I have a confession to make: the first time I ever played a women’s-only poker tournament, I hated it. So much so that I vowed never to play one again!
But now I think Ladies’ Events are more important than ever.
Allow me to explain.
When I first started playing poker at age 23, I’d never even heard of a Ladies’ Event. I didn’t know what a poker tournament was! I had just moved from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. desperately looking for things to do on weekends and ways to socialize other than going to bars and clubs. When my roommate, Tom, suggested we visit the brand new casino which just opened near town, I eagerly said yes and sat down at my second casino poker table ever without hesitation. I was fearless.
Having grown-up with a dad who plays poker – we took third-place as a father-daughter duo in the World Series of Poker Tag Team Event in 2021 – I entered the game free of stigma, reservation, or nerves. Even though I barely knew how to play, I simply thought it was fun – there was no terror on my part. Especially playing at a fancy brand new luxury location full of women in dresses and men in suits, my first impressions of casino life were anything but sleaze. On the contrary – I viewed the poker room as glamorous and high-end.
Now I realize I was the exception.
Before explaining further, I’d like to pause for a moment. Yes, my happy-go-lucky, can-do attitude was unique amongst most women – but not amongst poker pro women. Most of today’s female poker pros share competitive, unafraid attitudes. The successful women I’ve talked to in poker likewise describe their initial ventures into the game with excitement rather than reservation. The vast majority of this generation of women in poker never started with a Ladies’ Events. If anything, they got a rush out of battling the boys.
What I’ve learned is while this is common amongst today’s industry leaders, it is not at all common for the incoming freshman class of women – the mainstream public. As the poker community tries to widen its net to be more inclusive, it needs to recognize that we are dealing with a different demographic. No, I don’t mean women. I mean a different type of woman.
During the pandemic, I was hired by an organization named Poker Power. Their mission evolved not just to teach women how to play poker – they’ve had more than 30,000 students enter their classes to date – but teach businesswomen. They wanted to reach corporate leaders. Successful women in positions of power with their own families and high-paying jobs. Not 23-year-olds like me looking for something to do in a new town. These women had lives.
They wanted to reach a woman even rarer in poker than the established or aspiring pro: recreational female players.
Women are already a minority at poker tables. But the women you do see tend to either be young twenty-year-olds (like I was), or older players whose kids have already grown-up and/or careers have reached retirement. The only thing more unusual than a woman at a poker table is a woman at a poker table in her thirties. There are just very, very few.
Poker Power sought to change that. We wanted to explore the new frontier. We wanted to reach women who weren’t going to invest three hours per day studying preflop charts, watching YouTube poker vlogs, and reading Super System. We wanted to reach women who were busy.
At first it was easy. One hour per week classes to teach them the basics and get their minds working. They immediately recognized poker as a brain game; and even if it wasn’t their top priority, they were charmed and intrigued.
We thought when card rooms reopened that inviting these women would be a piece-of-cake. We were wrong.
No matter how bright, talented, and accomplished our students were – pioneers in their fields – they were utterly terrified to enter the casino floor. We even spent over one year training four of our most enthusiastic students to be assistant teachers – but when the time came to start playing in live environments, three of them quit. They never even set foot on a poker property. They had spent nearly two years living and breathing poker, but when the time came to play in real life, they chickened-out.
And the rest of the students were no better. I couldn’t understand it – what was so scary? Here they had attended a 12-week program and never wanted to graduate.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Poker Power’s Director of Education AJ Rudolph. “Poker Power’s primary mission is to teach women how to play poker,” I began. “What surprised you most about teaching these classes?”
“The biggest surprise for me is that because most of our teaching has been done virtually and online, the biggest hurdle for women to get over is to play poker live,” she responded. Not only did she say “getting [women] over that hump has proven to be much more difficult than we expected,” but, like me, it was never an issue for her. Ms. Rudolph didn’t struggle to play poker in home games or casino environments. It was only this next generation that seemed to have the bewildering hang-ups.
There was only one way many of the women were willing to play poker in real life ever – Ladies’ Events. To this day, there are staff members who handle the business side of the operation who shy from participating in any other way. This is their window. This is their opening. This is it.
Which is why us women poker pros aren’t always the best to replicate. We didn’t need Ladies’ Events to on-board – but they do. They’re the audience. They’re the everyday women. They’re the majority.
We aren’t. If we truly want to get more women into the game, we should listen to the largest voices – not the loudest. We need to listen to the women who are afraid. Not the women who are fearless.
And what these women want is Ladies’ Events.
I will finish this article with one more confession: this piece was prompted by a tweet. Fellow Poker Power instructor Kyna England drew attention to poor planning surrounding the World Series of Poker 2023 Ladies’ Event, where women were separated into two rooms and couldn’t share the same level of social camaraderie.
Really disappointed that @WSOP has split the ladies events between the rooms.This event is more about camaraderie & socialness and it dampers it that we aren’t all together in the same place. Several women at my table & in the room have brought this up. Bring the ladies to Paris!— Kyna England (@Kyna_CooL) June 29, 2023
I agreed with Kyna’s take; I thought it was a good one. She spoke to the concerns of the most vulnerable, sensitive women in the room. The ones who are only playing a tournament this time of year and would do anything to see a familiar face.
But people in the comments were uncaring and aggressive. They accused her of needlessly complaining and latching onto minor, unimportant gripes. Clearly they had never seen the fear in the eyes of the hundreds upon hundreds of women I taught. They thought because they couldn’t relate, it wasn’t real.
Yet the comment which really irked me was this one:
Apparently splitting the field into two rooms was supposed to help women feel comfortable playing around men… huh? Since when was the purpose of the Ladies’ Event to get women closer to the guys? As my beginner’s teaching experience demonstrated and AJ’s teaching experience reinforced, these women are too intimidated to get to the table in the first place. Surely this isn’t hearing the women who need the support the most. The “they’ll get used to it, let’s just throw ‘em in with the guys” approach only works for women who never needed a Ladies’ Event to sit down at the table. Trial by fire doesn’t work for everyone. Trust me, we’ve tried.
Finally, saying that presumably women poker pros can “lead by example” and “can adapt to change” is insulting to amateurs and professionals alike. I have never met a pro woman poker player who needed a Ladies’ Event or all-women’s spaces to on-ramp her… ever. There has been no resistance on our parts to incorporate innovation or change. None of us are beholden to rigid structures or isolated safe spaces because they’re more in our comfort zone. But we aren’t the target audience. It’s the women who do find live poker tournaments out of their comfort zone that we need to listen to and treat their concerns seriously.
Growing the game means reaching untapped demographics – we can’t arrogantly assume what worked for us automatically works for them. True leadership isn’t telling someone what to do and demanding they follow. True leadership is inspiring someone to want to move forward – on their own terms. The only way to do that is ensuring a person feels respected and heard. Not prematurely pressured.
I’ve tried way too many times to drag along newbie women poker players… it doesn’t work. They need to feel comfortable. Plain and simple. If they’re not comfortable, they’re not coming.
So what we need to do is ask what will help them feel at ease. And an increasing number of voices are telling us the same answer. They want women’s spaces, a.k.a. Ladies’ Events.
We should listen.