A Look at Women in Poker

Back in early 1800s America, the illegal and underground nature of poker attracted an integrated crowd, including ethnic minorities and, surprisingly – women. Around the time legal casinos started becoming more widespread across the US, women were well on their way to toward winning the vote and gaining more rights for themselves. There was a strong feminist wave moving across the states and, as such, women were able to try their hand at casino gambling from the very start. Well, at least in theory.

Unfortunately, the casino has always been a testosterone filled environment; a place where intimidation, ostentatious demonstrations of wealth and unemotional conduct all play a part. Historically, women have typically featured in casinos either as a sequin-clad hostess in the vintagely illustrated poster advertisement, or else a young women cheering on a sleazy and cigar-chewing fat cat. For decorative display only, the woman’s good looks, satin dress and glittering jewellery would serve as an exhibit of status for the man in question. Moving into the 21st century and we’re still seeing Bond girls as companions to poker-playing Daniel Craig rather than taking to the tables themselves.

But the lack of women in casinos is not a reflection of women’s disinterest in poker; rather it is a reflection of a society which does not appreciate competitive and risk-taking qualities in women. Our patronising and outdated perception of women as emotional but harmless figures, more interested in the glamour than the logistics of poker, needs to go – as does the unwelcoming and over-sexualised portrayal of women in casinos.

Professional poker player Marsha Waggoner says women were considered a “kind of joke in poker” when she started playing 32 years ago. Finishing second in the 23rd Annual WOSP, accumulating over $800,000 in live tournament winnings and being inducted into the Australian Poker Hall of Fame – Waggoner still faces the sexist prejudice of critics.

The most legendary of all female poker icons, Vanessa Selbst, reveals that “even once you become a pro, people value your attractiveness [as a woman]”. Despite poker being a game where physical attributes are of no importance whatsoever, it would appear women’s appearances are still harshly judged. As to why men don’t respect female poker players, Selbst says “If [women] are competitive it is viewed as a negative quality – as bitchy, out of line or as not attractive.” Selbst goes on to point out that “poker is also an extremely competitive thing and women are simply not trained from a young age to have these qualities.”

Equally outspoken about the matter, Kara Scott agrees that there is no biological reason women shouldn’t be every bit as successful in poker. She describes women as an “untapped market” and argues that there should be more “focus on women as players rather than focusing on how they look” during the coverage of live tournaments. To widen the player pool and bring more women into poker, Scott believes we need to start giving credit where credit is due. “There were a lot of women who did really well during the World Series this year and we didn’t really hear about them.”

Despite the stubbornly male-dominated nature of gambling, we’re still seeing a growing number of women take up poker. Why the sudden boom? Online poker likely plays a part. A recent study at the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey has found that online gambling appeals more to women than men. Forty percent of females preferred internet poker to real life poker, whereas the statistic is only at 13% for men. The reason is perhaps not so surprising. Female poker players may be the subject of sneers and glares at casino tables, but playing online allows for anonymity, comfort and safety.

PokerStars claims to have more female players than any other site, with over a third of their registered members being women. Other major poker sites are also keen to boast about the number of female players they have – offering statistics which challenge the commonly held belief that women simply don’t like poker. But anonymity and safety might not be the only reasons women prefer online poker. When Kara Scott took to twitter and asked why so few women turned up at poker tournaments, the response from women was that they had ‘full-time jobs’ or ‘children to look after’. Clearly, there seems to be a double standard between men and women when it comes to poker. More than half the men at tournaments have full-time jobs and families, too, yet it’s not regarded as an inconvenience for them to travel to tournaments or invest money in a sport they love.

Do women play poker differently from men? Arguably, some mannerisms women are raised to exhibit could work in their favour at the casino – patience and a smaller ego, to mention a couple. In terms of competitiveness and skill, however, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the genders. Granted, some women are attracted to the glamorous aspect of poker – but glamour attracts men, too. Neon lights, exotic cocktails and stylish attire – they all contribute to the alluring image of a classic Las Vegas casino; an image loved by men and women alike. Ultimately, poker attracts men and women for the same reason – the thrill of gambling and the satisfaction of a successful hand.  What it really comes down to is a genuine passion for the game itself.

Poker superstar Maria Ho explains that she got into poker because of her deep fascination with the psychology behind the game. From casually playing with college friends to playing high stake cash games, Ho quickly worked her way up the patriarchal poker ladder. As the only player to have achieved the ‘Last Woman Standing’ title at both the WSOP and WSOPE main events, the most-cashing female in the 2012 and 2014 World Series of Poker, the hostess of the 2014 Battle of Malta and a notable columnist for Bluff magazine; Maria Ho has earned her fame as one of the most popular female poker players of all time.

Are female-exclusive ‘Ladies Poker Events’ an effective means of integrating women? Norwegian poker pro Annette Obrestad doesn’t think so. The youngest ever player to win the World Series of Poker bracelet, Obrestad points out that there’s no need for differentiation between female and male players, arguing that it serves no purpose to single out women in poker. “I want to be one of the good players, not one of the good female players…I don’t like people focusing too much on the ‘Last Woman Standing’, that’s never my main goal. I play to win the tournament.” Obrestad feels strongly about encouraging more women to try poker, as does tournament player Jackie Glazier, who states that the intuitive and logical nature of poker makes it “a great game for anyone, no matter what gender.”

If women are to acquire equal respect and representation in poker, should we look down on professional poker players such as Liv Boeree? The young pro doesn’t seem to have a problem with the media focusing on her attractiveness; posing in a sultry manner for magazines such as Maxim and Revolver. The answer to the question is ‘no,’ Boeree doesn’t deserve any less respect for drawing attention to her femininity. Let’s not play into the notion that attractiveness and intelligence are mutually exclusive in women. With a degree in physics, involvement in charity work, supportive attitude toward other female players and obvious talent for poker, there’s no reason Boeree’s sexy photoshoots should take any credibility away from her long list of achievements. Contrary to popular belief, women shouldn’t have to change themselves or become ‘more masculine’ if they want a career in a male-dominated field.

Clearly, there is some work to be done if we are to fully make the world of poker a scene of equality. Until society learns to accept that women can be every bit as competitive as men, gender stereotypes and harmful assumptions will continue to prevent women from entering the field of poker. That being said, the fantastic progress that has been enjoyed over the past decade should not go overlooked. The last couple of years have seen that 10% of attendees at the Battle of Malta are female. Though still a low percentage, this number is predicted to increase even further in 2015. Indeed, PokerListings actively takes measures to increase female turnout at the Battle of Malta, inviting esteemed Maria Ho to host the event, and offering extra incentives for female attendees.

In other words, it’s not all doom and gloom. It would be reasonable to conclude that the continued success of professional female players, the gateway offered by online poker and an increasingly inclusive poker community will eventually eliminate the game’s gender disparity for good. Well, that’s my bet at least.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Educated in social politics, fascinated by psychology and in love with Vegas; Sophie writes about current trends in the world of poker and iGaming.

iGaming Journalist and Poker Enthusiast

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