When the Stud is a Woman: Challenging Gender Roles at the Poker Table


David Seelow, PhD

Women as Wildcard in the Old West Saloon

            Discovering Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977) and Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race (1979) in graduate school served as a revelation to alternate histories and an introduction to feminist theory. In the case of Showalter, as a graduate student in literature, I already know the great women novelists such as Jane Austen (1778-1817), the Brontes (Charlotte 1816-1855, Emily 1818-1848, Anne 1820-1849), George Elliot (1819-1880), Mary Shelly, (1797-1851), Elizabeth Gaskill (1810-1865) and others, but the idea  that women had a separate tradition and, perhaps, needed a separate tradition because of the lack of historical role models had not crossed my mind. I had read and studied almost exclusively male writers during my undergraduate years. Showalter model of imitation, revolt and self-discovery made perfect sense. Afterall even in sports, Billie Jean King had to create the Virginia Slims Tour as a step to women’s equality in professional tennis and that equality, in turn, is necessary to attract youth to the sports.1 In terms of Greer’s work, I discovered an entire new world of women painters I had no idea existed (Artemsia Gentileschi 1593-1652 being my favorite).2 In fact, I had taken two excellent Art History courses at Columbia with two brilliant and renowned art historians and we had not discussed any of the painters Greer brought to our collective attention. When History is written by men you read and study men, and these two feminist scholars helped change all that.

            As with literature and fine art so too with poker. We are told poker is the most masculine of games and the old west with its frontier gunslingers and cardsharps seems to prove that, but then we typically only learn about poker’s history from men. Truth be told, the wild west had some amazing women poker players. I like to think of these women as wild cards because they defied any simple role definition, rejected stereotypes and thrived as their own persons. Take Kitty LeRoy (1850-1877), who only lived until age 28, but managed to be  child star, superb dancer/entertainer, marksman (marksperson), expert with knives-something like a ninja or Elektra of the wild west, a business person, and ardent lover (5 husbands in her short life). The fact Kitty was shot dead by her final husband, Samuel Curley, signifies how historically men, even more than their literary representations (e.g.  Stanley Kowalski from the play A Streetcar Named Desire, 1949), could not tolerate independent women.

            Other women challenged gender stereotypes in just as colorful fashion as Kitty LeRoy (see Harris 2019, 69-72). For instance, Eleanor Dumont (1829-1879) operated her own high class club “Vingt-et-un” serving champagne not whiskey in Nevada City, California. I like to think of her as a precursor of Molly Bloom, and, perhaps, as with other female proprietors, a touch of Heidi Floss. Perhaps, the best, if still not well known, figure was Poker Alice (1853-1930) aka Alice Evers, a British native. Like her male counterparts, though more resourceful, Alice was nomadic and supported herself, after her first husband died in a mining accident, through her poker skills. Alice allegedly broke a bank- “Gold Dust Gambling House” in Silver City, New Mexico and later became a legend in notorious Deadwood, South Dakota. Her poker skills rivalled, if not, exceeded that of any male player. Old photographs show Alice in shabby men’s clothes smoking a big fat black cigar, poker face intact, at the card table. However, these photos misrepresent the complexity of Alice. Like their literary counterparts George Elliot aka Mary Ann Evans and George Sand aka Amantine Lucile-Aurore Dupin, women poker players wearing traditional masculine attire gave highly skilled women access to male domains. Additionally, such attire had the practical benefit of being comfortable, especially, as in the case of Alice, when carrying a six shooter ready to hand might mean the difference between life and death. In no sense can these multitalented women be considered masculine. Elliot had a lifelong affair with the married critic George Henry Lewes (1817-1878), and Sand had several affairs including those with the great Romantic poet Alfred du Musset (1810-1857) and the composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). As for Poker Alice, in her youth she dressed in the most feminine attire of the day, often using her poker winnings to purchase high fashion clothes in New York City. These pioneering women challenged stereotypes and convention on many levels. If Alice, a highly religious women, also ran a brothel-named “Poker Palace” near Sturgis, South Dakota, and bootlegged, these roles testify to her resourcefulness and ability to circumvent and subvert the obstacles talented women faced in the 19th century and before. If Alice seems a paradox in her mixture of Bible worship and brothel management keep in mind the legendary ‘hero’ Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) also had a hand in brothel management while in Peoria, Illinois and engaged in horse stealing, just as he later worked as a sheriff.

