Quick – close your eyes and imagine people sitting around a poker table. Most, if not all, of them are men, right? Historically, poker has primarily been a “man’s game” but perhaps, as the game continues to evolve, it’s time for some common poker conceptions to change.
Statistically speaking, women’s participation in live poker is still very minimal, not even close to comprising 10% of either tournament fields or cash game seats in poker rooms all over the world. Nonetheless, particularly since the 2003 poker boom, more and more women have been showing up to play live poker. A steadily growing presence at the felt, more women than ever are also beating the games, successfully grinding away at cash tables and notching wins in prestigious tournaments. Notable though these advances and achievements may be, however, the still-dominant male presence in poker carries with it the potential to breed a sexist and unwelcoming culture, which sadly sometimes materializes.
Many poker media outlets have long been calling to grow the game via more active participation of women in poker. For poker to grow, however, it has to be marketed to both men and women more successfully.
Trailblazers Have Paved the Way, but There Are Still Roadblocks
Poker Hall of Famer Linda Johnson has been dubbed the First Lady of Poker for having pioneered the way for other women to make names for themselves at the felt. She has publicly spoken numerous times about the abuse she and other women had to endure at the tables back in the 1970s and 80s from men who resented having women “intrude upon their territory”. Back then, she was the rare woman who dared even step foot into a poker room. These days, well into the 21st century, despite plenty of active female poker participation, a good amount of cultural maturity, and much progress in terms of rules and their enforcement on poker floors, chauvinistic attitudes can prevail nonetheless.
Many of poker’s most successful women are quite dissatisfied with the status quo. While it’s only a minority of male players out there who still espouse sexist views and attitudes, many women in poker felt the need to call for a permanent adjustment to the attitudes, language, and actions of this minority as well as reinforce positive changes slowly taking place among poker room and tournament staff. Importantly, these leading ladies of poker speak not from a place of anger or resentment, but rather out of a desire to see the game of poker be more inclusive and grow stronger as a whole.
Welcome to the Ladies Poker Roundtable
A number of poker’s leading ladies have heeded the call and gathered (figuratively speaking) to share their experiences, voice their concerns, and call for change. Joining us here, to discuss the myriad issues surrounding women in poker and how they could potentially be resolved are Linda Johnson, Vanessa Selbst, Kara Scott, Danielle Moon-Andersen, Lauren Billings, Lori Kolstad, and Katie Stone.
While a nice-sized group of women participated to help compile this feature piece, it’s important to note that no single one of them, nor all of them combined, can speak for all women in poker. Each woman poker player dresses differently, has her own opinions, and is as introverted or outspoken as they choose to be – just like men who play poker. Common to all poker players though, is the desire for a healthy poker economy and industry.
Here’s Why Women Prefer Playing Poker Online
Though both are nominally called “poker”, there are certainly a number of differences between live poker and online poker. Many men and women are drawn to online poker over its live counterpart for a number of the same reasons.
For example, not having to get dressed up or commute are big plusses in the online poker column for many poker players regardless of their gender, as is the fact that you can see far more hands per hour. So, too, is one’s ability to practice different types of poker games and understand cash game and tournament mechanics for lower stakes before playing for higher stakes in a live setting.
A number of other reasons for preferring online poker seem to be more common to women though. Many of the women I spoke to, for example, cited “being intimidated” as a big deterrent to playing live poker. Katie Stone, for instance, said that playing online “allows players the comfort of making mistakes and not being judged”. Linda Johnson echoed those sentiments, saying “you can make mistakes and no one knows who you are so it is less intimidating.” Vanessa Selbst went a step further, positing that “because women don’t actually see the gender of the people all around them when playing online, we don’t feel like outsiders as much.”
It’s human nature that most people are most comfortable in settings where they are not a minority… women ARE the minority in live games. This is going to naturally be a deterrent for other women to join in.
