Poker is a feminist issue

Poker is a feminist issue

Monday, 23 December 2013

Says Nick Wealthall

Imagine, for a second, you’re a highly-paid marketing consultant. Try to shake off the obvious reaction of suddenly needing a deep-scrub shower. OK, now imagine you’ve been handed a multi-million-dollar marketing and promotional budget. Try to shake off the immediate desire to run off to Rio, buy a yacht and delete all your contacts. I’ve tried it and they do find you. It’s three months of fun but it’s not a winning strategy, long-term.

Right, here’s your brief, which you must achieve with whatever marketing or promotional shenanigans you can think of: “Dramatically increase female participation in poker”.

Do you have any good ideas that will actually work? Anyone...? Anyone…? Bueller…?

It’s a tough brief but it’s a vital one if poker is going to grow substantially over the next few years. Short of poker being fully legalised and regulated, especially in the US, it’s the biggest obvious increase in mainstream participation that could happen.

Despite improvements in recent years, poker playing is still male-dominated. Estimates put the percentage of female online players at 30%. I have no idea if this takes into account the huge number of female screen names and avatars created by male players in what they say is an attempt to gain an edge but as what we all know is about living out some latent childhood issues. I’m sceptical that this number is accurate for real money players and that scepticism comes from what happens live. In live events you’re lucky to get 5% female participation. In the 2012 World Series, for example, a soul-crushing 3.7% of entrants were women.
Before we get into the issue, I need to declare a vested interest that could produce bias in my arguments.

I love women.

How could I not? My mum’s one. Not only that, all my siblings are women. Most of my friends are lady-types not boy-types. Furthermore, almost all the people I have knowingly made love to are women. I prefer women to look at, talk to and hang out with. In fact, I like them so much there’s a good chance I will think about women many times while writing this to you outside of the context of them playing poker.

So why is there such a lack of women playing, and what’s the answer? After all, poker is a sport/game/life-stealer in which there should be no inherent differences in levels of ability between genders. You could argue, as a generalisation, that men are more comfortable with aggression but women are more skilled at reading people, etc, etc, but those arguments are pretty lazy. The truth is any cursory glance at female players’ results compared to their numbers will tell you they are as good if not better at the game than men – and yet there’s still such a small number of women playing.

The problem is particularly acute live. It’s very similar to the problem faced by pubs in the UK for many years. Pubs used to be dark, dingy and inhabited almost exclusively by men. Then some bright spark had the idea that maybe if they made the environments friendlier to women, women would show up and spend money. Now many pubs look more like garden centres – they’re bright, light and airy, big and safe. A lot of the people who used to love them now hate them, but the majority, including a huge new constituency of women, love them, attend them and drop their monies.

There are two big reasons women are turned off by live poker. (And no, neither of them involves overly-flirty, preppy British tour hosts – those rumours would never stand up in court). First is the environment. Poker rooms, even tournament rooms, are often dark, dingy and attached to casinos. There’s still a decent chance that the first thing you’ll see in a poker room will be several scruffily dressed men hunched round a table, many of whom may be drinking or drunk. The whole thing screams “boys’ club”. Why would most women want to spend time there?

The second is male players – not all male players, but enough. This unpleasant minority behave relentlessly badly towards female players. If you haven’t seen a female player being abused, criticised, patronised or just dismissed at a live poker table, then you just haven’t played much live poker. It happens almost constantly. It goes beyond just the general banter of the live game – everyone has to be up for that or they won’t survive. No, all too often it crosses the line into dismissiveness, rudeness and intimidation. Sometimes it happens in an insidious way with mumbled comments or private jokes, other times it’s more direct. Either way, the lady gets the message: “you’re not welcome here”. All of this is before the more obvious problem of being hit on or directly propositioned. This may sound weird to some men but female players don’t come to play poker to be hit on, attractive though your jogging pants, lack of personal hygiene and state of arrested development may be.

I suspect a lot of this is because there’s a constituency of male live players who actually don’t want women to play. They see poker as a man’s game; maybe they even see it as an escape from the women in their life. I also think there’s a deep-seated fear with some men that they can’t handle a woman being better than them at something – especially their chosen hobby. I also suspect there is a very strong, statistically significant inverse correlation between people with these views and penis size (I’m saying they have small penises. That is my argument).

Some elements of the poker industry have to take their share of blame for the situation. They are extremely comfortable promoting “spokes-models” and other “hot” women who are hired for their looks rather than their poker expertise. I know I’m biting the hand that feeds me here as I’ve so obviously been employed as eye candy for so long, but I have a commitment to the truth.

I’ve never really understood the strategy anyway – if we blokes want to look at hot women (and, let’s face it, we do) aren’t there a whole variety of specialist outlets for that? I liked naked ladies on my playing cards when I was 13 when the internet didn’t exist – beyond that I’ll take my poker sex-free, thanks. Having said that, I do get turned on by stuff like check-raise bluffs, so I may not be the best judge of this.

There are many other things that could be done with our fictitious promotional budget – women’s events should be maintained and promoted and the atmosphere they’re played in should exist in more open events. Also, education and reaching out to poker-curious ladies should happen more, especially to the young in colleges and university societies (get ’em while their young, always!).

And successful female players should be promoted more as faces of the game for their expertise as opposed to their gender. This is happening more now but not enough. All of these are good things, but until live poker becomes an environment women want to spend time in, most events will remain badly dressed sausage fests.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, women in poker