Poker has traditionally been seen as a male dominated environment, but there have always been women who have competed and beaten men across the tables. From early trail blazers taking on all comers in the Wild West to the current poker genius of Vanessa Selbst, women have shown they can be more than a match for anyone at poker. While the number of women playing the game at every level shows signs of a steady yet slow growth the most recent estimates are that women make up just 4% of all live tournament entrants and around 9-11% of online players.
One of the earliest recorded examples of a legendary poker playing woman is Poker Alice who was winning huge sums at poker in the late eighteen hundreds, reportedly winning $6,000 in one night on several occasions. Born Alice Ivers in England she moved to Colorado and, following the death of her first husband in a mining accident, turned to cards as a way of supporting herself. She travelled and gambled all over the west living an extraordinary and hair-raising life, this tough smart woman was a true trail blazer.
Over a hundred years later Barbra Enright, still playing today, was the first woman to reach the final table of a World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, finishing fifth in 1995 and going on to be the first woman to win a bracelet in an open event the year after when she took down a pot-limit Hold’Em event. Enright was the first woman to be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007.
Jennifer Harman is one of only two women to hold two WSOP bracelets (Vanessa Selbst is the other) and Harman joined Enright in the Poker Hall of Fame when she was inducted in 2015. Harman’s status in the poker world is founded on the fact that she is the only woman who is a regular player in the "Big Game", a high-stakes cash game at the Bellagio. Doyle Brunson and his peers held her in such high regard that she wrote the limit Hold’Em chapter for Super System II and was a key member of the “Corporation” in their epic battles against billionaire businessman Andy Beal.
Women Lead the Way
In more recent times Annette Obrestad, a Norwegian online phenomenon who had won over a million dollars at the virtual felt, became the first woman, and youngest ever player at just eighteen years old, to win a bracelet at the WSOPE Main Event in 2007.
Victoria Coren-Mitchell, an English journalist, TV host, and author of “For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player” became the first person to become a two-time European Poker Tour (EPT) champion when she won the Main Event in Sanremo in 2014 to go with her victory on home soil when she won EPT London in 2006, an accomplishment that, while certainly celebrated, has probably not had the recognition that it deserved nor the desired impact on player numbers from within the poker industry.
In 2015 Vanessa Selbst became the first woman to earn over $10 million in prize money. Selbst has been tearing it up at the tables for several years now and it is obvious that she isn’t just the best woman playing poker at the moment, she is unquestionably one of the best and most feared poker players in the world today.
The New Generation
Attitudes to women in poker are changing and much is being done to encourage more of them to play the game we all love. Some men may lament the passing of the smoke filled back rooms where their locker rooms jokes and unreconstructed views on women’s place in the word passed unremarked, but their days are surely numbered thankfully with the worst excesses of sexist behaviour on their way out in more enlightened countries.
There are a number of reasons why more women are not currently playing poker. It’s not a simple problem to untangle, mixed up as it is with marketing decisions, product development and a certain inertia from within the industry. What is encouraging though is that there are signs things are moving in the right direction.
There are a new generation of poker playing female stars who are media savvy, independent, articulate and fearless at the poker table. The use of social media is changing the image of poker and challenging outdated preconceptions. Women are also, rightly, at the forefront of the attempts to make progress, from Liv Boerre featuring prominently in the charity Raising for Effective Giving (REG) to the recent offer from Xuan Liu to give half priced coaching to people identifying as women.
Poker Needs More Women
The question is not whether women can be as good at poker as men, obviously they have proved they are, but why are there not more women playing poker?
The environment is getting better for women looking to enter poker. Grassroots poker is bringing in more women, online poker has lowered the barriers and there are more positive role models than ever. Gradually things are moving in the right direction but more needs to be done.
Kara Scott is one who regularly speaks out on the issue and her wise and balanced approach to the game is fast winning new fans of both genders, and her high profile role as a presenter for ESPN at the World Series of Poker is important for the marketability of poker.
Scott is one of the most respected industry professionals and is certainly a role model for women who want to be involved in poker. Her willingness to engage with the issue on social media is admirable and should be commended as it is a largely thankless and dispiriting task. More men and women need to speak out to combat ignorance in this field.
Poker is surely not in terminal decline but it has suffered setbacks in recent years and the industry is at the stage where something needs to change now to get it back on track. Putting aside any legislative obstacles, surely attracting more women to the game is vital. Part of the nature of poker is the need to constantly replenish the player pool; it is part of the fabric of poker. For that reason alone, if you love the game, it would be crazy not to attract as many people to the tables as possible.
Men need more women in poker. Women need more women in poker. Poker needs more women.