Turning the tables
The untold story of women in gaming
The world of gaming isn’t often perceived as a woman’s world.
In fact, it's largely been a male-dominated area of interest since its conception, but has this changed over the course of time? In this modern age, are we really as inclusive as we like to think we are? Have women ever been encouraged to partake as equals when it comes to games of chance?
Join us as we take a look at how the world of gaming has changed for women over the years…
Gaming is a concept that dates back almost 4,500 years, but it hasn’t always been seen as a harmless form of amusement. In 18th century England, only lotteries that were run and authorised by the government were considered lawful. Although the money garnered from the lottery was important, many thought that gambling was an unnecessary vice that worked to disrupt the status quo. By 1739, several games had been outlawed: ace of hearts, basset, faro, hazard and roly-poly.
Organised gaming houses became a growing concern; they were thought to harbour criminals who would use them as a way of laundering money. The new laws had little effect on the upper-class and upper-middle-class men of the time, who tended to play in gentlemen’s clubs and claimed that this private gambling was outside of the law. For aristocratic women however, gaming was not seen as acceptable in the slightest. In fact, it was even suggested that gaming would affect a woman’s ability to produce healthy children:
But that didn’t deter one group of aristocratic women; Lady Buckinghamshire, Lady Sarah Archer, Mrs Sturt, Mrs Concannon, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, were well-known for their love of gaming. The ladies would host faro tables late into the night, providing a place for aristocratic women to gather, socialise and discuss social and political matters. They soon became known as ‘Faro’s Daughters’.
In 1792, George III made a ‘Proclamation against Vice’, which stated that gambling was a threat to the health of society. As a result, faro players were warned that they would be fined and publicly shamed in the pillory.
Critics targeted the faro ladies, seeing it as particularly disgraceful example of transgression. The press began to use the faro ladies as figures for anti-gaming literature, presenting them as greedy, wanton women. Satirical caricatures were regularly published, which served as a warning (even to those who couldn’t read) that unlawful gaming would not go unpunished.
Due to the fact that the ladies participated in what were perceived to be men’s sports, such as horse riding and gaming, the faro ladies increased the concerns of the Romantic idealists who felt that the habits of the faro ladies broke down the boundaries between the classes and even between men and women, thus threatening to disrupt social order and political power.
Eventually, evidence was brought against the faro ladies; they were found guilty of playing Faro at Lady Buckinghamshire’s house and - although they managed to avoid the pillory - they were each given a fine of £50.
The announcement in The Morning Post, on the 12th January 1800, read:
Wild, Wild West ?
It was in America, however, in the saloons of the Wild West, that the concept of having a specific house, or ‘casino’, in which to play these games really became popular.
It was also here that one of the most legendary women in the history of poker began her career.
Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert had been taught how to play poker by her late husband, Frank Duffield. After his death, however, Alice began dealing at the poker tables as a way of making ends meet. Before long, she had developed a skill for counting cards and figuring odds and she was quickly given the name ‘Poker Alice’.
At this time, gambling was an integrated affair which allowed female participation. Nevertheless, the presence of a ‘lady’ was a rare sight in the gambling halls; they were mainly frequented by prostitutes. Alice was an attractive, well-dressed individual with a quick wit and a penchant for cigar-smoking.
Considered a force to be reckoned with, Alice soon developed a name for herself at the poker tables and would win up to $6,000 on a good night.
Nevertheless, this was 1870s Southern America, and Alice understood the dangers that came with winning such large sums of money in a male-dominated game. For this reason, she always carried a .38 revolver.
Alice eventually opened her own gambling house in 1910, called ‘Poker’s Palace’. It offered liquor, gambling and prostitution, but was always closed on Sunday’s due to Alice’s religious beliefs. In 1913, when drunken soldiers attempted to flout Alice’s rule and enter the establishment, Alice shot one of them dead.
By the time Alice died in 1930, she had won over a quarter of a million dollars around the poker table, had three different husbands, shot two men with her .38 and was a convicted felon at the age of 75.
In many ways, Alice was an anomaly for her time, which is largely why her name has gone down in history. It would be many years before we would see any woman reap such success in the poker halls again.
The casino had long been a sexualised arena, and the 20th century brought little change. For many people, the casino was considered a place that men could come to relax, unwind, and be indulged to the fullest.
The start of the Second World War in 1939 meant that the majority of the male workers had answered the call to fight overseas, meaning the workforce in Nevada’s casinos had been depleted dramatically.
