How Female Poker Pros Turned the Tables on Gender Stereotypes

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Female poker players have proved their mettle in recent years. While just a part-time player, the UK’s Coren Mitchell has achieved a first for either gender.

The world of poker has long been thought of as a man’s world. Conjuring images of masculinity, the game has been associated with cowboys slinging cards in dusty saloons, tuxedo-clad high-rollers, and leather jacket-wearing tough guys playing in concrete basements. Any women found near the poker table were either observing or serving drinks.

While there is still testosterone galore in the poker room, the game has changed significantly. Women on both sides of the Atlantic are proving their poker prowess and the increased visibility of female pros has been a publicity boon. While there is a ways to go in closing the gender gap, proponents of female participation in the industry have endless reason to be optimistic.

Growth mostly comes online

• Female participation in poker is increasing in both online and land-based poker rooms, but the online sphere is seeing faster growth

• UK journalist Coren Mitchell recently became the first person ever to win two European Poker Tournament championships

• Enthusiasts hope that Mitchell can use her celebrity to promote the game among women

More women are playing poker than ever before. That includes land-based casinos as well as online poker sites in the UK and Europe. However, we’ve observed much more significant growth in the latter venue. A report by International Game Technology found that one-third of online social poker players are female and that women spend about as much time playing these games as men. While “social” poker means not-for-money, these numbers indicate that more women are showing an interest in the game. And as more women cut their teeth in social games, we can expect to see more participation in real-money tournaments down the road.

We haven’t seen quite the same growth in land-based poker rooms. Why? They still tend to be male-centric, and most women aren’t comfortable being the only person of their gender at the table. The success of pros like Patty Duke, Vanessa Russo and all-time female winnings leader Vanessa Selbst has helped change this, but it’s a gradual process.

Coren Mitchell makes poker history

Female stars like Selbst have won major tournaments and built thick bankrolls, but even the best women have been followers rather than leaders (Selbst is the all-time winnings leader of among women, but only 25th overall). That is, until now. UK journalist and broadcaster Coren Mitchell made gambling news by becoming the first person of either gender to win two European Poker Tour championships.

Mrs. Mitchell picked up poker as a hobby as a teenager and quickly proved herself to be as adept as any male player. She won her first European championship in 2006 and has career winnings of GBP 1.5 million, astounding considering that she doesn’t even play professionally! Despite all of the success, she still sees herself as a professional journalist who plays poker as a hobby, telling reporters: “The big thing for me is trying to fly the flag for people who are playing poker primarily for fun and have another job.”

Any publicity is good publicity

Humans are social beings, taking cues from those around them. Remember those Michael Jordan sneaker ads during the 1990s carrying the slogan “be like Mike”? Yours truly was one of the millions of American kids who started playing basketball because he wanted to emulate his favorite role model. Successful female poker players can also serve as role models, as ambassadors for the game.

Mrs. Mitchell has a unique opportunity to promote poker among women due her to celebrity outside of the gambling industry. The success of others like Selbst and Vanessa Rousso has helped women to feel comfortable sitting around the poker table. But because poker is still a niche industry, these pioneers have received little mainstream publicity. Mitchell is different. As the popular host of the BBC4 quiz show Only Connect and writer for the Guardian and Observer, she is constantly in the limelight.

Poker writer Harold Swains echoed this sentiment, predicting boost in the game’s popularity stemming from Mitchell’s high-profile success:

“Coren Mitchell is without question the best known poker player in the UK and her endeavours in the media – she is a journalist, television personality, film director and all-round raconteur – have endeared her to huge swaths of the mainstream…Poker is going to enjoy an enormous uptick in popularity, clinging on the coat tails of this sensational triumph.”

The future of female poker players

While the gender gap is closing faster online than in land-based poker rooms, we’re seeing significant progress on both fronts. Successful female pros like Selbst and Mitchell have debunked the myth that women can’t compete with men. Mitchell’s mainstream celebrity gives her the unique opportunity to promote the game among not only women but Britons in general. While poker is still primarily a man’s game the barrier is coming down fast. It’s only a matter of time before we see equal participation from both genders.

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