As in countless Westerns, poker was used merely as an index of male virility.
— Anthony Holden, Big Deal —

Let’s finally make the strip-club sign ours: Girls! Girls! Girls!

Barriers be gone. Everyone wants to make poker more inviting so hoards of women show up to play. Female players have always stormed the barricades but the majority stay away. Why that is, remains a thumper. Details help.

Women have less money. They raise children. Run households. Not the least, a few harassing creeps can make live poker a downer. Most women have dealt with chronic sexism and won’t enter a man’s kingdom lightly. Above all, girls are supposedly different and can’t cope with the game’s aggression. Yet, is there more to the tale?

Math, Naturally

Women comprised a tiny 3.8% of the 2018 WSOP Main Event pool (301 out of 7874 contenders). Online, numbers fluctuate and opinions vary. “Relatively few women play online poker,” reported Alex Scott in 2015 for Microgaming Poker Network. “Our best estimates are that between 9% and 19.4% of online players are female (a recent study of French players states the higher end of the range, but the worldwide average is almost certainly lower).”

Scott dug deeper. “Even online, where the intimidation factor is reduced, the fact that over 80% of the players are male means a lot of women are choosing to do something else with their leisure time.”

As scary man caves go, poker has a pal. “We see this in pool, too, said Dr. Lara Eisenberg, radiologist and consummate poker player. “If you’re a man, for instance, nothing but height helps you shoot pool better. But it’s a ‘hanging around in seedy places’ thing that historically has marked both worlds.” Men from a very young age also create interesting affinity groups. “It’s partly what you happen to discover in your life,” Eisenberg added. “What you get exposed to. In high school guys drink beer and play poker. In the main, that’s not what girls are after.”

Myth + Legend

I love this take from poker godfather Doyle Brunson about 1970s cash grinder Betty Carey: “She used to flutter those blue eyes at me until I got to know how coldhearted she was. It took me a year to wake up.” Hall of Famer T.J. Cloutier weighed in: “One night Carey…had all the hands in the right spots and the guys weren’t giving her credit for the player she was. She ate them alive.” (Storms Reback for PokerNews).

American poker, with its whiskey-soaked saloon roots, typifies hyper-masculinity. In this context Brunson’s comments land as code. According to Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and renowned columnist for The Nation Magazine, Brunson suggests Carey was trying to distract with her beauty. “There is a façade in this particular narrative of heterosexual charm and Carey’s come-on to him,” Pollitt said. “Yet it turned out she had this cold heart.” We can’t know for sure whether Carey had to make her “sex” a weapon to win. But in this telling, a coldhearted poker girl becomes a thing. A headline. By contrast, the assumption of steeled aggression is baked into the notion of maleness. And never called out.

Last Laugh

Certain social-media boys say women in poker suck. This boisterous mansplaining suggests girls don’t have the je ne sais quoi to make final tables and dangle bracelets—three-time WSOP champion Vanessa Selbts with $11,851,384 in lifetime earnings would disagree, but facts get in the way. Reportedly, girls don’t possess the battle gene. Yet Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shadade; boxing titan and Olympic medalist Rhonda Rousey; and countless female giants across myriad endeavors reveal more of those pesky facts.

The good news? Advocacy exists. Prominent women’s-only events…media sites like PokerWomenNews.com…the Poker League of Nations…and score-keeping like the “women’s all-time money list” focus a formidable lens on women achievers. Yet in a hard-charging male gaming universe where porn booms in certain underground spots, strip-club banter is routine, and sexist verbal assaults get dark even in fancy well-lit casinos, women grinders, especially live, can feel like outliers. (“Are you here with your husband?” a man in Las Vegas asked Eisenberg, who happens to be gay and married to a woman. She’d also just ponied up $10,000 and ran quite deep, no pun, in the WSOP 2018 Main Event.)

How can the industry present a narrative to which women can relate? As eye candy, half-naked women carting in prize money are still a signature image for elite TV tournaments. In the old days (think Ungar), a man in a suit delivered the dough. Luckily, smart accomplished women today are commentating live poker. But their intellectual agency can be undercut by models a few feet away who deserve to get dressed.

Hers and His

I began to wonder if fear of aggression for women had deeper roots. Then I found this: “Healthy competition and confidence are encouraged in boys, but often seen as undesirable traits in girls,” wrote Lynn Margolies, Ph.D. for psychcentral.com. “Team spirit and friendship provide the glue that bonds men when competition prevails. Not surprisingly, men are comfortable with competition and see winning as an essential part of the game, rarely feeling bad after a victory.”

Pollitt also suggested masculinity and entitlement intersect. “Many who die in private-plane crashes are doctors. They often ignore the weather and assume they’re invincible,” she said. “This is a kind of all-powerful attitude you don’t see in women. Maybe in the old days you saw it in a queen. But you had to be thinking that way from an early age. You had to be socialized into privilege and power. Women are more practical, better at taking advice, and more realistic. Yet many professions, like medicine, encourage a certain arrogance.”

Gates Stormed

Scott argued that women reject poker because by every social norm, it’s a masculine activity. Vanessa Selbst had other ideas. “Poker is seen as a man’s game because it’s mostly played by men,” she told allthingslesbeau.com. Society has different expectations for women [who] are not socialized to be aggressive, competitive, mathematical, and risk-taking.” She also liked the rebellion: “On a strictly selfish level, women should play poker because it’s a fun way to make a living,” Selbst added. “But on a political level, it’s messing with the status quo. The only way to make it less of a ‘man’s game’ is to increase the presence of female players.”

Margolies suggested a woman’s caring nature has a downside in competitive achievement. “Women, often experts at being sensitive to others’ feelings, may over-identify with another woman’s insecurities. Women learn to feel guilty for being happy and successful.”

Yet celebrating goodness, Pollitt saw beauty in this particular reciprocity. “I believe it’s good women are like that. It’s good that in competition they care about the feelings of others, and are not just vicious and triumphant. We don’t want to lose those things. We want men in fact to have more of them.”

Betting the Future

“All of us naturally want poker to thrive,” Eisenberg noted. “As women progress in the workforce, have more disposable income, and the division of labor at home improves to enhance a wife or mother’s freedom, in time, a greater percentage of women might just be able to play.”

Domination defines poker. Perhaps young girls today, playing lots of team sports, experiencing a diverse world, and embracing equality, will storm poker’s competitive barricades with a certain je ne sais quoi—crushing future villains with a loving, compassionate, feminine grace.

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