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February 23, 2019

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Men in a women’s World Series of Poker tourney: Can, should they be kept out?

The World Series of Poker wants to ban men from a ladies event but fears it can’t. Some want the event to fold.

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Chris Morris / Special to the Sun

Two of a kind

A man put a tampon atop his cards at the table. He was penalized two rounds’ worth of hands. “He was there to mock women and he should have been banned from the tournament,” one female poker pro said. Professional player Shaun Deeb came to the tournament dressed in drag, complete with lipstick, a wig and what appeared to be braless falsies. He apologized in a video and said he had entered the event after losing a proposition bet.

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Poker tables have long been bastions of male chauvinism where the cigar smoke swirls and the testosterone-fueled banter veers into the X-rated.

The gaming industry has always known that most women who play the game don’t like the way men treat them at poker tables, but the casinos would like to see as many women as possible anteing up.

And that’s why what happened in a World Series of Poker women’s tournament sponsored by Harrah’s at the Rio this month has stirred up such a ruckus.

A dozen or so men crashed the $1,000 buy-in Ladies No-Limit Hold ’em Championship that wrapped up June 14 with a victory by French player Vanessa Hellebuyck. She beat 1,053 fellow competitors, including the men, to capture $192,132 and a winner’s bracelet.

But her victory was treated as an afterthought, given the amount of attention and debate the party crashers have generated on poker websites since then.

This is not the first time men have entered the event, but this year’s number was the highest — and some of their antics are not likely to be forgotten anytime soon, especially by female players.

“This is the most prestigious tournament for women in the world,” says Las Vegas author and poker pro Susie Isaacs, a two-time winner of the event. “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.”

The incident that created the most ire was a man putting a tampon atop his cards at the table. He was penalized two rounds’ worth of hands, meaning he lost some chips that two players in each hand are required to supply — known as the big and small blinds — along with the possibility of good cards that could have been used to go after opponents’ chips.

“He was there to mock women and he should have been banned from the tournament,” says Las Vegas poker pro and political consultant Nancy Todd Tyner, the 2008 World Poker Tour ladies champion. “Harrah’s missed the boat on that. Using a tampon as a card protector is offensive. A two-round penalty is nothing.”

Shaun Deeb in drag

Shaun Deeb is shown while dressed in drag.

Shaun Deeb video statement

Then there was professional player Shaun Deeb, who dressed in drag, complete with lipstick and a wig. Deeb later apologized in an Internet video clip to anyone he offended with his outfit, saying he dressed in drag after losing a prop bet — an often quirky side wager that is common among poker players. But he also defended his participation as a form of protest against gender-segregated events.

The fact that this happened at a tournament known worldwide for its prestige highlights a big problem for Harrah’s: How does the company maintain the tournament’s commitment to encouraging women to play without breaking the law?

Harrah’s thinks barring men from the ladies event could be sex discrimination and worries that it could spur a lawsuit.

But Harrah’s wishes it could keep men out of the ladies tournament.

“Generally these men fall into a category of publicity-seeking players who can’t succeed in male-dominated tournaments,” World Series spokesman Seth Palansky says. “They’re disrespectful and immature.

“Our goal is to give women a comfortable environment, a nonthreatening environment to play poker. It’s a way to help women participate in the World Series. If we had a choice, we would not have men playing in these events.”

Palansky shudders at the thought of a man one day winning the ladies tournament. “We wouldn’t be giving the pink diamond-encrusted bracelet to a man, I can assure you of that,” he says.

Last September at the Borgata in Atlantic City, Abraham Korotki of New Jersey won a $300 buy-in women’s event and took home the $20,982 prize. The woman who finished second, Nicole Rowe of New York, told the Philadelphia Daily News she had hoped to win the tournament so she could pay living expenses while recuperating from a planned mastectomy.

The World Series ladies event has been held annually since 1977, when the tournament was at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. It started as a Mother’s Day event for the wives and girlfriends of men who were playing in the World Series. Slowly, over the years, some of the world’s top female poker players began participating.

Today, some top women players refuse to enter the ladies championship, but not because it allows men to enter. Rather, they argue that women are just as good as men at poker and therefore should focus on events for members of both sexes. Among them is Annie Duke, who blogged after the ladies event that her preference would be to have that championship removed from the World Series schedule.

As one who plays in the ladies event, Tyner disagrees and says the women’s field is so deep with talent that she doesn’t mind if men join the field so they will learn a lesson in “humility.”

Still other women oppose having the men invade their event, arguing that the ladies tournament is a great way to get women to participate in the World Series, especially those who may still be reluctant to play against men. They suggest that Harrah’s create a separate all-male tourney or another open event to dissuade men from entering the ladies championship.

At this year’s ladies event, the traditional “shuffle up and deal” start to the championship was announced by poker pro Linda Johnson of Las Vegas, who was playing in her 30th consecutive tournament. Johnson, one of the world’s top female players, won the bracelet in the 1997 World Series $1,500 seven-card razz tournament, an open event. She’s certainly not afraid to play against men.

Female Poker Players

Annie Duke of Los Angeles competes in the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. championship during the 41st Annual World Series of Poker at the Rio Thursday, June 24, 2010. In 2004 Duke won the $2,000 Omaha Hi-Low Split-8 or Better and the Tournament of Champions at the WSOP. This year she won the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, an annual invitation-only tournament produced by NBC television. Launch slideshow »

Johnson told the Sun the reason the women’s event still exists — and the reason she competes in it — has nothing to do with the skill level of the opposition. Rather, it’s the friendly atmosphere and the opportunity to talk with female competitors who have shared interests. The kind of loud arguments that often erupt at male-dominated tables are almost never seen at women’s events, she says.

“Playing with ladies is enjoyable because I don’t get to do it that often,” she says. “When I play in open events I’m often the only woman at the table. The talk is often about sports and the cocktail waitress, things I’m not interested in.”

One thing that bothered Johnson about this year’s event was the rousing cheers that erupted in the room whenever one of the men “busted out” of the tournament.

“I didn’t think that was right,” she said. “The men should have just been ignored.”

The desire to create more playing opportunities for women in poker — where put-downs of female players by men are still heard in card rooms throughout the country — is why such outlets as the High Heels Poker Tour and Ladies International Poker Series were created.

“The intent of the ladies event at the World Series is to bring more women into the game, and it should continue as such,” High Heels founder Lauren Failla says. “Each year more women are playing live, and the World Series provides an opportunity for all women to play together.”

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