By Jill Nicholas
Renae Baker is Rotorua's latest media darling, shooting to stardom by claiming eighth spot at the Queen's Birthday Weekend World Poker Tour, a biggie in the international poker world.
The Texas Holdem win makes her this country's second-highest ranked female player. Everyone wants a piece of her but Our People has the home-town advantage and we've cashed in on it, shuffling deep into the way her personal cards have fallen.
How someone with such an expressive face, flamboyant pink hair and champagne personality has aced the blokes has us beat. Her explanation is that it's not so much about maintaining the stereotypical concrete-faced demeanour of poker players. Rather, it's the game's psychological aspect, the skill of not simply reading her adversaries' faces but the physical and emotional way they present themselves.
Playing mind games with her opponents is how Renae slays the competition.
"I call myself street smart not book smart."
That bit about not being book smart is way off the mark. This is a woman who's studied psychology, anthropology and sociology. The imminent birth of her second daughter bought a pre-graduation halt to her studies.
Her first child was born when she was 15. "I was pregnant at 14."
Her hands are up to being a "rebellious, troublesome teen". That's despite being the child of a police officer and a strict Catholic upbringing.
"I was an altar girl at 11."
Her elder daughter, Irihapeti, 20, didn't inherit her mum's wild child steak. She's a United Nations ambassador just back from representing New Zealand in Columbia and is studying law. She was whangaied (adopted) by her Irish-born grandmother so Renae could return to John Paul College.
"My parents insisted on it, they did everything they could to keep me on the straight and narrow but I just didn't listen, hung around with the wrong crowd. My daughter's father was the son of a senior Black Power member."
By 18, Renae had got her act together, she moved to Auckland to be closer to her daughter.
While studying at AUT, she worked as a courier dispatcher.
Second daughter Ciara-Jay, 14, is, in her mum's words "an amazing netball player . . . she already plays at rep level, she's definitely going to be a Silver Fern."
A proud prediction from a mother whose own star's trajectory is blazing.
She also has a son, Joshua, who turns 9 next week.
That's background material Our People's privileged to be given the nod to share publicly. She tells us of it with candour, being a poker player par excellence doesn't mean she holds her personal cards close to her chest.
In her 20s she moved to Canberra for a change of scene, but hated it. The Gold Coast was much more appealing.
"It was exciting, I had a job as a cocktail waitress in a high-end nightclub that drew a lot of celebrities, but I was badly missing my mum; she's always been my best best friend."
Renae returning home in 2008 and became a client adviser at the district council's front desk. She stayed seven years.
"It was awesome, it taught me so much about Rotorua, the people."
It was during her council years she played her first poker hand not, we hasten to clarify in the council precincts. Her dad, Kani Edwards, introduced her to it at the game's local hub, the Ruck 'n Maul (bar).
"It was fun, sociable, I began to realise I was quite good at it, Barry Hunter, from the stock car club, considered I had potential, entered me into my first tournament."
When she played her first club game she wasn't quite a card game newbie.
"As a kid, we weren't allowed to hang around inside, had to make our own fun, that included playing cards."
For Renae that wasn't a simple game of snap.
"When I was about 8 my koro [grandfather] taught me to play stud poker, he was a bit of a hustler . . I guess I've become one too."
Renae was on the cusp of giving birth second time around when she had her first hand-to-hand clash of the cards at an Auckland Anniversary Tournament.
"I ended up coming fifth. To win money in a tournament in New Zealand is huge. For me it was wonderful, a bit of beginner's luck I suppose."
She met present partner, Stephen Thompson, at the Ruck 'n Maul's card school. He's a multi-tournament winner, too.
They went on holiday together to Sydney, didn't play poker but saw a large-scale trampoline operation in action.
"It was amazing to see the joy on the kids' faces. We realised it was something that could benefit kids here. When I was growing up really the only things to do were going to the aquatics [Aquatic Centre] or the movies."
The couple opened Flip Out "with a lot of blood, sweat and tears".
"Having worked at the council I've seen both sides of things like getting resource consent, I'd never realised how hard it really is for people, we almost gave up but soldiered on, our first year was a blast, just crazy."
They were coerced into entering the 2017 business awards, and won the emerging business and social responsibility categories.
That social responsibility was to prove their downfall. In hindsight, they realise they might have been overly generous with their charity work at the expense of profit building. When competition came to town, Flip Out took a hit, and they decided to pull the pin.
"And by then we were mentally exhausted."
Since Flip Out, Renae's time and mind have been poker-focused. She plays in four or five tournaments a year. She's coy about revealing her winnings but stresses there's no way she can live off them.
Poker's not her only interest. She's spent time as a youth mentor and, with close friend Jo Keefe (Our People, September 3, 2016), co-hosted the breakfast slot on The Host airwaves.
Her latest enterprise is designing casual wear under the Deuces Up label.
"It means peace and is the street name for poker, I think up all these ideas, some are still stuck in la la land."
She operates from her home poker den, it's bursting with awards and memorabilia. She and Stephen are on the brink of opening a poker school there "so players can learn their own way while we give them tips, tricks".
The den's also base for their summer 7s side.
The secret of her success at the tables?
"I might look relaxed, not paying attention but the adrenalin hits in. Women are very good at reading men, a lot more patient and empathetic than men, then you've got the flirtation aspect."
Born: Takapuna, 1983.
Education: Whakarewarewa Primary, John Paul, Bay of Islands Colleges, AUT.
Family: Partner Stephen Thompson, two daughters, son, stepson, parents Kani and Georgina Edwards.
Iwi affiliations: Ngāti Manawa, Ngāpuhi.
Interests: Daughter's netball. "I played premier league until osteo arthritis got my ankles." Poker, clothing line, blog about to go live.
On her life: "It's been colourful."
On poker: "It's a bit like Survivor [TV show]. You have to outwit, outplay, and outlast everyone else, it's a mental marathon."
Ultimate ambition: "To play in world champs in Las Vegas, it costs 10k just to sit at the table, no Kiwi's ever won it, I want to be the first but need sponsorship to get there."
Personal philosophy: "YOLO – you only live once."