Women and Poker

Misogyny, Poker Profits and Sexual Politics

Shirley Rosario"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." -- Charlotte Whitton

Like the rest of the world, poker carries with it the baggage of previous centuries. Poker used to be the exclusive habitat of cigar-chomping men, playing "a man's game." No more. The poker landscape changed significantly with the advent of online poker and the poker boom. Women poker players are still a minority, but a much larger one than ever before.

At the same time, mirroring most any male majority group in society, the poker world is overrun with a lot of demeaning sexism and misogynist attitudes. There are both profit and industry implications in that.

First the (less important) profit part. Many men refuse to accept the fact that women as a group play poker more successfully than men do. That doesn't mean women overall aren't losers. Of course they are. The nature of the game is that the group of all players lose the house rake -- women just lose less per capita than men. While it's true that among top players men are represented disproportionately, the disproportionate advantage there doesn't come close to compensating for the disproportionately lousy play of the mass of men. And, as more women start playing poker at a younger age, the disproportion of men at the top dwindles a small bit each year, and will continue to do so at least as long as so many men remain arrogant, macho dipsticks.

Women participate online in higher numbers than in casinos, but just to make up some numbers, let's assume 85% of poker players in cardrooms are men. Among the group of tremendously awful, huge long-term losers, far more than 85% are men, probably over 95%. At the same time, in the group of the most successful players, less than 15% are women, probably under 5%. However, if as in a diving competition, we throw out the top and bottom numbers and look at the middle group, the mass of women players -- most playing tight-ish, non-hormonal poker -- do far better than the mass of men, a great many of whom let ego, machismo and testosterone dramatically effect their play. The group of significant long-term losers is proportionally higher in men.

Even more, novice male players play considerably worse, especially online -- in large part because they tend to play higher limits and in bigger games than their skills merit. In other words, weak male players are more likely to delude themselves into thinking they can beat bigger/tougher online poker games than women are. A lousy female player playing $1/2 is a much better player than a lousy male player playing $20/40. You measure poker by the application of mathematical edge, which means if you bet $20 that you can eat 50 eggs in two minutes, you are a worse bettor than if you bet $1 that you can eat 50 eggs in two minutes.

Even if that $20/40 man might be able to beat the $1/2 woman head-up, they are not playing head-up. The $20/40 man is exercising bad game selection, playing with far more negative mathematical expectation, and will lose more money. It doesn't matter that the $20/40 player might do better if he played other games, the reality is he is an idiot and chooses to make poor choices. By any reasonable measure, he is a worse player than the $1/2 woman.

Which sex might have a higher capacity to memorize logarithms counts for little in poker. What counts is how a person plays in the heat of battle. This is all extreme generalization of course, but men more often bring far greater baggage to the table than women do: they drink more, they smoke more, they eat more -- and they let their macho egos get in the way of how they play far, far more. In most life circumstances, men blindly throw themselves into things without thought or study far more than women. So it goes in poker. Many male players misuse what should be a winning asset, aggression, particularly when they play against female players. Women win and lose in moderation. Men go off like rockets and sleep in cars (or worse) when they lose.

So, how can we use this status quo to put money in our pockets? How does knowing this help our poker game?

For women the answer is simple. They need to understand their sex usually matters. In each individual hand, many male opponents will relate to them in terms of their sex rather than the cards they hold. So, non-card based strategies are more important to women than men. A youngish woman for instance should build a game strategy based on knowing that she will often be flirtingly softplayed, while other men will try to run over her. A soft-spoken older woman needs to realize she will be bluffed constantly. Each female player needs to understand the universe she actually is in, the universe the bulk of male players put her in, and build her counter-strategy with that in mind.

Sensible male players need to treat women the same as they do men. Showing off, softplaying, over-aggression, flirting... these are the road to the front door of the poorhouse.

And then comes the complex part. There is money to be made by playing off any male-female dynamic at a table. For instance, if some normally aggressive preflop-raising liveone is not raising whenever a woman he's flirting with enters a pot, but is still wildly splashing chips post-flop, it makes sense to take advantage of these cheaper opportunities with speculative hands that might win a nice pot from the liveone.

The worst thing a woman can do is "play poker like a man". The poker world is awash with men who throw themselves into games blindly, without thought/study or the skill level to succeed. In all life I'm hard pressed to think of examples where men aren't, on average, more thoughtless and more who-cares-about-consequences than women. And this certainly carries over to poker. Sensible aggression is crucial to winning poker, but misapplied aggression is one direct path to being a big loser. Women (and men) simply should play poker like a winner.

