Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sexism and Misogyny in Poker

There has been a great deal of debate about sexism and misogyny in poker swirling around Twitter and other social media platforms lately. Unfortunately, the fact that these issues are even prevalent in the first place is still being debated. It is an uphill battle for the small minority of women that exist in poker to have their opinions be heeded with appropriate gravity. I’d like to share some stories and female points of view that I believe show pretty clearly how monumental these issues are for women in poker. If you care about poker as an industry, it’s in your best interest to make the environment as welcoming as possible for new players, and that means we need to start listening to women.

Normally this would be the part of the blog post where I provide definitions for sexism and misogyny, but I don’t want this to devolve into a debate over semantics. As you read further, forget whatever definitions you have in your head, and keep only the following assertion of mine in mind before reading on: An inexcusably large percentage of male poker players treat women like shit.

It's More Real Than You Think

Since women make up such a tiny percentage of poker players in any given card room, it can be hard to appreciate the frequency at which these problems occur. Here are three true stories. Each one is about a different professional male poker player. All three are among the hundred most famous poker players of all time, and all three either have had or still do have prominent sponsorship deals with major poker sites.

Pro A is patently disgusting. I’ve had two separate girlfriends tell me they had their asses grabbed by this man. Neither girl had ever spoken a single word to him. Both instances took place in the Rio and occurred one year apart from each other. A masseuse I know confirmed this behavior and shared a few similar stories detailing how outrageously gropey he is.

Pro B is well liked. You would be surprised to hear that he was accused of repeated sexual harassment by a female in the poker world while representing his sponsoring site. I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the outcome due to the lawyers involved, but it was not pretty.

Pro C was the one that surprised me most. A female poker player accused him of rape. Upon finding out about this, another female that’s connected in the poker world instantly spoke up saying she too had been raped by Pro C. His sponsorship contract was terminated the very next day.

I can only assume my credibility will be called into question since I have not named these men, but that is a decision for the victims to make, not myself. There are other factors at play as well (i.e. lawyers). The details are intentionally kept to a minimum, but this is all real.

And if we expand our search of inappropriate behavior to non-famous poker players, the stories only get more common and appalling. A female dealer I know was talking to a player about being hired for a private event in his hotel suite. She went to look at the room to discuss logistics and was slipped a date rape drug in a glass of water. Fortunately, her proverbial alarm bells went off and she was able to flee the room. She passed out seconds later in the elevator. A family friend of mine who is now retired from the Nevada Metropolitan Police Department strongly urged us to not say anything, both for legal and for safety reasons. This made us sick.

Keep in mind that none of the above is public information. These are just a few stories that I happen to know of because I am close with the victims. Imagine how many countless parallel stories there must be out there that we’ll never hear.

I’m sure virtually everyone reading this agrees that there is nothing even close to acceptable about the behavior in any of the above stories. My fear is that many readers will think, “No one I know would ever do anything that bad, so this doesn’t concern me.” I have two responses to that: 1) These incidents are far more common than you would ever like to believe, and 2) While these actions are on the extreme end of the spectrum, they are still on the same spectrum of male poker players treating women like shit.

A Few Female Perspectives on the Matter

For the day to day occurrences, it can be hard for men to fully understand how pervasive and problematic the microaggressions are. Rather than provide my distanced male observations, I’d like to share a few female perspectives that show how tiresome it is to have to deal with this stuff every day.

Professional poker player Danielle Anderson told me, “The pre-existing disproportionate ratio of males/females alone is enough to make walking into a card room an overwhelming experience for women. Throw any minority group into a situation where they are vastly outnumbered, and it can be very intimidating. Add to that equation the prospect of sitting in close proximity to someone who may make sexist remarks, unwanted advances, and even unwelcome touch (all things I've experienced firsthand countless times) and it's not exactly a welcoming environment for females.”

In this powerful video, Kristy Arnett speaks with tremendous candor and humor about a decade’s worth of experiences as a woman in poker. She describes what it was like to start out as a young, female video commentator: “Two weeks after I make my video debut in poker, there’s a forum called TwoPlusTwo… there’s a thread named Kristy Arnett. In this [thread] there’s ‘teeth crooked like she got kicked in the mouth by a horse. Did she get hit in the face with a frying pan?’ ‘Haha’ someone replies. ‘No, you mean a wok?’ Sexist and racist! I was 21. I was impressionable. I was naive. I was innocent really. These things went straight to the heart.” She added, “People on the internet were telling me that I didn’t deserve to be interviewing these poker players because I did not have big boobs.” And she describes the devastating effect this type of criticism had on her self worth.

In an extremely illuminating blog post, Cate Hall writes, “I can take a joke. I can take a compliment. But the amount of bullshit I contend with while playing poker — the incessance, the variety, the sheer volume of it — is totally exhausting...I have heard some male pros — I make no claim about their representativeness — take the position that this kind of behavior is innocuous, on the theory that it’s flattering or benign or exploitable. It can be all of those things in certain contexts. But by and large, it is instead irritating or unnerving or embarrassing. And it sends women a consistent signal that they are alien objects of curiosity rather than people who belong at a poker table.”

