David Seelow, PhD©
When I asked my students why so many people play poker they responded in expected ways: “thrill,”, “risk,” “money,”, “excitement.” They also clearly acknowledged that women can compete equally with male players and should compete if they so desire. Yet, when I asked why they thought there were not more professional women poker players, the responses varied, and did not really find the target, “not interested in such games,” “better with money,” “less inclined to gamble,” and so forth, but no mention of the idea women might not feel comfortable being the only female player in a game where they are not particularly well received. The potential for verbal harassment, sexist commentary, less than subtle attempts to “pick up” the female player, as opposed to playing against her, are high in any highly charged territory coded as male. Plus, much as they may want to carry a six shooter in their purse, today’s casinos or swank hotels don’t exactly allow such accessories.
Poker exploded in popularity at the turn of the recent century. A few factors coalesced to bring about this poker phenomenon:
- The formation of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) by Benny Binion in Las Vegas (1970),
- The mainstream broadcasting of poker tournaments by ESPN, a sports network, making the game a spectator sport of sorts,
- The popularity of the movie Rounders (1998) and its A- list Hollywood cast, and
- The emergence and growth of online poker sites.
The WSOP brought together many colorful professional players like Johnny Chan (the inaugural winner), Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Amarillo Slim and many others. The competitive atmosphere of a tournament structure imitating professional sports and the presence of colorful personalities caught on. When a major sports broadcaster like ESPN and the invention and use of a miniature camera or “hole cam” used to show an audience the players hidden cards, entered the poker world, the game’s popularity as a spectator sport and a game to play for money soared.
I have written about Rounders before, but just note the film, had significant impact in drawing more players into the game’s orbit. However, the rise of online poker guaranteed a mass audience- international audience-as well as a burst of new ‘amateur’ players. Online poker allowed amateur players or hobbyists to hone their skill through repeated play to the point where such players could migrate to the casino and be successful. Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker’s victory at the 2003 WSOP gave hope to amateurs going pro. Moreover, the opportunities for amateurs to hone their skills in the privacy of their home, also allows females to play without the threat of harassment or the uncomfortable feeling of being the only women at the table.
Women learned well. A Norwegian teenager, Annette Obrested, who started playing online at around 16, graduated to the table, sort of speak, and, still a teenager, won first place at the 2007 European World Series of Poker with a million plus pounds for her purse. Most impressive of the new women players has been Vanessa Selbst, who also started online, and has won over $11 million and 3 WSOP bracelets. Selbst, who holds a law degree from Yale. She now uses her game skills as an investment consultant with Bridgewater Associates, a stellar Connecticut based hedge fund.
When you search women and poker you turn up stories like “The 10 Hottest Female Poker Players,” or “20 Hottest Women in Poker,” so the sexist climate of much media attention remains, but the success at the table with hot hands not hot bodies has helped erode the masculine fortresses or Bat Caves of poker. Two of the most celebrated women of poker, one a player, and one a planner/manager, Annie Duke and Molly Bloom, hold special interest for thinking about poker, culture and gender.
The Duchess of Poker: Annie Duke
“Cards were the glue that held my family together” (p. 55).
Annie Duke achieved her fame by winning a WSOP bracelet in 2004. That fame catapulted when she finished runner up to the late Joan Rivers on President Trump’s old Reality TV show “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009. The following year Duke won the first poker Tournament of Champions beating star male player Erik Seidel. Duke has since met with both criticisms, for her role in the online poker scandals, and praise for her foundations. 1 For this blog, my focus is the self-representation of gender in professional poker.