Play EV+ poker as an element in living an EV+ life.

Misapplied testosterone is the biggest killer of poker players that there is (just like in the rest of life too). Unbridled ego is the doom of successful players. Sensible people, winning players, find the quickest way around or over walls. They don't try to break them down with their foreheads.

Sexism is the last refuge of the insecure, and the really stupid. While ego and misplaced testosterone are the root of how many men play poorly, some of the most pitiful and self-destructive players are at their core misogynist fools controlled by their anger and prejudice. If you find yourself at the table with anyone who hates someone else at the table, exploit that hater's self-destructive hatred.

Now to the poker industry side of all this.

Two large scale poker booms remain possible. The first would follow widespread regulated online poker in the United States. The second would follow from women playing poker in numbers about 50% the size of the number of men who play. Some numbers thrown around for casino tournament poker are women make up about 3-4% of No Limit Hold'em fields and about 10% of the fields for the higher skill mixed games. Turning those numbers into 33% or so would offer the industry a big influx of revenue... and of course, higher participation is always good for players.

The main impediment to higher female participation is the current high level of nasty, misogynist males players. Before the boom, there were plenty of scummy old men who blamed women for their life failures -- just like many of these same people blamed the dealers when they lost a hand. Misogyny goes hand in hand with not just merely blaming others for your failures, but blaming them with great hostility and anger... woman-hating and throwing cards as part of dealer-hating usually stem from the same sociopathic root.

A political goal of thoughtful people the world over is to crush intolerance and hatred wherever it rears its head. The poker world is much more intolerant of intolerance than it was before the boom, it's not as easy as before to abuse a dealer for instance, but it has a long way to go. The casinos have gotten better establishing a civil playing environment, but they could still do much better. However, the big bulk of change has to come from male players. Male players have to police their own games and be intolerant of intolerance. If you are a decent person, and see a man bullying a woman at the table, say something, do something. (The same goes for welcoming and protecting newbie men too.)

One great irony is that poker is one of the most nationally/racially/religious melting pots in the entire world. I once sat in a game between an Egyptian veteran of the 1973 Arab–Israeli War and an Israeli veteran of the same war. These two might have actually shot guns at each other, but now they sat at the same table. Likewise I've been in games with Chinese and Vietnamese players, Japanese and Korean, Iranian and Iraqi, and every skin color. Poker has always been pretty good (with perhaps the Lithuanians and Russians being an exception) about that melting pot... while still being pretty bad about welcoming women.

On top of the "bitter old men" that were around before the boom, the poker boom has added a large number of a type of younger beta males called "incels" (involuntarily celibate). In the linked article I mention Joren van der Sloot, the man who murdered Natalie Holloway in Aruba and Stephany Flores in Chile, as an extreme example of a beta male poker player who thought he was talented and entitled... but when he could not get what he wanted, he went on murderous life tilt. Of course few abusive poker players rise to that extreme level, but the reality is that there are many bitter male players with a lot of money, a lot of inflated ego about their poker skills, and a lot of desire to live a far more glamorous (including sexually) life than the one they do live. They picture themselves in a delusional fantasy world they see in movies or on Instagram, and blame women for not letting them have what they desire.

While this phenomenon also plays out in other entitled environments (like stock/commodities traders or universities), poker, especially tournament poker, forces women to sit/stay in close proximity for an extended time with men who publicly speak and act like sexual predators.

Hate has no place in game playing. If male players want to do the right thing, they should take responsibility for calling it out whenever they see it. And even if they don't want to do the right thing, male players should call out misogynist hate if no other reason than it is bad business for them financially. More players playing the game for more hours in more situations and more structures is good for everyone.

For women players, your job is harder of course, but you help yourself 1) by not being intimidated out of reporting any misogynist hate to casino authorities, and 2) asking/demanding the other male players at the table to take responsibility to police their game and, at minimum, shun the haters.

And for heaven's sake, no more challenge head-up matches with misogynist trolls. There is nothing fun going on. While humiliating an arrogant bully might have some appeal, lynching victims did not play head-up with the Ku Klux Klan. Tolerance and diversity do not give pathetic hate the chance to suck out on the river.

See also Poker Stereotypes and Sponsored Poker Players