By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper
July 2, 2013

Last weekend, Kristen Bicknell, a twenty six year old cash games grinder from Canada, turned up at the 2013 World Series of Poker Ladies Championship as an unknown player. She proved not only ample survival skills but also the power of discipline, desire, and determination. A self-taught poker player, Bicknell took down first place prize money of $173,922 and the coveted white gold WSOP Ladies Championship bracelet for her effort.

Ladies Championship Leaves Men by the Wayside

The field was 954 starters—all women.  Last year an estimated 15 players in the pool were males—mostly pros —apparently enticed to exercise their legal right to rain on the Ladies Day Parade by visions of a higher return on investment (ROI) than in an open event. They may have had their last chance. .

The  ladies only field reflected an amusing and controversial legal twist on the buy-in rules for the 2013 WSOP Ladies World Championship. WSOP brass outfoxed male would be party poopers. They stopped such potential impostors in their tracks with a gambit that proved 100% effective in maintaining the Ladies Day as a singularly female “do.”

In consultation with company lawyers, WSOP organizers increased the full buy-in price for the event to $10,000, but offered ladies a 90% promotional discount—thus preserving the traditional $1000 buy in for ladies and drastically changing the ROI for men.

WSOP personnel say the Ladies Championship offers novices a more collegial and protected environment in which to ply their poker skills and make their luck. For the most part, the rank amateurs and veterans alike welcome the party-like atmosphere that is fostered for this event. Participants get to live the dream of vying for a bracelet in a gentler environment than most open events.

Pros, who got their start in the ladies event generally agree it provides an ideal arena to increase familiarity with the rules of engagement and to help build the confidence needed to transition seamlessly into coed competitions. WSOP officials insist the discounted buy-in ticket for the ladies is a worthy promotion for women and not an arbitrary ban of men.
Nevada Law Creates New Opportunity for Women

Recently enacted legislation in the state of Nevada seems to put the WSOP in the catbird seat as the law explicitly states:

It is not unlawful and it is not a ground for civil action for any place of public accommodation to offer differential pricing, discounted pricing or special offers based on sex to promote or market the place of public accommodation

The Origins of the WSOP Ladies Event

Poker lore has it that the Ladies Event at the WSOP was originally put in place to entertain the wives and girlfriends of players. For years it was scheduled as the only tournament on Mother’s’ Day and intended as a day of rest for the men preparing to play in the next day’s final $10,000 World Championship.

In 1977 the first ladies event attracted 93 women players. It was only one year later that a woman dared to enter the main event. Since that momentous occasion only a relatively small percentage of women—have taken giant steps in the poker world.

While there are a fair share of successful women poker pros who scoff at the notion of a Ladies Day poker championship in any form, the prevailing sentiment as obtained from pros and amateurs in attendance last week was applause to the WSOP for pulling out all the stops to give the ladies their due.

Pseudo moralists, obnoxious disruptors, and even more righteous and conscientious objectors held their fire for another day, allowing  an event for ladies that is intended to grow women’s attendance at the WSOP.

What is the Role of Poker’s  “First Lady?”

Linda Johnson, dubbed the “first lady of poker” by poker personality Mike Sexton and referred to as such by this reporter possibly as far back as the late 90’s, was not in the forefront of support for ladies only tournaments for many years (nor was this reporter). Over time, however, Johnson effectively positioned herself center stage as an advocate for women in poker. And she has often distinguished herself as the quintessential role model.

In 1993 Johnson purchased CardPlayer Magazine. Her network of media connections grew quickly, allowing her to promote many of her activities and causes including recognition of women. An interview with poker reporter Pamela Maldonado, this past May is exemplary. The “First Lady” ticked off an impressive but less than fully inclusive list of very notable women in the poker world. Johnson’s list included most of the women pioneers in high stakes poker tournament competition who preceded her in the annals of poker history as women with special achievements.

More specifically, she named three of the five women for whom WSOP commemorative chips were issued (1996) to honor them and celebrate “women’s milestones.”  The recipients she mentioned were: Barbara Freer, the first woman to enter the WSOP main event; Barbara Enright who became the first (and only) woman ever to reach the final table of the WSOP main event (1995); and Marsha Waggoner who cashed for the first time in the main event in 1993 (19th). The late Barbara Gold Samuelson, a noted cash games specialist who reached the highest finish for a woman as of 1994 (10th) was also part of that group as was this reporter who was the first woman to cash in the main event in 1986 (25th) and the first to do so twice in 1993 (20th).