- Danielle Moon-Andersen
Others, like Kara Scott, noted that online poker allows women not to “have to worry about standing out like a sore thumb. It’s not easy to jump into something where you stand out as ‘other’ so clearly.” Danielle Moon-Andersen added that “It’s human nature that most people are most comfortable in settings where they are not a minority… women ARE the minority in live games. This is going to naturally be a deterrent for other women to join in.”
When I asked if it took extra courage for women to play live poker for the first time, I got a mixed bag of answers. For instance, Stone said that she wished she’d had known better “how to use being a woman to my advantage,” and that only after years of practice was she able to become more comfortable and confident rather than try to prove wrong the men at the tables who underestimated and targeted her. Selbst, on the other hand, had a lot of experience playing organized sports with boys growing up, so “it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary to sit in an all-male environment, but that’s definitely something I take for granted.” Kolstad, for her part, transitioned to live poker after Black Friday, but never really hesitated, feeling that being a woman gives her a couple of small edges. On the one hand she felt “able to maximize value in hands against recreational players because many seem to think they can outplay a girl”, while on the other hand Kolstad has been in plenty of situations where her male opponents have folded, saying “I would call anyone else here, but I like you” or “let the little lady stay in. I fold.”
Andersen, whose online poker career was famously chronicled in the documentary feature Bet Raise Fold, related that she was terrified the first time she sat down to play at even a low-stakes live poker table ($2/4 limit) despite a full year of successful $5/10 no limit online poker under her belt. “I fumbled with the chips, acted out of turn, kept forgetting to post my blinds, etc. It was an entirely different experience than playing online and I felt all eyes were on me, judging. The experience was made worse when I beat a ‘gentleman’ in a couple pots and he started berating my play.”
Recalling her first experiences playing live poker back in the 70s, Johnson said that “it would have been easier if there had been a TDA and penalties for abusive behavior like there is today. Nonsmoking rules would have made it a lot better too.”
If we want to make poker more welcoming to new players, it has to be a less scary place to be. This is even more important for female players because they’re not just facing being the newbie, but because they may be the only female at the table, too.
- Kara Scott
Scott, who as a poker presenter speaks to and interviews many new players, said that often their biggest fear is “not knowing some kind of live etiquette, doing things wrong and getting yelled at. If we want to make poker more welcoming to new players, it has to be a less scary place to be. This is even more important for female players because they’re not just facing being the newbie, but because they may be the only female at the table, too.”
So Should Women Avoid Live Poker Altogether?
After internalizing these firsthand accounts from some of the most successful women in poker, it becomes clear that while men might not necessarily give a second thought to strolling into a land-based poker room and taking a seat, it’s just usually not as mentally simple for women to do so – even if they already boast plenty of poker experience from online play. While women could thus not be blamed for avoiding live poker, according to the game’s top women players, these women are certainly missing out on plenty of the advantages and enjoyable parts of live poker play.
Johnson’s decades of live poker experience have led her to believe that women who play exclusively online “are missing out on the interaction with others. They miss out on the chance to make friends and have social interaction.” Scott agreed, saying that “there is a lot of fun to be had in live poker. Playing live can mean meeting others who love the game and who understand your love of the game in a way that non-poker players can’t.” Even Andersen, whose bread and butter is online poker, admitted that “there are some benefits to physically sitting at a table with others. I’m a people person. I want to meet others and learn through their experiences. You never know who’s going to be seated next to you with an unbelievable story to share at a poker table.”
Ego sometimes makes it very difficult for some men to fold. I think I receive many more calls with marginal holdings in a live setting than online, as something just won’t let some of these guys fold to a girl.
