Poker has done some hand wringing in the past about “the woman question”. Vegas marketing execs have been puzzling over it for decades and the largely male populations of 2+2 and other pokery parts of the internet have been speculating pretty wildly on the regs as well. At the time of writing these well argued thread were underway on The Hendon Mob and Cardschat.
Usually dodging the question by shrugging and saying that at the demographic level women just don’t play poker. The Hendon mob lists a little of 426,000 players results in is all-time money list when filtered for female players that list drops to 11,503. This is a list of those players that have cashed so you could argue that it could just be that women don’t play or cash in tournaments. Assuming that you doubt the significance of that roughly thirty-six to one ratio of male cashers to female, bear in mind that in 2015 the split between men and women entering the WSOP Main Event was 24 to 1. I think we can safely say that there are fewer women playing the game.
This is of course true; but that is just a way of restating the problem, not a real dismissal. The reasons there are fewer women may well be intrinsic to sexual psychological differences, but the reason there are so few women playing poker probably owes a debt to more than one creditor.
Rather than let oneself get too bogged down in the arguments regarding gender, sex, and equality – which are important arguments to have, just not right here, right now on this page. The comments section below is open for business though. Let’s just assume that equal numbers of women and men are a pipe dream for a complex mix of biological, psychological and cultural reasons.
Let’s even go so far as to assume that a one-to-one ratio is neither the goal nor even inherently desirable. Instead, let’s just think about what might make the experience of poker different for a woman than a man, and then think about ways to avoid those differences putting too many people off the game.
Women seem less statistically less inclined to think that poker is for them, and seem less likely to stick to the game if they opt to give it a try. But do remember that statistics are wholly misleading at the level of individuals; men are taller on average than women, but I am personally still only five foot seven.
Given that half the potential player pool is being turned off the game either before they play or on their first try, there is probably stuff we could be doing better as a poker community. Some of that is out of your hands unless you are a poker marketer. The fact that in the wake of the poker boom Shana Hiatt was a bigger name in poker than Jennifer Harman set the tone for a lot of how players were chosen for invitationals.
Photogenic celebrities like Jennifer Tilly and Shannon Elizabeth repeatedly found themselves at Poker After Dark and Caesar’s Heads Up Poker Challenge where talented players like Vanessa Selbst and Annie Duke struggled to get a seat.
That sort of thing, makes a difference to both how male players treat women at the table (as exotics, erotics, or soft targets).
Guardian journalist, TV presenter and EPT champ Victoria Coren-Mitchell talks a lot about getting by at the table by rolling her eyes and putting up with endless “big-pair” jokes.
In her account of her poker career For Richer, For Poorer she talks a lot about what it is like being a woman in a “man’s world”: “I am pleased to see [Devilfish], even though he stares immediately at my chest and says, ‘There’s a couple of things I wanna talk to you about.’ When I say celebrity, he’s more Bernard Manning than Cary Grant.”
In the end, her main tool for tolerating objectification was by being funnier than the next guy.
Ladies Only Events
It’s also worth wondering why it is that poker is such a “male-supremacist” game, as Martin Amis puts it in his review of The Biggest Game in Town. Given that there is more than a little emotional intelligence required in reading a table it seems like a place where the stereotype of the more sociable, empathetic woman would find their own advantage. There’s no physical edge to counter just minds across the table.
“We need to find why women are turned off it. It’s important, said Kara Scott in a recent Vice interview. “Partly it’s a marketing issue. When you market something so hard towards one gender, or one demographic, it can feel kind of exclusionary. […] When people talk about women in poker they’re imagining all the 20-something attractive pros whose faces they’ve seen, and they’re not imagining the vast amounts of middle-aged and retirement-aged women who play.”
There is an argument out there that certain male attributes like competitiveness and obsessiveness mean that women are less likely to be the very best in those fields where the singlemindedness of saying the Trainspotter gives men an edge.
But in poker, you don’t have to be the best at the table to have a good session. You just need to be good enough to beat the game overall. In cash games, you don’t need to be the best to feel you played well and did well. If I walk away with fifty quid I didn’t have yesterday, I am not particularly put out that the guy in seat three walked away with £200.
Perhaps there is some sort of marketing campaign to be worked out off the back of that? But it can’t be the whole story that women avoid poker to avoid competition. Not least because some of the best players in the world are women, and female sports personalities are not in short supply.
Certainly, when women know they aren’t gonna have to put up with masculinist shenanigans they do so in droves. The ladies-only event at the WSOP has been offered since 1977 – and although its low buy-in and exclusive field seem to set it up to be a wives and girlfriends event, in reality, the field remained as tough as you’d expect for that buy-in.
One major difference though is in the way people talk about it: as more fun, more sociable, more table talky and better sportsmanship (sportspersonship).
The Move to Improve
For more sustainable growth, poker needs to make women in poker more than just female only tables and the toughest cookies. The #MeToo movement highlighted recently how much background radiation sexism generates. One guy being overly flirty doesn’t seem like a big issue, but when he’s the twentieth guy that day and won’t leave it alone, it seems less like harmless fun and more like harassment.
Self-policing is the best tool, as is talking about it. Serious infractions need calling out, but so gentle reminders to minor offenders can help clean house a bit and perhaps move us towards a more hospitable playing field.
So too are the increasing number of players who are simply showing up an playing despite poker’s boys-own reputation.
It’s not just pros who are turning up, screenwriter Carol Fuchs took down the $1,500 dealers choice in 2015 a WPT main event went to a woman for the first time this year and as someone with political campaign experience and feminist bent, Ema Zajmovic seems like someone who could make a difference to women’s poker.
In the end, though, the thing that will make the biggest difference is players at an individual level paying attention to what players have to say about their poker experience, and making the effort to account for backgrounds and sensibilities at the table that might be wildly divergent from their own. It’s also not that hard to invite the women you know to your home games.
If you can manage to think levels ahead of your opponents, it shouldn’t be too hard to pay enough attention to understand the concerns of women in the game. In that spirit I’ll give the last word to Kara Scott from that Vice interview again: “I find it off-putting sometimes when I’m playing against players who use a lot of body language or verbal cues to show you they don’t think much of you. And I think that makes them not just bad for poker, but not great for them either […] Poker does not need to chase away new players, or players who are recreational.”