Pocket Queens: Poker, Women, Stories
Pocket Queens: Poker,
How to cite: Rak, J. Pocket Queens: Poker, Women, Stories. Critical Gambling Studies. https://doi.org/10.29173/cgs100
This non-peer reviewed entry is published as part of the Critical Gambling Studies Blog.
the dead of winter in Edmonton, and it’s a cold, clear Friday night. Time to
play some poker.
my work day done, I turn off my computer, and I put on a pair of old jeans and
a dark hoodie. I reserve my spot, and then get my gear together: my phone and
earbuds, my money clip with the magnet for a couple of loonies, and my
Humanities Special Achievement Medal from 1989. It’s round and heavy, and has
part of my undergrad university’s crest on it. It’s a perfect card marker
because it’s impossible to ship with the pot by accident, and it’s the part of
my academic identity that I can take along with me to the card room without
saying too much about it. Into the money clip I put a wad of bills that’s worth
a couple of buy-ins (but I hope I only use one) with a bit of extra cash for
some food. I put all this into my pockets with my keys, bank card and driver’s
license, and I’m ready to go. As I drive down the highway, I can see just a few
stars twinkling in the night sky. Twilight comes early to my northern Canadian city
in the winter. There is fresh snow on the ground, so I’m careful on the road. I
feel the concerns of the day move away, and I clear my mind for the night
a busy night at my regular casino. During the height of the
The little research there is on brick and mortar casino poker playing in North
America estimates that : the percentage of women in the World
Series of Poker Main Event, the best-known tournament in the world, in 2012 (Abarbanel and Bernhard). There are no statistics about
queer players like myself, but I’m willing to bet that the number is even
lower. It’s evident who is in the majority as I walk through the parking lot
filled with huge trucks paid for by the oil fields in the north, by the smoking
area where I hear some guy say, ‘I had a set! And he CALLED!’ and then into the
tired Western-style themed poker room with the buzzer security system that
never actually works.
I walk into the room, the noise hits me in the face, dozens of men talking at
once, some shouting. I’m glad to see that there are six ring game tables and a
tournament running. There’s going to be lots of choice and I should find a
profitable table easily. The players are
almost all men, half of them white and half of them not, hunched over intently
waiting for their cards, complaining to their friends about terrible hands they
had, laughing at jokes, trying, and failing to get the waitress’ attention,
lining up at the wicket for chips. This is not Casino Royale. It’s grubby and
it’s loud. There are three TVs blasting sports—hockey, curling and golf–and I can hear the jangle of the
slots in the background. Dealers and house staff run about, managing the
tournament. Someone is complaining about the fans running at top speed in the
dead of winter. Lowell, a retired businessman who loves poker as much as he
loves hunting is eating a steak and fries with gusto in the back lounge as he
waits for a table. He is sporting an ‘I Love Trump’ button on his jacket. This
is the kind of scene that made leave the room the first few times she tried to play in a
casino, but by now, I’m used to it (Coren, 2009, p. 32). I nod to a few of the
regulars—Wanda (one of three female players in the room) with her hat decorated
with rhinestones and a sparkling card marker in the shape of a toad; Cyril, the
former naval officer and current department store Santa with big anchors
tattooed on his forearms; Ngyen, a businessman always ready to joke, who owns a
chain of sandwich shops; Lai, a quiet and methodical trans player who I see has
invested recently in an excellent suit jacket and tie; and Viktor, an elderly
birdwatcher with a handlebar mustache who lives in his van. I’ll talk to them
all later, when I’m settled in.
the room, I see Bill, the trout fly designer and Frida, one of the best women
players in Edmonton and a former dealer, playing for high stakes at the Omaha
game with young, eager men who are laughing, shouting, and not paying enough
attention to the pros at the table. As the night wears on, those big chip
stacks in front of them could dwindle to nothing. Or, if Frida and Bill are
unlucky, those stacks could grow even larger, at their expense. That game is
too rich for my blood, I think for the hundredth time.
check in with the houseman who manages the room and get seated right away. I
throw down my card marker to mark my seat, and notice that most of the men do
not look very happy to see me, probably for several reasons. I’m used to this. The
players who know me are disappointed not to see an easy mark. Others see only a
middle-aged white woman and feel that I’m intruding on their masculine turf, or
that I am not the eye-candy they would rather see. A couple of guys think it’s
only a woman and assume that I’ll be a passive, substandard player. Others just
don’t care: they are thinking only about their chip stack and their cards. But
the dealer smiles: it’s Tran, one of my favourites. Tran was a doctor back home
but can’t get certified here. We have a lot of respect for each other. I buy
chips at the wicket, put them down at my spot and then I go to the back and get
some soda water and ice.
ready to play.
blog post has an argument to make about women in poker, but to do that it
begins a little differently from what some researchers in the field of gambling
studies might be used to seeing. I began with a story of my own to show that
poker players do have their own stories to tell, stories that could tell
researchers a lot about the culture of poker and its politics in the
twenty-first century. As a woman, I am
part of a minority in poker, (Palomäki et al., 2016).
