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City Folk

Don’t Call Me Granny

High-stakes poker and the art of Mary Carol Reilly

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Mary Carol Reilly is an adult caregiver who thinks nothing of hopping on a Greyhound bus and riding 3,000 miles across the United States to play in a Los Angeles poker tournament. A day trip to bet at the Jersey Shore is like running to the store for milk.

“I don’t get tired until I’m on the way home,” she says. “Sometimes I sleep in the car in the parking lot of a Wawa.”

The 70-year-old former Romper Room teacher loves to travel (she’ll drive anyone cross-country if the price is right), has a genius for making friends out of strangers (and sometimes enemies out of friends) and loves to gamble on cards.

She does OK with Texas Hold’em, but Omaha High-Low—in which the highest hand splits the pot with the lowest—is her game.

Reilly budgets several hundred dollars a month, often more, for the right to compete. Just before New Jersey ordered all casinos closed as Hurricane Sandy approached last month, she won $2,002 at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.

When card games come to Maryland casinos, Reilly will spread her wagers around the Old Line State. Until then, the extrovert, who once co-starred in commercials with the Pillsbury Doughboy as well as Jodie Foster, will hit the road for the next tournament.

“If they don’t have poker, I’m not a bit interested in a casino,” says Reilly, who grew up at 4005 Bellvieu Ave. in West Arlington (she snuck into the Pimlico racetrack, not to bet the horses but to pet them) and now lives in Hamilton.

A one-time convent novitiate with the Sisters of St. Cyril and Methodius in Danville, Pa., she is known at Delaware Park as “Sister Mary.” Reilly lets that nickname slide, but there’s another moniker, somewhat frequent, that really strips her lug nuts.

“I was in one game and a guy says, ‘Nice hand, Granny.’ I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and they threw me out of the game.”

It has been a rich life of adventure, spotlights, and sadness, spiced with card games since she learned canasta in the third grade and soon thereafter began admiring the way her mother negotiated a hand of bridge.

Reilly was almost tossed from the Manson trial for disrupting the proceedings with sobs from the gallery, taught English in China, drove a taxi in Hollywood, volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, was Chicago’s Romper Room lady in 1967, lost her beloved younger brother Johnny to suicide, and hasn’t had a drink in almost 40 years.

On this side of all of that, she has found comfort in the duality—both thrills and contentment—of poker.

“In one of the big tournaments, I lasted 12 hours and 15 minutes and placed third,” she says, noting that while raking in the pot is best, relief from everyday cares accompanies every game, win or lose.

“For those 12-and-a-half hours, I’m completely focused—fully,” she says. “I might eat half-a-sandwich and that’s it. It’s a thrill not to be worrying about who did what to who back home. I’m not distracted by anything. I’m alive.”

And once she feared she would wind up dead.

It was an illegal, high-stakes game late one night along Eastern Avenue in Greektown. Someone in the game had tipped off a couple of bandits that the stakes were high, and in the middle of a hand, two guys with ski masks and guns broke in.

Everyone was lined up against the wall and told to drop their pants. It was then that Mary Carol was sure she was going to die, because she’d sooner take a bullet than expose herself to a roomful of men (or so she says with the dramatic flair that made her a favorite of commercial producers in the 1970s).

Before the truth was bared, the police came into the room (one of the players had flagged them down out on the street) and took control. Mary Carol admits she was afraid, but the guy standing next to her was shaking like a leaf.

At another game one night, a bunch of cops broke in as though they were going to bust the joint but instead took the money on the table and left. But it’s not cops and robbers that give her trouble. It’s the same, almost naive passion that almost got her kicked out of old Frostburg State College in the early 1960s, for playing “double-deck” pinochle at the expense of her studies.

She’s never been dealt a hand she didn’t fall in love with.

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