While Johnson and I are not personal friends, I believe that personal differences should be irrelevant to factual presentations and fair reporting of women’s achievements in poker.  I salute Johnson and all the women on her list that reflect special achievements. Johnson’s formidable poker resume is featured in Wikipedia

Johnson’s “shout outs” in her interview with Maldonado were numerous and gracious to deserving women. For example, she sends her regards to Jennifer Harman, Annie Duke, and Kathy Liebert–women who have shown the longest staying power as poker stars.  Annette Obrestadt was noted, too. She made history as the first WSOP-E champion, at the tender age of 18.   She also references younger uber talents: Vanessa Selbst, Vanessa Rousso, Liv Boeree, Xuan Liu, and Maria Ho– ladies poised to have even more storied poker careers.

In the world of poker celebrations of women, Johnson frequently has been center stage. I recall my first bird’s eye view—the Johnson Roast hosted by Sexton at the Bicycle Club back in 2000— her favorable views toward women’s poker tournaments had yet to evolve.  In that same year, Johnson chatted up Positively Fifth Street author, James McManus at the WSOP with recommendations of women in poker to interview for his upcoming article which became the foundation for the book.

Original  “Women (in Poker) Hall of Fame” was Established by PokerPages

Johnson’s wide range of activities and media friends notwithstanding, she has not been an omnipresent force in all things poker. In particular, she was not part of the internal brain trust of which originated the concept of a woman’s page and established the “Women’s (Poker) Hall of Fame” around the turn of the millennium.

Tina Napolitano (with her husband Mark), the former owner of the innovative and highly referenced poker information portal (now owned by PokerStars), researched and found documented credentials for each of the women honored on the list. In a telephone interview with this reporter last year, she said, “I saw nothing out there; I wanted to pay homage to women who deserved it.”  She added, “I avoided inclusions or exclusions based on whims of any individual or clique.”  In recent years, many of these women (with a documented place in the history of women in poker) have missed Johnson’s personal tip of the hat and have been overlooked in relevant media coverage that traces its roots to her.

The Women’s Hall of Fame has survived three generations of owners and is still available to be seen:

WiPHoF Reinvents “Women in Poker Hall of Fame”

A second Women in Poker Hall of Fame, was founded in 2007 by Lupe part of her burgeoning ladies poker tour business– the Ladies International Poker Series. WiPHof produced its first class of honorees in 2008.

Soto told this reporter last year that she met Johnson and sought her ideas and counsel for her planned venture—and suggestions of women to honor. According to one WiPHoF honoree, the idea came to Soto after Barbara Enright was installed as the first woman in the WSOP Hall of Fame.

WiPHoF formalized its plans, deciding to honor an elite group—four most deserving women of accomplishment in poker. Johnson was part of the inaugural class of the reinvented “Women in Poker Hall of Fame;”

June Field who was a poker industry activist, the original owner of CardPlayer, and a WSOP bracelet winner well ahead of Johnson, did not make the cut until the next year. Likewise Cyndy Violette, a trailblazer for women in high stakes competition going to back to the 80’s also drew back burner status until the following year. And these are but two notable omissions in the first class of WiPHoF honorees.

Curious selections and omissions from WiPHoF honors over the years have led to questions about the operations and selection process—and increasingly among women who see themselves as unfairly delayed or denied.

In the course of researching WiPHoF’s operations and selections processes, I reached out to members of its board last year and invited Soto and Johnson to interview for this article. Soto took a brief telephone interview.

Author’s Statement: I admire the meaningful contributions of WiPHoF members, notwithstanding my personal decision (and disclosure of it prior to my probing inquiries), to put myself out of consideration as a candidate for a future WiPHoF class.

Who Cares about WiPHoF?

Most women queried for this article agree that induction to WiPHoF has enhanced the profile of its honorees and probably helped Johnson to get on the radar screen of voters for the WSOP Hall of Fame. Be that as it may, women who think of themselves as having been “shafted” by WiPHoF are crying foul on the seemingly tottering organization, calling it more sorority than honor society.

This summer there is no WiPHoF hoopla during the WSOP and no dinner planned to honor or celebrate new nominees this year, according to Soto. She says, “WipHoF has changed its charter.” According to Soto, henceforth the organization will celebrate women every two years. Her website still asserts that WiPHoF inductions are annual affairs.

Meanwhile, if Soto (and her collaborators) can figure out how to assure reasonable transparency, high integrity, and an unfailing commitment to fairness in the nominating and selection process, I vote for her induction ahead of any other future candidate.

Women in poker deserve fair deals. The WSOP proved its commitment to women at this year’s Ladies Event. Will WiPHoF follow suit next year?