“A witty woman is a treasure; a witty beauty is a power” – George Meredith
Truer words were never uttered. Certainly at the poker table. It may not have been male chauvinism but fear for their wallets that kept poker the bastion of the boys for so long. World Series of Poker co-founder Doyle Brunson was once approached for his opinion of including women in the tournament. “A top notch female player?” he parried back. “Naw. I don’t believe there is such a thing.” Amarillo Slim Preston chimed in, “I’ve got an agreement with the ladies: if they agree not to play poker, I’ll agree not to have any babies.” Both men agreed that if a women ever won the World Series of Poker, they would slit their own throats. Brunson added that he would use a dull knife.
The story goes that the Ladies Championship at the World Series of Poker was finally started in 1977 as something for the wives and girlfriends to do to keep them from pestering the men during the Main Event. The buy-in was tip money – $100 – and Jackie McDaniel, a one-time Las Vegas cop drew an ace-high club flush to walk away from the final table with $5,580. The buy-in for the women’s tournament eventually went up to the current $1,000 in 1992 but it remained a seven-card stud event until this century when the same Hold’em game that the men were playing was adopted. Even then, the WSOP for women was held on Mother’s Day until 2004 when that final patronizing morsel was retired.
Tossing the women a bone in the form of their own tournament did not mean they were not snooping around the World Series of Poker Main Event tables. In 1978 Barbara Freer became the first woman to buy in to the No Limit Hold’em main Event. Wendeen Eolis made history in 1986 by becoming the first woman to cash in the tournament. The field was then 141 players.
Let’s look at some of the milestone makers in the distaff march that has seen women’s participation in the testosterone-filled World Series of Poker grow to 4 percent of the field.
Her older brother introduced Barbara Enright to five-card draw poker when she was four years old. She grew up listening to doo-wop music in Los Angeles before taking traditional jobs as a bartender, cocktail waitress and hairstylist. Less traditional was her affinity for the California card rooms she began frequenting in 1976. She soon found that part-time poker was more profitable than the money earned at her other jobs combined. Enright began making poker her full-time source of income.
Enright began entering the WSOP Ladies Championship and won in 1986. In 1994, she became the first two-time winner. The following year Enright battled all the way to the final table of the World Series of Poker $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Main Event and finished 5th – the first, and still the only woman to reach the final table of the tournament’s marquee competition.
Enright followed that trailblazing performance in 1996 by winning the Pot Limit Hold’em event. Barbara Enright, the first female holder of three WSOP bracelets, was enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame. When the Women in Poker Hall of Fame was started the next year, she was naturally one of the quartet inducted in the inaugural class. Still playing high stakes poker, Enright has 30 career titles and 16 cashes at the World Series of Poker where she has made four final tables.
While Barbara Enright holds the most WSOP bracelets among women, the pioneer bracelet winner was a former options trader from New Jersey, Starla Brodie. Starla was used to making six-figure bets in the options game so poker stakes did not intimidate her. She and her husband would fly to Las Vegas every year to play in the World Series of Poker. In 1979, Starla hooked up with Doyle Brunson, whose name in poker circles is so often preceded by “legend” that many assume it is his first name, for a Mixed Doubles Seven-Card Stud event. Brunson and Brodie beat out 24 other teams to claim bracelets.
In 1995, after 18 years of trying, Brodie copped a WSOP bracelet on her own by winning the Ladies Championship. She came to the final table third in chips but filled out a straight to win the tournament and $35,200. That total paled in comparison to the $400,000 she was said to make in an average year in the trading pits back East. She was never known to play major tournament poker after that and passed away at the age of 59 in 2014.
In 1907 Herbert Marcus went into business with his sister and brother-in-law, Carrie and Al Nieman who were both alumni of the biggest retailer in Dallas, A. Harris and Company. They turned down a chance to own a pioneering Coca-Cola franchise and instead set up shop peddling the high-end clothing Carrie Nieman brought back from buying trips to New York City. The business was an immediate success and by 1914 was operating from a four-story red brick and white stone building downtown on the corner of Main and Ervay streets. A century later that is the internationally famous Nieman-Marcus.
Vera Richmond was the daughter of Carrie and Al Nieman which meant she brought both Texas breeding and large amounts of cash to the poker table. In the 1970s it was more common to find an ace on the floor underneath the blackjack table as find a woman at a poker table. But Vera Richmond, who was the major domo of Vera Designs in Beverly Hills, was not easily intimidated. As her friend, June Field, pointed out, “Vera had as much money as any of them, as much nerve, and could out cuss any of them.”
How vindictive was the dislike of Brunson, Johnny Moss, and Stu Ungar for Vera Richmond? After she became the first woman to win a WSOP open event – the $1,000 Limit Ace to 5 Draw in 1982 – the poker community acknowledged the accomplishment by ignoring it. When Enright won her gold bracelet in 1996 it was widely assumed that she had just become the the first woman to win a WSOP open event. Nope, that was Vera Richmond.
