Kings, Queens, and Jackasses: Playing With Gender in Online Poker

by: Joanna Slimmer / University of Texas

Online gambling

Online gambling

Listen up, ladies – if you want to play online poker, pretend you're a guy. Put the name of a sports team or a poker term in your username, or maybe just use a random word from the dictionary. Just don't identify yourself as female unless you like being regularly propositioned and harassed. Poker, particularly the online kind, remains a boy's club, and after playing hundreds of thousands of hands under many kinds of usernames, I just don't think outing myself as female is worth the trouble anymore.

I've been playing online poker for real money stakes since August, 2005, and last summer began earning a decent (for a grad student, anyway) monthly income from part-time, small-stakes play. During this time I have played on over twenty different poker sites, spent countless hours reading poker forums, and have learned much about the game and myself. If you let it, the game of poker will teach you lessons which will serve you well in other areas of life–I know it has taught me much about, among other things, discipline, money management, and dealing with situations which are out of my control (i.e., runs of bad luck.) Unfortunately it has also shown me that both at and away from the tables, the world of online poker is one where women's participation is welcomed only with lascivious arms, and I've had some difficult experiences working within this uncomfortable embrace.

First, a few words on how gender identity is expressed in online poker rooms. Players' options for visual identity formation are fairly limited; on most sites players have no choice of representative image at all, though some sites do allow an avatar to be selected from a pre-constituted set and a few even allow users to upload and present an image of their choosing. The avatars provided by the sites overwhelmingly trade in visual stereotypes, so those not blonde or buxom will find few relatable choices.

That said, this representational lack is not entirely a problem given that deception is an intrinsic part of poker. Also, players do have some choice in identity construction via usernames, which with text chat are the only ways of fashioning an identity on many poker rooms. When I first started playing online I hopped from room to room building my bankroll using the ignominiously-named technique of “bonus whoring” (sign up at a new poker room, play a set number of hands to receive a sign-up bonus [usually $50-100], withdraw all funds, then sign up at the next room…). While I mainly did this to amass money faster, along the way I began experimenting with various usernames and accompanying personas.

Altogether I have played under three kinds of usernames: a) female-identified usernames constructed using an obvious suffix, (e.g., crazylady; b) male-identified usernames constructed in the same manner and also those that include a male name (e.g., albertgetsaround); c) usernames with poker or media terms that do not contain any gender identifiers (e.g., flopmaster). (Note: For privacy reasons, these username examples are similar but not identical to those I've actually used.) Under some usernames I intentionally used chat to interact with other players and to try to create a persona, while under others I only interacted with the table when prompted by other players. Some of the usernames were created solely for their possible entertainment value, as poker can get quite boring sometimes. I had no formal research goals in mind when registering such names, yet I must admit that I was curious to see how players might react to them. For the most part my basic suspicions were confirmed; I was treated much differently when playing under female-identified usernames.

For one, whenever I was playing as a “girl,” other players would initiate chat with me at least once a session. Poker was rarely, if ever, a topic of initial conversation; instead I was almost always asked personal questions–was I a student? Did I have a boyfriend? And let's not forget the most frequently asked question of all, and one I still see so often in poker room chat: “Are you hot?” My self-fashioning was also used against me; after drawing out on others (i.e., the last card dealt gave me the best hand), I would often be called a bitch or a cunt. This sort of chat communication simply did not occur when I played under male-identified or neutral usernames. Under those names, other players would rarely initiate chat with me, and when they did the topic of discussion was usually the game at hand. Occasionally I was asked about UT sports on sites where my location was displayed, and I had quite a good laugh once when I was playing as male and someone asked me about the betting line on a UT football game. (I know nothing about sports betting.)

Some of the more entertaining and troubling poker chat occurred on a site with no avatars where I played under a female-identified username that also explicitly referenced alcohol. Along with the other questions mentioned above, other players would reveal themselves as inebriated in some way and use that as an entry point into conversation. I was repeatedly asked to chat on IM instead of within the poker software. In one case a player spent almost an hour asking me to talk to him on the telephone. I continued to respond to him via chat every so often because he was donating his money to the entire table, but obviously I'm not going to talk to some stranger on the telephone simply because he asks me to!

