Lloyd Dobler: I got a question. If you guys know so much about women, how come you're here at like the Gas 'n' Sip on a Saturday night completely alone drinking beers with no women anywhere?
Joe: By choice, man.
If you look around a “brick and mortar” poker room, it is striking how few women play poker. At my local casino, there are probably 4-5 regular women players, and maybe another 5-10 who play occasionally, primarily after the weekly ladies tournament. I can’t think of an open tournament either at my local room or in Vegas where I’ve seen more than 5-10 women players, and it is usually more like 3-5 women players. The Black Widow of Poker recently posted a thoughtful commentary on the relative lack of success of women in major poker tournaments. Analyzing the results of the recent PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, BWoP found that the total number of women playing this major tournament was a mere 29, just under 2% of the field of 1529 total players. Further, the women took home a little less than 1% of the total prize pool, roughly half what their numbers should have won, all other factors being equal. Based on these tourney statistics, BWoP wonders, “where are these women we're supposed to watch out for?” *
Although I know about as much about women as the boys down at the Gas ‘n’ Sip, I think one major factor in play here is the method by which poker players are introduced to the game and learn to improve their skills. Until recently, poker was primarily a social game played in bars, basements, garages, offices, fraternity houses, and back rooms, almost exclusively by men. New players—again, almost exclusively men—were introduced to the game by older brothers, fathers, bosses, drinking buddies, co-workers, and fraternity brothers. When players wanted to get better, they would talk to their friends who also played poker—again, mostly men. In other words, poker was a man’s world.
The current poker situation is strikingly similar to where women were with respect to professional careers and athletic competition in the 1970s, prior to enactment of Title IX. Following Title IX, women went from being a rarity in professions like law and medicine to comprising over 40% of those professions. Similarly, women’s participation in sports skyrocketed. Sure, there were a few noteworthy women holding their own with men in professions—Sandra Day O’Connor in law, for example—and in athletics—Nancy Lieberman or Pat Summitt in basketball, for example—but their success only highlighted the relative lack of other successful women in those arenas. Similarly, the current poker scene has a few obviously successful women players—Jen Harman, Kathy Liebert, Katja Thater, Vanessa Selbst, and Annette Obrestad, among others**—but they are the notable exceptions in the male-dominated poker scene.
Now Title IX was an important step in helping women gain access to educational, professional, and athletic opportunities. But, even more important was the resulting slow development of a critical mass of women who could serve as role models, mentors, coaches, and support network for other women. Women needed not only the opportunity to participate, but also to see other women succeed in order to encourage their own participation, development, and success. It was undoubtedly tough for the women who were in the vanguard of the assault on traditionally male-dominated arenas, but by the time my generation rolled around, half or more of my freshman class were women, roughly half of my law school class were women, and roughly half of the lawyers my age or younger I work with (at my firm and from other firms) are women. Frankly, for people my age or younger, the presence of women in law, medicine, or business is taken for granted and rarely even merits a comment. Similarly, young women playing or coaching sports is so common it’s the accepted norm.
Turning back to poker, it feels like we are in that pre-Title IX era with a few women distinguishing themselves, but many women passing on the opportunity to participate altogether. This impacts women’s success rates in poker tournaments in three ways. First, many women who possess a natural talent for the game may never even try the game, let alone pursue it on a serious level. It’s hard to know how many potential female Patrik Antoniuses or Tom Dwans are out there working instead as doctors or lawyers, or pursuing a different intellectual hobby. Second, some women who participate may not pursue the game as seriously as some men, since they lack the same natural support structure many men have in place. Many of my friends play poker, and a fair amount of our social time together is spent playing or talking poker. If a woman’s friends don’t play poker, she may not focus on her poker game as much, or may even abandon poker altogether in favor of other pursuits. Third, the lack of a large number of strong women players inherently makes it more difficult for them as a group to overcome the odds of going deep into a large field tournament. Statistically, even if there are a handful of elite-level women poker players, if women as a group comprise less than 2% of a tournament field, simple variance might easily disguise the group’s actual talent level.
So, how do we encourage more women to play poker? How do we obtain a critical mass of women who play and enjoy poker, and make it socially acceptable for other women to play and enjoy poker? I’m firmly convinced that, if a critical mass of women players could be developed, natural talent will be attracted to the game and will find a support network of other women players to help develop their talent. Further, the more women who play, the less important distinctions will be between men and women players—gender will become the non-issue it is today in the workplace or athletics. Finally, the more women who play poker, the more women who will play it well, and the more success women will have in poker tournaments.
So, why aren’t more women playing poker in the first place? What’s keeping them from getting into the game? What can be done to attract more women to the game? Obviously as a man who currently plays poker, I’m not the best person to answer these questions. But a few ideas leap to mind.
