In The Biggest Game in Town, his tribute to the 1981 World Series of Poker, the poet and critic Al Alvarez described the men around the table as "grey-faced and unshaven". He wrote: "They shifted about uncomfortably in their seats, yawned, scratched vaguely at their grubby shirts, lit one cigarette from the stub of another. They looked, most of them, like the uneasy sleepers on the benches in railway stations."
Many of the players sitting around the baize at this year's World Series – which has currently stopped for a break, ready to wrap up in November – bear little resemblance to Alvarez's haggard old gamblers. Names like Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson and Stu "The Kid" Ungar have been replaced by online celebrities such as jungleman12 and nanonoko. Crucially, however, you're now more likely to find a woman staking £6,000 for a share of the £40 million prize pool.
The inaugural 1970 World Series was held at Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, where a guy name Johnny Moss beat a small group of nicotine-stained men in Stetson hats. Moss, the Grand Old Man of Poker, famously once claimed to have played heads up for five months against Nick "The Greek" Dandolos, eventually cleaning him out. He was the first person inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
Since 1970, the tournament has grown bigger each decade, moving out of Binion's Horseshoe and into the gargantuan Rio casino off the Vegas strip. Last year, over 80,000 people entered 65 different events. However, women made up only five percent of the players, and there's never been a woman to win the main event.
In 1977, the World Series introduced a ladies event, although the buy-in was a patronising $100 (£64 if converted now), versus the $10,000 (£6,415 if converted now) buy-in for the main Texas Hold 'Em event. This limited the prize on offer, and meant the ladies' tournament was seen as a distraction for the wives and girlfriends of the high rollers rather than a serious challenge. The fact that it was held on Mother's Day until 2004 didn't help the tournament's gimmicky status, either. Men aren't even excluded from entering, with poker player and broadcaster Victoria Coren-Mitchell recalling a woman getting knocked out of the event by a man in a dress. She got up from the table in tears of humiliation.
Away from Vegas, though, women are rising to the very top of the game. Coren-Mitchell, better known as the host of highbrow BBC Four shows, has lifetime tournament winnings of over £1.6 million. She was also the first two-time European Poker Tour champion, something no man has ever achieved. In fact, some of the most famous faces in poker today are women. I asked Jen Shahade, a writer and chess champion turned poker pro, if there's still a place for women's tournaments.
"I think women's tournaments are great opportunities for women to interact, and a welcome change of pace," she said. "It's not like women and men play separately on a regular basis. I always play women's events if I can for two simple reasons: I like women who play poker – it brings out tough, smart women who I feel excited to talk to, regardless of skill level. Also, as a poker player, part of my job is to play events where I have a positive expectation, and these tournaments fit the bill. To have fun while working is the reason I started playing games like chess and poker in the first place."
No Limit Texas Hold 'Em has come to dominate the professional game, but Shahade is known for playing more obscure types of poker: "I think women can perform just as well and aggressively as men in No Limit Hold 'Em. In fact, that people think we don't have that aggression can be a motivator to exhibit it," she told me. "But for some cultural and social reasons it may come less naturally to women. For instance, when I started out, I noticed it was much easier for me to be aggressive online on PokerStars than in live games."
Liv Boeree, who won the San Remo leg of the 2010 European Poker Tour for just over £1 million, discovered the game when she applied for a Channel 5 reality show after graduation. I asked her if ladies' events might discourage women from playing larger tournaments, but she doesn't think so: "If she did well in the [lower buy-in] competition, it may give her the confidence and the bankroll boost necessary to decide to play the main event, too."
Considering women account for so few live tournament players, female players do make up an impressive number of high profile wins. Might women just be better at poker full stop? Boeree says it's possible. "Becoming an excellent poker player mostly depends on your willingness to study and analyse your play, over and over," she told me. "There are definitely some live poker skills that are harder to teach, such as emotional intelligence, which is often stronger in women and thus can give them a big advantage on their road to becoming a great player."
These days, some of the most exciting action can be found online. Sites like 888poker and PokerStars let millions of users play 24/7 in virtual games, and Shahade is adamant that this will help to address the male/female balance: "Women often get a lot of attention at the table. This can be a lot of fun, or annoying, depending on your disposition," she said. "But for women just starting out, I think more often than not it can be disconcerting to be scrutinised, because you'll obviously be making more mistakes than average at the start. Learning the fundamentals online before playing live can ease that process."
She points out that many women aren't in a position to – or don't feel comfortable – spending night after night in casinos or carrying around cash. After a series of lawsuits, online poker has been knocked back in the US, but Shahade still sees it as the future of the game. "This is the number one reason I'd like to see online poker regulated in the US – I want to see people able to build their bankrolls safely and responsibly, and not feel like they have to take huge financial risks to improve and enjoy a game they love," she told me.
In Europe, it's much easier for sites to get a licence, and recently one rookie has caught the attention of thousands of other players online. WildHungarian is a 26-year-old from Budapest who decided last December to give up her job and attempt to make it big playing poker.
She now claims to study the game for two hours every day, on top of playing at least 40 games online. Some 120,000 people have viewed her streams on Twitch, a live-streaming video platform for gamers. When I asked what drove her to take such a huge leap of faith she told me that nobody can expect to be successful in professional poker while still working a 40-hour-a-week job, especially not starting from zero. "If I do something, I do it with 100 percent," she said.
Does she get flak on poker sites for being a woman? "On online forums there are haters for everybody, no matter if it's a girl or a boy," she said. "People do like to doubt me because I'm a girl, though." According to WildHungarian, the anonymity of online games could encourage more women to start playing, but it's also important that female players are a visible force in the poker world, encouraging others.
Perhaps this explains why her Twitch stream is so popular. "[On Twitch] they can see something different than anybody else who streams poker: The journey of a person who started from nothing, until hopefully being a pro, someone's progress. Being a part of it makes it easier for people to connect," she told me.
Over the past few years, the turnout for the World Series Ladies' Event has steadily declined, and this year was no different. Jennifer Tilly, the actress and World Series bracelet winner, has suggested this is a positive thing. She claims that women are actually moving away from the event because mixed tournaments no longer seem so out of reach.
The rise of online poker is revitalising the game, and the macho braggadocio romanticised by writers like Alvarez has given way to a new generation of calculated and focused players. Despite the fact that you're still more likely to find a woman watching a man from behind the rail than sitting at the table taking his chips, players like Jen Shahade and Liv Boeree have shown that, fortunately, that's not going to be the case forever. The question now is when will a woman take poker's biggest prize?
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