Four factors strike me most about Duke’s upbringing as discussed in her memoir How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, And Won Millions at the World Series of Poker (2005). First, the high expectations placed on her by her father who taught English at St. Paul’s, a noted private school in New Hampshire. Mr. Lederer was an expert on language and his facility with words mixed in with high expectations for his children no doubt contributed to Annie’s competitiveness and academic acumen. She graduated with a dual major from Columbia (psychology and English-the one thing we share-English at Columbia!) and went right to the edge of her doctorate at Penn (she studied cognitive psychology and language acquisition at Penn before leaving ABD, i.e. all but dissertation, the eternal limbo for so many striving academics). Duke uses her expertise in cognitive psychology to great effect in reading the “tells” of her opponents and her facility with making rational, clear headed decisions, i.e. she makes a game with considerable chance as much as possible a game of skill).2 Second, Duke’s brother Howard Lederer, who was a sports better and world class poker player, obviously gave her an advantage when she did turn to poker for a career.
Most fascinating to me, turns out to be, how the rational thinker abandons her doctorate at the penultimate moment and end up getting married to David Duke, a man she barely knew. Annie moves with Duke to Billings Montana, a far cry from Philly, and settles there where she stumbles onto poker. As she remarks, “It struck me that I hadn’t really chosen the life I was about to enter, I’d gotten there through inertia” (x). In other words, life deal her the cards, but she played them so well. In Montana, Annie ends up, much like Poker Alice, supporting the family through her brilliant play at the Crystal Lounge in Billings, against “thick fingered cowboys” and “boozy rednecks.” Not a comfortable location for an attractive young woman, but Annie used her “alien” personae to her advantage and played the players like a virtuoso violinist.
Fourth, and most important in launching her accidental poker career, has be the importance of the game to her entire family. “A card game on the kitchen table or the floor of my dad’ study became the safety zone in my family. It was a separate universe, where we were momentarily happy,” (p. 53). That is the value of a game- family togetherness. Note her description of taking a seat at the rough and tumble Montana poker table, “When I sat down among them, their stares took an odd combination of curiosity and indignation. It was as if a three-toed sloth had wandered onto their ranch and was about to unsettle the cattle” (p. 129). Of course, the men’s stereotyping Annie only sabotaged their play. As Duke writes, “…they thought I was there to be seduced,” and, that male ego ended up with her seducing them. She took their money and left alone.
Duke divided these cowboys (pp. 133-134) into two vulnerable camps, “the flirter” who wants to bang the women players, and the “angry chauvinist” who sees her as a bitch trying to ruin his male paradise (here much like how the fictional Stanley Kowlalski sees Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar named Desire). Her characterization of the dazed and confused poker studs has a deep and somewhat amusing irony.
” They would call when they should have folded. They would raise when they should have called. So deep was the resolve not to let a woman beat them at-a game that was so tightly identified with their manhood, they would make thesorts of blundered decisions that were relatively easy to exploit. I could get them unhinged, enticing them into a pot with a subtle expression on my face.
It was great.
And then I would smile as the dealer pushed the pile of chips in my direction” (pp. 132-133).
Duke’s ultimate lesson for future female players of any game or sport, however, has less to do with using masculine bias to their advantage and more to being true to your own self or as the great mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, was fond of saying, “follow your bliss.” Duke writes empathetically that, “I had to play poker because I wanted to, regardless of what others thought. I love the game. I’m good at it” (p. 188). She may have stumbled into the game, but when society does not encourage exploration of all options for all genders that might be how you find you passion and as Annie Duke says, when you find the passion, play- because no game is, in the end, a man’s game.
The Princess of Poker: Molly Bloom
Like Annie Duke, Molly Bloom grew up in a highly competitive family. Her exacting father was, like Annie’s, an academic. In Molly’s case, her dad was a professor of psychology at Colorado State University. He showed her, “…everything was a lesson in pushing past the limits and being the best, we could possibly be” (p.1). Her younger brother Jeremy was a super athlete- and top ranked United States skier, 3 time world champion, as well being drafted as a professional football player by the Philadelphia Eagles. Her other brother, Jordan, a Brainiac, is now cardiac-thoracic surgeon at the renowned Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Again, like Annie Duke, Molly excelled at academics (graduate summa cum laude from University of Colorado). She also achieved success as a downhill skier before a serious fall ended her Olympic aspirations in 1999. A final early similarity with Annie, Molly abandoned academic life and law school for something more adventurous and uncertain. However, Molly, rather than trek to the Montana wild, went east to Europe and discovered, on a study abroad in Greece, that “I still cared about school, but now I cared just as much about life experience and adventure” (p.12).
