POR Donna Gardneri March 22, 2009

Head of the Table

GROWING UP IN Nebraska, Donna Gardner, center, would stop by her grandmother’s home on the way home from grade school. Grandma would make a pot of tea and the two would while away the hours playing games like Go Fish and Hearts. Today, Gardner has traded in games like Go Fish for Texas Hold ’Em, a game she has come to master, even when playing at the big table with the big boys.

People notice when Donna Gardner enters the room. That may be because the 76-year-old woman with a head of carefully coiffed white hair poised above her small stature is likely to beat them at their own game.

Gardner, whose brain is wired for math and who fancies playing cards, lately is developing a reputation at playing her latest favorite card game, Texas Hold ’Em.

“Donna is feared by one of the stud players,” chimes in her friend, Frank White, before a card tournament recently. “She was first out of 50 players. From her point of view that’s the way
it’s supposed to be.”

To this, Gardner just laughs.

But when the cards are dealt, there’s little time for revelry.

Gardner wins enough points playing Texas Hold ’Em about two to three times a week at three local bars to compete in local tournaments.

Never a bar fly, she was at first uncertain about entering unknown establishments, wondering whether she would be safe. At first, she began playing cards at bars only when accompanied by her son. Then she figured, why not go it alone?

Gardner’s been winning ever since.

“There were three of us left at the table, Donna, myself and another guy,” White continues.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You I can handle. She (the man pointed at Donna) scares the blankety-blank out of me.’ ”

Gardner long has had an affinity for playing cards, after starting when she was 7 playing with her grandmother.

Growing up in Nebraska, Donna would stop by her grandmother’s home on the way home from grade school. Grandma would make a pot of tea and the two would while away the hours playing games like Go Fish and Hearts. Gardner said she was thrilled to spend the time with her grandmother because she had a multitude of grandchildren and could have doted on any of them.

“She had so many grandchildren that I really felt special that we had this thing between us,” Gardner said.

Gardner’s father also was fond of playing pinochle, a game he played for cash at local bars.

Gardner’s father taught her to play canasta and pinochle.

Later when Donna and her late husband, Harry, had four children together, Gardner would play card games like bridge with other mothers. Gardner now regularly plays pinochle at the Grand Junction Senior Recreation Center. In the past few months, Gardner has taken a shine to Texas Hold ’Em, a popular poker game in which players receive two cards and share five cards.

On a recent Saturday, Gardner sat perched on the edge of her seat with her glasses pitched forward on her nose, absorbed in full concentration during a poker tournament at Bank 8 Billiards Hall, 2640 F Road.

Though Gardner started with a lousy number of points, she managed to stay in the game as long as possible. Around her, some younger players drank beers and boasted loudly, while
Gardener maintained her focus, drinking only water.

“I’m a cheap date,” she said later, laughing.

Gardner said other players often offer to buy her a drink, but alcohol makes her sleepy, and would mess up her game.

“I’ve watched those young guys,” she said. “They get a little too much to drink and their game just fades.”

Gardner’s made a number of friends since getting out more and playing cards, some of whom walk her to her car at night after games and in general keep an eye out for her.

Gardner long ago realized there’s little benefit being shy if you really want to get out and be active.

Gardner and her husband traveled extensively around the country, seeing all 50 states and some destinations nearer the equator. She always jumped in to volunteer at local schools or wherever she felt she was needed. After her husband died in 2003, Gardner decided to sell their Arizona home where they would snowbird for the winter. She still manages a home on about an acre with two horses on Orchard Mesa.

Gardner sometimes wonders why others her age seem to be lonely when there are a multitude of activities to take advantage of in the community, especially those offered by the senior recreation center. She figures she is the oldest player when out playing poker at either Bank 8, The Stadium Sports Bar & Grill, 3210 Interstate 70 Business Loop, or the Brass Rail, 476 28 Road.

That doesn’t bother her a bit. She said there are probably many other seniors in town who would enjoy getting out to the senior center or playing cards around town.

“At first I was skeptical but I enjoy cards so much, I decided to go for it,” she said. “Some people are reluctant. Maybe they’ve been settled in one spot their whole life. They’re missing out.”


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