More women are entering the WSOP Main Event

9 July 2013

LAS VEGAS -- For the second-straight year, the World Series of Poker Main Event drew a massive field on its third and final opening flight for the tournament. More than 3,400 people joined the fray, bringing the total number of entrants to 6,352. That's smallest Main Event field since 2005. That tournament drew 5,619 players. The median tournament field size for the last seven Main Events (including this one) is 6,598. The average field size for the last seven Main Events (including this one) is 6,690.

The Main Event champion will win $8.36 million. A player that cashes for the minimum will win $19,106. Only the top 648 players will cash in this year's Main Event.

Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu began their quests for the Main Event Monday. But, at least for one day, they're taking a back seat to the biggest developing story at the WSOP -- women.

More women than ever before played at the World Series this year. The number of women playing at the Main Event jumped 41 percent, from 211 players to 298 players. This year, the 298 women playing represent 4.7 percent of the field. Last year, women represented just 3.2 percent of the field. And through 52 events this year (and not including the Main Event) women have accounted for 5.3 percent of the total entrants. In 2010, they were 4.86 percent of the entrants (in the entire World Series) and in 2012 they were 4.75 percent of the entrants.

Loni Harwood won $874,698 at the World Series of Poker this year.

Loni Harwood won $874,698 at the World Series of Poker this year. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Walking through the tournament area, the increased presence of women is noticeable. In previous years, you would have to hunt to find a woman at the table. Now you just turn your head and you're likely to spot one.

The difference is most notable at the lower buy-in bracelet events and the $235 deep stacks (the deep stacks are not included in the WSOP calculations). In those events, it's not uncommon to see two or three women at multiple tables.

I spent some time talking to some of the women playing (and watching) the Main Event this year, trying to figure out why women were taking up the game in greater numbers. What emerged from the conversations was interesting. They all shared similar origin stories on how they took up the game. And for the most part, they preferred live poker to online poker.

"I've been playing for about nine years," said Christina Renz during a 20-minute break from the Main Event. "My grandpa used to be a poker pro. He used to go out to Las Vegas all the time. We watched him play and win his tournaments. And my husband plays and it became a family thing."

"I started playing online first and I hated it," Renz added with a laugh. "I hate online poker. I love playing live. I love cash games and live tournaments. They're my favorites."

Poker is a family thing for Pam Downing as well.

"My dad used to play every month with his friends and when they played at our house, they'd always throw money on the ground that kids could collect for the next day, so I always played cards with him growing up. That's like a family thing so now I'm getting more into the bigger stuff."

Downing, who grew up in Virginia, eventually moved to California, where she started playing more.

"I always wanted to play, so I started playing with other friends and then I did some online things," Downing said. "When I moved out to California, I did tournaments. This (the Main Event) is my first big tournament though."

"I can't say online poker was important (to my growth)," Downing added. "I like seeing faces better. Online, I can't see anything. I'd rather be in the situation with all the people around."

Downing had a special reason for playing in this year's Main Event.

"I turn 40 this year and I wanted to do something big before I turn 40," Downing said. "I talked about it and talked about it with some people and it all came together."

Downing says she's also noticed more women are taking up the game.

"My friends are playing," Downing said. "I think why women are playing has more to do with boyfriends and friends. It's stuff that they can bond (over) and do together. Girls want to do it as well. Girls want to win."

Girls do want to win. And few, male or female, have done as well as Loni Harwood at this year's World Series. Harwood entered the Main Event Monday with a sixth-place finish in Event 44 ($1,500 PLO8), a fourth-place finish in Event 53 ($1,500 No-Limit Hold'em) and a win in Event 60 ($1,500 No-Limit Hold'em). She also cashed in two other events this Series, giving her $874,698 in WSOP winnings.

"Winning the bracelet is definitely the highlight of my poker career," Harwood said after her win in Event 60. "Everyone is in search of a bracelet. It's pretty unbelievable."

"My dad taught me how to play," Harwood explained when I asked her how she picked up the game. "He played online my whole life. He was very successful on PokerStars and he taught me and I just watched him play for hours.