- Lori Kolstad
Selbst, for her part, conjectured that “I do think women often have better intuition and ability to understand people, so their skills may actually be better suited for live poker.” This seems to be true of Kolstad at least, who opened up a bit about how she learns from others at the table, saying “As a student of human behavior, playing live allows me to add to my arsenal of experience things like body language, inflection or just chat that can tell you a lot about a person.” Based on what they reveal to her, for example, from a random conversation about their workday, Kolstad finds that she’s able to make the right poker moves to win their stacks away from them. “That’s information that is difficult to get online as there is very little social repartee that happens when you sit at online table.” She also indicated that women may have a slight advantage in live play as “ego sometimes makes it very difficult for some men to fold. I think I receive many more calls with marginal holdings in a live setting than online, as something just won’t let some of these guys fold to a girl!”
Initiating Change from the Top-Down
Feeling intimidated is not something that’s going to give more women the courage to walk into land-based poker rooms. After all, if you were likely to get berated, mocked, and harassed by male players at the table, wouldn’t you want to stay home, too? Clearly, for more women to consider dipping a toe into live poker, a more inclusive, welcoming poker culture is needed. Poker room tournament directors, dealers, and floorpersons are uniquely positioned to take the lead on enacting change in that regard.
Lauren Billings wants to see floor staff and dealers take responsibility for the game to be less male-oriented. “Gender really should not matter in a game like poker. Keep it polite for all customers and don’t discriminate on weight, race, gender, handicaps, etc. The casinos as a whole should encourage this environment.”
I think not treating women differently than men is important, i.e., don’t be condescending toward women and use fairness as a guide when making decisions.
- Linda Johnson
In that vein, Selbst wants to see people running tournaments be “more conscientious of the language they choose. So often I hear ‘ante up, gentlemen,’ or ‘good luck, gentlemen’ at the start of a day; ‘may the best man win,’ or something like that. It would help foster a more welcoming culture if they would try to use more inclusive language where possible.” Johnson concurs: “I think not treating women differently than men is important, i.e., don’t be condescending toward women and use fairness as a guide when making decisions.”
Scott is of the opinion that often it’s just a bad apple or two at a table causing problems and that others at the table will put the offender in their place. “Generally, I’ve found that if someone really steps out of line during a poker game, the players let them know it,” she says. As such, she doesn’t “think that there’s any need to add new rules or set up penalties for sexist language or harassment. The rules are already there to prevent harassment against all players. They just need to be enforced.”
That said, players can’t always effectively police themselves, so “poker room staff and dealers need to be a lot more aware and active when it comes to situations involving men acting or saying inappropriate things to women at the table,” says Stone. Recounting to me plenty of instances of the last decade where dealers or floor staff in poker witness something rude or inappropriate and doing nothing about it, Stone feels that “this nonchalant attitude does nothing to bring more women into poker or casinos. If a man is inappropriate towards me at the table, I want to know it will be dealt with so that I am not made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.”
To that end, Johnson feels that “women should speak up when they are not treated properly” and that, in terms of enforcement, “if necessary, card room personnel should have to take remedial training if they don’t interact properly with women and/or with men.”
How Do Ladies Events Fit Into the Picture?
It’s not as though nothing at all has been done in the past to try and get more women to play poker. Ladies Events are an institution in their own right and have often acted as a gateway via which women not only get introduced to live poker for the first time, but also eventually overcome any initial intimidation factor to play live poker more regularly.
Our panelists were pretty much unified on this issue. “I think women’s events are very good for poker! Many female players got their start in ladies only events,” said Johnson. “Many ladies feel like it is less intimidating to play with women than to play in open events. The atmosphere is more fun too.” Selbst agrees and takes it a step further: “I think ladies tournaments are great – they are much more fun than other tournaments and they bring tons of women into casinos to play live poker where they might otherwise not have much incentive to do so.”
Billings touched upon the historic significance of Ladies Events, saying that they “are a cherished pastime of many a poker wife and poker girlfriend. They represent a time when the red carpet was rolled out for the ladies of poker to have their day in the sun.” Scott feels that they’re certainly still relevant and good for women and for poker, saying “I truly hope that they encourage more women to play live and test the waters. It does provide a place that is more welcoming for women in the game initially.”
