Poets on Sports

Women & Poker: What’s the WSOP to Do?

by Karissa Morton

Okay, so maybe poker isn’t a sport per se, but… I want to talk about it for a hot minute.  The WSOP Main Event is one of my favorite events–sports or not–of the year, & this year, I’m lucky enough that it falls the day before my birthday.  (Meaning I’m hoping I can force people to sit through watching the entire thing with me by pouting, “But it’s my biiiirthdaaayyyyy.”)

I’m always going to be pumped about the Main Event regardless of its constituency, but the fact that there are never (with only one exception) any women at the final table will forever be irritating to me.  I will, however, be excited to watch this table of nine dudes.  There are some interesting characters up there this year, especially on the American side of things (five of nine are Americans), but I really wish female poker players had some big time representation at the table.  This year’ll mark 18 since Barbara Enright showed a fifth place finish at the Main Event–& she remains the only woman to have ever been a member of the November Nine.  (As well as being one of only two–alongside Linda Johnson–to have been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.)

I don’t proclaim to be a poker pro by any means–but I also fancy myself better than many people I know.  I used to play regularly in two games, including one that was largely made up of haggard men around my dad’s age that met in the back of a rundown bar in a strip mall.  I was almost always the only female player, & served–especially for people who weren’t regulars–as a source of constant amusement.  Phrases like “Little girl playing a big man’s game” were chuckled at me on a regular basis… until I started taking their money.

I’m a pretty tight aggressive player–a playing style that pisses people off anyway.  Throw in the fact that I’m a girl (& a relatively young girl, at that) & you end up with a bar full of very irritated, Bud-Light-drunk dudes.  Don’t get me wrong–with only one exception, I was never directly verbally attacked.  I always felt safe there & enjoyed the challenge of having to prove myself.  I mean, I was walking out with their cash, after all.  Didn’t that prove something?

Obviously, a group of 50-year-old men isn’t a microcosm of the entire poker world; nor am I representative of all female players.  But I can’t help but wonder why the WSOP ends up looking not totally dissimilar to that dingy bar.

What is it that makes poker so intimidating for many women?  A March 2013 PokerStars study showed that only 10.5% of “real money” players on the site were women.  The study also broke down the Top 12 countries for female poker players by the numbers–America didn’t rank.  Why, when each year, such a large slice of players at the WSOP are from America, are American women not proportionately represented?  Sure, there are notable American female players–Vanessa Selbst, Vanessa Rousso, & Annie Duke all come to mind–but these numbers aren’t fairly representative.  The banner on the PokerStars Women’s site encourages women to sign up for their “women only” games, promotions, & events because they provide a “friendly” environment.

But is poker supposed to be “friendly?”  One of the main reasons I love playing poker (& trivia & basketball & tennis &…) is the competition.  I’m a big time shit-talker regardless of what I’m playing, & that only gets amped up when I’m at the poker table.  I’m there to win hands, not make friends.  But where do we draw the line between a friendly poker environment & a respectful one–especially for women who step into what’s popularly perceived as a “man’s game?”

Jackie Glazier, who was the “last woman standing” this year at the WSOP, finished 31st overall.  When asked by PokerZeit.com what advice she’d give to female poker players, she quickly retorted “wear headphones so you don’t listen to [the men].”  She elaborated, saying that she’s constantly been condescended to because of her gender, & that she’s been at a number of tables where she’s “cringed to hear how men speak to women.”

Trying to balance comfort (& in some cases, safety) with competition is something the poker world as a whole needs to do a better job of.  Sure, the WSOP official circuit rules “prohibit the use of obscene or foul language in any public area of the casino at any time” & say that “any player who uses such language or makes a foul, profane, obscene or vulgar statement, or speaks abusively or in an intimidating manner to another player, a dealer or a Tournament staff member, will be penalized.”  Of course, no televised table is going to allow its players to be foul or abusive to one another, but what about the tables that aren’t part of the WSOP?  And what about phrases like the commonly-heard reference to “raping” one’s opponent?  Language like this is misogynistic, but it isn’t specifically “outlawed” by the WSOP circuit rules.

The WSOP’s solution to the fact that women–even those ranked amongst the best players in the world–are targeted by other players because of their gender is not to address this.  It’s not to nudge women to sign up with encouragement or incentives.  It’s not to penalize abusive players.  It’s to ghettoize women via the “World Series of Poker Ladies Event.”