Female avatar

Female avatar

The most disturbing incident happened while playing at a small room about a year ago. On this site, random male or female avatars are displayed depending on where one is sitting and what gender box is marked upon registration. Thus, players have control over which gender they present but not which image. I had only signed up on the site to play through a bonus, and was playing on one of the few limit hold 'em tables offered. I beat another player a few times and he fumed in the chat box for a number of hands thereafter. After awhile I left that table but was still playing on another one on the same site. The angry player sat in on the second table solely to continue to harass me (he did not sit in to play) and then stated that he didn't believe I was female and was going to “report” me. What unnerved me was not so much the text vitriol or his quizzical disbelief over my gender registration, but that this player was following me from table to table to verbally abuse me.

Whether physical or virtual, being stalked is a harrowing experience, and this incident caused me to rethink my choice to identify as female when playing online poker. When first playing under female-identified names, I would often respond to the chat initiation and engage in conversation, as I thought that distracting other players might prove to be an advantage. Over time, however, the regular pickup lines and haranguing simply grew tiresome and annoyed me to the point that I began to register neutral usernames on new poker rooms to avoid the attention. I don't regret it; now that I play for income as much as, if not moreso than for entertainment, the last thing I want is to be harassed while at work.

The public demographics of sites and online poker forums indicate that the majority of online poker players are male, so I am confident in my use of masculine pronouns to discuss other players. I am also well aware that some of the players that I assume are male could very well be masquerading just as I do now. Increasing numbers of women are playing online poker, and I am certain that I am not the first one to conclude that playing as male is easier. Yet it should be noted that even when an online identity is fabricated, slippages may occur, as Sherry Turkle [1] among others has observed.

In one confusing moment, I was playing as male and involved in a hand with a player who was doubly identified as female–the username included the word “girl” and the player had uploaded an image of an attractive woman to serve as an avatar. When one of the four cards that would give her the best hand fell on the river and she won the large pot, a litany of sexist vulgarities formed in my head and I had to step away from the computer to keep from typing them all in. Once the initial rage subsided, I was floored by how quickly such phrases–some of which had been directed towards me and others that were certainly more hurtful than any man could come up with–had come to mind. I am still wrestling with how much of this impulse stemmed from my own cultural assumptions about how men behave (or how I think they think they should behave) and how much may have stemmed from subconscious identifications with such invective. I must also acknowledge the possibility that the harassment I received while playing as female could have originated from others' gender play, though I'm not sure that lets cyberstalking (or my own horrible thoughts) off the hook.

Online poker game

Online poker game

Ultimately, this and the other incidents I've mentioned above demonstrate that online poker is merely another site within which patriarchal repetitions continue to influence behavioral practices. Women remain targets of sexual objectification and scorn despite the facts that skillful card play knows no gender and that online identities are malleable and messy. Gender egalitarianism is not a battle but a war. Am I conceding some ground by avoiding the use of obviously female names at the tables and not exposing each instance of sexist behavior in real time? Perhaps. But my time sure seems better spent improving my game, mentoring other women who want to play, and bearing witness such as with this piece than on thinking up new ways to respond to “are u hot?!” Let the cards fall where they may.

Note:
[1]Sherry Turkle, Life On the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 185-186.

Image Credits:
1. Online gambling
2. Female avatar
3. Online poker game

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10 comments

  • Suzanne Freyjadis-Chuberka

    I think this is a well written and interesting take on the ways that gender is constructed on-line and also the ways that women can be harassed at work. I would like to know if the author noticed a difference in her wins with differently gendered screen names.

  • As a novice to on-line gaming, I’m fascinated by this account.

    Does anyone know of any other research regarding the relationship between gender, gaming, avatars? It is ripe for in-depth ethnographic analysis.

