Recently Broke, Grandma Mimi Sure Turned the Tables in Vegas

updated 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Comedian Flip Wilson held a straight in his hand at Bally's poker table and tried to stare down 75-year-old, 108-lb. Mildred Howard. "If I don't win this hand, I'm leaving show business," threatened Wilson. "Flip, when you don't win, I'm going into show business," retorted Howard. Sure enough, the geriatric gamer put down a full house. "Flip called me onstage at Caesars Palace and asked me to tell my story," says Howard. "I loved it."

For the past 11 years, "Grandma Mimi" Howard has played poker six hours a day, seven days a week at Bally's (formerly the MGM Grand Hotel) in Las Vegas. Alternating between the $5-to-$10 table and the $20-to-$30 table, she mixes strategy with outrageous talk. "You're all pile shrinkers," she scolded recently. "Faster than Preparation H." She startled a Japanese businessman looking for the men's room with, "You could find Pearl Harbor, you'll find the bathroom." Observes fellow player Susie Isaacs, 41: "Mildred can be hateful, but under that hard poker exterior is a fine woman."

Mildred, a former jewelry saleswoman from Newark, moved to Vegas in 1975 with her second husband, Louis Howard, a bakers' union delegate. "Before I knew it, he went through everything we had," she says. Howard went back to New Jersey; Mildred turned to the only other work she could think of doing.

She began reading about poker and watching other players. What she learned was "not to be greedy." By quitting before she loses more than $50 to $100, Howard says she can make $300 on a good day. "I'm successful because I watch faces," she believes. She even attributes her victory over her third cancer operation to her fanaticism. Says Mildred, poker-faced: "I told the doctor to hurry up so I could get back to the card room."

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