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Sexism, poker, and growing the game.

by Darryll Fish |  Published: Feb 22, '23

  As I’m sure most of you know, there has recently been a lot of discussion about the prevalence of sexism in poker, why this is a problem for the community, and (to a much lesser extent) how we can effectively combat behavior that makes women feel unwelcome at the poker table.  Some people believe that if we could reduce the amount of harassment women are subjected to down to zero, it would open the floodgates to a whole new demographic of players who could help grow the game and it’s economy. 

  My friend Justin Bonomo wrote a blog about the subject and highlighted a few examples of male poker players treating women in ways that should be beyond unacceptable to anyone with a moral compass that hasn’t been shattered to pieces. I have heard of a few cases of this myself over the course of the last few years, each time finding myself disgusted that ANYONE could behave this way, let alone someone I consider a peer. I don’t think these types of occurrences are at all reflective of the community at large, and unfortunately there are a lot of assholes in the world, so I imagine there will always be a few of them who slip through the cracks no matter how tightly we seal the door.

  Another friend, Cate Hall, wrote a very articulate piece on the topic, (using some words I admittedly had to google) and doing a fine job of explaining some of the ways in which this problem exists. I agree with her on much of this, as I have certainly witnessed men saying some really rude things to women at the table, and in a few cases I’ve seen them inappropriately touch a woman (hand on shoulder, unsolicited hug, etc), and this stuff is not cool. Additionally, I requested that the WPT Royal Flush Girls not be part of the final table photos in Montreal this week, as Cate and I totally agree that the idea of having female models walk around as eye candy for the sex-starved men who fill poker rooms is one that perpetuates the objectification of women, and makes poker look like a man’s game. I think gender specific marketing has no place in poker, and rather than portraying it as the extremely fascinating and fun game that it is, it cheapens it.
However, when Cate suggests that eradicating sexist behavior at the tables would bring "droves of inexperienced players with pristine bankrolls”, two things immediately came to mind:
  First of all, if there is a battle to fight against the mistreatment of women in poker, shouldn’t the intention be based on morality, not the idea that we can fatten our pockets if we make the game more appealing to women (especially if they are equally capable of learning to beat the game)? I understand that perhaps this is an easier way to motivate certain people into actually doing something about it (which again, we haven’t really heard what that is other than not be assholes ourselves), but I don’t think it is a very noble motive if the goal here is simply gender equality. 
  Second, I would be absolutely dumbfounded if this new influx of female players would come anywhere close to doubling the number of of people who sit down and play. I believe poker, much like golf, fishing, or chess, just happens to be one of those activities that doesn’t appeal as much to women as it does to men. Women comprise around 22% of golfers, 35% of Fishermen, and a whopping 3% of chess players! I don’t see anyone leading a crusade against sexism in those arenas, yet they each have a very disproportionate number of female participants. Is it possible, then, that poker is simply more appealing to men due to natural biological reasons, wage inequality, or as a result of gender role conditioning we’ve been subjected to over centuries of social evolution?
Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn’t seek to provide an equal opportunity for anyone who wants to sit down and buy-in, I simply don’t believe doing so would necessarily induce the next “poker boom'. 

  I would assume that almost all of the men who read blogs like Cate’s (which was posted on a site who’s audience is primarily women) or Justin’s (who’s following I’d imagine mostly consists of high level players who have some social skills and decency about them) probably already understand that they should not be disrespectful of women (or men, for that matter). So while it is great to talk about issues and try to change the way people act, it is important that the message is delivered to the right people, and I’m skeptical that this one is.

  I have played a fucking ton of live poker over the past 10 years, and though my memory is far from perfect, I would confidently bet that the number of times I have witnessed physical sexual harassment at the table to be less than a handful. I’m sure I’ve seen many cases of verbal harassment, and while disturbing, I don’t think there is a whole lot we can do about it other than speak up in defense of the target, which often just exacerbates the confrontation. 
Also, verbal harassment at the table is not exclusively targeted at women. I have seen men get into nasty verbal altercations more times than I can count. I have heard men say terrible things to other men. I have seen young men threaten old men. I have seen old men actually HIT young men. 
Besides, even if we did manage to teach every man who currently plays poker how to properly speak to a lady, there would continually be new men entering the arena, mostly coming from a world where, sadly, misogyny truly is a monumental issue. 

  If you ask me, guys wearing hoodies and headphones at the table and acting like robots rather than engaging with their fellow humans is a MUCH bigger issue in terms of repelling players from the game or drawing new ones in. I have seen countless recreational players (men AND women) leave a cash game because they were sick of how much some kid was tanking on every decision, or they got bored because nobody was making conversation. I’ve also heard many losing cash game players say they won’t play tournaments because they will deal with even more of the this type of behavior. 

  Recreational players are looking for just that, recreation. They are looking to have a good time, be entertained, socialize, meet new people, and in many cases feel like they are part of something more exciting than the boring, monotonous life they’ve settled into. If you were a 40 year old businessman who showed up to have a few drinks and play some poker, only to find yourself seated with a bunch of silent 20 somethings who are clearly focused on taking your money, do you think you’d find yourself eagerly wanting to come back again and lose more money? The answer is a resounding NO. 
 The job of a live professional poker player is as much an entertainer as it is an actual player. While being a math genius or having powerful intuition is great, it won’t get you very far if everyone you play against is on nearly the same level of understanding. If we want poker to thrive, it is paramount that we provide an environment where people of all ages, races, industries, and yes, genders, can feel comfortable and have a good time playing a game with other human beings.

  I don’t mean to overshadow the clear fact that the poker community needs to do a better job of making women feel welcome, and I’m completely open to any suggestions on how to do that, or how to stop random men from being complete douchebags. Poker is in many ways a microcosm of the real world, and sadly things like sexism, racism, and all around shitty behavior are very common in our society. I just want to add the perspective of what those of us who aren’t douchebags actually can do to help grow the game we all love, and I think we can all lighten up a bit and be a little more considerate of other people, men and women alike.

Darryll Fish is a poker pro from Cape Coral, Florida. In addition to final table appearances on the World Poker Tour and at the World Series of Poker, Fish also owns a WSOP Circuit ring.

His blog, A Small Fish In A Big Pond, can be read in its entirety here. Fish is also involved with the Live High Community, a project dedicated to promoting joy by inspiring a more passionate, kind and loving humanity. Follow Darryll on Twitter.

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of
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