The Ladies’ Event: Poker’s Problem With Women

The Ladies’ Event: Poker’s Problem With Women

Friday, 16 August 2013

By Eve Goodman.

In 1979, Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson’s Super/System was published. Super/System was a book that rocked the poker world; never before had a professional poker player spoken so candidly and thoroughly about the strategies he used to win. The book has a lot of content that is still valuable even over 30 years later, but equally other areas of it now seem somewhat archaic, such as its attitudes towards women. In a section entitled ‘Superstitions’, Doyle talks about he avoids being paid in $50 bills and eating peanuts while playing, but also how he doesn’t like to see women across the felt:

“[…] Nor do I like to see women at a Poker table. That’s not superstition, either. I was brought up to respect women, and I just don’t feel comfortable in high-stakes warfare against women. […] I’ve never met a woman who was a top player.”

It’s worth mentioning that Doyle later revised this opinion, even including a chapter written by female poker pioneer Jennifer Harman in the book’s sequel Super/System 2, published in 2004. However, the mentality that the poker table is a battlefield, and thus something that women are too unsuitably fragile to take part in, arguably on some level still prevails. Just yesterday, senior UKIP politician Stuart Wheeler caused uproar with comments that in mental sports, such as chess, bridge and poker, “women come absolutely nowhere”. A debate over this has since exploded on 2+2 forums, while Liv Boeree shot quickly back with a tweet reading “Hey @UKIP, can you arrange a few poker matches between your treasurer Stuart Wheeler and myself please? Don’t worry, I’m just a girl.”

Poker is one of the only sports in which, despite physical difference, men and women are able to compete equally on a level playing field. Players such as Vanessa Selbst, Annette Obrestad, and Jennifer Harman are just a few female players of many who have made multiple millions from poker. Despite women making up just 5% of live tournament players (and that’s a generous estimate), there are many lady pros who haven’t let their lack of a Y chromosome stop them from crushing the fields. So why then do we have a Ladies’ Event?

The Las Vegas WSOP’s Ladies’ Event has run as an established tradition since 1976. In that time it has drawn much controversy; while many people support its existence, believing it acts as encouragement for many recreational female players to enter a male-dominated environment that they would otherwise avoid, others have criticised it as a celebration of unnecessary discrimination. This month, the WSOP Europe announced that they will be introducing a Ladies’ Event as the 8th event on their 2013 schedule.

Since WSOP organisers cannot legally ban one gender from participating in an event, over the years a bluster of blokes have made the decision to enter anyway. Unsurprisingly, they were not received well – after making the final table in 2011, Jonathan Epstein was loudly heckled, busting in 9th place to cheers and wild cries of “beat the dude”. Many also expressed disgust at professional player Shaun Deeb taking part, despite the fact that he made the effort to dress in drag. Deeb explained that his pretty presence was the result of losing a prop bet, but maintained that it was nonetheless a protest against sex-segregated events.

The 2012 WSOP saw some big names jumping into the debate, including journalist and PokerStars pro Vicky Coren. Former EPT winner Coren wrote a scathing criticism of the men who entered in her blog, following a verbal tussle with certified penis-owner Brandon Uhl during the event itself. Calling the men who turned up “w*nkers”, she remarked that “I love it that this unique, lively, sociable, light-hearted novelty event still survives. It’s one of the few things from the old days that does”.

Since the 2013 schedule had WSOP bosses trialling a new scheme to keep the boys at bay, naming the buy-in as $10,000 with a 90% discount for ladies, the problem of men entering has largely been ‘solved’. However, the fact that it is a bracelet event remains a bone of contention. A WSOP winner's bracelet is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a poker player. It symbolises victory and the immense achievement of besting one of the toughest tournament fields found in poker. So can it really be appropriately awarded in a gender-restricted event, an event that is arguably less about competitive poker and more about light-hearted novelty?

Annie Duke, the third-biggest winning female player of all time, clearly doesn’t think so. In an interview with, she is careful to say that she doesn’t oppose ladies’ nights designed to introduce women to the game, but when it comes to winning the Ladies’ Event “we're not talking about an introduction. We're talking about a World Series of Poker bracelet. We're talking about a world championship, right? That makes no sense to me, unless you're saying there is some fundamental difference between the intellect of a woman and a man, that causes you separate them out in order to award a WSOP bracelet.”

Other female pros have had a less than enthusiastic response to the WSOPE’s announcement that their new Ladies’ Event will be braceleted, with Vanessa Selbst raising concerns over the “dilution of the bracelet”. Maria Ho praised attempts to welcome women to the game, but worried similarly that it would be “diminishing the accomplishment of actually winning a bracelet”.

Concerns about the suitability of it being a bracelet event aside, is the Ladies’ Event at the most fundamental level even necessary? If Duke is to be believed, it simply serves to compound the perception of women as inferior in poker.

UKIP treasurer Stuart Wheeler’s comments that women simply fail to match men in even non-physical sports may be dismissed with anyone possessing half a brain, yet it remains a bleak truth that the poker world continues to suffer from an endemic misogyny – comments on a thread by a female poster in the 2+2 forums describes uncomfortable experiences of players making inappropriate comments about her body, and even threatening her with rape during hands. Replies to the thread demonstrate that she is not an isolated case. Clearly we can hope that the perpetrators of this sort of behaviour are in the minority. However, it does make you wonder; perhaps the Ladies’ Event is so popular not because it creates an atmosphere of sisterhood, but because it strips away the possibility of otherwise common episodes of sexual harassment. If this is true, then surely cancelling the Ladies’ Event would be a futile attempt to reconcile gender inequality in poker – a shearing away the plant’s stem, when really we should be paying attention to the root.

VF July Duke

Tags: Eve Goodman, Vicky Coren, Liv Boeree, Vanessa Selbst, Annie Duke, Maria Ho, WSOP