Luck be a lady: Sexism and female poker players

For female poker players, sexism is part of the deal. Here are some of their stories.

I’m an intruder as soon as I walk into the casino. The sensory overload of trilling slot machines, flashing lights and the faded odor of cigarettes does not distract me from the immediate feeling that I don’t belong. Everything here is designed to make men feel masculine, from the skimpy waitress uniforms to the electronic blackjack machines with busty animated dealers. So where do I, a 20-year-old woman, fit in? 


 

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have to squeeze between nine male players and a dealer to get to my seat at the poker table. While their girlfriends kill time or pull up a chair, middle-aged men with $42,000 watches, tourists in Hawaiian shirts and 20-somethings masked by hoodies and sunglasses gamble thousands of dollars. Everyone accepts that Texas Hold ’em is a man’s game.

Puffed up by the swell of testosterone that a big win brings them, they insist on buying me drinks even though I’m underage, only old enough to play at reservation casinos, and they’re over 51. They laugh condescendingly when I make a big bet, or they whisper about where I’m staying so they “know where to send the flowers.” They talk down to me when I make mistakes — even if they’re small ones. To them, I’m a good luck charm, not competition.

Femininity is weakness here. I thought at first that I could play up my inexperience by dressing in a pink sundress and leaning in to patronizing comments. That worked at a small casino I visited in Michigan, where no one believed I could be bluffing. But once I traded the nice seniors for the aggressively sexist and sexual crowds of Miami where I travel to play at Gulfstream Park, I swapped my dress for a leather jacket and my friendly attitude for silence. My wins at a casino are more satisfying than when I play with my family. For a second, I feel as if I’ve shown them. But the thing about poker is that players can always attribute a loss, or the girl’s win, to luck.

I’ve been playing Texas Hold ’em since I was 8 years old, coached by my dad, who has played for decades in casinos all over the world. We used anything from Starbursts to Nicorette gum as chips. He would quiz my instincts at meals or in the car by inventing hand scenarios or telling stories from his nights in casinos and having me guess what his opponent’s cards were.  I started with games against family and progressed to online games until I turned 18 and could start playing in reservation casinos. I’ve raked in tournament wins and brought home hundreds of dollars and just as many stories about sexism.

My brother, who is roughly at my skill level, but has a very different style, has had a completely different poker experience than mine. Freshly 18, he might receive one negative comment throughout the night about his age. But, across the table, a drunk 20-something scoots closer and asks how long I’m in town, or a man with a New York accent second-guesses everything I do and murmurs to his friend, “She wasn’t aggressive enough in that hand.” Even dealers have leaned in close and promised to get me what I needed, though it’s often unclear whether they wanted to flirt or be tipped well.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to take out my husband. But if I have any opportunity to take him out, I will.”    – Laura Rachatellelle

This kind of thing happens every night, whether I’m alone or my dad is sitting next to me, no matter how I’m dressed, winning or losing. Every once in a while, they forget to whisper, ask me what kind of drink they can buy me or call me “beautiful” one too many times, and my dad steps in for me. Usually, I’m on my own. 

Why is it socially acceptable for these men to act this way in the poker world? Their intimidation discourages women from playing the game, and when talking about professional female poker players, only a handful of names come to mind. I did an online search for them with the top result being “25 Hottest Female Poker Players of 2012.” Poker legend Doyle Brunson brawled on Twitter with player Annette Obrestad, who criticized his technique, and he responded it must be her “time of the month.” Men often tear down powerful women such as Jill Abramson and Hillary Clinton, but this sort of behavior is the norm, not scandal, at the poker tables of a casino.

This masculine poker world affects all female players, not just the professionals. As a student at MU, I had the chance to meet some of the women who play locally. The women at Moberly’s World Poker Tour Amateur Poker League Region 352, have been playing for decades in a variety of settings. They feel the sexism, too, even though their opponents are mostly their husbands and friends. I’ve spoken to college players who have never sat down in a real casino, but they get the same treatment from their fathers or the guys they play against at parties. I feel it, online, where all they know about me is my profile picture. I have stopped reading the comments section.

Sexism exists across the board. Until now, these five women have held on to their stories without sharing them publicly, quietly accepting the hand they’ve been dealt. Here are their tales of across-the-table treatment.

Leah Beane

Photo by Leah Beane

Carla Brown

Age: 54
Hometown: Wellsville
Years Playing: Eight
First Learned: By watching friends and television
Biggest Win: 42 in. flat-screen color television
Places Played: Leagues, online, home, casinos

Carla Brown can’t stay away from poker for long. She refuses to play if she doesn’t have her lucky elephant card protector and her token from Las Vegas. She’ll vow to take you out if she decides she doesn’t like you during the game. She can be the loudest, funniest character at the table, or she can be completely stoic.

