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Women in poker -- Part II

There’s been a long-standing debate over the best way to bring more women to the game. Linda Johnson, known widely as The First Lady of Poker (go here to discover why), has long been a champion of tournaments that are restricted to women. Her argument is that many women find the male-dominated game unpleasant. Men get aggressive and can be nasty. They act condescendingly toward women, hit on them and do other things to make them uncomfortable. Women find the experience so disagreeable that they don’t come back. An all-women tournament, Linda maintains, gives them the opportunity to learn the game in less malignant settings where they can develop the skills and confidence to play anywhere with anyone. Linda’s experiences playing for a living in the earlier rough and tumble days taught her how to not only withstand male aggression but how to exploit it. But, she notes, it wasn’t easy and few women wanted to even try.

But there’s another side here, the one that argues that the game is, at its heart, gender-neutral — just like it is race-neutral and age-neutral. If, people like accomplished professional player Annie Duke argue, a woman is going to be successful the best way is to face up to reality from the start. Duke, who has been more focused on motivational speaking than poker these days, maintains that there should never be tournaments restricted to women, that to do so gives women a false sense of what the game is really like and does not prepare them for open tournament play.

These two points of view, interestingly, mirror arguments in sociopolitical domains where conservatives take the more individualistic line that each of us is responsible for ourselves in a reality that must be faced (Duke’s stance) while progressives side with the pragmatic position that adjustments need to be made to level what started out as an uneven playing field in order to give those with socio-cultural disadvantages needed experience (Johnson’s position).

The data from the social sciences which, from my perspective, are all that really count here support Johnson’s position. Civil rights laws, racial- and gender-sensitive policies in education and hiring have had a significant impact on American society. There is no reason to suspect they wouldn’t have in poker, just like they have had in another game that has the same kind of gender-bias, chess.

Chess is a good place to look because, like in poker, the game is overwhelmingly male — especially at the top levels. Of the 1,440 current grandmasters listed in FIDA (World Chess Federation) a mere 31 are women. Clearly, many say, this shows that men are just better at this game than women and a host of theories have been offered as to why. They run the standard gamut from men are more aggressive, more analytical, have greater stamina; women are too emotional, unwilling to put in the hours of study and so forth. In case these arguments seem old and stupid, they should. They are the same ones put forward when people tried to argue that women can’t run marathons, play “real” basketball, do mathematics, hold public office, etc. etc. etc.

In a fascinating article Ilja Zaragatski, an expert chess player with a background in economics and psychology, points out the real reason that men grandmasters in chess outnumber women by a huge margin is due primarily to the fact that men chess players outnumber women chess players by a huge margin. In short, the male superiority in numbers is almost certainly due to male superiority in numbers. If you have fifty times as many young boys getting deeply interested in chess as girls you expect, decades later, to find fifty times as many men grandmasters as women. Mirim Bilalić and colleagues did a statistical analysis of the game and found that virtually all the differences between men and women players (i.e., 96%) is accounted for by the numbers of male and female players.

Ditto for poker. Linda Johnson’s argument has at its core the solution: make the environment more accommodating and inviting for women. They will come and we will see more tournaments end like the one at the River Rock last Thursday.

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