Inaugural Women’s Poker Summit Held in California

Inaugural Women’s Poker Summit Held in California

The first Women’s Poker Summit was held by the World Poker Tour on Sunday, Aug. 26, at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California. The event took place during the WPT500 series at the Bike, but the Summit was a meeting with scheduled speakers, rather than a poker tournament. Its purpose was to discuss ways of increasing female participation in the game.

Background Info

Poker Hall of Famer Linda Johnson kicked off the event by sharing her experiences of decades spent competing against mostly men on the green felt. She claimed that she was often made to feel unwelcome in poker rooms and that in the past, male competitors would sometimes blow cigarette smoke in her face. Johnson quoted a statistic that female participation in high buy-in tournaments was somewhere around 4 percent. Conventional wisdom in the poker industry suggests that more women play lower-stakes events, but even in these smaller games, the number of players who are female is still much less than one would expect.

This is especially true when we consider that women make up about 25 percent of the audience for televised WPT contests, and around the same fraction of the users of play money Zynga Poker are female. As one of the leading live poker organizations, and one in which women occupy many executive positions, the World Poker Tour has decided that it’s uniquely positioned to do something about this situation.

Three Factors Dissuading Female Players

Before the Summit took place, organizers surveyed attendees to find out what they thought was holding women back from playing live poker more often. These responses were gathered and categorized, and they fell, broadly speaking, into three categories:

– Unwelcoming Environment
– Game Format and Accessibility
– Societal Attitudes

The participants discussed examples of the experiences they had with each of these three elements as well as possible solutions.

Unwelcoming Environment

Back in the cigar-chomping, just-us-boys days of poker, it may have perhaps been understandable that players made off-color jokes and engaged in locker room banter without anyone thinking twice. However, this attitude – a holdover from a former era – may be why many women feel uncomfortable in public card rooms. Even worse, some individuals cross the line from just general verbal inappropriateness to harassment and abuse. A single bad experience can put a potential player off the game forever, so it’s important to try to combat this disrespect wherever it’s encountered.

In a blog post several months ago, WPT Executive Tour Director Matt Savage related an instance of verbal harassment at the tables when a man told a female player to “shut the hell up.” Savage threw the offender out of the casino. Far from stirring up ill-will toward himself, Savage’s actions made him the recipient of considerable gratitude from other female players in the tournament.

If more tournament directors were willing to hand out punishments for such behavior, women would feel more comfortable visiting casinos. Some have even floated the idea of a women-friendly certification process for card rooms so that venues could demonstrate to potential clients that they take the issue of women’s safety seriously.

Game Format and Accessibility

The traditional 12- or 14-hour days of tournament poker are often very challenging for women particularly those who have children and other outside responsibilities away from the tables. Especially troublesome are events that play well into the night and the early hours of the morning.

Some progress has been achieved by the creation of ladies-only tourneys, but they tend to feature low buy-ins and sometimes take place at the same time as more lucrative open events. Such scheduling conflicts force female players to choose which tourney they wish to play, and the level of interest in ladies events suffers as a result. By making tournaments for women a main feature of their series rather than just an afterthought, casino management can make these offerings more appealing to their intended audience.

Societal Attitudes

For a form of entertainment that depends on newcomers entering the game, poker can be quite unfriendly to novices. Complaints about not knowing the rules or taking too long to act abound. Ironically, this type of grumbling occurs most often in small-stakes games. These gripes don’t often focus on the gender of the recipient, but because few women have joined the ranks of longtime poker veterans, they comprise a solid share of the recreational and casual players who may not know exactly how the game-flow is supposed to work.

As WPT Vice President of Global Tour Management Angelica Hael noted, many women are more financially conservative than men. In a betting game that can, at its highest levels, involve risking substantial sums, a lot of women are dissuaded from moving up in stakes and sometimes even from taking a seat in the first place.

Beginners poker groups and all-women staking organizations have been put forward as possible solutions to these problems. Low-cost satellite qualifiers are also a way of getting more women into big-prize pool events.

More Work Ahead

A single summit cannot, in and of itself, make drastic changes in the world of poker, but it’s a start. Women have already proven that they can compete at the highest levels as evidenced by the success of Vanessa Selbst, Maria Konnikova, Kathy Liebert and other talented female poker aficionados. If more females could be enticed into taking up poker, as either a hobby or profession, we could see a new generation of dominant women players take their rightful places within the game.

An improvements can easily be monitored, too, as each year the World Series of Poker releases its female participation percentage in the prestigious tournament series. This year, for instance, 4.86% of the field, or 5,717 entries were female, with that number the lowest since tracking began back in 2013/14. As Tournament Director Matt Savage commented after the results were released:

“Until we can make the poker environment more player friendly, and women made to feel comfortable and unintimidated, we are doing an extreme disservice to women and our game.”