She’s not what you’d call a traditional player. “I play my game,” she says. “I don’t go by the book. I go by my book. I go by my gut.” She has always loved cards. She loves coming back for a win and the way bluffing feels. But she knows that as soon as she arrives, some men label her an easy target simply because she’s a woman.

“When you sit down, they consider you a weak player,” she says. “They focus more on you. Their main thing is to get you out of the game.”


Kristi Stringer

Age: 21
Hometown: Columbia
Years Playing: Eight
First Learned: From her father
Biggest Win: Finally beating her dad
Places Played: Home

Kristi Stringer is feeling the pressure. The college student, having never played in a casino, is in the middle of a game at home with her father and sister during a barbecue filled with her dad’s friends. It’s mostly working-class men circled around the game with drinks in hand, trying to peek at her cards. Normally, home games are relaxing and fun, yet still competitive for her. Now, she can’t make any mistakes.

When they catch a glimpse of her two cards, they throw out comments such as, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Stringer’s father isn’t going easy on her because when he loses a hand to one of his daughters, his friends tease him.

But for the girls, the patronizing comments are continuous.

Their father’s best friend tries to coach Stringer, unwilling to let her lose a hand without a lecture.  “Congratulations on being the only poker player who’s won every game,” she sarcastically retorts.

“As a woman player, you go in with a disadvantage,” says Stringer, who is on the executive board of MU’s Feminist Student Union. “People are already looking down on you. They’re going to treat you accordingly. You aren’t really seen as on their level.”

She says she believes women are expected to be perfect when trying something new, especially if the activity is traditionally masculine.

“Regular women aren’t seen as real people,” she says. “They’re seen as these sexual beings who hang on the arms of the men who play and as bimbos spending their boyfriends’ money. The sexual culture translates to women who are real and not there to serve drinks.”

Leah Beane

Photo by Leah Beane


Barb Shoemaker

Age: 50
Hometown: Huntsville
Years Playing: Nine
First Learned: Watching her husband play at a league game
Biggest Win: The chance to go to Las Vegas and play for $10,000
Places Played: Leagues, home, online, casinos

When her ex-husband left both her and the Moberly poker league, Barb Shoemaker inherited his job of running the league. Some members were upset that a woman was taking over, other female players say. But Shoemaker’s no-nonsense attitude toward rule-following keeps her a respected authority figure.

The league experience is intense. Men and women in the area come together, whether in person or online, to compete in a point system. Those with the most points journey to Las Vegas to compete against league players from around the country and Canada, and local league play is by no means less heated than a traditional tournament.Players will curse, antagonize and disrespect Shoemaker unless she keeps the game in order.

During the games, she usually dresses in World Poker Tournament polos to keep the official look and has had to tell players that if they won’t follow WPT rules, they need to find another league. She used to feel uncomfortable playing with the league’s male players because many are big bluffers. Now, she’s turned the tables on them.

“The men say I’m a dangerous player,” she says.


Laura Rachatellelle

Age: 37
Hometown: Columbia
Years Playing: 12
First Learned: Poker from father, Texas Hold ’em from husband
Biggest Win: Third place in a tournament between the Moberly and Kansas City leagues
Places Played: Leagues, home, online, casinos

Laura Rachatellelle and her husband play in the same poker league. For Rachatellelle, poker nights are one of her only “adult time” blocks. She can’t play with the league as much as she would like because she has two children, the younger only 3 years old. But when she can find a babysitter, she doesn’t hold back, even when she is across the table from her husband.

“He irritates me,” Rachatellelle says. “I’m glad I didn’t have to take out my husband (in Vegas). But if I have any opportunity to take him out, I will.”

 She thinks men in local casinos are the worst about giving women “the stare” that questions what they’re doing in man territory, whereas in Las Vegas, players have seen everything.

There are certain men who I love taking out,” she says. “When we go and play in Vegas, I’m sorry. It’s game on.”


Janice Westlake

Age: 59
Hometown: Hallsville
Years Playing: Eight
First Learned: While playing in live tournaments at Eagle’s Lodge and online
Biggest Win: Several first-place tournament wins for 450 league points
Places Played: Leagues, home, online, casinos

For Janice Westlake, poker is a family game. She plays at the amateur poker league with her husband and son, as well as Laura Rachatellelle. Both Westlake and Rachatellelle have competed in Vegas with their spouses and won’t hesitate to knock them out. “Sorry, dear,” Westlake says, similarly to Rachatellelle with a laugh.

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After hearing all of these women’s stories, I’m even more certain that I’m not alone. We are together in our experiences. It’s impossible to calculate how much money we have won or how many men we have knocked out of games. But we certainly haven’t just been lucky all this time. Still, we receive little respect for our achievements, and most men refuse to admit there’s a problem here.

Female players should be celebrated for their achievements rather than intimidated and objectified into never returning to the game. We learn to keep our poker face, but sometimes it’s just easier to fold. But in time, the sexist male players will, as my father says, “hike up their skirts and run” from the women. That’s my bet.