Poker, at least until the recent past, has almost exclusively been a man’s game. Some women have always played the game, but they they were the exceptions rather than the rule. In earlier times the men who played poker were frequently rude and nearly always condescending to women who tried to find their place at the tables. Only the most determined would put up with such abuse, but they stuck with the game and made it clear that they belonged at the tables just as much as any man.
Those trailblazing women made it possible for those who followed to become a more integral part of the game over the last few decades. Here’s a look at five women who have made lasting impressions in this “man’s game” in the last 20 years.
1. Jennifer Harman
Despite being known primarily as a cash game player, Jennifer Harman has $2,632,611 in lifetime tournament winnings dating back to 1994. She’s cashed for at least six figures nine different years in her career, including an unbroken stretch from 2004 to 2010. Her best year came in 2005, when she finished 2nd in the WSOP Circuit Rio Las Vegas main event and cashed five times at the WSOP.
Harman has made 11 WSOP final tables and wontwo bracelets, the $5,000 NL Deuce-to-Seven Draw (2000) and the $5,000 Limit Hold’em (2002), making her the only woman in WSOP history to win two open events. She has also made two WPT TV tables, finishing 4th (2004 Five Diamond World Poker Classic) and 3rd (2008 Bay 101 Shooting Stars).
Away from the tournament trail, Harman is a long-time regular at Bobby’s Room, the high-limit room at Bellagio in Las Vegas. That room has served as the home of some of the world’s biggest cash games. Harman has squared off there against the likes of Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein and Patrik Antonius. Along with some of those luminaries, she was a member of the Corporation , a team of high-stakes poker pros who took on billionaire banker Andy Beal as detailed in Michael Craig’s book The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King.
2. Kathy Liebert
A former stock analyst for Dun & Bradstreet, Kathy Liebert started her poker career in the 1990s as a prop player in a Colorado casino. From there she moved on to small tournaments, building a resume littered with final-table finishes in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as on the East Coast. Her first big breakthrough came at the 1997 WSOP, where she took 2nd place for $123,960 in the $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em event.
Then, in 2002, Liebert became the first woman ever to win $1 million in a poker tournament when she conquered the Party Poker Million. That was the first year of eight straight in which she would cash for at least six figures. Among the highlights of her career are seven WSOP final tables, including a win in the $1,500 Limit Hold’em Shootout in 2004, and five WPT TV tables, finishing 3rd twice (2005 Borgata Poker Open, 2008 North American Poker Championship) and finishing 2nd once (2009 Bay 101 Shooting Stars).
Today Kathy Liebert holds the distinction of being the winningest woman in the history of tournament poker, amassing $5,827,393 lifetime winnings since 1994.
3. Vanessa Selbst
No woman has compiled as impressive a track record in live poker tournaments as quickly as Yale University and Yale Law School alumna Vanessa Selbst. Her $4,911,582 in lifetime tournament winnings dating back to 2006 includes six consectuvie years with six-figure earnings. The best of those years came in 2010, when she won both the NAPT Mohegan Sun main event ($750,000) and the Partouche Poker Tour main event ($1,823,430).
Success has come to Selbst seemingly wherever she has played. She has made 2 WSOP final tables, winning the bracelet in the 2008 $1,500 Pot-Limit Omaha event, and has twice finished 3rd in the WSOP Heads-Up Championship. She followed up her 2010 NAPT Mohegan Sun win with another victory at the 2011 running of that tournament. And most recently she made her first WPT TV table, finishing 3rd at the 2011 Five Diamond World Poker Classic.
Like Harman, Selbst is also proficient in cash games. She got her start playing cash both online and live in 2004, working up to games with blinds as high $25-$50, $50-$100 and occasionally $200-$400. Her reputation precedes her at coaching site DeucesCracked, where she charges $650 per hour for her services.
4. Annette Obrestad
Legend has it that Annette Obrestad, then just 15 years old and living in her hometown in Norway, won her first online poker stake in a freeroll. Since then she has built a big reputation for herself through relentless aggression and consistently excellent performances.
Before she was old enough to play in casinos, Obrestad was dominating online poker; lifetime, she has won more than $2.3 million playing at the virtual felt. Since 2006 has also competed in live tournaments, racking up $3,738,569 lifetime earnings. She has cashed for at least six figures every year since 2007, when she won the WSOP Europe Main Event ($2,013,734) and finished 2nd at EPT Dublin ($429,181). In recent years she has enjoyed success at the Aussie Millions, winning a Pot-Limit Omaha event in 2010, and at the Wynn Classic, winning a No-Limit Hold’em event this year and finishing 2nd in the 2011 main event.
With more than $6 million in winnings between online and live tournaments, few players of either gender can boast the kind of record the 23-year-old Obrestad has. And she has left her mark on the history books, too, remaining the youngest player ever to win a WSOP bracelet: she was just 18 years old at the time of her big victory in London.
5. Vanessa Rousso
It’s safe to say that Vanessa Rousso is driven. She maintained a perfect grade-point average in high school, graduated from Duke University in two and a half years with a major in economics, and moved on to law school at the University of Miami by the age of 21.
If she hadn’t been within driving distance of live poker at the Hard Rock Casino, she might have kept playing online and finished law school, taking her drive to America’s courtrooms and remaining a mostly recreational player.
Instead Rousso went pro and has gone on to become one of the most recognizable women in poker, winning $3,471,294 in live tournaments dating back to 2005. Her big breakthrough came in April 2006 when she finished 7th at the WPT Championship for $263,625. Since then she has won at least six figures every year, including $1.29 million in 2009 when she finished 2nd in the NBC National Heads-Up Championship and won the EPT Grand Final High Roller tournament. In addition to her live tournament success, she has won an additional $870,000 playing online, including a 2nd-place finish out of a field of 2,998 players in the 2007 PokerStars WCOOP Main Event.
Rousso is one of the few female poker players to gain lucrative sponsorship opportunities outside of the game. She signed on with domain registrar GoDaddy, which also sponsors race car drivers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in March 2009.