Any presumption that the ladies tournaments exist because women can’t compete elsewhere is completely fabricated.
- Vanessa Selbst
Andersen accurately summed up the panel’s feelings, saying that “I absolutely think ‘ladies only’ events are good for poker and I will continue to support and attend them as much as possible. It’s not really arguable that these tournaments create a more comfortable environment for women to learn and enjoy the game. The fact is, poker has been around forever but it wasn’t until relatively recently that it was socially acceptable for women to participate. You can’t just expect to go from having non-existent female participation to equal numbers without taking steps to encourage the process. Introducing and making women more comfortable with the game through ladies events is just a step in that process.”
A couple panelists were quick to note, however, that promoting Ladies Events didn’t marginalize women and create an underlying presumption that they can’t compete with men. As Selbst made clear, “any presumption that the ladies tournaments exist because women can’t compete elsewhere is completely fabricated.” Scott added that, in her opinion, they’re primarily “a tool for helping to encourage more players.”
Beyond staging Ladies Events, the panelists suggested that a number of additional promotions be targeted towards women to help draw them to live poker rooms, as they believed it would do wonders for growing the player pool as a whole. Some specific suggestions that would also be likely to reduce the initial intimidation factor included:
- Ladies nights and tournaments [Ed. note: Stone, Johnson, Andersen, (Selbst also concurred, but only if such a promotion would be used sparingly and infrequently)]
- Discounts on rake for women [Ed. note: Stone]
- Gender-specific leaderboards during tournament series [Ed. note: Stone]
- Instructional classes, clinics, and seminars for women given by professional female players [Ed. note: Stone, Johnson]
- Short buy-in cash games with capped betting (which would tame the aggression factor a bit) [Ed. note: Kolstad]
- Highlighting the performances of top women players in each local poker room [Ed. note: Stone]
In Stone’s opinion, measures such as these would not only encourage other women to participate, but also demonstrate that room managers care about women and are aware they are playing the game by trying to make it as pleasant an experience as possible.
Initiating Change from the Ground-Up
As much as poker room staff and tournament directors can do to help poker be more welcoming to women, however, much rests in the hands of the (male) players themselves. Sadly, many men simply resort to making sexist remarks. Poker’s leading ladies deal with that sort of thing in different ways.
Stone, for instance, said that she usually plays a little dumb and shy, preferring to keep her mouth shut because “men do not like to lose to women or be ‘shown up’ by them.” Scott was rather blunt, opining that “Headphones can be a player’s best friend in these situations.” Johnson chooses “to ignore a lot of ‘minor’ comments; however, if someone is really out of line and making derogatory remarks, I am never afraid to speak up and tell them to stop or call the floorperson, if necessary. For instance, when someone is using bad language and the dealer makes a comment like ‘Please watch your comments; there are ladies present’ I will say something like ‘Please watch your language; there are people present.'”
Andersen feels that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, in that “most of the time that a man at the poker table is giving me a hard time, it’s good natured and I just dish it back, which seems to earn their respect.” Yet, if she feels that “they are crossing a line, I generally just completely ignore them and they usually lose interest quickly. It obviously depends upon the intent and context of the remark but, in general, at a poker table it takes a lot to get under my skin.”
Others prefer that the best defense against a man’s sexist remarks is a good offense. Selbst, for example, usually just tries “to outwit or outsmart them. This usually shuts them up pretty well.” Billings has a whole toolbox of retorts, with a goal of making “them feel so stupid for saying something sexist that they shrivel up and die. Sometimes I objectify them in similar ways I have been objectified at the table. Sarcasm is another great tactic, because it usually goes over the sexist party’s head. Depending on the situation and how much money I can extract from this player will depend on how I handle it.”