I encounter sexism in poker, and homophobia too, every time I play, in complex
ways connected to race and class issues, among other inequities and alliances
in poker’s practices. Therefore I think that my experiences, and the
experiences of other women, including trans women, Indigenous women and women
of colour, deserve respect. There are some studies that have identified
everyday sexism in poker where women strategize within and against assumptions
about them as players, in what is often an aggressively macho world (Abarbanel & Bernhard, 2012),
(Wolkomir, 2012). Such studies are based
on ethnographic and interview work. But what of the stories that players,
especially female and other minority players, have to tell in their own terms?
Here is where poker research could go if poker is assumed to have cultures and
histories. In that light, methods from the humanities about stories and
representation could have much to add to the field of critical gambling
studies, because poker is a game of and for representation in first
person accounts, and in other aspects of autobiographical discourse. A focus on
autobiographical stories can help to highlight who players are, and what their
everyday lives as players are like when they are not being studied by experts.
As have pointed out, autobiographical stories
(called life writing, which includes other forms like diaries or biographies)
serve many cultural functions, including the work of testimony, the work of
narrative in creating the writing subject as they assemble and rework the
stories of their lives, and the ethics of telling life stories that would
otherwise be forgotten or discounted. Such stories are creative, and yet based
on truth claims. They compel their readerships and inspire them, as they
instruct and entertain, sometimes all at once (Smith & Watson, 2010, pp. 31–63).
In the last twenty years, the work of life writing has become part of the
methodology of cultural studies, as it unites the action of social forces on
individuals with the everyday lives of people who are not merely captive to
hegemonic ideology. Life writing itself, within autoethnography and more
broadly in cultural studies has become an important way to understand how
experience, in the words of , is
both an interpretation and in need of an interpretation (Scott, 1991, p. 797).
life writing to focus on the culture of poker means that methods and theory
from the humanities and the social sciences can be used in order to respond to ’s pithy observation that ‘researchers need to expand their
methods beyond the survey and the laboratory to spend more time playing and
talking with gamblers’ (Nicoll, 2019). Actually talking with
and even playing with poker players could shed light on the gender, class and
race politics of poker itself, and can help researchers respect poker as cultural
work rather than regard it as a pathology. What Nicoll calls the trope of
the problem gambler is not based very often on the experiences or the voices of
players in casino environments, and there is more than a little moral
high-ground assumed by some researchers about those they research, because
presumably they are not the ‘problem’ they think about. James Cosgrave in a points out the
problems with the focus on individual as problem in problem gambling research,
observing that ‘problem gambling research is not gambling studies. It is rather
an extension or application of addiction research to gambling’ (Cosgrave, 2020). But he goes on to say
significantly that simply focusing on the social work of gambling may also make
the gambler as an agent disappear as well.
voices of female poker players, then, have more than one way to be easily lost.
Here is an example of how this can happen: for example, in , it is assumed that ‘poker players are at high risk
of experiencing gambling problems. Despite the feminization of gambling, little
is known about the problems associated with poker playing among women’ (Morvannou et al., 2020).
The study proceeds from female poker players as problematic, not from their
experience as players. It is important, of course, to study problem gambling
and I do not mean to say that there are no problem gamblers who play poker. But
the authors proceed from the idea that women who play poker are only seen when
they are a ‘problem’ for research.
Foucault pointed out a similar attraction to pathology as a field-generating
activity in the study of deviance and sexuality in the nineteenth century.
Psychiatry and medicine developed as sciences by overcoming initial revulsion
at the subject matter. ‘How could a discourse based on reason speak of that?’
Foucault asks rhetorically, connecting the need for the new areas of research
to turn their attention to thinking about, and then medicalizing, the study of
sex (Foucault, 1978, p. 24). The key for Foucault
is the turn from sex to discourse and where experts strive to set their
revulsion aside, which is what made it possible to study it. He says of this
What is essential [in this
professional desire to overcome revulsion] is not in all these scruples, in the
‘moralism’ they betray, or in the hypocrisy one can suspect them of, but in the
recognized necessity of overcoming this hesitation. One had to speak of sex;
one had to speak publicly and in a manner that was not determined by the
division between licit and illicit . . . one had to speak of it as of a thing
to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed. (Foucault, 1978, p. 24)
with research from the figure of the problem gambler, and then creating an
understanding of gender which simply says female poker players are
problem players too, is a way to consolidate a research field and manage its
subjects as problems for the field. One must speak of that, which is
poker, and of them, women who play, as the illicit, while the
researchers create the idea of the licit, in the name of the management of
study of poker, therefore, is not well served by being just another field for
research into problem gambling. By the same token, the few studies there are of
female players do not, as a rule, feature the voices of those players. There
are relatively few accounts in the literature of their experiences and
so, if poker has a culture, what is that culture like, beyond the categories of
recreational gaming and problem gambling? And more specifically, what is poker
like for all women who play? The stories women themselves must tell could be a
good place to start. Here I am thinking of the possibilities of studying the
autobiography and biography of many kinds of female players, from those who
write memoirs about their time on the World Poker Tour as Victoria Coren has
done in For Richer, For Poorer (Coren, 2009), those who are part of
the star system which has developed since the advent of televised tournaments
and online sites as Annie Duke has done in her own
of the game (Duke & Diamond, 2005),
to online autobiographical and biographical forms—including blogs—of figures
like Vanessa Selbst, Jennifer Harman or even ‘Poker Alice’, Alice Duffield
Tubbs, the unforgettable impresario,
player and dealer from the early American west who appears in James McManus’ (McManus, 2009, pp. 172–176). All
these stories matter, and can work against the tendency in the popular press to
focus on the glamour of female players’ lives, ignoring the gender politics
they talk about. Their stories are only part of the picture: there are also stories
of other relatively ordinary players, who raise, call and fold far from the World
Series of Poker and the lights of Monte Carlo, Macau or Las Vegas.
