Shaila’s Weblog

Men are Still Underestimating Female Poker Players

Posted on: August 25, 2008

LAS VEGAS • Siobhan Grennan learned how to play poker to please a man. She was then just old enough to count the pennies from her paper route, and the man – her brother, three years her senior – was sufficiently bored that he was prepared to spend a few hours with his sis. But the hours added up, and by the time Siobhan was 14, her big bro figured she was ready for the big leagues: playing with his friends.

“One day, Kevin invited a bunch of guys over for a poker game and he said, ‘Hey, my little sister wants to play, do you mind?’ and they all thought, what a cute kid, sure, and so I played – and cleaned up,” recalls Grennan. “It was the first time I realized that being a girl in a guy’s game has an advantage: Men underestimate me.”

Thirtysome years later and, by most accounts, men are still underestimating female poker players, or they’re intimidated by them, distracted by them or attracted to them – take your pick. Web sites such as womenspokerclub.com and pokergoddess.com encourage women to take advantage of such advantages: “Use your feminine wiles to outwit your opponent,” says one site. “Use their insecurity,” says another.

Such sites classify men into types – for example, Chauvinist, Macho Man, Mr. Flirt and Daddykins – along with tips on how to play each. When playing Daddykins, defined as a man who wants to show off to his little girl, a woman should listen, nod and never challenge his opinion. But she should take note of what he’s revealing about his hand and style of play. When playing a guy who flirts, know that in his attempt to seduce he’ll rarely raise you even if his hand is strong. If he does raise, fold; flirty dude is sitting on a sure winner.

Although Grennan, a 47-year-old single mother and senior producer at MuchMoreMusic in Toronto, relies primarily on her poker skills to win, she admits to playing the girl card. While the genders are equal, they are different, she insists. “For example, men aren’t as good at multi-tasking. And so when I sit down at a table, I always start chatting. It throws them off their game.”

Until recently, her play has been limited to games with friends and in poker tournaments held in local pubs. But she’s always longed to go to Las Vegas to find out if she could hold her own in a “real” casino. The opportunity to do so came about this summer when her 12-year-old daughter, Kate, accepted an invitation to visit Grennan’s family in Ireland for a month. “I knew I had to take this chance to spend a few days of my freed-up time in Vegas and so I called some girlfriends and we all decided to go.”

In mid-July, giddy with the prospect of fulfilling a dream, Grennan hopped on a plane en route to the gambling mecca of North America.

I had the opportunity to shadow her.

When we first met up at the Mirage Casino on the famed Vegas Strip, her aircraft had landed but Grennan was flying. “Isn’t this wild?” she gushed, her eyes dancing like the lights of the nearby slot machines.

It was a blistering hot afternoon, but the cool interior of the vast room, with its low ceilings, dim lighting and unending flow of complementary cocktails, created an ambience of eternal evening. The place was hopping – not surprising considering Vegas’s occupancy level is 90% – and although there were plenty of women around, most were trying their luck at the slot machines, not the poker tables.

Still, casino dealer John Leake, 35, assured me that at a table of 10 players, typically one or two are women, way up from five years ago. In any tournament, it is estimated that 6% to 10% of entrants are female, and a few of them have done very well in recent years.

Last year, Winnipeg’s Cheryl Lynn Deleon placed seventh at the World Poker Tour North American Championship held at Fallsview Casino. A day before her 19th birthday, Annette Obrestad of Norway became the only woman to win the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event. She walked away more than $2-million richer.

What’s luring the ladies? Televised poker games give players such as Annie Duke, a mother who has made millions at the game, plenty of attention – thus generating female role models. Online poker sites mean women can learn the game and hone their skills before playing publicly. And because poker is no longer played in a smoke-filled back room but in a designated open area within a casino, the game is more accessible to women. Accessible, but not always welcoming.

Leake, who has dealt cards in Vegas for 15 years, has witnessed many a male with a chip on his shoulder. “Some men don’t like playing against women. I had one guy, after a female had folded, say, ‘See, this is why women shouldn’t play. They ruin the game.’ It’s even worse if they lose to them.”

