During a particular stretch of Day 4 in the 2016 World Series of Poker main event, two women held the two biggest stacks in the room with fewer than 500 players left.
This was a big deal.
Maria Ho was the first to surge out in front, with Melanie Weisner picking up a head of steam and charging right past her for a chip lead of her own. They held these positions for more than an hour, and it generated quite a buzz.
It’s a big deal because, frankly, there are few professions or endeavors in which the gender gap is more evident than the poker industry. In the 2016 WSOP main event, for example, women made up 3.978 percent of the total field -- just 268 of the 6,737 players who entered.
Participation numbers haven’t shifted much in the past decade, and while that 3-4 percent also fits comfortably with women winning two of 66 eligible bracelets (excluding the Ladies Championship), the one serious barrier in the modern era is the biggest stage that poker has to offer: the final table of the WSOP main event.
Few women in the world of poker are as well-suited to provide some insight into the importance of having a woman make the November Nine as Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher, who have had prominent and prolific roles throughout the game for decades and reside in the Women in Poker Hall of Fame.
“I think the main thing it would help with is that it would get more women to play the main event and to play in mixed events,” said Johnson, who is one of only three women in the Poker Hall of Fame, when asked about the possibility of a woman making the final table.
“For so long, women have been made to feel like it’s an impossible task, to ask ‘Why even enter?’” Fisher said. “There are so many opportunities during the Series for a woman to break through, [but] it would be a big deal to make the November Nine -- and as big as it would be for a woman to make the final table, it would be an exponentially bigger deal if a woman were to win. It would speak volumes to women around the world that we’ve come a long way, baby.”
In the entire history of the tournament, Barbara Enright’s fifth-place finish stands as the only WSOP main event final table ever made by a woman. Annie Duke finished 10th in 2000 (while eight months pregnant, no less), and Elisabeth Hille and Gaelle Baumann famously took 11th and 10th place, respectively, on the bubble of a November Nine appearance.
While the proportion of women remaining in the field at the point when Weisner and Ho led was similar to the 3-to-4 percent range at which the tournament started, the particular women and the amount of chips they held put them in the kind of prominent position the WSOP main event has rarely seen. In addition to Weisner and Ho, Jennifer Shahade held over one million chips, with the aforementioned Baumann, Jamie Kerstetter, Dee Friedman and Ana Marquez among the dozen-or-so women still in contention midway through Day 4.
“I think it sends a very important message to women playing the game now,” said Fisher. “Let them know that we can do it -- that a woman can break through. Look at the women who’ve won bracelets this year.”
It proves that there are quite a few women with the skill level to compete on an even playing field with men under the biggest and brightest lights the game has to offer.
“I think that it’s important to show that you can have a track record as a woman,” Johnson said. “This is far from the first cash for Maria or for Melanie or for Dee [Friedman], for that matter -- she's been in this field for 20 years now. It makes it clear to see that this is a long-term thing, that poker really is a game of skill. Seeing successful women players will certainly help to grow the field going forward.”
In terms of simple numbers, there is no greater potential growth market than women in poker, evidenced by their minuscule participation in relation to men.
Mike Sexton, one of the greatest ambassadors the game of poker has, took it a step further after learning that Weisner and Ho had topped the main event chip counts.
— Mike Sexton (@MikeSexton_WPT) July 15, 2016
So what’s kept the vast majority of women away from playing poker seriously? It starts with stereotypes that date back to poker’s earliest days, when the game was played in dark back rooms between a collection of “good ol’ boys” drinking and smoking. Women were seen as inferior, both in terms of the game and in society at large.
Even as women fought and made their way into the higher ranks of the game over the course of decades, winning open-event bracelets and playing high-stakes cash games, there was often an air of condescension and even hostility toward some. It’s been slow progress, forged through efforts of several generations (and there’s still a ways to go, as Weisner pointed out shortly before her run toward the top of the chip counts).
One of the best and most visible ways women have been brought into poker is through women-only events, which offer easier entry for those who are successful into more lucrative open events.
“I love women’s events, and I think they’re important, but I always encourage women, once they’re comfortable after starting with a women’s event, to go into an open event,” Johnson said.
Whether it’s hopping straight into open-field events or dipping a toe into the water in women’s events, seeing a woman succeed in the most visible way, in the biggest poker tournament in the world, can only work to energize the masses and let them know that it can be done.
“I think it’s good to have role models -- and it's good that they can see that poker isn’t a game of strength, and it is a game where we can compete in equally with men," Johnson said.
It hasn’t come easily, but if the events of Friday are some indication of the level of poker being played by women, there’s a tipping point that is becoming more and more inevitable.
“These are all students of the game; these are women who take this game very seriously, and it’s what they do for a living -- it's not just a hobby, it’s their profession” Fisher said. “These are women who have consistently come out at the top of their craft. Some of them maybe haven’t won bracelets, but they’re consistently going deep in big tournament fields. It’s showing that women are just as strong in that regard as men, and maybe as far as attributes like stamina, maybe even more so."