It was not unusual for Richmond and Field to gravitate towards one another. Back in the early days of tournament poker, when the ratio of men to women was about 200 to 1, the women often drew inspiration and confidence from one another. Field scored a bracelet herself in the 1982 World Series of Poker in the $400 Ladies Limit 7-Card Stud event.
She clearly knew her way around the poker table but her more permanent mark in the poker community came with the founding of Card Player magazine in 1988 – “the magazine for those who play to win.” Before retiring in Las Vegas Field went on to start poker cruises and additional magazines.
A one-time publisher of Card Player, Linda Johnson, also was inspired by the women players of the 1970s who helped encourage new women in the game and make them feel welcome in oft-times hostile card rooms. Johnson won a bracelet of her own in a WSOP open event in the $1,500 Seven-Card Razz event in 1997.
Her boundless energies in promoting poker with hosting charity events, announcing for the World Poker Tour, promoting cruises, and teaching seminars have earned Johnson the moniker of “The First Lady of Poker.” She was one of the inaugural members of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame in 2008.
Marsha Waggoener was another member of that first Women in Poker Hall of Fame class. She hailed from Brisbane, Australia where she dealt blackjack in the casinos. When she reached her mid-thirties, after years of eyeing the big-time gambling action in the United States, Waggoner herded her three children into a plane and came to Reno, Nevada to live the life of a professional poker player.
Her bold move has been rewarded with money finishes in more than 100 major tournaments and 20 of those have taken place in the World Series of Poker. Waggoner still makes time each year to return home and compete in her country’s biggest poker tournament, the Aussie Millions. She could use the same title herself, having pocketed more than one million dollars in tournament play at the poker table.
Nashville native Susie Isaacs got her first taste for poker when she was four years old and was recruited as a parental lookout while her cousins dealt poker across a Monopoly board set up as a decoy. After she sold her beloved comic book collection for $2.35 she was able to buy into the game.
Isaacs rode back-to-back titles in the World Series of Poker Ladies Championships in 1996 and 1997 to her spot in the inaugural class of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame. She finished 10th in the 1998 Main Event as well. She has written continuously on poker as “Ms. Poker” since 1988 and has been invited to play on the Pro Poker Tour of the World Poker Tour and the Seniors Poker Tour.
Nani Dollison matched Barbara Enright’s feat of three World Series of Poker bracelets with two wins in the Ladies Championship and an open event bracelet. The South Korean native accomplished all that in a two-year span of 2000 and 2001. It was a long time coming however.
Dollison departed South Korea when she was a tender 18 years old in 1972, trailing her new husband who was U.S. military. The union was not a fortunate one and the teenage Dollison found herself dealing cards in a California clubs. It would be a quarter-century before she worked up the confidence to enter tournament play in Mississippi where she worked as a dealer. With three years she was a triple bracelet holder and has earned her money only on the players’ side of the table since.
When Vanessa Selbst captured the $25,000 Mixed-Max No-Limit Hold’em event at the World Series of Poker in 2014 she not only became the first female winner of three open event bracelets but she represented the complete arrival of a new breed of woman poker player. No folksy origin tale for this 31-year old. Selbst was raised in Brooklyn and matriculated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She departed for Yale University where she hauled in degrees in Political Science and Law.
At the same time Selbst was an instructor at Deuces Cracked, a poker instruction website. On the real tables she won her first bracelet when she was only 24 in the $1,500 Pot-Limit Omaha event. Another triumph followed in 2012 in the $2,500 10-Game Six Handed event – the same year she was picking up her degree from Yale Law School. Selbst has not spent much time filing briefs as she has cashed 20 times in the World Series of Poker and made it to eight final tables. Her total take from tournament tables already exceeds $10,000,000 and she is the only woman ever to climb the rankings of the Global Poker Index to #1.
Selbst’s third open event bracelet pulled her out of a tie with Jennifer Harman as the only woman to have won two open events at the World Series of Poker. Harman, inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame in 2009, was born in Reno, Nevada in 1964 where she picked up poker like most kids learn how to play baseball elsewhere. She was playing professionally by the mid-1980s.
A petite blonde, Harman nevertheless forged her reputation in high-stakes cash games. She was the only distaff member of “The Corporation,” a group of players who engaged Dallas billionaire businessman Andy Beal in $100,000 to $200,000 limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker, considered the richest game of all time as millions of dollars routinely changed hands.
Harman won her first open event bracelet in 2000 at the No Limit Hold’em 2-7 Draw event. She had never actually played the game before entering and picked up a quick tutorial from Howard Lederer before joining the competition. Here second bracelet came in the 2002 $5,000 Limit Hold’em tournament, a game with which she was more familiar. A kidney transplant recipient, Harman has advanced to 12 final tables in the World Series of Poker from 32 cash finishes.
