Why did you do it, Katja? Why did you have to rain on my parade?
Less than a week ago, I wrote 1268 Ladies and a Gentleman. The first half was a nice dedication to the meaningfulness of Allen Cunningham's bracelet win; the second half of the piece apparently made female readers feel like I'm convinced the worst male poker player in the world could beat Jen Harman nine times out of 10, with the 10th coming on a rivered two-outer.
In a tournament where Eskimo Clark drew the headlines by collapsing repeatedly and refusing to exit the tournament for so much as a hand of play, Katja Thater was masterful. She manhandled (yeah, that was intentional) Clark and three-time bracelet winner O'Neil Longson at the end. Then, she trumped it all by almost showing indifference to the accomplishment of winning a bracelet her male counterparts, for the most part, hold dearer than anything else in their distorted view of priority.
Complimenting Thater's win and confirming my stupidity, the ultimate model of male poker behavior --Phil Hellmuth -- got taken out less than an hour earlier by the diminutive Beth Shak. He underestimated her hand after she announced all-in with six left in the $3,000 no-limit hold 'em and paid the ultimate price. Afterwards, he complained at length about how poorly he runs and made derogatory comments towards Beth and the rest of the remaining players, but you know what? Phil got beat, plain and simple. He got his money in with the worst of it and paid the justified price. Sorry Phil, you didn't play perfect poker this time.
After Shak, it was Vanessa Selbst's turn. Selbtst, like Thater, had disappointed in the ladies final, so her making the semifinals in the $5,000 heads-up event provided vindication. Never mind the woman factor. This is a 22-year-old with two final tables this year and three all together. More impressively, her path to the semis included wins over Amir Vahedi, Doyle Brunson, Layne Flack, Shannon Shorr and Paul Wasicka. Check this out: Between NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship and the matches leading up to his quarterfinal match with Selbst, Wasicka had won an amazing 13 consecutive heads-up matches. All things being equal, that's an 8,192:1 shot. That all came crashing down at Selbst's hands.
So, in light of these three women's accomplishments, I should be eating some crow right? I mean, after all, I'm the same guy a USA Today blogger referred to as "a good impression of Peter Griffin writing about poker."
You know why? I never said women can't play as well as men.
What did I actually say, then?
Play in the WSOP Ladies event was extraordinarily weak.
It was. Know how I know? Not because I think so and not because I asked a bunch of men whether it was. No, the reason I know that is because every single female pro whom I spoke to after they played in the event told me so. I mean, do you really think ESPN would let me just spout off about this stuff without at least doing the appropriate research? One by one, these women, whom I respect and admire for the way they play the game, came to me complaining about the things they saw, and not because they got outplayed.
One such woman was Lacey Jones. Jones is a professional player who's doubling as a reporter for worldseriesofpoker.com. Her excitement for the tournament was evident in the days leading up to it, but her hopes were dashed when she was victimized by the following hand;
"There was an early-position limper with the blinds $100/$200. I picked up pocket kings and raised to $600," Jones said. "Everyone folded back to her and she made the call. The flop came nine-high. I bet three-quarters of the pot just to take it down right there, but she made the call. The turn came ace and she moved all-in. What could I do? I folded my kings and she told me "I had you beat" and turned over A-2 offsuit. I'm still upset."
Can you blame her? The early limp with ace-no kicker is brutal; calling a raise more so and calling a large bet after missing the flop worst of all. Add in the fact she hit her three-outer then deprived herself the opportunity to profit from it by scaring away an opponent with pocket kings, and then she showed the two kicker. There were at least five play errors on that one hand, just from the actual telling of the story.
Now, before you jump on the comment boards to say it, a man could have played this hand just as badly as Jones' opponent did. The difference here is that so many of the stories that came back from the players in the event were similar to this one, in a way you don't ever hear about in a mixed event.
Here's another example, as told to me by Justin Shronk, the multimedia manager at pokernews.com:
"It was the first level and the blinds were $25/$50. The lady under the gun shoved all-in for $1,500, the woman on the button reraised to $3,400 and the big blind folded face up, showing her pocket kings so everyone would see how well she was playing. The gun had Q-J offsuit, the button K-Q offsuit. The flop was K-J-J."
