How can we get more women to play poker?

Barry Carter is joined by Joanne Bartley from PokerStars Women to discuss how we can encourage more women to play poker.

// month I had the pleasure of interviewing the first double-EPT champion, Vicky Coren. There has been a lot of talk that her win will encourage a lot of female players to take up the game, and Vicky herself confirmed that she had received a lot of feedback from people saying she had influenced them to try poker.

She also confirmed to me what I imagined was one of the biggest barriers for getting women to try poker, she told me:

“I think women are a subset of the group of people who have a sneaking suspicion they’d love poker and they might be quite good at it, but they’re too shy to try. I remember when I wanted to start playing in casinos I was very shy. I used to go into the Vic and be too nervous to go into the card room. I’m very glad I got over that.”

I understand this completely. I have always felt that the card room was an intimidating environment for anyone, not just women. We all want more women to play the game, so this week I spoke to Joanne Bartley, the marketing manager for PokerStars Women. For the last few years PokerStars have been hosting regular women-only tournaments, have a dedicated PokerStars Women micro site, and regularly blog about female success at the tables. I asked her if she agreed that the biggest challenge was making the point of entry less intimidating for women?

The wrong type of marketing?

//“I actually think the image of poker can be quite aggressive. Even the money side of the game doesn’t appeal to women quite as much as the social side of it. The point Vicky made is that poker is fun. I think if more women were aware of that, and got into poker through more of a friendly home game environment instead, then that would show poker at its best.”

This is a really interesting point. I’ve always felt that one of the best organic forms of marketing the game has is that there are no barriers in poker. You can compete at the highest level regardless of your age, race, gender or background.

However, we do focus too much on the winners in poker, which probably works overall because men are generally more competitive by nature. It seems that the challenges the industry faces making poker more appealing to women is exactly the same as the challenges it faces appealing to recreational players. Perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone if we just focus on making the game seem more about fun and less about money?

“It’s really good that this is being addressed now. We went through a period where we only talked about the big wins. For the good of the game we have to accept that people will lose, but not mind losing. We tend to look up to the winners, but the losers matter, and as long as they are having fun while they do it, that’s ok.”

“It is very hard to sell poker to mainstream women, there is still a resistance to it. Right now we are trying more to convert play money women to micro stakes games. Things like Vicky winning is massive for that. We think there will be some benefits for mainstream interest because she did it, and made it look fun.”

The rise of female gamers

// Women started to grow around the same time as the popularity of mobile poker on smartphones and tablets. In recent years there has been a huge rise in the percentage of female gamers in general, thanks to smartphone games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Estimates suggest that now 45% of gamers are women. Has PokerStars seen a similar correlation since they introduced their mobile app?

“The percentage of mobile players is very good, but even more significant is our Facebook app. The female stats for that are really impressive. The app is for play chips, it’s social and it’s easy because you are on Facebook anyway. It is still very self-contained, it doesn’t mean they will always convert to real money."

"There are two quite distinct groups of female players, those who stick with play money and those who want to try real money poker. Around 10% of our real money traffic is female, but a great many more of our Facebook players are female.”

Will there always be sexism in poker?

//’m a pragmatist when it comes to the issue of getting more women to the tables, I think we should just do whatever works. If that means making female-only environments to play poker, then that’s fine by me.

One area where I must admit I haven’t entirely formed an opinion is that of the use of sexualised images of women to promote the game. As an editor I try to reduce that as much as possible, but I’ve been as guilty as anyone as putting a picture of the Royal Flush Girls in our Daily Rewind to appeal to our members.

I wonder if this helps or hinders the progress of female poker? I think it would be unfair to suggest that poker is any more sexist than any other industry, and the extent to which we sexualise women is probably in keeping with how the rest of society does it. PokerStars don’t go down the road of posting images of bikini clad girls on their marketing. Their female pros are genuine poker players, but predominantly they are still very attractive players who probably got their deals in some part based on their looks. I asked Joanne for her opinion on whether sexy images of women helped or hindered the growth of female poker:

“It makes sense for the demographic. If 90% of poker players are men, it makes sense to show attractive women in the marketing. I don’t like it, but I understand why it makes sense. At PokerStars we try to be more responsible. Our pros are attractive, but they have earned their place on the team.”

I don’t think there will ever be an absolute right or wrong answer in this debate. The thing that really pleases me is that there seems to be a win-win taking place with the way PokerStars are promoting women’s poker. There probably will always be a selection bias when it comes to how online poker rooms select their female sponsored pros; the attractive girl will always have the advantage there. But as long as they are a genuine player and inspire other women to play, just like Vicky Coren is doing right now, I think it works out in everyone’s best interests.

More importantly, marketing the game to be more appealing to women seems to face almost exactly the same challenges as making the game more appealing to recreational players in general. It is about reasserting that poker is a fun social activity first and foremost, and that is something I believe benefits everyone in poker.   