Just as each woman responds individually to sexist remarks and male taunts, the rationales behind their responses are different as well. Some women, like Stone, feel that trying to change how certain people view women is impossible, so better to ignore those people. Johnson’s responses to these men are guided by her “desire to educate them and change their attitude.” Andersen was very frank, saying “I have two goals in that scenario: the first is to not allow them to alter my play. If that happens I’ve let them win. The second goal is to keep myself from punching them in the face. If that happens, my lawyer wins.”
Poker Language: Inherently Sexist?
As mentioned earlier, Selbst took particular issue with poker language being replete with male-dominant terminology. In fact, her Tweeting about this specific issue was the original inspiration that ended up leading to this feature article.
Let me be direct.Would poker media pls stop referring to players as “men” or “boys” while claiming to encourage women to play? PRETTY PLEASE
— Vanessa Selbst (@VanessaSelbst) March 13, 2014
Examples of this would include “bubble boy”, “ante up gentlemen”, “may the best man win”, and so forth. This lexicon often even extends to broadcast commentators, the majority of whom are also men. Though using “male” words and phrases may seem innocuous to the overwhelming majority of players, one could imagine that female poker players are receiving a subtle message that they aren’t welcome and that they might find masculine poker language to be exclusionary and counterproductive.
When I asked the other panelists their opinions about this, some, like Johnson, felt that “we can go overboard in trying to be politically correct. I am not ultra sensitive and [that terminology] doesn’t bother me at all.” Others, like Billings, felt that more should be done, posing the question of “Why must we classify people in a way that could hurt them? Classifying people openly at the poker table mostly just alienates them and makes them leave.”
Scott gave the most extensive and reasoned answer to the issue, saying that “If we use gendered language… then we are subtly excluding the female players. It reinforces the idea that poker is for the guys and not a place for women. I honestly don’t think the people saying these things MEAN to be excluding women, not at all. I think it’s more just force of habit. I’m sure I’ve done it myself at some point too. I don’t think we need to come down hard on people who still use these old gendered phrases. Simply pointing it out is enough to help most people realize when their language isn’t working for everyone.”
She further went on to say that “Male dominated language doesn’t offend me but it does make me tired and annoyed. It makes it clear that I’m not the target market and that the industry doesn’t care so much about its’ female participants. People generally aren’t going to put their money into a pastime or industry that they feel doesn’t care if they even participate. They’re even less likely to put their money into an industry that promotes the idea of women as mostly decorative. What I would like is to see us all be more aware of how some language and marketing (holdovers from the ‘old days’ of the game?) can be subtly and not so subtly dismissive of female players.”
Bathrooms – A Shitty Situation
As tournament poker fields have gotten larger, live venues have had to cope with the logistics of having enough restroom facilities available to the players. With 10–20 times as many men usually playing as women, this has caused a number of uncomfortable issues, in more ways than one, for women as well as host venues. Though surely not limited just to the hallways of the Rio, the issue is most acute at the World Series of Poker each summer, as it is by far the largest poker event on the yearly calendar.
Most notably, a few years ago, some women’s bathrooms at the WSOP were changed to men’s bathrooms. Johnson didn’t sit idly, and instead spoke up about it to WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel. She imparted to him that changing the bathrooms over, however logistically well-intentioned to deal with the crowds of men, “gave the perception that women weren’t as important at the Rio as men. Secondly, I explained to him that many women need to use the restroom more often than just during break time. Having to go the extra distance to the designated restrooms meant that ladies would have to miss a lot more hands than men would miss.” Almost immediately, the situation was rectified. I should note that Johnson once again wishes to thank Jack and the WSOP for listening and acting to resolve the issue so quickly.
A much bigger problem though is something that Selbst pointed out: “Usually the bathroom situation is totally fine. Recently, though, there have been some instances of men popping up in women’s restrooms, which is somewhat insulting for sure.”
