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.

Or not.

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.

Girls In Live Poker

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).

All-in, X-rated

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.

Showing 13 comments
  • ChipXtractor

    Great Blog. I enjoyed the read and learned something as well. I look forward to meeting at the tables one day.

  • cheryl wills

    awesome blog

  • pokerluvr

    I was in a tournament yesterday and shoved “all in” with AQ suitedand lost my stack to a man holding pocket 8’s who hit his set at the turn. He proceeded to “shame me” very loudly and boisterously for pushing all in with such a “weak hand” in front of all the players at our table and the surrounding tables. I told him he should be grateful for the win and should be quiet. He told me to shut the F*** up and get the f*** out of his face…..needless to say our confrontation escalated to a toe to toe standoff because I didn’t back down.
    I want to know if other women are experiencing such intense verbal abuse and threatening behavior from men at the the poker tables and how do we stop this?

  • Eileen Sutton

    PokerLuvr, sincere thanks for taking the time to share your difficult experience. Live poker is an intense environment for many women. And despite the usual trash talk and goading of other players, often playfully, I do think lines can be crossed. I believe in respectful behavior, especially toward women. Would this have happened between 2 men? Not sure. Kudos to you for taking a stand and don’t hesitate to call the floor over in future. I hope this does not keep you from the tables. Just by sharing your story you are helping to raise awareness and change behaviors. Women like you are vital to the game. Keep speaking out. And remember: playing well and taking stacks is the best revenge. I’m posting your note to my Twitter feed so more can be made aware. Run well.

  • Tracy Karthauser

    I was a prop for a local poker room for about 6 months and I heard everything from “show me your tits” to “shut up your just mad cause you lost” when the guy thru his cards down and walked away from the table and the dealer didn’t muck his hand which to me and one other in the hand looked like a fold. I politely told him that I felt it wasn’t fair to me and the other player still left in the hand when we lost because the dealer allowed him to continue in the hand and I got asked to stop talking when he clearly was yelling at me. I was giddy a half hour later when he felted and I smiled and told him to have a great night! There are still a few old timers out there who think women should not be playing at all and these are the ones I love the most cause they call off all their chips to me or fold cause they think I only play AK! 🙂

    I don’t have a thing against men but sometimes they can be silly and try to intimidate for no other reason than just to do it cause their egos can not handle losing to a female but use it and “Get the money”!!

    • Eileen Sutton

      Tracy, really appreciate your thoughts. Extremely sorry you had to field body commentary, and thanks for putting your experience out there. Me, too, nothing against men. And the assumption that women are super tight is as you say $$$ in our pockets. I believe dealers and floor guys need to step it up in certain moments and curb some of the excesses. Men certainly go at each other. But men going after women often has a certain flavor. You sound strong. You help all women in the game. Sincere thanks.

  • Joanna

    I’m a middle aged gal, not a lady by any stretch. I find most men lovely to play with. One exception. the guys that have an ex-wife they…. don’t like. It seems to get personal. I can see it in their faces after I’ve won some money from them – it’s a vendetta. They’ll shove pre-flop, ATC just to get me to fold the 4 BB lead out from MP I made. I’ve learned the best way to deal. ask for a table change. and if I see them again, get re-listed before I even sit. Happens with Asian kids too. they won’t play a hand for 6 orbits, all of a sudden they’re 3 and 4 betting me. I just tighten up and go home, up whatever I’m up. i do finding “grinding” disheartneing around so many men. So…. tournaments may not be my thing. But cash games….. it’s the learning to leave when youre up that makes you a player. and leaving cause you can feel 1, 2, or 3 guys, “gunning” for you……screw them. take what you can get of their money and leave……

  • Eileen Sutton

    Wow, Joanna, great POV on the game. Love the details of your poker life. Yeah, the “personal” thing. Been there. You’re on it. You see it. Feel it. Make good decisions to take care of yourself. I play with one young guy who plays 85% of his hands. His range? Here to the moon. He’s gracious but I’ve won a lot of pots from him for all the obvious reasons. The writer Tommy Angelo’s book “Elements of Poker” is transformative. His analysis of when to quit a game has helped me immeasurably. When I first started I didn’t have the tools to deal with hyper-aggression. We learn and develop, don’t we? Ed Miller, also coaching on this site, offers some of the best advice out there for low-stakes cash. Check out “The Course.”

  • Keith

    Double-edged opening quote given Heinlein went from a brilliant SF author to a dirty old man.

    And all good poker players are cats. Even those who don’t like cats.

  • Suzan Baroni

    Great blog post, Eileen. Lately, I feel invisible and disrespected at the tables and I am not sure if it is because of my gender or my age (52), or both. It was a wonder last year playing a daily tournament at the WSOP. All of a sudden the men at the table noticed I was sitting there after, I felted a rather aggressive guy by reeling him into pushing all-in when I had flopped a straight. The regulars at the casinos I frequent start off the same way. It’s like there is a notion that we are not capable of being learned, experienced players. But, I know the level of my abilities and I accept it. If I am at the table with guys that have treated my poorly, I just ask for a table change. Believe me, I have a list!

  • Eileen Sutton

    Suzan, this is really powerful testimony and I so appreciate you sharing it. All women learn from each other’s experiences. I think men often dismiss women of all ages, frankly. Not all men but a lot. Thanks so much for taking the time. If you don’t mind, I’d like to post your comment to my feed. Let me know if you’re not comfortable.

    • Suzan Baroni

      Post Away!

  • Eileen Sutton

    Thanks beauty 🙂