            I would suggest that thinking of Poker Alice exclusively as a dowdy elderly woman smoking a fat cigar would be like thinking of Wyatt Earp only as a horse thief. When History is written by men the result is the biased history, we generally have in text books and poular understanding. The history of poker is no exception, but as the above examples show, women have always been prominent and highly skilled poker studs and these marginalized historical figures can serve as a model for the modern lady poker player who I will discuss in a part three of this blog in a couple of weeks.

“Poker Alice” Ivers as a youth, Wikimedia Commons, pubic domain, Courtesy of the South Dakota Historical Society.

My Mom’s Hand: Poker and Women at Home

            The idea that poker is a man’s game, even at the hobbyist or home level, can be reexamined just like the fiction that early poker in the old American west was a man’s domain. As I discuss in a forthcoming essay on “Poker and Masculinity,” my dad played poker every Friday night with other village men. Low stakes, but exclusively male; a sign of dominance and entitlement. The wives stayed home and cared for the kids, knit, or, I guess, sipped coffee. Maybe they could get together and play Bridge, but never poker. Well, maybe. As a child, every Thanksgiving, we would go to my paternal Grandfather’s house. In the early afternoon we watched American football- a man’s game for sure! My grandmother, Nonny would cook everything with help from mom and Aunt Emma. Next, we would eat- Poppy- my grandpa- at the head of the table, and then after dinner, women would clean up as us guys finished watching the games. Once everything was cleaned and dried- no dishwasher mind you- the guys would regather at the table for late afternoon and early evening poker before pie! Noni and Aunt Emma would sit and chat in the living room, but not my mother, no, she sat at the poker table and played against the men. Guess what? She beat us virtually every time.

            My mother was much like those multifaceted women of the wild west. She was willing to provide emotional support for my father and stay in the background (though I doubt she was content) and play society’s prescribed role, but only to a degree. Growing up on a farm, she acted as my uncle’s (her twin brother’s) protector. She was tough, a no nonsense tomboy as girls taking on so called male roles were called.  She never shied away from smacking a bully, but mom also quietly made valedictorian. As a Registered Nurse, she again played the accepted role for women as helpers, always knowing she knew more than the doctors she “played” second fiddle to. But that Thanksgiving poker playing proved a sign of things to come. When playing second string strained a bit in the 1960’s budding cultural liberation, mom stepped out of the shadow, and unlike Stella Kowalski, rather than put up with the male bluster and put downs, she divorced my dad and went to live on her own. Although woefully underpaid as a nurse, she made enough to support herself. Not surprisingly, when my mother made that step forward, several other poker wives did as well, and Friday night poker dissolved in the face of the need for suddenly separated husbands to live without the foundation and support that made possible their Friday night fun.

            I have no doubt my mother could have been a professional poker player should she have chosen that route, just as I have no doubt, she could easily have become a psychiatrist or internist rather than a nurse, if she had grown up post second wave feminism. However, mom just wanted to play poker with the men, on equal grounds, and have fun. She knew poker was no more a man’s game than soccer/football. Playing poker simply showed the range of interests’ women could enjoy and find fulfillment with whether for fun or career, if given an opportunity.

            In the next blog, a former student of mine at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, Grace Magee, will write about her own experience learning poker from her grandfather. Grace is a superb student, and a contemporary feminist, confident, independent and not tethered by social media or male prescriptions about what a young woman should study or how she should act. One assignment in my class on cyberculture required the students to talk about their experience with games and offered students the opportunity to speak to the class about their favorite game and what that game meant to him or her. I was not all surprised that Grace, who true to her name, speaks eloquently, agreed to present, but when she presented on poker as her favorite game, I was surprised, perhaps, at my own half buried preconceptions. In reading Grace’s account of learning and playing poker in the second decade of the 21st century we will learn about the limitations of considering poker to be a the “real” man’s game. Her blog will then provide a bridge to the final section on professional women poker players and the culture of today.