Regardless of the ratio of men to women at large-scale poker events, Billings doesn’t “think that commandeering the ladies room should be acceptable anymore” and that “making us walk further is just another way of telling us we are less important.” Johnson agreed that it’s “okay to have more restrooms for men than for women as long as there are some ladies restrooms in the same vicinity”, while Selbst added that “if you have to take a break during play, you should have at least one close bathroom available so you don’t have to miss too many hands.”
As Occam’s razor dictates, the simplest solution is usually the correct one. Here’s a very reasonable, logical solution proposed by Stone: “As men have the luxury of urinating while standing, portable urinals is not a difficult thing to do and seems like the easy fix!”
Hasn’t the Poker Media Addressed This Issue Before?
Poker writer Jennifer Newell has penned dozens of columns advocating for women in poker and is a well-known “champion of the cause”. She was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on the above-discussed issues from her unique perspective as a poker media member.
Newell started off by saying that “Change has been slow regarding women in poker for a number of reasons. I believe the main reason is that the majority of male players see no problem with the status quo. It’s not until women rally together and a few brave men stand up to demand change that it actually happens. What it takes are women like the ones who have participated in this article to not only take a stand and speak up but do it continually until enough people in charge actually listen.
Change has been slow regarding women in poker for a number of reasons. I believe the main reason is that the majority of male players see no problem with the status quo
- Jennifer Newell
Newell gave a few examples of positive changes that have taken place over the years, such as the cancellation of a raunchy WSOP “lifestyle expo”, the toning down of sexist rhetoric among male tournament staff at the WSOP Ladies Championship, and the increase in female members of Team PokerStars. At the same time, however, she cited a few instances where progress has yet to be made, such as the continued existence of the WPT’s “Royal Flush Girls”.
Overall, Newell believes that “there needs to be much more of a concerted effort to market poker toward women, not to just include women. Instead of simply advertising to the key demographics that are proven in poker, it would be nice to see some companies step outside of the box and reach out to untapped markets to bring women into the game. Poker is for everyone, both online and live.”
In Summary, Here’s the Ideal for Poker’s Leading Ladies
Having close to a full poker table’s worth of subjects interviewed for this feature article made for an incredible challenge, as each lady had so much they wanted to say and share with the world. I felt that two quotes that fully and accurately captured the essence of what these women stand united for. They were given by Lauren Billings and Kara Scott:
The change I want to see in poker is the change I want to see in the world. I have played around the world and the bottom line is people are sexist. As a culture we need to relax gender stereotypes and with that change will come.
- Lauren Billings
I think the percentage of people in poker who are actively sexist or exclusionary when it comes to women or minority groups, is very small. I think reasoned conversation about how to make poker less about gender and more about players is possible. I’m most happy with a gender neutral game where people are just poker players and everyone is clearly welcome at the table and they don’t feel marginalized or disregarded. A strong industry requires a healthy influx of new players and if women were playing in the same numbers as men, imagine what that would do for poker. Doubling the field size, bringing lots of new players into the game, bigger money up top for winners, more viewing public for the TV shows, an increase in revenue for the companies smart enough not to chase those players away by making it clear through words or marketing choices that they don’t care about the female market.
- Kara Scott
You Really Want More Women in Poker? Stop Pushing them Away!
As mentioned at the outset, the general sentiment of everyone involved in poker today is that the game must grow. Along with the poker media, legislators, operators, and others involved in the poker industry have all chimed in their support for this as well. As fans of the game sit longing for another poker boom, worried that poker is dying, it makes perfect sense to pin those hopes for the game’s resurgence on women. With liquidity the lifeblood of the game, women represent the largest pool of potential players who’ve consistently failed to ante up and play in a live setting.
But have we men who actively play live poker ever stopped to think that a “boys club” mentality might be the very thing that’s preventing women from showing up to play in the first place?
Once we’re all able to properly lay out the welcome mat, perhaps we’ll be able to close our eyes and automatically imagine a random poker table that’s got just as many women seated there as men.