usually play for about 6 hours, and I can feel that it’s getting late. I look
at my watch—it’s 1:00 am. The tables are getting quiet and things are settling
down. I used to be able to play all night and would sometimes do this if I were
down chips, but I have learned that the more tired I get, and as winning
players leave the game, it’s just not worth it unless the game is unusually
lucrative. I have had a good time,
anyway, catching up with some of my friends, laughing at Cyril’s awful
off-colour jokes, and winning some pots. I’m ahead by a good margin. I have
about an hour before I really have to leave, and I might leave earlier because
there’s a guy who clearly thinks he’s fantastic in seat one. He makes big
raises and forces people out of pots. He’s not all that good, although it isn’t
the worst strategy, because he plays every hand and he would never win them all
any other way. He has been scooping a lot of pots, plus getting lucky on a few.
He has about $1500 in front of him, which is a lot for the small Hold ‘Em game
we are playing, and the guys near me are starting to grumble and look at him
hungrily. I look at him too for a bit. He’s white, heavy-set and wearing a
hockey jersey, and he’s been talking loudly about hockey as he drinks beer
after beer, sitting next to Alan (the father of an NHL player) who is very
patiently waiting for the guy to make a mistake. I re-raised the guy in the last
hand when I was holding an Ace and a King, and he folded, loudly saying, ‘Next
time little lady, it’s not going to be so easy for you.’
lady? Vin, the player next to me, starts laughing silently because he knows
what I’m thinking. ‘What are you going to do about that?’, his look says. I
know that this is my weak spot because I hate it when guys are patronizing. I
have made some money tonight, but if I stay, I could end up donating to this
guy, and I don’t want to do that. There’s nothing worse than donating chips to
some sexist jerk as he laughs in your face. One more hand, I think. I look down
at the two cards I’m dealt, and it’s QQ. Pocket Queens, the Ladies. Now this
is a hand. It’s going to be great or it’s going to hurt. But I’m last to
act. The guy in seat 1 is first, and he opens his eyes in surprise, and he
raises to $100. He literally could have anything, and I have $800 in front of
me. He’s got me covered. It’s a good gamble, maybe. I take out my ear
buds. I decide to re-raise to $300. In
an exaggerated movement, with a wink at the guys beside him, he shoves at his
chips, yelling all-in. Alan just sits there, willing me to fold. Everyone
thinks I’m going to fold. The guy even says I’ll fold too, in a
satisfied way. ‘You can’t call that,’ he says.
me? I’ve got $400 left and that’s a lot to risk after playing for a few hours.
Frida wouldn’t even blink an eye, but it’s hard for me. I probably have him
beat, although that move could be because the guy has AA or KK (two Aces or two
Kings) and then it’s over. I have had it happen before. This is where most
female players are supposed to fold. And should I? I can see the same hockey highlight on the TV
that I saw 2 hours ago. I’m sick of being here now and I want to go home. I go
over in my mind everything the guy said and did for the last 4 hours.
guy asks the dealer to give him the chips because he’s tired of waiting and I
say, ‘No, you’ve got to wait. Just because I’m a little lady doesn’t mean I
don’t get to think with my little brain.’ Somebody laughs. But I already know
what I’m going to do. I shove in all my chips, as the table sucks in its
guy turns over an awful hand, K10 (King 10) suited. It’s annoying because it’s
such a bad hand, and also terrifying. What if a King hits and my pair is gone,
or what if he gets a straight or flush? One King does appear, and I think it’s
over for me, but the next card is a Queen. I win with trips, as the guy
chastises me for staying in the hand and tries to defend himself from Johnny
the pipe fitter in seat four, who is trying to make him understand that his
play didn’t make sense. Other players congratulate me, I stack my chips, and Tran,
my dealer, gives me a little smile as I shoot him a generous tip. The guy rearranges
his shrunken chip stack and asks me, in a wounded voice, why I called him on
such a big bet.
just love the Ladies,’ I say. And I smile just a little bit.
then I get chip racks, fill them up, put on my jacket, pick up my card marker,
cash out and walk away from poker into the clear, cold dark of an early
Julie Rak is H.M. Tory Chair in
the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta,
Canada. Her latest book is False Summit: Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction
(McGill-Queens UP, 2021).
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