Every year, one of the primary stories at the World Series of Poker Main Event is the fate of the last few women in the field. When a woman makes it into the top 100 from a starting field of over 6,000, the hopes of female poker fans and players soar with the thought of a woman at the November Nine final table or, better yet, as the ultimate poker champion.
The 2011 Main Event saw that type of story develop with a twist. Erika Moutinho was in the top 100 alongside her longtime boyfriend David Sands. Then they were both in the top 50. They were each at featured tables on the ESPN live broadcast - even eventually at the same table, seated next to each other. It was a riveting story that captured everyone’s attention.
The story of the couple was not a typical one. The two met in their early 20’s, both traveling through Australia; he was an online poker professional and she was studying abroad. They began spending the days together, and the relationship developed from there. Moutinho took an interest in his poker, watching him play and competing in tournaments herself. She eventually quit her casting job in Los Angeles and moved in with Sands in Las Vegas, where they were both immersed in the poker world.
Moutinho and Sands both played poker, and they both played the 2011 WSOP Main Event. Supporting each other throughout, the two made it into the money and on to subsequent days of the tournament.
On Monday, July 18, the two entered play once again, Sands with 2.765 million chips and Moutinho with 2.075 million. As the day progressed, the two were seated next to each other at the featured table by the luck - or unluck - of the draw. They spoke to each other and embraced between hands, but they were both extremely focused on the task at hand.
At one point, however, Moutinho whispered to Sands after folding a hand, as he was not in the hand either, and a member of the tournament staff issued a warning that they use caution in their communications. The relationship between the two apparently warranted extra attention.
In the end, Sands exited in 30th place, giving Moutinho a hug and kiss before heading to the audience to support her. But it wasn’t long before Moutinho was eliminated as well, taking 29th place. Each of them was awarded $242,636.
Days after, Sands proposed to Moutinho, and their six-year relationship will culminate in marriage.
While the “Last Couple Standing” at the WSOP was the gist of the story, controversy arose from their communication with each other, especially on their last day of play. A Twitter discussion erupted because of the warning issued to them, as some contended they were singled out (so to speak) because of their relationship. Some said that players often whisper to each other after a hand but aren’t issued warnings, despite the fact that they may be friends or have a financial interest in each other via a backing agreement or last-longer bet. But due to the high-profile nature of Moutinho and Sands as a couple, extra attention was issued.
Both sides of the debate are interesting and raise the inevitable question of gender. Any player who has received coaching from another, as Moutinho did from Sands, might want to share information after a hand to elicit advice. But the fact that a girlfriend shared her hand with a boyfriend seemed to generate more attention than other situations might.
This writer contends that some of the controversy may have been unwarranted and based on Moutinho’s gender, but some poker enthusiasts will find an opportunity for debate in nearly any situation.
What irritated me the most about the coverage of Moutinho and Sands was the lack of interest in Moutinho’s individual narrative. Not only did she outlast her more experienced poker pro boyfriend, but she also had a story of her own. She graduated from Villanova with a degree in business and communications, and she worked in the television industry for three years post-college. And she learned poker from the ground up in a relatively short period of time to make her way into the top 30 players of the largest and most prestigious poker tournament in the world.
Luckily, that story was promoted by Woman Poker Player Magazine’s Women’s Poker Hour, where Moutinho was given a forum of her own to discuss her accomplishments. Other media, however, glossed over that part of the story, instead focusing on Sands’ many poker achievements and successes, and his mentoring of Moutinho.
One might argue that Moutinho didn’t garner more attention because she didn’t wear revealing clothing or giggle for the cameras. She stood on her own, maintained her composure throughout the tournament, and carried herself as a professional. Those are commendable qualities in any player, but they sure don’t provide fodder for “hot girl” websites or gossip forums.
Nevertheless, Moutinho and Sands were the story of the WSOP, and they are happily planning their marriage and future poker endeavors. They seemed to enjoy the “couple” aspect of the stories, and it is a story that most poker fans will remember.
And some of us will have to wait for Moutinho to make it deep in a tournament on her own, with Sands on the sidelines, to see her get the press she deserves.
see also: He Said: Moutinho and Sands Engaged Us All