Women players at World Series of Poker still rare sight

July 1, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) Women at the World Series of Poker are like a royal flush: rare.

Last year, the gender split for the Main Event of the weeks-long tournament in Las Vegas was almost 24 to 1. This year's highly popular Colossus event attracted more than 22,000 entries but only 1,416 were women, just 6 percent.

Making poker more appealing to women has been a long-standing quandary for industry observers and players who wonder what it will take to get more women to the table.

''There's a big market out there, untapped,'' said Jessica Dawley, a poker pro and something of an ambassador for women in poker through sponsor 888poker, who said intimidation and the not uncommon sexist comments from male players at the table can be a factor.

Put them all in the same room for a ladies-only no limit hold `em championship, though, and there's more banter, laughter and compliments traded than at the tournament's other events, with no lack of serious gameplay.

Take what happened to high-profile defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden when she pushed all of her remaining chips in for one last bet Friday night, and lost, even with an ace. Her table-mates offered her congratulations and friendly goodbyes, a different sort of collegiality not regularly seen at an all-male table where there might be handshakes but also poker faces masked by hoodies, dark sunglasses and silent intensity.

Not to say women aren't serious and don't wear hoodies or sunglasses and not to say men don't have any fun.

The air felt a little lighter in the ladies-only event room, however.

Baden, 61, had just gotten a text that her newest granddaughter, Ciara Grace, had arrived in the world.

''So, I just went all-in. Time to go,'' she said afterward. ''I just won anyway.''

Jacquelyn Scott, a 66-year-old real-estate agent from Florida, had never played a ladies-only tournament until this year's world series and won, outlasting 795 players for the $153,876 top prize and the tournament's coveted gold bracelet.

''It's fun, but make no mistake, there are some excellent, excellent players,'' she said of the ladies-only room.

The World Series of Poker, which has 68 events this year, has offered a ladies-only event since 1977. From a little more than 100 entries in 2002 to 10 times that by 2006 the number dropped to nearly 800 entrants the past two years.

The event was occasionally infiltrated by men less interested in playing and more in mocking the endeavor. For the past three years though, men who wanted to play faced a $10,000 entry fee while women enjoyed a 90 percent discount. The men went elsewhere.

Women hardly confine themselves to the ladies-only event.

Vanessa Selbst, the winningest woman in poker, has won three bracelets and earned some $2.1 million in World Series of Poker events.

Hollywood screenwriter Carol Fuchs was the first woman to win a World Series of Poker gold bracelet this year in one of the more difficult events, dealers choice, which requires players to know something about 18 different variations of poker.

888poker in New Jersey is among sites that have invested in sponsoring women such as Dawley.

The former Air Force reserve intelligence analyst thinks more could be done to make poker welcoming for women.

How about casino-hosted ladies-only training sessions and zero-tolerance policies for disrespectful players saying misogynistic things? she said.

The incentive is simple, Dawley said: more women mean more players and more money being bet.

Last Friday, 82-year-old Mary ''Mayo'' Gruzinski went all-in to stay alive against actress Jennifer Tilly, who won the event in 2005 and happened to be sitting at her table.

Gruzinski was fulfilling a life's dream to play in the World Series of Poker.

''My daddy was a poker player. My brother was a poker player,'' Gruzinski said.

And so is she.