Grennan took a seat at a Texas Hold ‘Em table, where the only other woman barely glanced her way. The men looked up, though.

Wearing a polka dot dress and matching hair band, Grennan was all charm. She introduced herself in such a way that you’d think she was sitting down to high tea.

I was surprised when the man sitting next to her transformed into a living, breathing stereotype. After shaking her hand, he launched into his life story – he’s from Milwaukee and sings in a barbershop quartet. Picking up on their common interest in music, Grennan chatted about her job at a television station famous for its music videos. Clearly enamoured, he folded his cards and cheered her on with a few quick tips.

The elderly gentleman to her right, annoyed by the chatter, gave Grennan a gruff look. He won the pot, however, and she rewarded him by patting his hand.

“You’re very stoic, sir,” she said lightly. “This should make you feel better.”

He couldn’t suppress a smile.

Grennan was playing the game well – in more ways than one – but after about 20 minutes, the $100 pile of chips she had started with has diminished.

Another hand was dealt. She peered at her cards and flushed. I knew she had something good because, earlier, she had told me, “I have a physical thing. When I’m excited I turn red. I’d have to wear a veil if I played poker professionally.”

As she struggled to keep her composure, her cellphone rang.

“May I take this?” she asked the table, a protocol she learned before coming here.

Undecipherable grunts and grumbles all around and so she picked up. During her brief conversation, the game went on, more cards were dealt and bets placed, and our multi-tasker stayed in the game. Within seconds of hanging up, she had won the pot.

“That was my daughter calling from Ireland,” Grennan chirped, sweeping the pile of chips toward herself. “I guess you can call this the luck of the Irish!”

The chap sitting at the other side of the table and watching his fortune being swept away looked as if he’d like to wring her neck.

Grennan’s winnings were the result of two pairs. In the next hand, she got another two pairs and once again, cleaned up.

The potential neck-wringer took a break, giving me a chance to get his take on female poker players.

“Women have a huge advantage at the table,” said Matt Mahoney, a 58-year-old father of three girls from Los Angeles. “They have incredible intuition. I can never get away with a lie to my wife or my daughters. And if a woman is playing poker and she dresses correctly, she can be so distracting. Some lean and stretch in certain ways – or maybe I’m just a letch.”

Grennan hadn’t resorted to undoing a button, but still he was wary. “I immediately put myself on guard when she sat down. I couldn’t tell if she could play well and I waited to see. I think she’s a good player. Luck of the Irish? Hey, I’m Irish, too.”

Not far away, at the nearby Rio Casino, Tiffany Michelle, a 24-year-old actor, singer and songwriter from Los Angeles, was showing the stuff she’s made of at the main event of the World Series of Poker. Like Grennan, Michelle learned the game as a kid playing with her brothers. Unlike Grennan, Michelle is a pro. In recent years, she’s been steadily moving up the ranks in professional poker circles and credits her success to pure skill. Mind you, she believes women have an edge.

“The minute a woman sits down at the table, men are automatically uncomfortable,” she told me. Clad in funky clothes and with a ball-cap pulled low over her eyes, the raven-haired beauty laughed. “I know the guys are intimidated by me and so they don’t play their usual game.”

Of the 6,844 players who entered the multi-day tournament, Michelle will go on to finish 17th, earning the coveted title Last Woman Standing. She also earns a whopping $330,000, the largest amount ever won by a female in the tournament’s history.

Grennan, meanwhile, left Vegas, $13 up.

Both were excited by their performance.

Said Michelle, “Doing well in this tournament is assisting in creating buzz for me in Hollywood. One day I hope to invest the money I make in poker in creating and producing, to get films and stories out there that I want to do. I tell women, if you enjoy poker, do it. Somebody has to win, so why not you?”

Said Grennan: “I wanted to prove to myself that I am good enough. I didn’t lose money which means I am.”

During my time in Vegas I asked various women who do well at the poker tables whether – in addition to winning – they get sweet satisfaction from beating the boys.

Some said no, but here’s the thing: They could be bluffing.   Courtesy: National Post

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