In 1943, the first advert for a female operator was placed in The Nevada State Journal. Although this was originally a venture of necessity, it gave women the opening to join in, as well as attracting more male patrons to the casino hall. This caused a stir amongst the competition, and it wasn’t long before every casino hall in Reno was hiring female game operators.
It wasn’t until 1971, however, that Las Vegas followed suit, with the Silver Slipper hiring their first female cards dealer, and the Union Plaza catching up later that year.
Shirley Brancucci was the first female baccarat dealer on the Las Vegas strip. She worked at the Stardust, under Frank ‘Lefty’ Rottenstall – a pioneer of sports gambling with an unsavoury reputation as an organised crime associate.
Shirley described how nervous she was on her first night, as Frank watched her like a hawk as she dealt out the cards.
"Some of the people (men) would not play if I was on the game," she said. "They would play if I was on the 'money' but not calling the game. So they had me sit on the 'base' all the time."
It wasn’t just gender bias that Shirley was subjected to during her time in Las Vegas, she was also sexually objectified on a number of occasions. She discusses meeting Johnny Rosselli, a renowned mobster and co-owner of the Tropicana, where Shirley worked as cocktail waitress before working at the Stardust.
"Johnny Rosselli, he was very hot. He was messing with me (touching her inappropriately) one day, and I kicked him, and he kicked me back. I didn't know who he was ... I told him I was there to serve drinks and that was what I was doing."
The 70s also brought the first female craps dealers to the strip – one of whom was Deborah Nutton. She was initially told by casino bosses that "bending over the game would ruin your ovaries". Having received a nursing degree from UNLV, Deborah didn’t pay attention to the claims, pursued the position and became a fantastic craps dealer.
By the time she was 25, she had been promoted to the position of boss of the dice pit at the Sands, but wouldn’t spend her breaks in the employee break room with her male co-workers. Instead, she chose to spend her break time in the women’s toilets. Her male colleagues at the Sands called her "that (expletive) broad".
Deborah explains that during her time at the casino, she "tried hard not to complain or do anything", because dealers were expected to "dummy up and deal."
For many women in ‘a man’s world’, the temptation may be to either act more like their male counterparts or, instead, to conform to damaging gender stereotypes. Some may even believe that condoning chauvinistic behaviour will mean that they're included in the dominant male culture.
Deborah, on the other hand, was determined to be herself:
"I decided I was going to be a female 100 percent. I was going to wear a pink dress if I wanted to; I was going to talk about my son."
Her advice to other women would be: "Be a female and embrace that, and be a mother and do that. And then, embrace each other and be each other’s advocate and push for the other females to do well, because we aren’t each other’s competition. If we help each other, then really the sky is the limit."
It’s clear that Deborah didn't let her treatment as a woman dictate her fate; she was appointed Executive Vice President of Casino Operations at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas and is now Senior Vice President of Casino Operations at the MGM Grand.
Deborah isn’t the only one to overcome adversity as a casino worker. When Delaney Gordon started her career as the first female dice dealer over in the UK, she realised it wouldn't be easy.
Like many other women in the field, the early stages of her career had its challenges. On Delaney’s very first shift, she came face-to-face with adversity. It was a busy Saturday night at the club and she was in ‘stick position’, meaning her role was to move the dice around to each player.
"I remember the first customer I had to move the dice to was called Ted. He was well known in the club due to his grumpiness and massive bushy grey eyebrows that made him look a little scary. When I moved the dice to Ted, he refused to throw the dice, and started moaning ‘what has the world come to, having a female dice dealer’."
"I checked with the boxman (supervisor) and he told me to move them onto the next customer. They too refused, and so on, until I was back at square one. I had a choice to make: stand there and be defeated, and no doubt sent from the table, cry or take action! So I took the stick and thwacked it down in front of Ted, nearly shaving off most of his eyebrows."
It wasn’t just the players that didn’t think Delaney was up to the job because she was a woman; when she first started her at the casino, the managers didn’t think having a female dice dealer would work.
Despite the lack of support from co-workers in her early career, she feels that "there has been a big step change in the way women are thought of in casinos" – a point that reflects her subsequent successes within the industry.
Today, Delaney’s career is very much supported and nurtured by her co-workers. Hard work and an opportunity to excel have meant that she now holds the title of General Manager at one of Grosvenor's most popular and fast-paced casinos.