What do you think the barriers are for potential new female players interested in the game? Do you think we should market the game differently for a female audience? Are women-only promotions like PokerStars Women a good idea, or do you think they are sexist? Let me know your views in the comments box. 

// Carter is the editor of and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. He has been working in the poker industry for nine years and in 2013 won the APAT Award for Best Poker Media Provider. You can learn more about his work here

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Comments (22)

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  • MJPerry


    Host the game in the kitchen.

  • metza


    Show them a picture of me and tell them I play poker :)
  • AtrociousNightmare


    By not being sexist obnoxious assholes?

    I don't know, just an idea.

    Or maybe by not displaying them as rewards together with the money at the end of a tournament.

    Or maybe by not caring only about how they look instead of how they play.

    Just brainstormin'
  • AtrociousNightmare


    You know, thinking more about it, the only way would be for you to use your brain, but that's obviously not possible, so this is all lost time.
  • ClerkenwellBoi


    I think that you make a very valid point Barry in noting that the issues that might make the game unappealing to women are the same obstacles to recreational players in general. Yes, it's understandable that we focus on the nose bleed amounts that can be won by a select few but it's essential - if the game is to continue to have a strong future - for the vast majority to have a fun and welcoming place to hang out.

    Most of us accept that we will never be premier footballers but that doesn't stop people from playing on a wednesday night with their mates in a friendly kickabout. We need the same mentality to be prominent in poker too.

    I think one thing that might help is if new players were made more aware that chat box abuse will not be tolerated and even if mods can't deal with it at the time of play, that any report of offensive behaviour will be taken seriously, evidence reviewed and that player will lose the right to use the chat box. And crucially, the player who made the complaint is informed that action has been taken. There is nothing worse than complaining and then feeling that your concern has not been taken seriously.

    Personally, I don't mind seeing a badmouthing player but that's only because I know they're losing selfcontrol. But I also recognise that it can be an utterly disastrous way of welcoming someone unaccustomed to playing and when I think of some of the gratuitous abuse I've seen just over the past week, I can imagine that some new players - both male or female - might never return after it.
  • ClerkenwellBoi


    And as a PS to the above, I wonder if sites could be a bit more proactive about abuse prevention rather than just wait for a complaint?

    The chat boxes already automatically **** any known swear words so surely it's not difficult for any such messages to be automatically flagged along with other presumed offensive content so that it can be reviewed and if necessary, the player receive a warning about their behaviour? This might be more effective than simply expecting players - especially new ones - to make a complaint.

    The sad indictment of our society is that it's still the case that many women after 'mild' harassment and verbal abuse, just shrug and say that's how it is. Well, it's up to organisations like the poker rooms to say, actually no, that's not how it has to be. And poker is a game that will not tolerate that sort of behaviour....
  • Ayahuaski


    All barriers come from education, and women have to break them, understanding that they (we) can do anything they want, just as men do... I think we are worried about the "what are they going to think about me as a woman if I play poker with real money", and adding the fact "surrounded by men" just makes it worse. Maybe every woman who's willing to start playing with real money but doesn't dare to try just needs the right argument to convince herself and people around her that THERE IS NOTHING BAD about it! Of course male recreational players may find the same trouble but women have the extra "female role" issue. On the other hand I find women-only promotions great, until the day they are not necessary...
  • acerbikas


    @off-topic a bit:

    I am not blatantly against the moderation of chatboxes, but I just do not find a point in doing it. I don't really use it for anything else, other than outbursts when something utterly annoys me. Especially self-righteous pricks who spam the box. But I also think that the worth/value of the chatbox is overrated -- it's the interwebz, people will talk smut, get over it.

    That said, I just really think the western world (western europe, us, etc.) are just used to rather nice talk, so they feel offended if they hear it/see it. Where I live, right about every 5th word you hear is a swear word and you are totally used to it. Heck, I would not even imagine not telling someone off for being a loudmouth c***.

    And that transfers to the local poker table where people are generally more behaved. People just do not care that much about that, even the recreational players don't, because they are prone to outbursts even more. Therefore, this is not a factor for attracting fewer players, at least not in my region.
  • Harrier88


    I don't really see what's the issue, there are currently no barriers whatsoever for women who want to join the games.
  • MJPerry


    #9 well... that's the issue. Women are a fraction of players in spite of the lack of barriers.
  • AtrociousNightmare


    Just want to jump in to specify that my early rant was to a general "you", like in "you people", "you all", "you males", "you pigs" (you pick), and not to Barry or anyone else.

    I also want to apologize for my tone and the entity of the post, despite holding truth.

    The issue is complex, as the problem here is in society itself, which comes from ignorance and bigotry, and people raised as such.

    As a temporary solution the female-only events are not negative I suppose, and making a more friendly ambience can't hurt either.

