Since the beginning of time, men have found ways to compete with one another. Since just after men found those ways to compete with other men, women have wanted to join in the fun. And men have found ways to keep women out of their games since just after the first woman asked, “Hey, can I play too?”
Thankfully that last part – men keeping women out of their games – has changed over the years. The 20th Amendment, Title IX, Sally Ride, the WNBA: if nothing else all of them are proof that there’s a will to level the playing field in all sorts of places. But with poker, the game still remains more a boys’ club than not. It’s by no means as walled-off as the 1970s card rooms of Robert Altman’s classic California Split or the 1980s Las Vegas poker scene described by Al Alvarez in The Biggest Game In Town, where a handful of spitfire women stand in for their entire gender but there are multitudes of men and every one is an individual. For one thing, there are a lot more women in the ranks of professional poker these days. In fact, if you’re playing in a casino and there are woman at your table, you can usually assume that she knows exactly what she’s doing until she does something to convince you otherwise.
But pros make up a very small percentage of the total poker-playing population. For the vast majority of players, poker is a recreational activity – they play with their friends in home games, or take weekend trips to the casino as a form of entertainment, or play online to pass the time when they’re waiting on one thing or another. Most of these players are still men, and there’s nowhere that’s more true than online. During the last Congressional subcommittee hearing about online poker, one of the witnesses was a sociologist who referenced eCOGRA’s 2007 Global Online Gambler Survey to describe the demographics of online poker players. That survey, which talked to more than 11,000 players from 96 countries around the world, found that nearly three out of four online players are male, with the largest number of them aged 26 to 35.
Interestingly, that same study reported that a small majority (54.8 percent) of online casino players were women, most of them middle-aged. So why is it that more women are willing to play games where the odds are against them than a game where they can become skilled enough to choose only favourable situations when they risk their money? While the survey didn’t provide any answers to that particular question, it’s possible to make some good guesses just by looking at the basic differences between casino games and poker.
Standard casino games and poker share one aspect – risking money – but beyond that, they’re very different from each other because casino games don’t pit players against each other. All of the players at a blackjack table, for instance, are trying to beat the dealer; not only do they not compete with one another, but they often end up cheering for each other since they have a common enemy. In poker, your fellow players are the enemy. They might root for you when they aren’t involved in a hand, but it’s an inescapable fact of the game that you are always a potential target for everyone else at the table. And though poker players might find it hard to believe, there are some people, many of them women, who find it stressful to constantly have a bull’s-eye on their backs.
Online, the difference is simply magnified. Women are still competing with their fellow players, but they can’t use their natural advantages over men the way they can at a live poker table. And the more savvy of their opponents are often using HUDs or other software tools to give themselves an edge in the game. It’s not hard to imagine a woman who plays the game just to relax and have some fun heading for the friendly confines of non-confrontational online casino games after a few times running her stack into a 21-year-old guy who has used a software package to identify all the weaknesses in her game. Losing that woman and her poker bankroll to the casinos is bad for everyone at the table – even the kid who managed to grab a fraction of it before she called it quits.
Eliminating those advantages is one of the tent poles of recreational poker models like the one Bodog has put its weight behind. By disallowing HUDs and other tools that give skilled players an even bigger edge than they already have by simply putting time into learning the game, the theory is that more players who are just playing for fun will take to the tables. Recreational players benefit when more of their own numbers show up, since the game becomes more about having fun. But the pros benefit, too – after all, more players with less skill is good for any pro regardless of whether or not he’s allowed to use software to pick them apart while he’s at the table. He might lose a few bets here and there by not having precise information, but a player skilled enough to make money playing the game is going to win long-term regardless when he’s pitted against weaker competition.
Regardless of whether they are men or women, poker is better off with more recreational players; the more money there is in the game, the better off everyone at the table is. But since the majority of recreational online gamblers happen to be women, it’s worth noting that a recreational poker model is likely to balance the game’s demographics out a bit. That would bring it more in line with the rest of modern society, perhaps even earning the game a little of the respectability its players crave. At the very least, it will give most players a better time at the tables, and that’s something everyone should be able to get behind.