Jokers of the pack
1977 marked the inaugural World Series of Poker’s Ladies Event, and for many people, that Friday 6th of May was an important and progressive turning point that represented a shift in attitudes. This shift meant that women would be encouraged to take part in gaming. It would mean that women no longer felt out-of-place at the poker table.
Nevertheless, there was a darker and more disheartening angle to this ‘progression’; for many people, this event was simply a way of giving male poker players the freedom to play at their leisure, safe in the knowledge that their wives were being kept occupied elsewhere.
Unfortunately, no official records were made at the event, so the number of entrants is unknown. There was a minimal buy-in of $100 for the seven-card stud, which made it the lowest prize pool in WSOP history. The buy-in was raised to $400 between 1979 and 1981, and by 1982, the buy-in had jumped to $500 and there were 64 entrants. It was clear that the interest was there; more and more women were keen to try their hand at the poker table.
By 1991, there were 110 entrants and numbers were climbing year-on-year. The event was alleged to give women a non-threatening environment in which they could play poker, thus encouraging more women to take part in gaming and participate in the World Series.
As the popularity of the events grew, however, so did the logistics of keeping the event solely for women. Over the years, a fair few men had crashed the event, citing anti-discrimination laws. This has caused issues for those that want to keep men out of the ladies' tournament, without spurring a lawsuit.
Palansky’s point was proven when a man playing in the Ladies’ WSOP event proceeded to put a tampon atop his cards in a coarse attempt to affront his female opponents. He was promptly made to sit out for two rounds and faced a serious backlash.
This was not the first or last time that a man would be intent on offending the female participants in the ladies WSOP, however. Professional player Shaun Deeb attended the ladies’ event in 2010 dressed in drag, adorning himself in jewellery and makeup. Deeb later claimed that this had been due to losing a proposition bet and that his outfit was in no way an attempt to offend.
Poker pro and Las Vegas author, Susie Isaacs, says "This is regal for us. It’s our Olympics. Women from all over the world save up their money to play in this tournament, so to have a man take even one of your chips is horrible. Allowing men into this event is like taking a beer party into a Mass. It’s wrong and it’s not the place."
It was apparent that what these women needed was an arena in which they could play serious poker – free from discrimination. They needed place where they could be treated as worthy competitors and as equals.
The advent of the internet, however, was about to change everything, and the world of gaming was no exception.
The new-found accessibility of online gaming meant that inexperienced players, who may have previously been too daunted to sit around the poker table, were now free to play with complete anonymity.
This made for interesting results; despite women in land-based casinos sticking to slot machines rather than the tables, the data from online casinos showed that for many games, the gender split was 50/50.
Philologists had previously theorised that games of skill, such as poker and blackjack, were more popular with men due to their thrilling nature. Women, on the other hand, stuck to the slot machines because they demanded less of their attention, making them more suited to playing socially.
The data from online casinos however, raised some interesting questions. Could it be that it was the intimidating nature of sitting around a table with seasoned players that was drawing women away from the tables and over to the slots? Or perhaps women didn’t just get involved with gaming for social reasons, as was initially presumed. On the other hand, perhaps women had their own talents when it came to poker, and an increasing awareness that that this talent could make them money.
Dicing with wealth
Despite the growing popularity of internet gaming, it wasn’t just online that women were beginning to hone their skills in poker. By 2000, it was clear that women were making big movements in the game, at least when it came to their winnings.
As the first woman to win two gold bracelets at the Ladies’ WSOP event (one in 1988 and another in 1994), Barbara Enright had started to make a name for herself around the poker tables. Barbara began playing cards at the tender age of four, when she would play five card draw against her older brother. These early losses had a young Barbara Enright in tears, but little did we know that her thirst for victory against her male counterparts was not set to end here.
Despite there being some standout female players on the poker scene, very few were competing in the main WSOP event in Las Vegas, and no woman had ever made the illustrious final table. Every year at the main WSOP event, an announcement is made for ‘the last woman standing’ – a custom that seemed to speak volumes about the lack of female presence in the final rounds.
In 1995 however, that would all change. Barbara Enright became the first woman in history to ever make it to the final table, snatching 5th place and making poker history.
The next year, she won a third bracelet, giving her the mantle of being the first woman to ever win three bracelets, as well as being the first to ever win one in an open event (Pot Limit Hold ‘em). In 2007, her achievements were recognised when she became the first woman to cement a place in the Poker Hall of Fame – a preserve of only the world’s greatest poker players.