Introduce women to the game—As noted above, most men get introduced to the game by other men. So, women who play poker should make an effort to get other women interested in the game. Home games, “girls’ night out” to the local card room, even “ladies” tournaments. But we men need to do our part as well. If your girlfriend, wife, sister, mother, or female friend or co-worker expresses an interest in the game, teach them the game. Invite them to a low key home game, preferably where they aren’t the only woman playing. Point them to good strategy books and websites. Set them up with an online account, even a free account. Sit down and play a small stakes game with them at the local card room or on your vacation visit to a casino. Most importantly, while doing all of this, be supportive and don’t be a condescending d-bag. Which leads me to my next point …
Crack down on the “bad boy” antics—The public perception of the game is driven by TV coverage, primarily of the WSOP. In nearly every episode of WSOP coverage, we are treated to at least one if not several d-bags (almost always male) who are berating their opponents and doing elaborate victory dances. We need to get past celebrating, or even tolerating, the antics of players like Mike Matusow, Phill Hellmuth, Eric Molina, Hevad Khan, Tony G, and Shawn Sheikan (to name only a very few of the better known examples), and instead encourage play along the lines of that shown by Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Tom Dwan, and Barry Greenstein. Now, the cameras are going to look for outrageous conduct, so this responsibility falls squarely on the WSOP tournament staff, which in fact has been cracking down in the past couple of years. Individual card rooms need to follow the WSOP’s lead and also crack down on this kind of conduct. As players, we need to do a better job of controlling our own actions and admonishing fellow players who step out of line.
Crack down on the “boys will be boys” behavior—Closely related to the “bad boy” issue, management, dealers, and players all need to do a better job of making the poker room (online as well as brick and mortar) a more welcoming place for women. It’s an entertaining part of the game to engage in a little verbal sparring with opponents. But there is a definite line between acceptable—if sharp—barbs, and sexist or otherwise inappropriate language. Guys, if you want to talk about women and crack inappropriate jokes while playing poker, save it for your home game. Online or at the poker room, show some self-control. It’s entirely possible to play poker without commenting on the appearance of the female waitresses, players, and dealers, using inappropriate language to taunt a player, or giving condescending “advice” to women players. Act as if your wife, girlfriend, or a female co-worker is in the game; dial back the inner d-bag a bit. Frankly, there are plenty of men playing poker who would also appreciate a break from the Animal House routine.
Market poker to women—This should be a no-brainer, yet there doesn’t seem to be much poker advertising directed to attracting women players. Online poker sites need to figure out a way to reach out to women players. I have no doubt a substantial number of women enjoy playing cards online to kill an hour or two on occasion; why shouldn’t they be encouraged to choose poker? Sure, Full Tilt Poker has a TV ad featuring Jen Harman, but it plays mostly on ESPN and during poker shows, hardly places where it will reach a wide audience of non-poker playing women.
What can local card rooms do? Well, in addition to cleaning up the behavior of its current players, they can offer free poker lessons for women to introduce them to the game (a popular weekly event at the local casino). They can also offer “ladies” tournaments. Now this is a controversial topic among poker players; some players find the tourneys to be a good way to introduce women to poker, while others find the tourneys to be condescending and sexist, and of little benefit to developing the players’ skills. My view is that ladies tournaments can serve as poker “training wheels”—a great way to get women to try out poker and develop some comfort with the game, serving as a bridge to playing in open tournaments or cash games. The problem is that many women never make that last leap to playing poker outside the ladies tournament (at least from what I’ve seen at the local casino). I’m not sure why this is the case, but I suspect in part it goes back to some of the other issues noted earlier that may turn women off to the idea of playing in a predominately male game.
In terms of marketing, however, BWoP is entirely correct that the image of women poker players being portrayed by television is rather condescending. Women poker players are presented as novelty acts, either because they are attractive or because they happen to make a deep run into the tournament. There is usually an undercurrent of “isn’t it cute when these girls try to play with the big boys?” Rarely are women presented as serious players who should be feared by their opponents. Would TV producers ever make a fuss over the “last Asian” player, or would tournament organizers ever give a special award to the “last Jew standing”? Honestly, if I have to endure another WSOP broadcast with a breathless deathwatch for the elimination of the last woman player, I swear I’ll enter the WSOP Main Event, borrow one of Dario Minieri’s scarves, and demand constant TV coverage for the “last queer” award. Let’s feature women poker players because they are good poker players, not because they are the last woman playing, or because they could qualify for a photospread in Maxim magazine.
Frankly, I think resolving the “women in poker” issue is simply a matter of patience. Poker is becoming more acceptable in the mainstream. Poker is more accessible in home games, local card rooms, and online than ever before. Many younger women are taking up the game, predominately online, where many women learn the game while avoiding some of the negative social pressures associated with male-dominated live games (an issue discussed by Short-Stacked Shamus in Betfair articles HERE and HERE). These women players will make it easier for other women to join the action, and eventually enough women will be playing poker that neither their presence nor their success will be remarkable. When that inevitable day arrives, and a woman slips on the WSOP Main Event bracelet, there will be only one more mountain for women to climb:
“Kickboxing. Sport of the future.”
* I strongly encourage you to read BWoP’s intial blog post, including the very thoughtful comments, as well as BWoP’s follow up blog post with some of her responsive thoughts. Also, you might want to check out the article by Rebekah Mercer at PokerStars that takes a more optimistic view of the progress of women in poker, which served as the jumping off point for BWoP’s initial post.
** ADDENDUM (11 FEB 2010): While poking around commenter Pink Poker's website, I found she had posted a page with detailed statistics on ~20 of the most successful women poker players. All of these names were as familiar to me as the names of the top men's poker players, and it's pretty clear from results that these women can play with—and beat—the big boys.