Notes

1. If as Showalter suggests women thrived by creating their own tradition in a culture dominated by men the same can be said more recently of women athletics. Both professional women tennis players and golfers, for instance, have their own tours. In tennis, pioneer Billie Jean King and 8 others formed their own professional circuit called the Virginia Slims Tour on September 23, 1970. They broke from the United States Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer over the grossly unequal pay between male and female tennis pros, men usually earning 2 ½ times the pay as the women players at the same event with the same venue and audience. Although these 9 brave women risked losing rankings, money and opportunities to play major events, they took the risk and went on their own boycotting the 1970 Pacific Southwest Championships in L.A. Jack Kramer, a legendary American tennis star himself, refused to change the purse distributions which paid the men 8 times what the women could earn. The women proved to be much bigger “men” than the prejudiced Jack Kramer and followed through with the boycott.  Two years later, the Women’s Professional Tennis Association was formed with Billie Jean King as the inaugural president and equal pay was given to men and women at that year’s United States Tennis Open in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. The Title IX amendment to the United States Higher Education Act of 1965 guaranteeing equal treatment of men and women in any institution receiving federal aid was passed in 1972. Yet today, the United States’ women’s soccer team which just defended its World Cup (7/7/19) title besting the Netherlands 2-0, continues, some 46 years later, fighting for parity with men’s soccer. The monumental hypocrisy of the pay inequity in soccer has no reasonable explanation. In tennis, the argument in favor of men being paid more than women rested on the fact that men did play 3 out of 5 sets and women 2 out of 3 at the U.S. Open and the other 3 major championships.  Additionally, supporters of unequal pay proffer the fuzzier belief that male players are responsible for more corporate sponsorship and greater attendance at the major events. None of these “facts’ or beliefs currently apply to professional soccer in America. The United States men’s team has not even come close to winning a World Cup and their players are not nearly as well known as the top women players like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe or Rose Lavelle etc. Consequently, I notice many young girls wanting to play soccer, but young boys continue toward football, basketball, baseball and even lacrosse before soccer. So, why are the male players earning twice as much as the female players? The endemic cultural sexism that the me too# movement has exposed continues as a force in professional sports, entertainment, business and education. You wonder why there are not so many female poker players? The fault is in the culture, not the stars.

1. For a quick history and biographies of the original 9 tennis pros see, Lincoln, Adam. “The women who changed tennis: Why the ‘original 9’ matter to the WTA,” September 21, 2017, retrieved from

https://www.wtatennis.com/news/women-who-changed-tennis-why-original-9-matter-wta, 7/13/2019. Web.

For an excellent discussion of American soccer gender inequality see the two following articles in the The Times

Goodman, Lizzy. “The Best Women’s Soccer Team in the World Fights for Equal Pay,” The New York Times Magazine, July 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/10/magazine/womens-soccer-inequality-pay.html retrieved 7/10/2019, retrieved July 10, 2019.

Crouse, Lindsay. “American soccer: Where Men are Men, and Women are Repeat World Cup Champions,” July 13, 2019, The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/13/opinion/womens-soccer-world-cup.html, retrieved July 15, 2019. Web.

2. Artemisia Gentileschi is an interesting historical example of double standards on many levels. Although I am not qualified to speak of her painting or life in any detail, I point out that her skill rivalled that of her much more famous male colleagues. Further, she was raped at age 17 by one of her father’s colleagues, Agostino Tassi. The nature of this abuse is one of the obstacles of women artists, which Greer’s work brings to the surface. Gentileschi’s early painting “Susanna and the Elders,” (1610), takes a subject painted by great male painters such as Rembrandt, Tintoretto and Veronese, but from a woman’s perspective that exposes the male painters’ evident interest in showing the female body, i.e. voyeuristic preoccupation, at the expense of the trauma that Gentileschi stresses. See, “Susanna and the Elders,” from Women n’Art: Remembering forgotten women, August 23, 2017 by natashamoura, https://womennart.com/2017/08/23/susanna-and-the-elders/, retrieved 7/14/2019. Web. She quotes from feminist art historian Griselda Pollock’s excellent book, Differencing the Canon: Revisions, Critical Studies in the History and Theory of Art.  Routledge, 1999, to support how radically different Gentileschi approaches the female body from that of her famous male counterparts.

Works Cited

Editors. “Wyatt Earp: American Frontiersman,” March 15, 2019. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wyatt-Earp, retrieved 7/01/2019. Web.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2001, originally published in 1979 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Harris, Martin. Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game. D&B Publishing, 2019.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton University Press; Expanded subsequent edition, 1998.  Originally published in 1977.

Weiser, Kathy. “Eleanor Dumont-Madame Mustache Plays the West,” Legends of America, April 2017, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-eleanoredumont/, retrieved 6/10/2019.

_______.“Kitty Leroy- Lady Gambler & Gunfighter,” Legends of America, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-kittyleroy/, updated September 2017, retrieved 6/05/2019.

_______. “Poker Alice-Famous Frontier Gambler,” Legends of America, September 2017. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-pokeralice/, retrieved, 2/20/2019. Web.

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