Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.—Robert A. Heinlein
Brave new world. Women play poker. Maybe not in the numbers we’d like to see in live play. But with Vanessa Selbst dangling three bracelets and boasting a record-breaking $10+ million in lifetime earnings, clearly the smoke-filled, whiskey-drenched boys-club card rooms are history.
Female players were but 4% of the 2015 WSOP main event player pool. Women have dramatically bigger online numbers—more comfort, more privacy, no leers, or table insults maybe? But fem power in live settings, tournaments and cash both, remains modest.
Countless articles have explored poker’s gender gap. And despite women’s global numbers climbing year over year, New York’s underground cash scene offers a handy petri dish to observe what the rare girl of the species in those spots might experience in the heat of battle.
To save face, a young player started calling me honey one late night after I took his stack. It was not tender and the word cut my ear. Terms of “endearment” in live cash comprise a short messy list—doll, dear, sweetie, sexy, baby, sweetheart—you name it. Imagine a tabloid of construction workers check-raising their brains out. I love my boy poker comrades. And some call me baby with tremendous affection and my heart floats upward. Then again, some don’t.
Cats and quads
Women are not socialized into aggression. We’re often punished for it in various social contexts and called very nasty names. More than once I’ve been heads up with another girl. The men fold out of the hand saying “let those two go at it.” Female sparring is framed as spectacle. Two men in a hand are never “going at it.” Two men are engaging a course of battle and invoking competitive privilege as they drive toward victory over one other. Two men competing in a poker hand is a baseline norm. Heads-up women are in a “catfight.”
Shipping it. To men
“Good female players are so rare,” the male host said, pointing right at me in a room full of dudes. Dang. Who wouldn’t swoon to such flattery? A few days later I wasn’t sure his was a compliment, however well intentioned. It was mostly a fist pump to every presumed outstanding boy grinder on planet Earth. What idea existed between the lines? Girl champions are the exception. Ironically, some articles suggest women players are better than men, especially at lower stakes, have stronger intuition, and use their risk-averse natures to advantage. Some argue men play too much and too soon without formal study and, especially online, play too big for their skill set and bankroll. Reportedly men let booze, testosterone, and ego destroy their edge. Who the heck knows. But the belief of logic-infused male virtuosity abides. So far, anyway (smile).
Like shoes, every cash spot has its own style and fits each player differently. Some spots are buttoned up and boys don’t allow locker-room talk if women are present. Yet, the culture of some poker joints can be vulgar in the extreme—soft porn looms on big overhead screens, players explicitly debating a woman’s body parts, age, weight, sexual appetites, and more. Life is contradiction. Ignoring the salty sexist overlay, I played at just this kind of spot for months cause I loved the players and the action and the host, who took impeccable care of us all. Did I ever bring a new girl in? No. In the end, game runners in a competitive, underground, big-city market might consider who feels welcomed and make accommodations should more women enter live play.
Drawing to the “mansplain”
Defined in common parlance as men who explain everything to everyone, mansplainers have a particular role in poker since we’re all experts, superior to each other, having to constantly make that expertise known. Mansplainers bug men and women equally. But when a self-deprecating, not-strong female poker player shoves and gets it in badly, and the man across the table challenges her line, she’s already kinda hating herself and doesn’t need someone’s judgment piled onto that moment in a quasi-invasive scold. A few hyper-opinionated men have talked at me, long after a hand together has ended. Even as I made no eye contact. Even as I refused to acknowledge them in any significant way. Would a man really keep talking to another man who was ignoring him?
I got serious coaching early in my early poker life and was deepening my tournament skill. But when I started playing low-stakes cash it was a new wilderness. At one of the edgier local spots, the floor guy was a Stu Unger wannabe, devoted action junkie, and textbook LAG. We had history. I’d beaten some of his bluffs. One night he played with us to juice the action till more players arrived. He hated my occasional min-raise (experimentation for me) and to the entire table mocked me out loud. It was hardly the worst thing that can happen in poker. But I was new and somewhat fragile and never returned to that spot.
On other fronts, “I know exactly what she’s got in her hand” is another dismissive refrain I hear a lot since, well, I’m a girl. Naturally the assumption is I’m tight and only playing top-15% hands. I love beating those confused insult-hurlers with six-high suited connectors. To ease my brain and my spine, I also take regular playing breaks, a survival habit suggested by veteran pros. I once walked about a poker room for five minutes on pause. The host yelled at me before 14 people for not considering the needs of two waiting players. I resist reckless gender defaults, but he never would have shamed and attacked a male client. Never.
The good news?
Goofiness happens in poker. Routinely. And with a few exceptions, I get tremendous respect most everywhere I play.
I’ve read articles urging women to earn their place at the table by properly exploring a complex game (haven’t seen the same advice for men but oh well…happy to snap off those vulnerable stacks). That said, I’ve also seen female beginners show up with boyfriends at cash games and despite their being pretty clueless and slowing the game down, the whole table rallies and helps out. Especially if the new girl is young and cute. Cute rules and extreme cases are interesting.
A sexually integrated felt now and forever? Think of it as girls smoking cigars. An acquired taste. Even better, more dolls at the table equals more dough up and down the vast poker ecosystem. Three cheers for profit.