Several weeks ago, before abandoning productive life for the glorious summer camp known as the World Series of Poker, I began writing an article about the phenomenon of sexism in the poker community. At the time, I simply assumed it would be uncontroversial to start from the premise that sexism was a problem in poker, and to focus on potential causes and solutions. A series of subsequent conversations/debates (okay, flame wars) has revealed, however, that that premise is very much in dispute. So before getting to the interesting stuff (causes and solutions), it’s necessary to do the less interesting work of debating whether there’s a problem in the first place.
What kind of “sexism” are we talking about?
In fact, let’s start at the far end of the necessary-interesting spectrum and talk terminology, because so many of the disagreements on this issue seem at bottom to be semantic and not substantive. When I say the poker community is “sexist,” I mean it fosters or tolerates environments in which a significant proportion of women feel unwelcome. Other definitions may be both defensible and compatible with ordinary usage, but this one has the benefit of being the most useful, in the sense of advancing the debate in a manner consistent with the shared goal of the participants and audience.
Surely that goal is to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men to participate in activities they enjoy without being subjected to constant harassment, right? Wrong. That is a lovely goal doubtless shared by many within and without the poker community. But being that this is a trade publication for the poker industry and not an academic journal devoted to gender issues, the unifying goal that should anchor this debate is something less utopian: to get new players in the door. If women were as likely as men to take up poker, the player pool would nearly double. It might bring about the fabled Second Poker Boom. Whether or not they care about sexism in the abstract, every person who plays poker competitively should care intensely about barriers to entry. This is not about feelings. This is about money.
By comparison, the host of other issues frequently swept into debates about “sexism” in poker matter very little. Do women have an advantage when it comes to endorsements and sponsorships? Obviously, obviously, obviously. But the number of players that difference affects is so tiny, it’s utterly irrational to treat it as an issue of major significance to the poker community. Do women who persevere long enough to achieve competency benefit on net from the cognitive biases of sexist opponents? Probably, though the calculus is significantly more complicated than even most female pros seem to recognize, and there are countervailing costs that are consistently overlooked. The larger point is: It doesn’t matter. If you are a professional poker player, and value your livelihood over your ego, you should be much more concerned about the experience of the average amateur who walks into a poker room than with those of the handful of women who have stuck it out.
Sexism in action: A decidedly un-fun experience
So, finally, the meat of the issue: Does the manner in which women are treated in poker rooms make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome? Here, I feel a twinge of anxiety, because I have to acknowledge that — other than the important observation that only 5 percent of poker players are female — I don’t have a trove of data to support my belief that it does. There are no exit polls in casinos. What I do have is my own experience, and the reported experiences of many other female pros I know. And while there is some vanishingly small chance we are all outliers, extreme misogyny-magnets, the degree of correlation between our experiences gives me a high level of confidence that our experiences are well within the bounds of normalcy.
I came to poker at the tail end of more than a decade of surviving, and frankly thriving, in male-dominated fields. I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in math. I ran a daily newspaper with a nearly all-male editorial staff. I went on to law school, where I headed the technology law journal. Until I left for poker, I worked at a law firm where approximately 90 percent of the attorneys were men. What I’m trying very hard, maybe obnoxiously hard, to signal is that I’m not a delicate naif who has been coddled from birth by the sisterhood. I can take a joke. I can take a compliment. But the amount of bullshit I contend with while playing poker — the incessance, the variety, the sheer volume of it — is totally exhausting.
These days, I primarily play relatively high-stakes cash (5/10 and higher), where there’s less small talk and fewer stone-cold idiots. Despite that, in an average session I probably receive at least 10 comments, ranging from innocuous to outrageous, that call attention to my gender. With experience, I’ve figured out ways to respond effectively to most categories of comments from most categories of men, in much the same way a seasoned player can respond almost intuitively to particular actions by certain types of opponents, but the routine never ceases to be taxing. On good days, it exerts a slow drain on my mental resources. On bad ones, I still have to pick up to keep myself from tilting from frustration and fatigue. If I were not a serious competitor playing to make money, but instead an amateur playing to have some fun, I would not be back; the experience is emphatically not fun.
And the problem is almost indescribably more severe as you move down in stakes. In a recent session, I sat in a 2/5 game for about an hour while waiting for a seat, and the campaign of minor indignities was tilting enough that I eventually opted to hover in the high-limit area instead of playing. One man peppered me with questions like “what does a woman like you do when not playing poker?” and grabbed my arm repeatedly to get my attention, despite my swift recoil. Another nicknamed me “sweetheart” and stared me down, grinning, in every pot, chuckling as he announced he was “scared.” Another tried to cajole me into promising I would “beat them up” when I was called for “the big boy’s game” (and later teetered over to 5/10, beer in hand, to press his sweaty palm into mine for no apparent reason — twice).
Believe us: Sexism is a real problem
I have heard some male pros — I make no claim about their representativeness — take the position that this kind of behavior is innocuous, on the theory that it’s flattering or benign or exploitable. It can be all of those things in certain contexts. But by and large, it is instead irritating or unnerving or embarrassing. And it sends women a consistent signal that they are alien objects of curiosity rather than people who belong at a poker table. If the poker community wants more women to join the game — in other words, if it wants droves of inexperienced players with pristine bankrolls to sit down at the table — the first step is to listen to current female players when they say the environment in most card rooms is a problem. If we diehard enthusiasts are exasperated, try to imagine how women ambivalent about poker likely feel. Your livelihood depends on it.
Cate Hall is a professional poker player based in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter: @catehall.