husband, and she was determined to earn a solid living.
200 euros every night
"My friends who are chess players told me about poker," she says. "I got into the circle to watch, and I started learning by observing others. This one, he was one of my subjects of study," she says, smiling and pointing to a guy walking towards her. "He's been to all the poker circles of Paris. I was very scared of his aggressive style of play at first."
There are now experienced players who fear her, even though she pretends to ignore it. "There are some great masters here, but we all form a community," she says. "And it's not because I know how to play that I won't be a 'fish' some day. We all are someone's fish!"
A "fish" is someone who systematically raises his bid and who can be easily ripped off. Poker has its own codes and its Anglicisms, which aren't always easy for novices to translate. For example, "all in" is when a player bets all his chips in the current hand, the term "sizing" means to adjust one's bet.
All in? — Photo: Cercle Clichy Montmartre
Sima says she approaches the game like a good mother, never leaving home with more than 200 euros or so, her cigarette pack and her cellphone. "I'm a small player," she says. "I don't spend more than 200 or 300 euros. I know that's everything I can lose. I can't go any further."
At 84 rue de Clichy, a group of mostly male players smoke cigarettes outside under the watchful eyes of a security guard. Sima puts out her cigarette before going in. It's not possible to follow her inside, as journalists aren't welcome.
The Cercle Clichy-Montmartre is the last survivor of Parisian gaming's legal world. Since 1919, casinos haven't been allowed in the capital. "Circles," though, are considered distinct and are legal and are oddly considered to be NGOs.
It's a crowded night in the nice 19th century brasserie converted into a gaming room. Sima waits as usual for a table to become available. During the daytime, behind the glass-front double doors, we can make out the 10 round tables dedicated to "low limits," those who bet between 50 and 100 euros. Higher-dollar players are directed towards a well-hidden VIP room.
With its massive windows and tall engraved mirrors, the place looks like a Belle Époque-era tearoom, nothing like the movie scenes in The Sting or Casino Royale. "There is no subdued light or shady atmosphere, and I don't have a pale and despairing face," Sima says laughing. "This is serious here. Rules are very strict. We can't get mad or even talk loud. If two players insult each other, the croupier reports it immediately."
About 200 people come here every night of the week, like others go to the office. In this small world that she calls her "Clichy family," Sima has her habits. Between two games, or when she is waiting for a table, she sits at the bar and takes out a small ivory chess game, a gift from the staff. "I know all of them — the croupiers, the managers, the regular gamblers," she says. "Some of them are my friends. I told the boss that if I left the circle one day, I would take one of his mirrors. I spent too much time looking at myself in it."
Her long-standing chess playing — she still remembers the position of her pawns during a championship she lost at 8 years old in Armenia — has helped her to refine her bluffing skills.
"When we play chess, when we compete, we learn this body language," she says. "We can't find that on online gaming sites. They lack analysis of the adversary, his psychological portrait."
Her largest loss to date — 1,000 euros – happened one evening when the other players had only average cards. "I had 60 euros left," she recalls. "The next day I left with these 60 euros and I won 800."
It's a day-to-day lifestyle she tries to consider like a normal job — except with no fixed wage at the end of the month. At the beginning of the school year, her daughter explained to her new teacher that her mom was a poker player. "That's not an occupation," the teacher replied. Upset, the daughter questioned her mother. "I explained to her that her teacher stayed up for eight hours a day to give her lessons," Sima says. "And I was sitting for the same number of hours at a gaming table to make a living. Most of the gamblers I know don't dare to tell their children what they're doing."
But for Sima, bluffing is only for her opponents.