The 2012 World Series of Poker was an exciting one for women. In what is typically a game filled with male names and references, there were quite a few final tables at which women vied for bracelets. Two of them won bracelets in open-gender events, and two others nearly made the biggest and most prestigious final table in the world.
Women typically comprise two to five percent of a tournament field. Some tournaments, like the $50K Poker Players Championship, had no female entrants this year. Other open events had a larger-than-normal percentage of females in the field. Nothing about this year signaled a distinct upturn in women’s participation, though, except for the overall results. The most obvious of those centered around four women and their accomplishments at the 2012 WSOP.
The first was when Allyn Jaffrey Shulman won the $1,000 Seniors No Limit Hold’em Championship. It was a record field of 4,128 players in the tournament, and she won 603,713 and the bracelet. Though many don’t count her victory as an open-event win, it’s important to know that the only restriction on the field was age, not gender. But the attention she received for her incredible victory was somewhat muted nonetheless.
The second woman to make a huge splash at the summer games was Vanessa Selbst. She was the last woman to win an entirely open WSOP event in 2008 before this year, and it looked like she might break her own streak with a final table in Event 2. That was a fourth place finish, though, and she continued the Series with some momentum that took her to Event 52. She not only final tabled it, but she ran over the table and smoked her opponents, going on to win with the admittance that she wasn’t terribly familiar with all of the games in the 10-game mixed event when she started the tournament. But she won $244,249 and her second WSOP bracelet, one of very few women in history to accomplish such.
Then came the Main Event, which started with 211 women of the 6,895 entrants, which was little more than three percent of the field. The field thinned, as did the number of women, but at the point that the field reached only 73 players, four of them were women, which was nearly five and a half percent of the remaining field. Selbst made a deep run and exited in 73rd place, followed by Marcia Topp in 71st, and Gaelle Baumann and Elisabeth Hille continued on. They went into the last day as the short stacks, however, and Hille busted in 11th with Baumann right behind in tenth. The historic part of their deep runs included the fact that it was the first time since the year 2000 when two women made the final 27, and either one of them making the final table would’ve meant a broken record for Barbara Enright, the only woman to final table the Main Event in 1995.
People who never heard of Baumann or Hille were cheering them on as the Main Event headed toward the final table. A woman - better yet, TWO women - at the final table? Some touted the attention the Main Event final table would receive, others hoped it would encourage more women to play poker, and some simply wanted to see a woman excel in this game that is ever-dominated by men. No matter the reason, the momentum on social media was with the women.
An allegation emerged that blindly cheering for the women was as sexist as blindly cheering for a woman to bust before the final table. Reverse discrimination, however, was not the basis for the effort. Fans simply wanted a fresh face at the final table and someone with a unique story to tell, and none would have been more intriguing to the poker and non-poker audience than Baumann or Hille.
The true sexism in this situation came from a familiar place, the place where women become girls and attractive women become hot girls.
It should be noted that the majority of the poker media refrained from most of the sexist references. The occasional “girl” made it into official reports and recaps, but most of those improper mentions came from smaller media outlets and blogs. Social media was full of it, however, as men cheered for the hot girls to make the final table. And the rest of us sighed.
Upon further examination, it came to my attention that Marcia Topp, who finished in a very respectable 71st place, received little attention from any media outlet except CardPlayer, who wrote a feature story on her. She wasn’t young (53) or hot (by popular standards), and she didn’t wear tight clothes or showcase her flowing hair. She showed up in a baseball cap and hoodie to play serious poker. CardPlayer told her story of marrying a Canadian woman, losing her to leukemia, buying a motor home, and roaming the western United States. While everyone was captivated by waitress Hille and French-accented Baumann, Topp went largely unnoticed and unrecognized.
If Topp made it to the top 27, would she have garnered the same attention as the younger Baumann and Hille? Would people have cheered for the hoodie-hidden face of Topp as much as the tank-topped Baumann?
It’s impossible to know. I only put it out there as a “what if” because of the drool of the poker media over Baumann and Hille. Many of them put on their professional hats and hid it, which was better than in past years when “girls on the rail” was regarded as a relevant media report.
This isn’t to take away from the accomplishments of both Baumann and Hille. I simply think it’s important to look at the entire WSOP, which included big wins from Shulman, Selbst, and significant results from a number of female poker players. Let’s recognize all of them and give respect where it’s due.
See Also: He Said: Reporting on Women at the WSOP