Updated July 4, 2021 - 12:56 pm
Poker is a man’s world, and that was never clearer to Linda Johnson than at the World Series of Poker a couple of years ago.
The Poker Hall of Fame member went outside while her event was on a break, and Johnson said she saw two men fighting, another vomiting and another urinating against a wall.
She said she turned to her friend Jan Fisher and said, “This is why they have ladies events.”
Walk into a poker room, and you’ll see men of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds trading bets and bluffs.
But you won’t see many women, perhaps one for every two tables in play.
That gender gap has proved persistent despite the efforts of industry insiders, who know that opening up poker to the other half of the population is the key to fueling the game’s growth.
As Johnson, Fisher and other women’s poker advocates point out, there is no simple answer to why more women don’t play poker. Perhaps they are not as naturally aggressive as men. Maybe some don’t have the same amount of discretionary income to gamble with. Definitely some are turned off by what can be a “boys will be boys” atmosphere that sometimes verges into vulgar or even outright abusive.
No one expects women to ever make up 50 percent of players in poker rooms. But can they be more than 5?
Interviews with the three women in the Poker Hall of Fame and other women’s poker advocates try to shed light on the issue.
The scope of the problem
By any measure, women make up a tiny part of the poker world.
Only three women are in the Poker Hall of Fame — Johnson, Barbara Enright and Jennifer Harman. Enright remains the only woman to make the final table of the WSOP Main Event (fifth in 1995).
Phil Hellmuth is the all-time leader with 15 WSOP bracelets. No woman has more than three.
Bryn Kenney is the all-time leader with more than $56 million in career tournament earnings, according to the Hendon Mob Poker Database. The highest-ranking woman is Vanessa Selbst in 70th place with nearly $12 million.
Most estimates place women as making up about 5 percent of the players in poker rooms. According to demographic data released by the WSOP, only 350 played in the 2019 Main Event out of 8,569 entrants (4.1 percent), and only 44 of them were age 30 or under.
Queen of ‘Corporation’
An elite group of women has proven to be among the best in the world, and few poker players, men or women, have played for higher stakes than Harman, 56.
She was a founding member of the so-called “Corporation” of poker pros who accepted a challenge from billionaire Andy Beal for a series of heads-up matches in the early 2000s that were detailed in the book “The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King.”
The stakes ran to as high as $100,000-$200,000 playing Limit Hold’em, with millions often changing hands in single pots.
“I remember having a rack of chips in my hands that was worth $10 million,” Harman said.
Only one Corporation player could take on Beal at a time, and often her fellow pros chose Harman.
“Yeah, I was frickin’ nervous,” she said. “But after you get into it and start playing, you just think of it as chips.”
Harman battled for years to climb from the bottom of the poker world to the $4,000-$8,000 mixed game played in the high-stakes room at the Bellagio. She said she supports women in poker and is happy to serve as a role model, but she does not expect poker to achieve anything close to gender parity.
“I don’t think women in general are as competitive as men are,” Harman said. “Men grow up playing sports and games, and it’s really important and encouraged. Women play more sports now, but I don’t think it’s the same.”
However, the women who have the thick skin to navigate the poker room environment will find success, Harman said.
“When I started playing poker, nothing fazed me, and still nothing ever does,” she said. “… Women have a more intuitive side than men, and that makes their reads (at the table) better.”
Family and child care responsibilities can also fall more on women, and Harman said she has always had to juggle late nights in the poker room while taking care of her two sons.
“I’ll sometimes ask them, ‘Can’t they start school at 3 in the afternoon?’” she said jokingly.
Not ‘good old boys room’
While the cream of the crop such as Harman and current standouts Kristen Bicknell and Maria Ho will probably always succeed no matter the obstacles, making poker rooms a friendlier place will bring more women into the game, some advocates say.
One way to give women a gentle start in the game is through women-only tournaments, like those that the Ladies International Poker Series puts on.
Johnson and Fisher often serve as LIPS hosts, and they said it’s easy to see why some women would find those events more pleasant.
“Quite often in a tournament I might be the only woman at the table in an open event,” Johnson said, “or maybe there’s one other, and the conversation …”
“Ugh, it’s tough,” Fisher interjected.
“… is directed at a lot of things that don’t interest women,” Johnson continued.
“Like (breasts),” Fisher said.
LIPS founder Lupe Soto is also the president of the Women’s Poker Association, which is pushing poker rooms to make a pledge of zero tolerance toward abuse.
“It isn’t a good old boys room anymore,” she said. “We believe that everybody has to set a certain standard, and it means zero abuse. I don’t care if this is your regular person who puts down lots of money in your room. If you don’t check that person, they’re going to offend nine people that won’t come back.”
The group’s social media slogan is Raise It Up — raise the fun and raise the respect so you can raise the number of people playing, Soto said.
Harman said she once comforted a woman at the Bellagio who was berated by a man after beating him in a pot.
“I went to the table and yelled at the guy,” Harman said. “… It kind of makes me sad that it actually does affect some women.”
“I want women to be welcomed in the poker room and be treated fairly, but I don’t want women to be patronized,” she added.
And a more welcoming environment will only go so far.
Lena Evans, the founder of the women’s group Poker League of Nations, brushes aside complaints about behavior to focus on what she believes will really set up women for success: having the money to play and the confidence in their ability to win.
“We don’t like the victim mentality,” Evans said. “We like the warrior mentality.”
An exhaustive survey conducted by PLON showed that an insufficient bankroll was the top reason women cited for why they didn’t play more, Evans said.
The free PLON private Facebook group, which has 7,200 members, is a place for women to talk about poker strategy and celebrate women’s achievements on the felt. PLON has hosted some of the world’s best-known poker players, including Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu, for strategy discussions with members on Facebook.
The PLON Power Investment Group identifies promising players through the Facebook group and stakes them in tournaments, including the WSOP Main Event, and Evans also operates her own personal Founders Fund to stake players, she said.
Bringing more women into poker “benefits the whole industry,” Evans said. “It’s bigger prize pools, it’s bigger fields. That’s the goal basically is to help us all by bringing in more players. The only way you can do it is by supporting women, and that’s why we do it so fiercely.”
In a Twitter thread with Harman and others, Negreanu endorsed that women should focus on their game and not let some men’s behavior deter them from playing, though he added that “the more extreme cases should be punished.”
“Sexism exists everywhere, and while we should strive to make things better, women still need to find a way to live in this world and succeed despite it all,” he said.
Optimism for future
Despite their frustrations with women’s current place in the game, advocates remain optimistic about the future.
Perhaps women will slowly make up more of the community as society changes over time, or perhaps a woman making the final table of the WSOP Main Event for the second time will fuel a surge in participation.
Enright, 71, said she is stunned that she remains the only woman to accomplish the feat, but it didn’t feel significant at the time.
“Not at all. It didn’t even cross my mind,” she said. “The only thing that crossed my mind was, ‘Oh, boy, look at all this money I’m going to win.’ ”
Enright finished fifth for $114,180, taking a brutal bad beat when her pocket eights lost all-in before the flop against six-three.
“While they’re paying me $114,000, I’m upset,” she said jokingly.
Enright said she’s confident a woman will break through at the Main Event. Participation levels are low today, but they were even worse then, she noted.
“It’s really surprising because so many women are playing now,” she said. “But, you know, one day they will. They will. It’s just a matter of time.”