This year, the WSOP Ladies Event had 954 female entrants–all women for the first time in many years.  Why, you might ask, are there ever men playing in the Ladies Event?  Well, turns out that due to gender discrimination laws, the Ladies Event couldn’t officially ban men from entering–& they took full advantage of this fact–including in 2011 when Jonathan Epstein ended up at the final table of the event.  When asked about the Ladies Event by Poker News, player Danielle Anderson noted that “it’s important for women to have a safe environment where they can learn poker and just enjoy themselves.”

I’m sorry, but who’s throwing down a $1,000 buy-in to “learn poker?”  If you don’t know how to play poker, why would you buy into an event that’s arguably one of the biggest in the world?  The fact that Anderson mentions safety, though, is key.  Yes, women need a safe environment–one where they are not unfairly targeted & attacked for their gender, one where they can play a competitive game without hearing rape jokes.  But this need isn’t because women need to learn how to play poker & have fun.  It’s because it’s the humane thing to do.  It’s because it’s what we deserve in the world at large.  To assume that the WSOP Ladies Event exists because women need to “learn” & because they’d rather “have fun” than be crazy-competitive is flawed & only serves to perpetuate the incredibly false notion that there aren’t tough, badass, smart female poker players out there–ones who can take men’s shit as it relates to the game.

Annie Duke–perhaps the most well-known contemporary female player–notes that she refuses to play in the WSOP Ladies Event because she doesn’t think women need their own event to prove it’s a level playing field.  I tend to agree with her–at least when the rhetoric used by the WSOP Ladies Event & PokerStars Women frames women as amateurs.  At the WSOP last year, two fantastic female players–Elisabeth Hille & Gaëlle Baumann–busted 11th & 10th, just missing the final table.

One of my favorite players, Annette Obrestad, finished 89th at the WSOP this year.  She’s particularly awesome because of the fact that she holds two great records–on the same day, she set the record for youngest player to have ever won a bracelet (she was a day short of being 19 years old) & the record for a single-event payout to a woman.  In other words, no one can claim that Obrestad is an “amateur” or that she “just plays to have fun.”  She hung with the big dogs, to use one of my dad’s favorite phrases.  She does, however, think the focus on her gender is “overrated,” explaining that the whole point of playing the Main Event was to show that she’s “one of the good players, not one of the good female players.”

One problem, though, is that the men who crash “women-only” events in an attempt to prove that they’re “sexist” & are participating in “reverse discrimination” aren’t doing themselves any favors.  They’re only making themselves look like assholes, plain & simple.  The solution is not to stomp your feet & whine about how this is just sooooo unfair.  The solution is not to make yourself look like a bully by signing up for women-only events just because the law says you can.  The solution is to admit that there is a problem with the poker world in general.  This is not the time for men to protest–”but it’s not meeeee causing the problem!”  No, it might not be.  In fact, it probably isn’t you in particular, John Q. Poker.  But it’s a problem with the culture you belong to.  It seems a logical first step for the average poker player, casual or professional, is to actually talk to female players–& more importantly, to listen to them.  What can you do to ensure that women don’t feel unfairly attacked?  This doesn’t mean baby them.  This doesn’t mean treat them like princesses or go easy on them or avoid shit-talking.  This means making sure that you’re working to ensure that they feel safe at your table.  Look at players like Annie Duke, Elisabeth Hille, Gaëlle Baumann–having women at your table is only going to help the game!

We all need to take it upon ourselves to make sure that the poker industry media is fairly representing women.  We women are serious players–not the table candy that VictoryPoker wants men to think we are (see below), or the delicate little flowers PokerStars Women wants us to think we are.

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About Karissa

Karissa Morton is originally from Des Moines, Iowa & currently lives in Denton, Texas. She's a poet/sportswriter/teacher/editor who loves American Horror Story, X-Files, Hannibal, football, basketball, fantasy sports, Jeopardy, poker, horse racing, craft beer, learning Danish, & cats. If you want to talk about Jessica Lange being the one true god, then she's your girl.

2 comments on “Women & Poker: What’s the WSOP to Do?

  1. clouda2013
    October 13, 2013

    Good work, pal. I have thought about this often, also as it relates to auto racing. I’m not a poker player–not a card player in general, actually–but I do like watching a poker game on telly now and then, and I’d love to see a better mix. A more *natural* mix. Did you watch Celebrity Poker Showdown? 3 of their 8 tourneys had female winners.

  2. Pingback: Poker Hall of Fame: Tom McEvoy and Scotty Nguyen Make The Grade | Bonus Republic

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