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Poker and #MeToo

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Feb 14, 2018

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The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure is just wrapping up as I write this. I have spent plenty of time at this event, including being on the original cruise in 2004. It has been a popular stop on the tournament circuit for over a decade and a great showcase for poker in the past.

This year, I think it put a spotlight on a concern of the poker world. This year brought us three female event champions, including Maria Lampropoulos who showed that her win at the Party Poker Millions last March wasn’t a fluke. She became the first female main event winner in PCA history. Statistically, roughly 5 percent of no limit poker tournament fields are female, so winning one main event in 15 years is an acceptable rate, well within statistical norms. But, why are there so few female players? As long as I’ve been playing, there has been a push to gain more female players in the game, especially live poker. The publicity of the #MeToo movement has brought some of the reasons why we don’t see many women playing poker to the forefront.

Women in the workforce are dealing with the bane of sexual harassment on a daily basis. They have to deal with unequal pay while also deflecting advances from people who hold power over their job security and advancement. They have to deal with micro-aggressions and rude comments or cat-calling on their way home. They are looking for a place to escape this, to have some solace in a place where they can be equals with their peers. Poker should offer such a place. No skills that are necessary for poker are gendered. You don’t need to be bigger, faster, or stronger to be a good poker player. You all play with the same 52-card deck. A female’s $5 chip is worth $5, not $3.90. So, why then, are there so few women who play poker compared to the population?

I’ve heard some people say that women are less prone to gambling than men. I just don’t buy that. I have walked through casinos thousands of times in my lifetime. There are plenty of women gambling in casinos. In a 2008 study, Michelle Millar and Seyhmus Baloglu sent 2,000 invitations to people interested in gambling to fill out a questionnaire. 300 people filled them out, and of those 300, 222 were usable for their study. They found that 64.9 percent of the respondents were male. So, men responded to the survey more readily, but a 35 percent female gambler population is still much higher than 5 percent in live poker tournaments. I contend that the general attitude at the poker table towards women is the reason that we don’t see as many female poker players as would be statistically normal considering the population split and even the preferences of the genders to participate in gambling.

I’ve seen outright harassment, name calling, constant unreciprocated flirting, belittling speech, and some even darker things at the poker table directed at women. I speak up whenever I hear it, especially if it seems pretty clear that the targeted woman is uncomfortable dealing with the attention. I’ve had long discussions about why it’s not ok to subject women to this kind of talk at the poker table and I’m almost always met with the defense “What’s wrong with showing her some positive attention?” or “I’m just complimenting her, what’s wrong with that?”

The problem isn’t the compliment, it’s the attitude behind the compliment, the idea that these women are at the table for your entertainment and your pleasure. That it’s up to them to respond in the exact way you want to your compliment. That they have to flirt back and be cute and funny and whatever else you expect of them because that’s how you want it and if they don’t then they’re a bitch or a lesbian or whatever other names they’re called on a regular basis.

And that’s just with the “innocent” versions of this. I read a post on the internet the other day where a man was talking to a female friend of his and he asked her why dating was so stressful for her. To him, it was just a fun way to meet new people and have fun, what’s the worst that could happen? She said “I worry that I could be raped and murdered.” That’s a reality that women have to live with day in and day out in our society and it’s coming to light more and more that it affects every single one of them. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one out of six women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Many more have experienced sexual assault that would be considered something short of rape or attempted rape but is psychologically damaging nonetheless. The types of unwanted attention that are lavished on women at the poker table, when not met with the exact response that the other party is looking for are exactly the types of interactions that lead to these violations.

So, perhaps the reason we don’t have more women playing live poker isn’t that they don’t enjoy gambling as much or they don’t have an inclination towards poker. Perhaps it’s because the harassment they would have to endure on a regular basis is a barrier to entry that is just too high, especially when they’re looking to play as a hobby to escape from their everyday life.

Be an advocate for the women that you know that play. Talk to the men that you’re playing with to let them know that the attention women get at the table isn’t acceptable, that they should be treated in the exact same way as other men. Talk to those women, listen to their responses about how you can better accommodate their feelings and needs to make them more comfortable at the poker table. Make poker a better place for women and perhaps there will be more women who come out to play.

I think, one day soon, we’ll have a female World Series of Poker main event champion. When we do, there will almost certainly be an influx of female poker players. Let’s make sure they’re well received, not only to grow the game, but also just because it’s the right thing to do. ´

Gavin GriffinGavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by HeroPoker.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG