You probably haven’t heard of Vera Richmond. There’s a reason for that.
Richmond was actually the first woman to win a World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet in an open event. She is part of history, so when Linda Johnson won her first bracelet in 1997, she was surprised no one mentioned her. In fact, when she won her bracelet, the announcer listed Johnson alongside every other female bracelet winner besides Richmond.
When Johnson asked someone on the staff why they left Richmond out, the response was very clear:
“Vera doesn’t get to be in the record books because she’s a bitch.”
We’ve come a long way since 1997. Now, every woman is included in the list of female open event WSOP winners. That list is a lot longer too. We even look up to female players with ample poker success, like Kathy Leibert or Vanessa Selbst.
Let’s be honest though. The way women are treated in poker certainly could use quite a bit of work.
The WPT’s bold experiment
Vice President of Global Tour Management for the World Poker Tour (WPT) Angelica Hael hadn’t spent too much time talking about women in poker prior to last weekend. However, when reporter Valerie Cross of PokerNews asked Hael how she was trying to bring women to the WPT, Hael realized she wasn’t really doing much. There were ladies events, ladies nights, and the shift from the Royal Flush Girls to the Royal Flush Crew. But sweeping action? Not so much.
That is how the WPT Women’s Poker Summit was born.
The one-day event ran on Aug. 26 and brought together both women and men of the poker world to address one big question.
Why aren’t more women playing poker?
It is not an easy question to answer. People have tried to crack the code for years. Nonetheless, the rate of female participation in high buy-in tournaments runs between 3-5 percent. Anecdotal stories from smaller tours with lower buy-ins indicate the rate of female participation is slightly higher, but not by much. This even though Hael cited online poker participation for women on Zynga is 25 percent.
The participants answered this question in advance of the summit. Hael and her team grouped the responses into several categories. Then they identified the three biggest reasons women aren’t in the poker room. They were as follows:
- Unwelcoming environment
- Game format and accessibility
- Societal attitudes
The categories may seem vague, but that is because the list of reasons is vast, expansive, and far from unanimous. At the summit, participants broke into teams to offer examples from each category. Then they brainstormed solutions. The first part was easy. The second part was a little trickier.
Nonetheless, those of us participating in the event talked, vented, brainstormed, and tried to come up with answers. Here is a rundown of what we came up with:
Poker rooms are unwelcoming to women
Unwelcoming is probably a sanitized word for this category. Examples include:
- Men trying to intimidate and demean women as part of the game at the table.
- Harassment away from the tables, including unwanted flirting and name calling.
- Safety concerns like walking to your car safely or having a lot of money in your wallet.
Presented like this, it is no wonder this environment isn’t appealing to women. These are the same worries many women have when they are walking alone at night. It is more than just unappealing. It sounds downright dangerous.
These experiences are not the norm in poker rooms necessarily. However, for some women, it is the only experiences they know because they give a poker room one shot. If they have a bad time, they simply don’t come back.
Solutions to the problem
Many of the examples were exacerbated by the fact women felt they had no recourse. Telling a dealer or complaining to staff rarely resulted in meaningful change.
While it would be nice for dealers to get a day of sensitivity training, the reality is that the dealer is not in a position to do much. These are people that rely on tips for their paycheck. Resultingly, taking sides and chastizing players is asking too much.
Realistically, floor staff are in a better position to moderate the game. With them not at the table though, it becomes rather conspicuous to go and talk to them about the guy who keeps touching your leg.
While more employee training and a zero-tolerance abuse policy made the list of solutions, the ideas with the most traction were the ones that were easiest to implement.
The most popular one isn’t even explicitly about women. Poker rooms taking the time to create and post a player code of conduct is more than an empty gesture. With specific rules to reference, both male and female players are more in the know about what they should and shouldn’t tolerate. Another idea about proactively creating a good environment in a room is having an organization certify properties as women-friendly if they meet a certain set of criteria.
Still, we all know harassment will happen, so some solutions had to focus on better solving problems when they arise. Of those, none was met with more enthusiasm than an ability to text floor staff when harassment is transpiring. An option that allows women and men to call for back up without drawing even more unwanted attention to themselves is something many women want. And it is something easy enough to execute that poker rooms need to deliver.
