The Queens of Hearts

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Back in 1973, legendary hustler Amarillo Slim proclaimed, “a woman is meant to be loved, not play poker.” As demonstrated by today’s most lethal female poker players, such perceptions are now well outdated. Following years of being underrepresented at the final table, women are breathing new life into the game, helping to shake off its boys’-club image with their astonishing abilities and shared passion for charity work.


These girls aren’t just competing - they’re clobbering. With each passing year, we’re seeing more and more women achieving notable success at the poker table. Take Brooklyn powerhouse Vanessa Selbst. To date, the 31-year-old has taken home three World Series of Poker bracelets, as well as more than $11m in winnings from live tournaments. Things have come a long way since the seventies when Slim proclaimed that he’d slit his neck with a dull knife if well-known female competitor Vera Richmond ever won the WSOP main event.


Whatever the tough guy image of poker in the past, it isn’t actually a contact sport. There’s no biological reason why women can’t be every bit as successful as men at what is for all intents and purposes, a gender-neutral game. The fact that we’re seeing more female winners has less to do with women getting better and more to do with access to opportunities. Historical events like the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the introduction of the Equal Pay Act set Western women on a steady course towards achieving balance in both work and play, gaining the rights to tell their own stories, gamble with their own money and champion their own causes.


As greater and greater numbers of women get involved in the game, perhaps it’s time to debunk some myths about women and poker.


Myth 1: Women aren’t interested in playing poker.


The exciting, underground culture associated with poker has long attracted a mixed crowd - women included. Better known as “Poker Alice”, Alice Ivers Duffield Tubb was a notorious poker player back in the Wild West of the 1800s. Fast-forward to the twentieth-century, the first legal casino license was awarded to Las Vegas society wife and mother Mayme Stocker in 1931. By the time legal casinos started appearing across the US, women practically had the vote within their grasp and were able to legally try their hand at the game right from the very beginning.


Myth 2: Women in the casino are more interested in the glamour of poker than the logistics.


Asked to call to mind the image of a female in a casino, you’d be forgiven for immediately thinking of the satin-clad Bond girl. The portrayal of women in casinos is often oversexualized. Even though poker is a game where physical attributes are of little consequence, women at the poker table are often still judged on their looks.


Before we’re accused of trying to take down a national treasure, we’re not saying that James Bond is singlehandedly responsible for freezing women out of the fun of the casino. It’s simply worth noting that female poker players have so much more to offer than sex appeal (which is not to say that many of them aren’t easy on the eye).


These ladies are all about the logistics. Not content with just winning themselves, female players can often be found coaching the guys. Living legend Annie Duke is known to have coached Ben Affleck in his game while pro player Jesse Sylvia’s $5.295 million second place finish in last year’s World Series of Poker main event was overshadowed by the fact he was mentored by Selbst, known for her similar shorthand playing style.


Myth 3: The casino is no place for a lady


The jury’s still out on this one. The casino has typically been perceived as an all-male, testosterone-fuelled environment and intimidation, unemotional conduct and outrageous displays of wealth continue to play a part.


Speaking to The Atlantic, Selbst said: “A lot of women feel that it’s still an intimidating and unfriendly environment at the poker table, and I can’t say that I don’t agree in a lot of circumstances - overt competitiveness and confidence is still perceived differently between the genders.”


Selbst, whose aggressive playing style and fierce public demeanour has made her something of a polarizing figure goes on to say, “If women are competitive it is viewed as a negative quality - as bitchy, out of line or as not attractive.”


If what she says is true, it may be that the imbalance in the casino throughout history reflects a society not entirely comfortable with competitive and risk-taking qualities in women.


 A seismic shift


It’s not only the who changing in modern poker, but also the where and how. The birth of the internet brought with it the greatest shift in the game’s history, as the Amarillo Slims, Johnny Mosses and Nick the Greeks started to give way to those playing under screen names like Money800 and jungleman12.


The fact that more women are playing and the rise of online trends aren’t necessarily unrelated. According to the biggest ever study of online gambling trends, “the average online casino player is 54.8% likely to be female.


Sitting down among pros at a poker table can be nerve-racking for players lacking experience or confidence. Online poker provides an accessible and (crucially) non gender-biased arena where players can anonymously hone and perfect their game. Of course, this has been less of an issue since “Black Friday” in 2010 - the day online gambling was outlawed in the US.


Poker has also become an increasingly charitable endeavour. In recent years, philanthropy has begun to touch gaming in many forms, benefitting a wonderfully varied range of causes - from disadvantaged inner city children to the victims of global disasters.


Guided by the culture of giving commonplace in corporate life, both online and offline poker organizations have stepped up. The Charity Series of Poker was set up by professional poker player Matt Stout in 2014 to organize and promote fundraising tournaments on a large scale. The WSOP has partnered with the One Drop Foundation in an effort to improve access to sustainable water for communities around the world. Online, there are more and more packages being put in place by individual brands to drive donations to causes like Oxfam and Cancer Research UK as well as organizations like Poker Gives and Raising for Effective Giving established specifically to deal with the question of giving in the world of poker.


The simultaneous emergence of these trends prompts a key question - is there a link between the increase in women playing poker and the increase charitable giving or is it simply a happy coincidence?


