Top pro and ex pit boss Isabelle Mercier talks exclusively to PokerPlayer about her success: “I want to be the first woman to win the big one at the WSOP”

Nicknamed ‘No Mercy’ for her aggressive play, Isabelle Mercier is taking no prisoners

When Isabelle Mercier quit her job as the poker boss of the Aviation Club de France in January 2004 to turn pro, most of the people she knew thought she was crazy. Although she had a few tournament results to her name, her carefree attitude to money meant that most of what she had won or earned had been spent on music and clothes, or given away to charities and friends in need. Which left her without the one thing all poker players need – a big bankroll.

‘I had an open-door weekend and sold all my possessions for $ 10,000,’ she says. ‘A lot of people came and I got rid of everything except the money and my suitcase. People said that I needed $ 100,000 to go pro, that I should work for a year and put money away, but I never listened. In my heart I didn’t want to work any more, I wanted my freedom and I wanted to play. I’m a strong believer in following your heart and making big leaps, and usually you can find some way to make your dreams happen if they’re really what you want in life.’

Hard work

Almost two years later, taking interviews and afternoon tea in the lobby of Marylebone’s swanky Landmark hotel, wearing designer clothes and sporting the logo of her sponsor,, it’s hard to argue with the results. But given the size of her bankroll, getting going proved to be tough.

‘Initially I was just playing in small cash games to pay my expenses,’ Mercier admits. ‘I wasn’t making much but I was really happy and had a fantastic time travelling everywhere I wanted. It made me realise that you don’t need much of anything in life. And overall I was proud to live that way, to pay my way and have other people be interested in what I do. Of course, I also try to remember that I could go right back there if I don’t do well now.’

And the constant threat of going broke provided some hairy moments. ‘I was playing $ 10-$ 20 and $ 15-$ 30, and if I had a good run I was playing $ 30-$ 60 as well, which was far too high at that time. I’d go through crazy stuff like sitting down in a game and losing $ 2,000 in the first 20 minutes then making myself play for 50 hours in a row to get it back. I remember washing my clothes in the bath as I had no money to send them down to the laundry, and sneaking food out of the buffets so that I could eat for free the rest of the time!’

It’s a story that serves to illustrate the perils of playing poker for a living before you’re recognised enough to don the lucrative hat of your sponsor. She smiles about it now, but her success is no coincidence. Besides her determination to improve and embrace the life of a pro, she’d already received a good schooling in the world of gambling. She’s been playing poker for nigh on 25 years, originally Draw with her family, and then 7-Card Stud, which she discovered at the age of 21. She’s been playing Hold’em now for four years, over two of those as a professional, living out of a suitcase.

Winner takes all

Isabelle abandoned her original training as a lawyer (she hated the monotony of alarm clocks every morning) to be a Blackjack dealer and then worked as the poker boss of the internationally renowned Aviation Club under respected player Bruno Fitoussi, who proved crucial.

‘[He] was the first to trust me and put me in tournaments, and I came second in one in Amsterdam in 2002. He taught me a lot and we used to play heads-up all the time, maybe 150-200 matches.’

Other famous friends and aides include Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Devilfish and Paul ‘X-22’ Magriel. And, unsurprisingly, she’s bitten by the gambling bug too. ‘I have no consideration for money, I don’t care at all – when I play tournaments I don’t even know what first prize is. If I win half a million that’s fantastic, but for me it’s more about the winning.’

Ironically, one advantage she has in this is being a woman. Mercier claims that she gets much more information from male players – ‘sometimes they can’t resist smiling back or flirting with me’. She also thinks that female players are better readers and have more sensitivity, although she admits they tend to be less aggressive and lack a competitive streak. ‘But this is gonna change – I’m working on my aggression!’

Funny then that it was aggressive playing that proved to be the route to her big break. In September 2004 she was invited to take part in the WPT Ladies Night event, which she won, earning her a seat in the $ 25,000 WPT Championship event and the nickname ‘No Mercy’ after she destroyed the table.

Mercier realises it was the turning point: ‘It was just a dream for me and led to my sponsorship deal with, which allows me the luxury of just playing tournaments.’

But that was only the beginning of her success, and it prompted her to change her lifestyle considerably. ‘The European Poker Tour event in Monte Carlo and the WPT Championship were great tournaments for me and I was super serious before them – I stopped drinking and going out and just lived and dreamt poker.’

‘In Monte Carlo I went out on a bad beat in 10th place with A-J against A-10 – the flop showed an Ace and two low cards, I bet small and he went all-in. I called and he made a runner-runner flush. This I don’t mind so much as it happens in poker, but I cannot tolerate playing badly. At the WPT Championship I won $ 55,000 – I was the highest placed woman and so on – but the bad part is that Phil Ivey ran over me and took most of my stack. I’m not scared of anyone at the table but sometimes you just come up against someone who plays perfectly and it’s really hard to defend yourself.’

Psychological warfare

It’s tournament poker that Mercier lives for, unlike a lot of other poker pros who grind out a living in lucrative cash games. She sees tournament poker as a ‘race’ where you have to accumulate as many chips as you can as quickly as possible. ‘It’s a war and your chips are your weapons. It’s like chess times one thousand mixed with backgammon, a reality show and psychology.’

And as for her ambitions? ‘I want to be the first woman to win the big one at the WSOP’ – something she believes would do more for raising the game for women than anything else. And while a lot of older poker players out there don’t think this will ever happen, we think it’s inevitable. Poker’s one of the few sports that pays no heed to gender, something Mercier had to point out to a raging John McCririck at a recent UK tournament in response to his fantastically misguided question – ‘Why are all women poker players rubbish?’ – before he busted out of the tournament before Isabelle and several other women. But the question as to who’s the best player on the circuit brings a curious, and quite frightening, response. ‘I think the level of the game is really low, no-one is playing optimal strategy yet. In 50 years all the players on the circuit will be really good – then poker’s really going to rock and it’s going to be a sick game!’ Hope for you too then, if you haven’t reached the top of your game yet.

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