Pokerography: Human imagination and the creation of gender inequality

TAGs: Pokerography

The Pokerography series continues with another look at Yuval Noah Harari’s classic Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind this time focusing on gender inequality.

I don’t know what it’s like to have two X chromosomes. But I have lived with a few. My mother raised me. I have three sisters. As a child and teenager, most of my best friends were female. I have been married twice. When not writing about poker, I help people quit alcohol, and most are female. I have a six-month-old daughter. And when I think about those relationships and take a time out to look at the world it is obvious that the vast majority of people believe men are superior to women when it comes to gender hierarchy.

Why?Pokerography: human imagination and the creation of gender inequality

Last week in my Pokerography series I touched upon Yuval Noah Harari’s great book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind to talk about the poker hierarchy, and I once again delve into the pages to try to answer this perplexing question of gender inequality.

In February, Cate Hall took to the stage at the American Poker Awards in Hollywood to accept the award for the Global Poker Index (GPI) Female Player of the Year. Hall worked hard to win the award, not for the recognition that being the best female poker player on the planet provides, but for the stage from which to raise some important issues that she believed the poker world needed to hear.

“The concept of the Female Player of the Year doesn’t make any sense,” said Hall. “There were 77 men that finished ahead of me this year and for me to get an award for finishing behind 76 of them – it feels to me that it has to send a message that I am not expected to compete with them.”

The creators of the award didn’t mean any malice when deciding to rank the top female poker players in the world. But in doing so, they did continue to promote a myth that men are superior to women; a myth that was created 12,000 years ago at around the same time Homo Sapiens were about to create the Agricultural Revolution.

Harari poses the question:

“How did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks?”

 And Harari answers it:

“Humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy.”

 Harari goes on to use The 1776 Declaration of Independence as an example of an imagined hierarchy at work when he reminds us that there was nothing particularly ‘independent’ about the declaration if you were a woman, black, or an American Indian. Most of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence did so using a pen handed to them from their black slave.

The Deaf Effect

Cate Hall sees through this bullshit.

But why is she a minority?

In his superb tome Freedom: The End of the Human Condition the author and Australian biologist, Jeremy Griffith, talks about a societal affliction known as The Deaf Effect and I believe we see this in poker.

When posed with the question of gender inequality and our role in promulgating it Griffith believes humans do one of three things.

One of these reactions is to attack the person who is holding what we believe to be the contrarian view. If you don’t believe this exists then follow Cate Hall on Twitter and read the vitriol that flies in her direction in 140-character dirty bombs (and not all the abuse is from men).

The second reaction is to try and prove the other person wrong. And once again you can read Hall’s social media feeds to see the many reasons why some people believe her views on gender inequality are on the verge of madness.

The final reaction is to block it out. And this is what Griffith refers to as The Deaf Effect. A good example of this, in modern culture, is for someone to read the abuse being hurled at Hall and ignore it. And the value of the Deaf Effect is it blocks out any potential psychological damage that could follow when you realise that you’re on the receiving end or are complicit in the inequality of gender.

I, personally believe, the primary value of the Deaf Effect is the nice fuzzy feeling we get when we believe there is a biological order to the world. But life isn’t like that. Life isn’t like that at all. As Harari points out in Sapiens:

“It’s an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.”

 Who wants to believe that we exist in a social structure that was imagined and had none or very little biological determination? As an example, Harari refers to white supremacists and their unyielding view that non-whites are biologically inferior to whites.

Is that part of the lie that allowed Homo Sapiens to co-exist and take over the world despite being much lower down the food chain?

Or are the white supremacists correct?

Back to Those Chromosomes

In the book, Sapiens Harari talks about the one constant when it comes to imaginary hierarchies in our history, and that’s the hierarchy of gender.

 “People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

Back in time, in many societies, women were the property of men. Rape fell under property violation laws. It wasn’t the woman subjected to rape who was the victim; it was the male who owned her. He was victimised because the rapist had to pay him a significant bounty for his act, but then took ownership of the woman he had just raped.

And if you think this is incredible and must have come from caveman times then consider that in 2006 husbands who raped their wives could not be prosecuted in 53 countries, and it wasn’t until 1997 that a progressive country like Germany amended their laws.

And we are back to the why?