"I graduated from college in January of last year and then I moved to Florida to play poker for a living," Harwood said, detailing her path to World Series success. "Just cash though. Then I started playing tournaments and I started winning right away so I thought maybe I should travel a little bit and just play tournaments and not cash. And that's pretty much how I got here.

"After the Ladies Event, I started to see a lot more women (playing). Towards the beginning of the summer, I didn't that many women at my tables. There was another woman who went deep in the tournament I finished fourth in. That was pretty awesome."

And Harwood cites Vanessa Selbst as the person she emulates.

"I just think Vanessa Selbst is the best woman out there. She's very inspiring."

The increase in women at the Main Event comes one year after Elisabeth Hille and Gaelle Baumann finished 11th and 10th at the Main Event.

It would be silly to attribute the increase in women at the Main Event to their finish. And none of the players I talked to mentioned it. But it's worth noting that Hille shared a similar origin story with the rest of the ladies when she busted out of the Main Event last year.

"I always liked the game," Hille said when explaining why she started playing poker. "I didn't know it very well though until my now boyfriend started teaching me about four years ago."

"He just gave me the basics, the really really basics, and got me to play on PokerStars," Hille said. "And I absolutely got bitten by it. I couldn't stop playing."

One woman who hopes to be playing in the World Series soon was on the rail watching her husband, Jim, today.

"I became interested in the game because of my husband," said Stephanie Edminister. "He sits there for 10 hours playing, so I figured there has to be something interesting about it."

The more she learned, the more she liked.

"I like that it's not just reading cards, but reading people too," Edminister said.

"Maybe you'll see me out there some day," Edminister added. "It's a good challenge. They don't expect the women to be there."

Harwood busted out of the Main Event during the last level of the night Monday. Both Hille and Baumann played earlier in the Main Event and advanced to Day 2 play. So did Downing and Renz, who played Monday.

As to why there are more women playing at the World Series -- and the Main Event -- this year, there's no simple answer. It's most likely the combination of a few factors:

1. There's been a societal sea change. It used to be that poker was a guy's thing. Men smoking cigars, drinking scotch and bonding over cards. No girls allowed. That's changed tremendously now. Fathers and daughters, grandfathers and granddaughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends now bond over poker. It's become the common interest that holds people together. And as a result more women are interested in the game. It's a natural part of their lives. And they want to excel at it.

2. Poker rooms are more accessible. Thanks to the expansion of casino gaming throughout the U.S., there are more places to play poker than ever before. It doesn't require synchronizing schedules with a bunch of friends or a four-hour drive to Atlantic City. It's easy and convenient. And when you're trying to pick up a new game, the lower the barriers, the better.

3. Online poker is a good training ground. This is particularly true in Europe, where land-based poker rooms are hard to find and moving money in and out of regulated online poker rooms is safe and easy. As online poker in the U.S. expands, many will find it a convenient and low-cost (hopefully) way to gain experience playing poker.

4. Vanessa Selbst. Don't underestimate the power of Selbst being one of the best players in the world. It's been a long time since poker had a woman among the ranks of its elite. Selbst is proof that success in poker is achievable.

5. Poker isn't in the shadows anymore. ESPN has been televising the WSOP for more than 10 years. That makes it a legitimate mainstream event. It's part of the culture now. And that makes it much more accessible.

6. Most poker rooms are non-smoking. I'm not kidding. This isn't a driving factor, but it's important. Most women won't play in a smoke-infested environment. They're just not interested in that. Making poker rooms smoke-free removes a barrier.

Daniel Negreanu survived Day 1C action at the Main Event

Daniel Negreanu survived Day 1C action at the Main Event (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Notable chip stacks:
Mark Kroom 246,300
Joseph Cheong 143,375
Isaac Haxton 134,250
Freddy Deeb 120,525
Phil Ivey 119,650
Vanessa Selbst 110,000
Grant Hinkle 105,375
Phil Collins 104,725
Phil Hellmuth 92,850
Jay Rosenkrantz 52,925
Nate Silver 32,500
Daniel Negreanu 15,600

Notable eliminations:
Ylon Schwartz
Loni Harwood
Sam Farha
Jeff Madsen
Shaun Deeb
Phil Laak
Vanessa Rousso
Jonathan Duhamel
Shane Schleger

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