When an attractive young woman seeks adventure, well, either L.A. or NYC, beckons, and Molly found both. She started in L.A., much like an aspiring actress working as a waitress. Her chairman and good looks caught the attention of a young Real Estate Trust beneficiary who moved Molly over to a high end Beverly Hills restaurant where the rich and famous dined. He hired her as a personal assistant and Molly went Hollywood with new makeup and clothes as befitting her new environment. Molly’s charm and astute learning skills led her into the high stakes’ poker games at the famous Viper Room where tips were in the thousands.
Molly may not have started graduate school like Annie Duke, but she definitely studied,” …this game [poker] was the next level of my education. Everything that passed in front of my eyes was another lesson in economics, in psychology, in entrepreneurship,” (p. 73). She achieved straight A’s by using her academic skills, tremendous powers of observation and keen psychological insights to become a master graduate student of poker. One key element of Molly’s success had to do with her ability to learn every player’s personality in detail and, then, make herself indispensable to their poker lives. Molly’s attractiveness as a young woman helped in this strategy, but her superior intelligence allowed her, with help from Phillip Whitford, to wrestle the game from a man she calls Reardon- in actual life- real estate mogul Darin Feinstein co-owner of the Viper Room). In the L.A. Boss Battle, Molly beat the man. As she describes, “I dressed like a woman and looked like a woman, but I could speak the language of men fluently” (p.175).
At the same time Molly took over the west coast poker scene, she realized controlling the game did not upset the larger patriarchal power structures such as the banks. The only woman in the room could win, but the only women in the city could not and she was squeezed out of L.A. when the banks started treating her business as too risky.
Like any ambitious entrepreneur, Molly went to where the real money and power resided in New Yok City. New York had the investment and hedge fund executives, Wall Street tycoons, Russian oligarchs etc., who were genuine power brokers. Regardless, Molly continued to play the role of Game Master/Dungeon Master, Poker Master-Mistress. She lived the fantasy life of the Manhattan and Hamptons elite. I almost sense a parallel with S & M, with Molly the mistress over the supplicant Wall Street power brokers whose fantasy of submission gets disseminated through their fetishistic worship of money. However, running underground poker made her a prime target for underground everything else. New York also brought the “mob”- Italian and Russian versions. In a city just recently swiped clean of much underground activity, including poker clubs like the Mayfair, by former Major Rudy Giuliani, Molly’s meteoric rise to high society would have an equally meteoric fall. As Molly sums up her experience, “I had arrived in New York just a few years prior in a flash and a fury, and I left in silence and alone” (p.254).
The movie adaptation of Molly’s memoir, beautifully written/directed by Aaron Sorkin and superbly acted by Jessica Chastain, captures the drama- the real adrenalin rush of high stakes poker games, and Molly’s tragic arc akin to a Greek tragedy with its hubris and moral caution. In the end, Molly’s Game offers different lessons from Annie Duke’s game with regards to women in poker. Annie clearly showed that poker is not a man’s game. She played against and beat the best male players in high level completion. That’s a valuable lesson for any girl who wants to pursue a love for some game or profession misrepresented as male. Molly, on the other hand, did not play poker. She ran or managed the games as an event planner. Consequently, Molly operated on a kind of executive level, again the only female in this area at the time. Her risks were those of any entrepreneur- though magnified by her being female. She had to find the right mix of players, the right location, the right catering/atmosphere, as well as manage the large sums of money- collecting and making sure debts were paid. It was this money entanglement that ultimately led to her arrest. So, yes, Molly shows a woman can beat men at their own game on another level from that of the actual table, i.e. as a powerful and successful entrepreneur on traditionally hyper male territory. At the same time, Molly’s story shows women can be seduced by the same temptations as men. Money and power can destroy the best intentioned women.