Harari points out that while it’s obvious that women take up childbearing duty because they have a womb and men don’t the cultural and ideologies that sprout up from that are baffling. On the one hand, Harari believes there must be a biological reason for gender inequality, but he can’t find one.

“Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.”

Gender RolesPokerography: human imagination and the creation of gender inequality

I said at the beginning of this article that I don’t have two X chromosomes, so I can’t truly feel what it is like to be forced to live up to the feminine role, but I know what it feels like to live up to the masculine role.

I felt an incredible push to prove my masculinity as I grew up and even as I type this I suffer from the overbearing burden of having to provide for my family both financially and securely, both of which are fabricated masculine traits.

And my wife, Liza, also follows a similar lead. We have a six-month-old daughter and takes on the role of raising her. A few days ago, we talked about a dynamic that had surfaced in our relationship where she would look to me to take care of her. It startled her that this way of being had crept up on her a decade after living in an all female house where she helped rehabilitate women many of whom had suffered at the hands of men.

And these realisations are positive. They act as a stark reminder that masculine and feminine qualities are cultural and not biological. Meaning we can change them. And we start to do that by celebrating the likes of Cate Hall, who is trying to act as a role model for more people to speak up.

The Poker Room

Hopefully, after reading so far, you can see why men dominate the poker room. It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with misaligned cultural norms.

Yes, I know, Vanessa Selbst can kick male poker ass with her eyes closed, but let’s not forget that when Elizabeth I reigned supreme between 1558 to 1603 all the members of parliament, the highest ranked officers in the military, the judges, lawyers, archbishops, surgeons, professors, mayors, and sheriffs were all men. And if you look at the people in power in the poker world, most of them are men.

During her acceptance speech, Cate Hall said, “In the context in awards for athletic achievement that makes sense {to have gender specific awards} because men are just faster and stronger, that’s a biological fact.”

Harari maintains that the argument that males achieved their dominant status over females has nothing to do with muscle power at a biological level. Females are generally more resistant to disease, hunger, and fatigue than men. I know a lot of women who are faster than me and can lift heavier weights than me.

And in history, women were ushered into a variety of very labour intensive jobs, and this doesn’t make sense if they are the physically weaker species. Until you realise that for as long as you can remember these manual tasks have been handed to the lower class be it male or female.

And why, if muscle power is a male positive, didn’t more women end up in positions of political power and the higher echelons of the priesthood?

And Harari also points out that there is no direct link between physical strength and social power. Haven’t you ever watched a group of black slaves watching on while a white man abuses one of them in a movie and screamed, “Gang up and beat the crap out of him!”

Marlon Brando cut an intimidating figure as The Godfather, but my 16-year old boy could beat the crap out of him.


 One area that I hear spoken about a lot in poker is aggression. Men are more violent than women, that’s a biological fact. So send them out to war. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is using men to oversee and direct the war effort from a strategic point of view? That job should go to the gender that is more manipulative and can see the perspective of others clearer.

In poker, aggression may win you a hand, but you can’t be aggressive during every hand. To become a great poker player, you need a strategic acumen that seems to me to fit very nicely into the way a female mind works from a biological perspective.

If you read Sapiens and sift through all of Harari’s hard work and research, it’s obvious that the female gender would make excellent politicians, empire builders, and poker players.


Pokerography: human imagination and the creation of gender inequalityAlthough Harari failed to find a biological reasoning behind male superiority he did end his deep dive into this subject by recognising the changes we are making as a species.

“During the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. Events have been moving at breathtaking speed.”

 And then he goes on to say, that these facts, make the history of gender inequality utterly bewildering.

 Change takes time.

We are all in the epiphany business. We want our Eureka moment. But it doesn’t work like that. When you read a great book like Sapiens your understanding of the ‘why’ changes. It provokes an internal debate. It sends you in search of more answers, and then you start hearing people like Cate Hall because those lessons have breached the deaf effect.

And we really do have to applaud Cate Hall for using her time on that stage to say what she said. It was brave. It was much-needed. And what I loved about her speech the most was her understanding that there is no reason why female poker players can’t be amongst the best in the world. We created the gender inequality through myth-making. And while those myths have become cultural and are branded in our brains like a tattoo, the very essence of a myth means that it’s bullshit.

Can you smell it?

I can.

Please don’t be content with the consolation prize.

Go for the win.

The patriarchal system is imaginary.

But you are not.

You are very real.


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