(As an aside, Cate is right in the middle of these discussions and is decidedly far more knowledgeable about all of this than I am. She is also extremely articulate and knows how to get straight to the point. I highly recommend reading the short blog post that the above quote is from.)

According to Alex Dreyfus, women make up four percent of the player pools in live tournaments and 9 to 11 percent in online tournaments. One study claims the contrast is even more stark, "Although women make up the majority (54%) of online gamblers worldwide, they represent only 26.2% of online poker players (eCOGRA, 2007)." (Source) You’d have to get extremely creative in order to come up with any conclusion from this other than, “the current live poker environment that exists is not as friendly as it could be for women.” Men, poker players, let’s look after our own best interests and work towards changing this. Let’s get more women in the door.

Why We Should Care

Most of us are entrenched in the poker industry, so I’m not going to try to rally us together in the name of some moral high ground like equality and justice for all. No, this is about pragmatism. This is about mutual interests aligning. This is about bringing more people into poker. This is about cultivating an environment in poker that makes new players want to keep coming back. This is about putting more money in our pockets.

Cate Hall concluded the above blog post by writing, “If the poker community wants more women to join the game — in other words, if it wants droves of inexperienced players with pristine bankrolls to sit down at the table — the first step is to listen to current female players when they say the environment in most card rooms is a problem. If we diehard enthusiasts are exasperated, try to imagine how women ambivalent about poker likely feel. Your livelihood depends on it.”

In a casual Skype conversation, Stephanie Stern eloquently and articulately summed up every issue at hand in just three words: “MEN ARE GROSS!”

She went on to say, “I have pretty thick skin and spend a lot of time with guys, but I don't like to play with them, which is why I play ladies events.” I can confirm that she has thick skin. She once fought off two muggers at night with her bare hands to protect a purse that contained absolutely no valuables. We gave her the nickname “Killer” for a reason. If Stephanie doesn’t want to play with us, what sane female would?

Even if you are resistant to finding any common ground on the issues of sexism and misogyny, surely we can find common ground on wanting to open the proverbial doors for the other 50% of earth’s population. Hell, even if you are a bit sexist and/or misogynistic, that could be all the more reason to want more women at the tables, no?

Men, seriously, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here. Let’s do something about it!

Why Men Need to Get Involved

Before writing this, I felt it might be a bit hypocritical to “mansplain” sensitive issues like sexism. However, every single female I have gone to for advice on how to approach this, without exception, has encouraged me to voice my opinion. Why? Zoe Haxton told me, “When women talk about misogyny, they’re talking about their own experiences of it, even when they don’t want to be, even when what they want to be doing is talking about the issue as a whole, and it comes off as whining. When a man talks about it, it’s not personal, it’s topical.”

Cate Hall Tweeted, “It's so helpful to have men discuss these issues so it doesn't come off as just self-involved grousing.”

Professional poker player Jamie Kerstetter told me, “I think it's important for men to join (but not overwhelm) the discussion because of the fact that women are <10% of the poker community, so allies are necessary to effect any kind of change. I welcome meaningful contribution from anyone who has put a lot of time and thought into this topic, and just request that men listen more and talk less when it comes to women recounting their own personal experiences in poker.”

After all, if sexism and misogyny stem from the imbalanced patriarchy that exists, then it would most certainly be beneficial to have men involved in the process of changing the status quo.

So hopefully I’ve shown that there is a problem. And hopefully I’ve shown that it’s in our best interest to care. The next logical step is asking what we can do.

What Can We Do to Help?

As Cate and Jamie have already said in their quotes above, the first step is to simply listen. What else? Jamie also called forth for allies, so allow me to show some solidarity and publicly add my name to that list.

I would encourage anyone who feels up to the task to speak out when someone is being inappropriate at the table. Even if firmly taking a stance and loudly condemning someone isn’t your M.O., you can still send a powerful message with an innocuous, sarcastic remark like, “I’m sure women love it when you talk that way.” Those judgements linger in our memories, and it’s more difficult to be out of line when you no longer believe that your behaviour is universally accepted.

Perhaps the solution is as simple as abiding by the platinum rule - treat others how THEY want to be treated, a marked improvement over the golden rule. Maybe the momentum needed will come from education and awareness. Let’s encourage an open dialogue about this and let women know their opinions are being heard.

And that brings us back to request number one - to listen. I’m no expert on any of this, but fortunately there are many women around who are.

I'll attempt to lead by example right now. Women, what can men do to help? What is something that we might not realize we should never do? Is there anything in this post you feel that I got wrong or misrepresented? What would you like to talk about that I left out? Let's start a discussion. Please, leave any thoughts you have on this subject in the comment section below and/or on whichever social media outlets you prefer to use.