Beautiful stuff here. All three players misplayed their hands entirely. On the preflop. At the World Series of Poker. I mean well, I hope you know what I mean. If you don't, I'm not going to convince you I'm right.
The tournament was treated more like a social event than a $1,000 buy-in tournament.
Before I tackle this, I need to say the article was written tongue in cheek. Like I said while debating in the comments section of 1268 Ladies, I didn't actually projectile vomit like I wrote, so maybe I was exaggerating a little bit with some of the other stuff too. I'm not apologizing, because it's my job to write in an interesting and provocative way. I figured an explanation might be in order though for the folks who didn't get it.
That said, far too many of the women in the ladies event didn't approach it with a winning attitude. I think it's great that women can take competition less seriously than their male counterparts. God knows that when we idiot men get into fistfights over who the second prime minister of England was, the testosterone is getting the better of us and women are a lot more level-headed. Still, this is poker. The point of the game is to win, and if you don't believe that, you should be playing for something besides $1,000 a pop. The best women in the world treat the game as serious competition; if you don't want to, great, but don't complain when someone calls you on it.
Once again, I didn't want to rely on my own observations to prove that in general, the players weren't taking this as seriously as they should have. Jennifer Newell has written for a plethora of poker magazines and reported at more than a few major events.
"I was disappointed," Newell started. "It was a girls' day out. I saw a lot of hugging and so on it wasn't what poker was supposed to be. It made me reconsider my impressions of whether there should be a ladies event at the World Series of Poker. I don't think there should be now."
Jen, you're a chauvinist pig.
OK, seriously though, doesn't that quote sum it up? Poker is supposed to be competitive. It's supposed to be a player bringing every fiber of their being to the table, living through the experience and expunging their emotions. Players are supposed to want to win, to beat everyone else to smithereens until they're the last one left. Players are supposed to care.
Introducing yourself and complimenting outfits and cheering on opponents is not what high-level competition is about in any sport. Do WNBA players console opponents after missing a free throw? Do you really think that, while they're on the links, the ladies of the LPGA are complimenting one another's club selection and ability to accessorize? Is Maria Sharapova complimenting Serena Williams' outfit at deuce?
One lady pro, upon hearing about 1268 Ladies' backlash, commented 'It figures. It's the only tournament where the players go up to the play-by-play announcers and complain "You were mean to me!'" Another told me: "You hit the nail right on the head." Admittedly, some thought the delivery of the message was a little harsh, but most of the players seemed to agreed that the message itself was right on the money.
I put the question to Barry Greenstein and Annie Duke of whether there should be a ladies event and whether it should award a bracelet. They both said yes to both questions, but with caveats; Annie said the event shouldn't count towards lifetime WSOP stats because of the obvious uneven playing field; Barry said the bracelet being awarded was fine, because "It's a nice accomplishment (to win the Ladies event)."
Here's the thing though: Have you ever heard anyone describe winning a mixed event that way? Never have, never will. Poker isn't nice. Poker is tough and mean and nasty and grimy and grungy and hard. Oh, and because of all that, when you win, it's the greatest feeling in the world.
Sometime after the series, I'm going to have to write an article about what women who have fallen into the traps of poor play and social niceties can do to overcome those obstacles, and yes, in this game, they're obstacles. Women can play poker. Some women play as well as any man, or better. Some of them played in the ladies event, and that decision doesn't make them any worse for having made it. The truth though is that if that event was an accurate indication, the girls not named Jennifer or Annie or Kathy need to change some things to be competitive at the highest levels of the game. I hope they do.
Congratulations to Katja Thater on becoming the first woman in three years to win an open event. Congratulations to Beth Shak and Vanessa Selbst on two remarkable performances. May your examples serve to inspire.
Getting slapped by 1268 women is now the least of Gary Wise's women-based worries. He's producing content during WSOP at www.worldseriesofpoker.com.