Frank Floor Talk: More women are playing professional poker, but there is much opportunity for growth

Frank Floor Talk: More women are playing professional poker, but there is much opportunity for growth

  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
August 23, 2022 12:00 PM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

One of the few sports in which women can compete against men on a level playing field is at the poker table in a live environment.

The definition of sports competition implies physical dexterity, which on the surface of things would exclude poker players. Yet, the combination of skill, strategy, competitive spirit, and cerebral input it takes to play the game successfully just may place poker in a sporting category all its own.

Certainly, there are qualities about poker that place it on a par with sporting competition. The object is to eliminate and win. The endeavor engages participants mentally and physically when you take into account tournament playing sessions over the course of days or even weeks.

Winning a poker tournament may be the goal, but along the way there has to be some losing to set the stage for the outcome. Every hand is a competition all its own, with a beginning and an end. The competition can be grueling.

It’s the combination of decisions which determines the outcome, but because there are so many strategic layers involved in getting there, the correlation of poker to sports becomes complicated.

The mechanics of the game create the tempo for the playing experience. The subtleties which revolve around timing and decision making are what give it life as a sport.

Given the fact there are many women players who have proven to be quite successful matching hands against their male counterparts, why is it they do not occupy a more commanding presence in the game?, a popular online community poker forum, recently conducted a survey among women poker players to address what is perceived to be “gender equality problems” in the game and why women do not have a larger footprint in professional poker.

One of the biggest reasons cited was a lack of media presence; spotlighting the players of today, in much the same way as Annie Duke, one of the most successful women players of all time, who used her poker fame to earn an appearance on former president Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice reality TV show.

Professional poker has no bigger stage than the annual World Series of Poker, which virtually singlehandedly took the game out of smoke-filled rooms and made it a big time, high-profile, mainstream genre of entertainment and veritable marketing juggernaut.

Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) recognized the potential when it purchased Binion’s in Downtown Las Vegas; not for the casino, but for the rights to the World Series of Poker.

There is no one better qualified to address the demographics of professional poker, the participation of women in particular, than career gaming industry executive Jack Effel, vice-president of the World Series of Poker, and a veteran of 25 plus years with Caesars Entertainment.

Effel has overseen the World Series of Poker for 16 years, not only in the capacity of coordinating and executing the annual event in Las Vegas, but also supporting WSOP branded events around the globe, including World Series of Poker Europe, World Series of Poker Asia-Pacific, and of course the WSOP Circuit tour events.

“From a WSOP standpoint, the overall participation of female players stands at about five percent,” he said. “That has been the number for the last several years, but you also have to factor in that the number of entries has grown significantly (182,645 this year), which means the actual number of females has increased.

“The number of female participants can increase to the seven to 10 percent range for the smaller buy-ins, and it can decrease for some of the more obscure formats. The majority of women play in the hold’em events.”

Gone are the days when the WSOP was held in the quaint, dingy, smoke-filled poker room of Binion’s Horseshoe.

It fills a convention center now, with hundreds of tables from which the incessant din of clicking chips can be heard, a symphony from the hands of thousands of gamblers held captive by their own powers of concentration. The chip ensemble is interrupted only by the periodic verbal agony and ecstasy of players whose fortunes rest on the turn of a card.

“The WSOP is a lot different from a local card room,” Effel explained. “It’s a global event that attracts participants from over 100 countries. Diversity is what makes the WSOP unique. It’s where women and everyone else have the opportunity for mixing and meshing. It’s an atmosphere we try to replicate in our Circuit events.”

Unlike the clandestine high-stakes poker games of yesteryear, the WSOP is an open, inviting window for all to see. Interview rooms and studio set locations straight out of Hollywood serve as a reminder that this is no penny-ante experience but a major production that will fuel hours of television time and be seen by millions world-wide.

“We all know poker can be a tough environment with egos and the characters of the game clashing at times,” Effel said, relating it to a possible intimidation factor for the participation of women. “It has been my observations that the players show respect to the ladies and welcome them. Today’s game fosters an environment that welcomes all players.”

The national media spotlight may not be shining on successful women poker professionals these days, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around.

“There are several great players out there, including Maria Ho, who has shown me that she can compete against anyone,” Effel said. “Then there’s Kathy Liebert, who has been competing for 30 years, along with some really excellent lady players in the game such as Marle Spragg, Vanessa Kade, and Carol Fuchs.

“An indication of high interest among female players in the game was our Ladies No-Limit Hold’em Championship this year. It was big, with over 1,000 entrants and a prize pool of over $950,000. Also, our Tag Team Event in which partners played for a $1,000 buy-in. Of the 804 entries, 109 were female, or 12 percent of the total.”

Effel also noted that Kate Kopp, a dealer and player from Cleveland, Ohio, won a WSOP gold bracelet in the employee’s event, and Efthymia Litsou from Larchmont, New York, was the highest female finisher in the Main Event with 18th place among 8,663 entries and a check for $323,100.

“I see more women regulars playing and participating than ever before, and you’re definitely seeing more women playing at higher levels,” Effel said. “Also, their participation in the more obscure games other than hold’em is higher than it’s ever been.”

The big picture reveals there’s plenty of room and opportunity for women to grow into professional poker. Brains and not brawn is what keeps the competition level.

John G. Brokopp is a veteran of 50 years of professional journalist experience in the horse racing and gaming industries