What are women bringing to the table?


In this day and age, we are familiar with the concept of philanthropy as a part of business; big organizations like the WSOP are guided by the culture of giving that comes part and parcel of corporate life. It is perhaps more noteworthy when the players themselves take the altruistic reins. Making the choice to earmark a percentage of one’s poker winnings toward a charity can be a great way for players to become involved in the greater good, extend poker’s mainstream appeal and improve personal image along the way.


Some research suggests that on average, women are more philanthropic than men and are more receptive to the idea of effective giving - the idea that the privileged should give away a chunk of their wealth to the charities that do the most to reduce global suffering. According to WPI’s 2010 Women Give study, American households headed by single females give 57% more than those headed by single males.


If women are (in the most general sense) more inclined towards philanthropy than their male counterparts, it’s hardly surprising that we’re seeing this dynamic being translated into the increasingly mixed world of gaming as players combine their passions.


Winning Hearts


So who are the women using their game to make a difference in the world? Let’s start with the champ herself.


The first thing you need to know about Vanessa Selbst is that she is relentless - a great quality to possess as a poker player and even better as a gay woman campaigning on social justice issues. Called “terrifyingly” smart by the Financial Times, Selbst is an engaged activist and campaigns tirelessly for equal rights and social justice (she previously led the Queer-Straight Alliance at Yale). In spite of her stellar success, she has kept her feet firmly on the ground - much of her philanthropic work involves helping vulnerable people who lack the support or resources to help themselves. In 2010 she founded Venture Justice, a foundation which funnels her poker winnings to young entrepreneurs starting non-profits focused on tackling inequality. She also organizes the “Blinds & Justice” charity tournament for the Urban Justice Center, helping to fund legal aid for those who can’t afford it.


In 2014, Olivia “Liv” Boeree co-founded Raising for Effective Giving, an organization which applies the rationality of the game to distributing donated winnings from the poker community to the most deserving causes. Speaking about her charitable work Boeree says, "the money won in poker can do so much more. By donating a portion of these winnings to highly effective charities, it helps the people and issues that are in most desperate need."


With a fervent personal interest in human rights and developing nations, Annie Duke has leveraged her success and celebrity to champion a huge number of global causes. In 2007 she co-founded Ante Up for Africa with Don Cheadle and Norman Epstein to raise money for a host of established non-profits benefitting African countries. She also used her time on Celebrity Apprentice to raise more than $700,000 for Refugees International.


Linda Johnson is another great example. One of only two women in the Poker Hall of Fame, after helping to found the governing body which regulates modern day tournaments, in 2009 she co-created Poker Gives - a nonprofit which helps poker players give effectively to worthwhile charities via direct donations, tournaments and special events.


The list is seemingly endless. Liz Lieu honors her heritage by distributing food, clothes and money across Vietnam. Jennifer Shahade provides chess tuition to inner city teens. Xuan Liu promotes the rights of girls and their families around the world. Academy Award nominee Jennifer Tilly combats global atrocities. Even our own Victoria Coren-Mitchell (journalist and wife of Peep Show’s David) supports charities benefitting the elderly and has appeared on the celebrity Sport Relief version of The Great British Bake Off.

With everything going so well, how can we preserve the current culture of giving in poker?


What is the Future of Women in Poker?


Since the US ban on online gambling, Selbst has been among others to express worries that women will be discouraged from playing the game altogether. If this is the case, it’s worth considering what women want from a game of poker.


A good solid game fuelled by competition and camaraderie. To feel welcome and respected in their chosen arena. To be a part of something positive.


Things do seem to be shifting to accommodate this. While so many women are learning to play, more women are moving up the ladder into key positions in casinos, bringing their perspective and affecting change. We are seeing more and more women’s events cropping up all the time such as those hosted by the Ladies Poker Association (LPA). Crucially, women are feeling more welcome at mixed events (after all, pink cupcakes and complimentary manicures aren’t everyone’s thing).


The perception for so long has been that this is a man’s game. In truth, women are born to master poker and often already possess many of the innate characteristics needed to be successful - intuition, communicative skills, patience and the ability to read people to name a few. As a result, we are slowly starting to see poker markets adopt a new progressive attitude. The landscape’s not yet perfect, but things are moving forward in every respect. In 2006, pro player Jennifer Harman complained that female players were not working hard enough to raise their game to the level needed to compete with male players saying, “At this rate it’ll be a couple hundred years before we’re winning half the events.”


The latest generation of female players has more than answered her concerns.


So has the presence of more women in the game lead to more philanthropy, or is it the other way around?


Perhaps a little of both. The Queens of Hearts we’ve met clearly demonstrate that more women in poker means more philanthropy. Yet at the same time, there’s no question that the evolution of philanthropy in the poker world has changed how we see the face of the game. Beneath its unmoved, emotionless and seemingly uncaring poker face, an open-eyed awareness of life’s harsh realities and a generous hand willing to give and help has been revealed. This new disclosure proves that hearts rule in poker and encourages a wider player ship. Aggression and deception are put to work for a good cause, meaning that those who have qualms about displaying normally socially unacceptable traits can enjoy the combative adventure of the poker world guilt-free.


In keeping opportunities available to everyone, there are few limits to the positive changes the poker community can bring to the table.

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