Game format and accessibility keep women off the felt
This is a point that might puzzle you. The whole appeal of poker is that anyone can play. That is true, but only to a point. For women with children, for example, being in a poker tournament for 14 hours and coming home at 4 a.m. is a dealbreaker.
Even when women are the focus, ladies events tend to be also-rans on the poker schedule. One issue specific to the WSOP is that for the past two years women had to choose between the ladies event and the $365 buy-in Giant event. With the latter guaranteeing a big prize pool, ladies event attendance suffered.
The Giant is a good example of another thing women seek–low buy-in poker events with decent prize pools. The women in the room admitted that, by and large, they are more hesitant to lose money than men are. As we mentioned, lower buy-in tours tend to draw more women.
Even the idea of logging a long cash game session is fraught for women. Casino management participants observed that when women play all night, they hear judgmental comments from other players about neglecting their family.
Solutions to the problem
Bucking the old-school belief that a woman is neglecting her real-world obligations if she is in the poker room is an area we’ve already made progress. Ladies events and ladies nights draw in women and don’t make them feel bad for being there.
At Maryland Live!, they take the idea one step further. The property has a $35 Ladies Poker Brunch every month. After a nice meal and some mimosas, women get some poker lessons and end with a short session of $2/$4 Limit Hold’em. Copying popular formats like wine and paint nights to draw in women with wine and poker is the kind of social event that is fun, financially doable, and full of female empowerment.
But for the more serious female players looking to take their name to the next level, they need a bankroll, not brunch. Helping women master bankroll management was one suggestion, but Women in Poker Hall of Famer Kathy Raymond took it a step further.
Her group came up with the idea of a backing site where women can financially support other women looking for backing into poker tournaments. The idea is packed with girl power as women work together to help one another. There is another perk tough. For many women, taking money from a man to play poker can be fraught with misconceptions. Making the path to moving up stakes free from the complications of trying to draw clear lines with backers would be a huge step.
Societal perceptions of women in poker
Many women at the summit were not that concerned about what others thought about their poker playing. Someone in my group said she was an IDGAF (Google at your own risk) kind of gal. Many others felt the same way.
Getting the IDGAF women to the poker table is not that hard. The women I talked to Sunday were tough, strong, confident ladies. That is why they can put up with the kinds of issues the other 97 percent of women can. I’d bet Vera Richmond won that bracelet because people thought she was a bitch, not in spite of it.
Getting women who are still worried about what others will think is what needs work.
Solutions to the problem
Programs for beginners always come up as possible solutions. More of those are great, as are poker discussion groups.
This is where men in the poker world can help. We don’t need a knight in shining armor to rush in, we can rescue ourselves. But most of would love to have allies at the poker table. If a woman calls a guy out, chime in that you don’t like the behavior either. If a woman is in the poker room all night, don’t worry about her children. Bringing more women to the game isn’t just a female issue. It is a poker-wide issue.
For me, this is the section where I think, as a writer, I can help the most. We often focus on the younger women on the poker scene. We do the same with the men too, honestly. But there are badasses of all ages that we can highlight in media. Yes, Liv Boeree is a terror at the tables. But Raymond deserves props too for being a grandma and overseeing poker operations at Green Valley Resort. Let’s give props to Deb Giardina for running the biggest poker room in Florida. And hey, let’s get a profile of WSOP Seniors Event winner Fahrintaj Bonyadi for defeating a massive field and parenting fellow bracelet winner and son Farzad Bonyadi.
WPT CEO Adam Pliska pointed out that the tour’s King of the Club show highlighting players from their subscription online poker site does ratings not far off from the big events. There is an audience for this kind of storytelling. We just aren’t listening to them.
This dialogue is the start of the conversation
Learning to listen to new voices in poker is a step. Sunday, we listened to men, women, players, media, and those in corporate management.
Hael summed it up rather perfectly:
“We look forward to continuing this dialogue. This is just the start of a very long conversation.”
She’s right. We only scratched the surface of issues over the course of the afternoon. But this summit will hopefully be about more than talking. With a list of concrete, actionable solutions, it is time for us to do more.
Women are not getting written out of history like Vera Richmond, but it is time to take charge of this narrative and give the poker world something they can’t ignore anymore.
Photo by Antonio Abrego / World Poker Tour