Poker is becoming a woman’s game

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In the mid 1980s, Susie Isaacs, a soft-spoken homemaker who had just moved to Las Vegas, walked into a casino with slight trepidation.

“I look into the poker pit: all men, scratching, chewing, smoking big old stinky cigars,” she says. The décor was just as uninviting, with dark brown leather couches and dark green walls. “The guys would look up at you and their facial expression said, ‘don't even think about it.’”

It was not until a couple of years later that she had the courage to join a $20 buy-in game. “If you got lucky, $20 at the crap table would last you 20 minutes, and I sat down at a poker table and it lasted all night long,” she says.

Isaacs was hooked.

“I (had been) a typical subservient Southern mother and housewife, and I was totally content,”Isaacs says. She and her husband actually left their Atlanta home so he could follow his dream of becoming a professional poker player.

“Five years later I was doing well and he wasn’t,” she says. They later divorced but remain on good terms.

Today Isaacs, 61, is known as Ms. Poker. She is the first to twice win the World Series of Poker Ladies championship and finished 10th place at the World Series of Poker in 1998, where she took home $56,000.

Isaacs has written several books on poker, including “Queens Can Beat Kings,” and was recently inducted to the Women in Poker Hall of Fame along with three other players. They are all poker veterans who led the way for the growing trend of female participation in poker.

The road has been long, Isaacs says.

“The first World Poker Series ladies event in 1989 had about 100 female participants, Isaacs  says. “Last year there were over 1,300 women at the ladies event.”

The existence of women leagues has not gone unnoticed. Recently there has been an unexpected backlash against female poker leagues in California, when a group of men complained about being barred from tournaments. Lupe Soto, 49, the founder of LIPS—the Ladies International Poker Series--which started out at the Oceans 11 Casino in Oceanside, Calif., four years ago, described the complaint as “really sad,” but she added that LIPS has never knowingly barred men.

The complaints prompted California's Bureau of Gambling Control to send the industry a notice that holding ladies-only tournaments that discourage men from joining is a violation of the law.

Soto is also the founder of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame.

The idea behind the newly founded Hall was to honor "the phenomenal women out there--players, dealers, industry insiders that have paved the way for women in poker," she says. Before 2000 the game was popular in California but was on the decline in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Television saved the game.

Steve Lipscomb, 46, the founder and chief executive of WPT, the company behind the World Poker Tour, created a televised, traveling poker tournament in 2002, then Lipscomb introduced the “hole camera” which allowed viewers “to see and track the cards graphically so that you could put the mute button on in a bar and watch it like sport,” he says. “That changed the whole market.”

As the poker explosion continued, even leading to a poker tour of mainland China, women became the fastest growing segment of the market. “In the past ‘girls night out’ had nothing to do with poker but ladies night is now poker night," he says.

From observations of his son and daughter, Lipscomb sees the need for a ladies league because, he says, “in some ways we are wired differently.” Particularly, he says, when it comes to matters of money management. The WPT events are all in $10,000 or more buy-in level and even wealthy women seem to be more reluctant to spend that much. Lipscomb says, “The WPT ladies league is at a lower buy-in that allows women to become comfortable in this event.”

A poker player who does not fit the risk-averse profile is Karina Jett, a Hall of Fame board member. She plays cash games that allow players to continue to bet until they are essentially broke (tournament poker is a little safer as once you lose a game, you are out).

Jett, 33, a married mother of two, says she loves poker because, "It gives me the freedom to travel and live the way I like." The former Ms. Photogenic (from a teenage beauty pageant) hides her shrewd poker mind behind a smile. She sees an advantage to being a woman as male players tend to underestimate females.

“I used to get away with sitting at the table and saying I just learned how to play,” she says. But after appearing in televised events she says people recognize her and it’s more difficult to pull that off.

Lipscomb feels that women are natural poker players. “Women do better in the aggregate than men if you look at where they start and how far they make it,” he says.

His advice for anyone looking to turn pro is “keep your daytime job," and start slowly by playing online. WPT has online games and advice for beginners. Although poker is a game of skill it also requires luck, and Lipscomb adds, “It’s a hard way to earn an easy living.”

But Pandora is out of the box.

Standing at the glitzy Montel Williams gala poker event in New York, Mary Jones, 40, explains that she recently won the World Series of Poker Ladies Championship. "You don’t see it coming. I don’t look like your typical poker player” the slim blue-eyed belle says.

In fact, she says, when she plays, card dealers usually have fun at her opponents’ expense by saying, “Gentlemen, do you know you are playing with a world champion?” Jones says, “The men all usually look around the table at each other.”

That is until that dealer laughingly says, “Sorry Mary, I spilled the beans.” And that’s when everyone realizes the lady’s the champ.

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