Speaking of cashing at the World Series of Poker, no woman has done if more often than Annie Duke. Poker fans know Duke’s name but even casual acquaintances with the game would recognize her maiden name: Anne LaBarr Lederer. Her brother is professional poker veteran, Howard Lederer. Mr. and Mrs. Lederer played a mean game of cards for secondary school teachers, enough to send Howard into the professional game at an early age.
Annie pursued a more scholarly path, earning degrees in English and psychology from Columbia University and then chasing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. She soured on academia, however, got married and moved to Montana in 1992. She was becoming more and more interested with what her brother was doing with his life. Howard sent her a $2,400 stake and some poker instruction books. He kept her on the phone for hours with strategy lessons. After experiencing success in the card rooms of the Big Sky country, Duke headed for Las Vegas in 1994 to play poker professionally; she was 29 years old.
Success struck like a thunderclap. At the World Series of Poker that year she racked up a 14th place and a 5th place finish in her first two tournaments. In the Main Event she finished 26th. She would eventually finish as high as tenth in the Main Event – while nine months pregnant. After arriving in Las Vegas, Duke had four kids. She also had 38 cashes in the World Series of Poker, only 33 men have ever experienced more (Howard has 44).
Duke won her only WSOP bracelet in 2004 when she thumped a field of 231 players in the Omaha Hi-Lo Split event. She has appeared at 15 final tables, another record for women. She has been a staple of televised poker tours and been a tireless fundraiser for charity through the game. To date, Annie Duke has taken over $4 million from the table in tournament poker.
Did we mention tireless? Kathy Liebert holds the record for most World Poker Tour events entered by a professional poker player – man or woman – with 116. She has won almost $2 million in WPT money, another record for women.
Kathy’s world traveling began in Nashville, Tennessee where where she was born in 1967. She went to school up north in Poughkeepsie, New York at Marist College. Armed with a business and finance degree, Liebert embarked on honest work. A friend thought her numbers acumen might translate well into tournament poker and encouraged her to try a Las Vegas junket. Kathy finished second in her first tournament, an Omaha Hi-Lo competition. Then she finished second again in her second try, this time in a Hold’em event. She needed to buy an extra ticket on the plane to carry all her winnings on the flight back East.
Elected to the Women in Poker Hall of Fame in 2010, Liebert has invested much of her $6,000,000 in winnings in the stock market from whence she came before Las Vegas. She has 36 cashes at the World Series of Poker, including a bracelet from the $1,500 Limit Hold’em Shootout in 2004.
That year 2004 was quite a breakout for women at the World Series of Poker. Duke and Liebert won bracelets in open events and so too did Cyndy Violette. Cyndy was playing cards with her siblings even before the family relocated to Las Vegas when she was 12 in 1971. When she was legally allowed to enter the casinos she beat a path to the poker tables and picked up a job as a blackjack and poker dealer.
At the age of 25, Viloette started playing tournament poker. When she won $74,000 in an event at the Golden Nugget it was the biggest prize won by a woman to that time. Nonetheless, Cyndy drifted away from poker, devoting time to a second husband. When that marriage failed to last as well she returned to poker and was distracted this time only by a passion for vegetarian cooking. Her shining moment in 2004 came with the bracelet for the Seven Card Stud, Hi-Lo Split event.
Cyndy Violette took her place in the Women In Poker Hall of Fame in 2009. Although she concentrates on high-stakes cash games, she has still managed 35 cash finishes in the World Series of Poker. When she is not at the tables she prefers to dabble with her poker-inspired clothing line.
Loni Harwood appears to be the future of women’s poker. She grew up in Staten Island, New York learning poker online. She has the requisite smarts and sharp eye for numbers, earning a finance degree from the State University of New York, Albany in 2012. She was just 23 years old when she won a WSOP bracelet in the $1,500 No Limit Texas Hold’em event. The $609,017 payday was the largest ever handed to a woman in the World Series.
Harwood also made three final tables in open events in 2013 – Violette is the only other woman to accomplish that feat. Loni cashed six times in 2013 and came back the next year to cash four more times. If she continues this pace she could take women’s poker to heights never before seen.
No survey of women in poker should fade away without mention of Jennifer Tilly. In 2005, Tilly stepped off the Hollywood soundstage to defeat 600 players and win the Ladies’ No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em event at the World Series of Poker. Tilly brought glamour to the game and helped weld a bond between celebrities and poker, which played well on television.
Tilly was no lucky amateur. She has recorded 12 money finishes at the World Series of Poker and another 11 on the World Poker Tour. She continues to weave acting and poker into the tapestry of her life.