Reading Molly Bloom’s memoir you can sense at many junctures her thirst for power- always a woman, but slowly seduced by the trappings of male success. She was isolated from her family, developed a substance problem, lost romantic partners, and ultimately, took the “rake”- the lure of more money when more will only raise your call to you are busted. Molly’s hamartia was her ambition.
Molly Bloom would not let men control her, but she let money slowly take over her life. Two quotes stay with me long after reading her memoir. They show power of poker as a game, a metaphor for life in telling ways. In one passage she discloses the Iago lurking in men sitting around the poker table:
” There’s something that happens to people when they see the opportunity to make money. Greed flavored with desperation, especially at the poker table, gives rise to a moment when the eyes change, the humanity vanishes, and the players become blood thirsty, flat-eyed predators” (p.207).
That statement represents a deep truth about how money can alter, or perhaps, draw out, our worst tendencies. We can see around the globe how money can compromise integrity and threaten our environment, our health and even our long range survival.
Although Molly’s humanity never vanished, the quote does apply to some degree to her downfall. Money and power trumped her best hand before she knew enough to fold. At the same time, Molly’s story, like her famous namesake at the end of James Joyce’s magnificent novel Ulysses, ends with a very Irish affirmation of life. She describes a “seven-day trek through Peru, ending at Maccha Picchu,” that she made with her brother. I was reminded of Pablo Neruda’s extraordinary poem “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” (1944) about his journey to the same heights of the world; an interior journey to the ancient past, and the deepest self. Molly concludes, after reaching the top, with an epiphany worth thinking about:
“About the game. When I was holding court in those decadent penthouses, I felt like I was on top of the world, but it was a material world. There was so much excitement and drama around me. All the kings of that world sat together, players with their empires. When the last card was dealt, when the table was put away, after the maids came through, there was no evidence of the rivalries, no vestiges of glory, no great monument to victory. There was just silence, as if it had never happened at all (p. 259).
The silence felt in an empty penthouse on the top of a city skyscraper leavers Molly empty. Indeed, how different the height of a skyscraper constructed in opposition to, or hubristic domination of nature, to the height of the Peruvian mountain range. On Macchu Picchu, I am told the silence is spiritual, fulfilling not emptying and that’s what Molly’s final passage implies. She and her brother are surrounded by genuine wonder of the ancient Incan citadel and its harmonious integration with the glory of the natural world far from the cities of personal ambition. The final lesson has to do with humility, and perspective. Not so much that poker is just a game, but the game is like life- be respectful, smart, and humble and you will do than if you approach with the game/life arrogance, hunger, and overarching ambition. Play your cards well. In the end, Annie Duke and Molly Bloom show us that women can compete and succeed head to head with men at the poker table as well as over and around the table. They, and many others, have reclaimed poker from male control and shown the value of diversity and openness to the game. At the same time, Molly’s memoir shows women are just as capable of men of being seduced by the monster of material ambition. That’s a benefit many of should take to heart.
1. Annie has been associated with certain organizations that have come under attack including the online site Ultimate Bet, the Epic Poker League and Full Tilt Poker, where her brother was a founding board member. Although Annie was never found guilt of nay crime some critics dislike her past affiliations and believe they compromise her credibility. On the other hand, Annie has been very involved with some highly regarded charities including Ante Up for Africa and After-School All-Stars.
2. I have written in in earlier blog about how Annie has applied her poker skills to making effective life decisions and helping others become better decision makers. She is co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education, which focuses on helping youth think more clearly and make more reasonable decisions than they might ordinarily make.
Molly’s Game was a great movie!