Why Aren’t More Women Playing Poker?

Poker has become more attractive to women, but the proportions are incomparable.

When it comes to sports, there has been a clear line dividing male-only and female-only competitions. There are a few exceptions, though, like poker — a game where women and men face each other. Still, the gender representation in tournaments paints a different picture. Why’s that?

Is poker a “male” sport?

More men than women play poker, though the game places both genders at the same tables.

Of all the top poker tournaments played around the world, perhaps the one that’s most sought after is the World Series of Poker (WSOP). The competition started in 1970, putting up against each other only seven of the best poker players of the time. And while the first edition of the WSOP was more like an exhibition show, throughout the years, the competition has grown to an event that regularly attracts over 7,000 people to its Main Event alone (there are 74 events in total).

Though most of the winners of the final tables are from the U.S., there isn’t much hegemony concerning WSOP “masters.” No player has managed to win the final bout more than twice. One thing that stands out, however, is that there’s a uniformity when it comes to gender: all winners are male, which is representative of the whole industry. Men disproportionately dominate not only the list of tournament winners but the players’ count as well. So, why is a game that allows men and women to play against each other have such a weak female presence? The possible answer is multifaceted but accessible.

What does history say?

Historically, men have played poker for much longer.

When poker came to see the light of day, sometime in the early middle of 19th century USA, it spread mostly among cowboys, sailors and gold rushers: all trades that back then men dominated. The game stuck with the population, and in the 20th century, became a popular recreational activity — for men who would play during their male-only gatherings. Given its historical development, which for decades placed poker in the hands of men only, it’s not surprising that the game is not so popular among women.

What do the scientists say?

Could risk averseness explain why fewer women play poker compared to men?

However, history alone is not enough to explain why poker doesn’t enjoy a stronger female presence. In this modern age of digital communications and mobile gaming, poker could reach every demographic that can legally play easily. So, the historical unavailability of the game to women could be offset easily by targeted marketing. But psychology might explain what makes poker more attractive to men than to women.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled “Do Women Take as Many Risks as Men?” talks about several studies that conclude that women are more risk averse than men. According to one of the studies, when faced with stressful situations, women become less of risk-takers while men do the contrary. While poker as a recreational activity can be quite relaxing, doing it for a living can be quite stressful, especially at big tournaments. The competition is intense, the stakes are high, and there are cameras everywhere — it’s no different than when competing at other top sports events like the World Cup or Olympics. Such might explain why women may drop out earlier from tournaments than men: they are less prone to taking risks in a game where big wins require bold moves. It might also explain why women don’t continue playing poker regularly once they’ve started: the unpredictability of the game is not enjoyable to them. However, it doesn’t explain why they don’t pick up poker at all.

Perhaps another study that the HBR piece presented sheds further light on the subject. According to it, women are perceived to be more risk-averse. Why this perception exists is a topic for another day, but what’s critical is how such a notion relates to women and poker. On the one hand, the belief that women are less likely to take risks becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, alienating women from the game. In turn, such perceptions, along with the low female interest in poker, mean that the game is less marketed to this demographic, further making it less popular among women.

Men and women react differently to risk when money is involved.

Another psychological difference has to do with the potential financial gain. Research published by the Gender Action Portal over at Harvard Kennedy School found that “when women have even small amount of income, they are more willing to take future risks. Instead, men increase their risk-taking after winning, even if the odds do not favor them subsequently.” The research involved a lottery and not a skill-based game like poker, but it gave some insight into how women and men respond to risk when money is involved. To relate this to poker: if women are confident that they have enough chips to make it through the game, they’ll be more likely to take risky decisions (i.e., bluff) on the table. When it comes to men, the more chips they win, the more likely they’ll take risks. Could it be that once the chips are down, female players become more cautious while men start playing more aggressively, taking over the table?

Who are the ladies who’ve conquered the felt?

Caption: Female poker pros might be few, but they regularly make the headlines.

While men disproportionately dominate poker, women, too, achieved great successes. Here are some of the best female poker players.

Vanessa Selbst

Vanessa Selbst was the most successful female poker player until she gave up the game to pursue a career in stock trade. During her poker years, Selbst reached many firsts, and she continues to be on the top of the female list in live tournament winnings. Vanessa holds degrees in political science and law from Yale where she transferred from MIT.

Liv Boeree

Brit Liv Boeree is the current top female player. She is the only female poker player to have won both a World Series of Poker and a European Poker Tour. Boeree, who graduated with a degree in astrophysics from the University in Manchester, is a regular speaker on the topics of science and poker and maintains a blog where she writes about them.

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova has only been playing for a year but has already made a name for herself. Maria graduated from Harvard with degrees in psychology and creative writing and holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University. A writer by trade, she was amid preparing a book on poker and psychology when she picked up the game. It turned out she’s quite good at it.

What do women say about poker?

Liv Boeree says there’s no inherent difference between male and female poker players.

These women are only a small proof that the reason poker doesn’t enjoy a bolder female presence is not that women are not good at the game. So, what do they have to say about it?

Kara Scott, a poker reporter and player over at 888poker, said to Vice: “I’d prefer if it [poker] was more evenly split gender-wise, but being a woman in poker means that you’re more likely to get PR offers because you are more visible — same as being a sportsperson or an actor.” But Scott does recognize that the game is not promoted enough to women: “When you market something so hard towards one gender or one demographic, it can feel kind of exclusionary,” Scott said. She then continued to talk about all the “middle-aged and retirement-aged women who play” and who don’t get the same exposure as younger, attractive female players.

Liv Boeree noted for PokerListings that “we see more girls in poker, typically young, educated women,” and it feels like the number of female players will keep rising. But the Brit also thinks that women in poker are “underrepresented.” In the interview, Liv also talked about the difference between men and women when related to poker skills. “Women are very intuitive […], otherwise there’s not really much difference,” she said. According to Boeree, to win at the game, it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman: what matters is how well you prepare.

There’s nothing to suggest that either women or men are predisposed to playing or winning at poker. What makes a good player is the ability to know when primal responses, such as emotions, feelings and instincts, help and when they need taming. Anyone, male or female, can master them.

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