Barbara continues to inspire women both in and outside the casino hall; as well as being a respected motivational speaker she’s the editor-in-chief of Woman Poker Player magazine and is well-known for her humorous stories and quick wit.
It was becoming ever-clearer that it wasn’t a lack of ability, but a lack of numbers that had resulted in women’s lack of recognition in the poker world.
One step forward
Despite these successes, women were still facing several setbacks when it came to changing the stigma associated with them in the casino hall.
In the same way that people were attempting to dismantle the negative associations with women and their place in the poker rooms, there were forces working to affirm archaic viewpoints – usually for financial gain. Companies offering ‘staffing rentals’ began to emerge, which made their money by hiring out attractive women as ‘dealers’ and ‘atmosphere models’.
Companies like this were only working to reaffirm negative gender stereotypes, maintain the status quo, and send the message that women ought to be in the casino hall for the sole pleasure of men, rather than recognising them as worthy opponents.
Some of the Las Vegas casinos also seemed to be doing no favours for women’s progression in the world of gaming. Although it was well-known that many female blackjack dealers were subject to sexual advances from players, some were being forced to wear lingerie – putting their dignity and authority into question. This only worsened the situation for these women who, when they weren’t being blamed for the bad luck of the players, were subject to sexual harassment on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, more talented young women were stepping up to the felt to be recognised.
Annette Obrestad had initially made a name for herself in online poker rooms under the screen name of Annette_15 – she was only fifteen when she started playing, despite it being against the law to gamble before turning 18. Having come of legal age, however, Annette was now entering the land-based poker rooms, playing against some of the most experienced and illustrious players, and winning big.
Although Annette was already making waves in the world of poker, her most significant win came in 2007, when she won the inaugural The World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE), leaving with a cool $2 million, the day before her 19th birthday – the largest sum won by a female player in the history of poker.
This not only made her the only woman to win a WSOP Main Event, but also the youngest person ever to win a WSOP Bracelet . It was another first, for both men and women. Finally, a woman was being praised for her merits, without the merit having something to do with the fact that she was female – a detail that had always seemed to suggest that gender was linked to ability.
Annette wasn’t the only one that was getting somewhere in the poker world. Victoria Coren Mitchell, the established writer and TV presenter, was the first woman to win the European Poker Tour back in 2006, but when she took the title again in 2014, she became the first person, male or female to have ever won the title twice.
On being a female player, Victoria comments:
Victoria goes on to explain how she has used gender discrimination to her advantage: "And it’s fine when they talk about me in terms of being a female player, because poker is all about exploiting people’s assumptions and prejudices, and that has been quite useful for me."
Of course, this wasn’t the most recent big win for a female poker player. When the 2014 WSOP came around, Vanessa Selbst was a name that most poker players had already heard of. Her talent had already bagged her two open-field wins and she was considered one of the greatest female poker players in the world.
On winning her third open-field bracelet, her legacy was secured. Not only was she the first woman in history to win three open-field bracelets, but she was the first woman in history to reach the number one spot on the Global Poker Index.
Vanessa's comment on her victory seems to speak about the way in which we see gender in a wider sense. By being a successful woman who doesn’t conform to the gender stereotypes, she almost transcends the boundaries and the way in which we see women in poker altogether. The sex and gender identity of any poker player should, in theory, be inconsequential.
What does the
Those in support of the Ladies’ World Series of Poker continue the battle to keep men out of the event. In 2013, the buy-in was raised from $1,000 to $10,000 – with a $9,000 discount for female players. This shrewd pricing setup meant that the WSOP remained law-abiding, and that any man brave enough to enter would be subject to a hefty fee (and a lot of negative attention).
That year, not a single male entrant competed.
Whether this can be seen as a victory, however, is still very much up for debate. Many people feel that any event that focuses solely on women, could in fact be counteractive to progression.
The fact that more and more female players are winning big in mixed poker tournaments fuels this argument further – do ladies really need their own event when they are already capable of competing (and winning) against their male counterparts?
Dealing everyone in
Over the years, a mixture of both talent and perseverance has helped to level the playing field for women in gaming, whether coming to the casino to win money or earn it. While there might still be some way to go, it’s clear that there have been significant changes already, and that there are many more exciting advances to come as the world of gaming continues to evolve.