Defying old stereotypes, the success of female poker pros has promoted female interest in the game.
Not only is poker is one of the gambling industry’s most popular games, it is also one of its most mythologized. From films like Casino Royale to Rounders and Maverick, we are filled with images of suit-clad tough guys walking into smoke-filled poker rooms. Poker isn’t a game, it’s the ultimate expression of machismo. A poker room is certainly no place for a lady.
Ditch the old Hollywood paradigm and take a look at the real world. Women are playing poker in ever-greater numbers. This includes brick-and-mortar poker rooms but rings especially true for online poker sites. Women are reported to be the fastest-growing demographic in online poker sites in the UK, Europe and the US.
This piece will introduce us to some of the poker world’s most successful female players. These women have cut through the old-fashioned perceptions which have discouraged many from their gender from giving poker a serious go.
Poker legend Vanessa Selbst
American poker rooms legend Vanessa Selbst is undoubtedly the most respected female poker player of all time. She is the all-time live tournament winnings leader among women with almost $10 million to her name. Selbst is only 28 years old but has won cash in 45 major tournaments, including 10 first place finishes.
Bucking the feminine stereotype in style, she is known for bringing an aggressive style to the table. She relentlessly attacks opponents early in games in the attempt to thin the pack as much as possible. She is also famous for mercilessly attacking weak opponents.
She has also made a name for herself mentoring male pros. While some other women players have had success as teachers, she is the only one to mentor a protégé to a $5.295 million second-place finish. That player, Jesse Sylvia, emulated her by taking on a very aggressive style himself.
Selbst had this to say about being a woman in the industry:
“It may be 2013 but sometimes I still don’t get invited to games because they want them to be men only – and it’s explicit, rather than implied. I just roll with it and try to educate where I think it’s appropriate. I have spoken – publicly and privately – with the directors of several major poker tours to explain why I think what they’re doing is bad for women. And they are usually pretty receptive.”
In short, he story shows that women have come a long way but still have a long way to go.
• Vanessa Selbst is the all-time winnings leader among women with almost 10 million
• Annie Duke helped pave the way for female pros with her success in the 1990s
• Vanessa Rousso has defeated head-to-head poker legends like Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, and Daniel Negreanu on her way to $3.5 million in winnings
Being too young to enter land-based casinos, Vanessa Rousso started her career by dominating online poker sites. She has since moved on to become one of the highest-profile live tournament players, making gambling news by beating Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu on her way to over $3.5 million in career winnings. As if that isn’t impressive enough she did most of this while studying law full-time.
She also made a name for herself as a vocal opponent of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which was intended to prevent American banks from transferring money to online gambling sites. She has argued repeatedly that legalization would be beneficial for the functioning of the gambling market in America.
Unlike some other female pros, Rousso has tended to deflect questions regarding the issue of gender in poker. Some have criticized her for cultivating a “poker babe” image focusing on her looks and distracting fans from how seriously she takes the game. Her approval of ladies only events, which some perceive as legitimizing stereotypes that women players and inferior to men, has also fueled criticism.
The now 31-year-old pro responded to the issue of ladies only poker games: “the bottom line is that ladies events attract many women who would not play otherwise, so in that sense it is overwhelmingly good for the game.”
Annie Duke, endearingly called the “Dutchess of poker,” first began playing recreationally at the age of 22. She immediately displayed a talent for the game, and her brother, poker pro Howard Lederer, encouraged her to pursue it professionally.
Since then she has taken the poker world by storm winning big-money tournaments, mentoring other pros, and publishing numerous books on how to master the mysterious table game. The now 48 year-old Duke has taken home cash at 38 World Series of Poker (WSOP) events and currently stands third on the list of all-time live tournament winnings among women with $4.27 million.
Contrary to Vanessa Rousso, Duke has refused to participate in any women-only events. She once said in an interview that “Poker is one of the only sports where a woman can compete on a totally equal footing with a man, so I don’t understand why there’s a ladies only tournament.”
In her view, women-only events compromise that by sending the false message that women aren’t able to compete with men. She has also campaigned for the legalization of online casinos in America.
The future of female poker pros
The idea of a female professional poker player was unthinkable decades ago. Older pros like Annie Duke helped pioneer the idea that women could compete on equal footing with men. Younger pros like all-time winnings leader Vanessa Selbst and Vanessa Rousso have continued to be ambassadors for the game.
As more women fare well in high-visibility tournaments like the WSOP there is no doubt that others will become more and more interested in the game. While most female gamblers still prefer other games like slots and bingo, there is no doubt that the gender wall in poker is coming down.