    Censorship in chats and the like is however never a good idea in my opinion, as when you prohibit something, you NEVER solve the problem, and sometimes it just gets worse.

    We have to go to the roots of the problem, but until then, a better moderation is necessary.

    In a company's perspective, it's only advantageous to hire more moderation personnel if it increases the chances of getting a percentage of women into the circuit, as they are potential customers who will pay much more than how much you invested in the extra employees and training.
  • Harrier88


    #10 If there is nothing that prevents women from playing but they still choose not to do it, then that leads me to believe that many of them are just not interested in the game, and I don't think that's a problem at all.

    Of course poker rooms are willing to get as many customers as possible, but as just another player, I fail to see why we should "convince" more women to join the games.
  • ClerkenwellBoi


    It's true, censorship is never a good thing and you're right AN, it never solves the problem. And as someone who works in the media, I should be the last one to support outright censorship.

    I guess it's all about trying to find that happy medium whereby people are encouraged to think about the environment they are creating for others and know when the rowdiness should be restrained.

    Rather like in a pub where a good landlord knows how to calm things down with a 'C'mon lads, that's not cool'.

    But as noted above, these are related to deep rooted issues at a societal level which are just reflected in poker as elsewhere. I just hope that as poker players are clearly more intelligent than your average joe - we are, right? :) - we can lead the way...
  • ClerkenwellBoi


    @12 I think you're definitely right Harrier88 in noting that it may very well be the case that women are just not interested and that possibly there's no point trying to flog a dead horse as it were. (or should that be H.O.R.S.E?!)

    On the other hand, we all accept that for poker to succeed, it has to have a constant supply of new players. It's the way the economy works and if you'll excuse the obvious pun, it's like fish stocks in the North Sea. So the more players there are then obviously the better it is for us all and not just in terms of the poker rooms and their profits.

    So, the fact that there is a still pretty much untapped reservoir of players amongst 50% of the human populations is something that is perhaps worthy of some consideration.

    Although as Vicky Coren said in an interview on BBC radio last week, perhaps we might not want women playing too much. As she says, "You men spend your lives failing to know what it is we women are thinking. So poker is perfect for us!" :))
  • KatieDozier314


    Great interview! :)
  • raydoyle


    why politicize everything these days, its a game of bloody poker
  • Navrark


    It always seems to be a matter of emasculating men to please or appeal to women.

    On the surface, that is what many women say they want. But that's not what they really want. Women want men to be men.

    Is this recent focus on attracting female players really about growing Poker? Or is it an opportunity for the liberal media to once again stuff their far left agenda down our throats?
  • danutz123


    Why change to accommodate women instead of requiring women to accommodate themselves to poker as it is? Keep it "sexist" and "harassing", I say, I really don't care. I'm tired of every mens space being criticised for it's dearth of women. No one talks it being a "tragedy" that there are so relative few men nurses.

    No matter how many women you can market to and attract to poker, there will never be more than a relative handful that can consistently win against the average man. The quick calculation, analysis and behaviours that make a great poker player are greater present in men than in women. Just as Marie Curie doesn't prove that women are just as good as men at nuclear physics so doesn't Annette Oberstad prove the same thing about poker. The fact that Pokerstars has women's only poker tournaments gives one a clue as to men's and women's relative average skills: it's impossible to know the sex of the player and even if it were, the simple remedy for the only (token) "harassment" possible is merely to turn off the chat function. There's no other plausible reason to separate the sexes in online tournaments.

    But the specific ways men's traditional spaces are being invaded these days, it wouldn't surprise me if in major tournaments, to correct the hostile environment in poker and the dearth of women on final tables (obviously due to discrimination and not the relative lack of skills of women players generally) if no woman makes it to the final table online or live, they take the last woman who busted out and seat her when the first final table player busts, giving her the average stack at the table.
  • Navrark


    I'm not sure which sex is more skilled at Poker, danutz. It doesn't really matter.

    What matters is that the liberal media has an agenda against males. They are prepared to lie to push that agenda, whenever necessary. Men need to recognize that this is happening and begin to stand in opposition.
  • Navrark


    Where are the "Men's Only Tournaments?"

    Why is it okay for women to have "Women's Only Tournaments" but it is a taboo for men to have "Men's Only Tournaments?" Why do men tolerate this attack on our liberties?
  • danutz123


    Sure it matters whether there is an innate skill difference between men and women. Such would explain huge difference between average pro earnings/performance and is a plausible (real) reason why women aren't so attracted to poker. Same with maths, engineering, coding, physics, etc. BTW, it's "men", not "males" "Male" as a noun refers to animals and criminal suspects.
  • danutz123


    Navarak: "Where are the Men's Only Tournaments?"

    The Special Olympics needs to and should exclude able-bodied people. The regular Olympics, OTOH, need not exclude crippled people.