  • Joanna,

    A lot of good food for thought here…do you know of a similar gender dynamic at play in other online gaming communities? I wonder if the money factor doesn’t exacerbate the already ultra-competitive vibe on poker sites. I can’t imagine anyone gambling on World of Warcraft, though my knowledge of that game and its ilk is pretty limited to what I learned from “South Park.”

  • I agree with the author’s view although I’ve never played a internet gambling game, because the sexism exists in many other places. There is no doubt that when everyone is born, they learn a set of “roles” according to their gender, from the world around them. There are things that men are supposed to do and things women are supposed to do according to society and it seems like there is no room to explore outside the box. This is especially for when a woman is doing something “manly,” like playing poker, then it seems like the woman is not serious and only trying to pick up a man. when really we just want to be treated equally and left alone.

  • i totally agree on the statements and it is very interesting that even in an online poker game sexism exists.

  • I appreciate the feedback y’all, this pesky li’l thing called a thesis has worked against my replying sooner, but on the plus side, it’s typically richly verbose ;) :

    Suzanne, once I realized that I was getting a ton more attention playing as female, I considered embarking on a statistical study using popular poker tools such as PokerTracker (.com – quite a useful app) to discern whether or not common opponents were treating me differently where the money was concerned. For a time I regularly played on a poker network where on two skins I was a “girl” and on two or three others I was neutral. Besides any IRB concerns, any gender study of online poker play will have to be undertaken on a poker network that has multiple “skins” so that the researcher(s) will be able to play against the same set of players, but under different names.

    I truly think there is ample opportunity for such a study to be performed, but because of the nature of poker variance, such a statistical study would have to entail a LOT of hands, I would think at least a million (if not more.) Plus the hands would have to be played by those with demonstrable poker skill and the ability to pass in text chat. My largest single-network sample does not show any long-term statistical advantage, though on that network I played more hands under neutral usernames than under the very obviously gendered ones.

    Alexis, the most applicable research I’ve seen of the ethnographic take on gender and gaming is a few items here and there on gender and ICT use (children and adults), Turkle’s work, and my own work with Matthew Payne (plug plug.) Also a few paragraphs on gamestudies.org IIRC (the Ultima Online article.) You are totally on the money here – this is a subfield of video game research just waiting to be explored, and there is so much I think we could learn from it in terms of how people fashion their online selves and why. We are all living more parts of our lives online and play should be examined just as much as work.

    Nick, I do not have specific *gaming* comparisons that I can give you, though I think that there are plenty of other online communities that share the same kind of hyper-masculine vibe as online poker. But, again, this is an area where further research could explore connections between gaming pursuits. I would be very interested to see what the communities that surround Magic and Starcraft are like, as over and over I have seen forum posters on 2+2 and elsewhere refer to playing Magic for money before switching to poker. I would not be surprised to hear of pro FPS gamers trying out poker, either. It could be quite interesting to compare the tenor of these communities.

    Also, I don’t know if I would label the “vibe” of online poker sites, text chat, and communities ultra-competitive, nor that money exacerbates it. Obviously every player wants to win the others’ money, and I have seen instances where ego has lead to taunting, self-aggrandizement, and thoroughly silly bets, but I’ve also seen plenty of information sharing and support. In terms of the overall discourse in text chat and forums I have witnessed a decent balance between competition and cameraderie. That said, I don’t think that the money or any desire to win explains away the kind of, frankly, misogynistic discourse I’ve witnessed both while playing and on various online poker forums (including ones such as 2+2 that I fervently read despite the *daily* displays of frighteningly negative attitudes towards women in general.) There are clearly more factors at work than just the want to win and win money.

  • I appreciate your experiences, though they haven’t always been mine…

    I’m a woman who plays under a female handle and a female avatar. While I have certainly encountered hostile men in online poker rooms, in my experience hostile players are often hostile to both male and female players when they get busted. A sore loser is a sore loser, and while it’s more likely said sore loser will use sexist slurs against a female player who’s just busted him, I’ve seen other male players get called “asshole”, “cocksucker”, and other similar insults too.

    The “are you hot?” thing is definitely more of a problem, though in my experience (granted, not as widespread across different poker sites as yours)this is not as prevalent as it has been in your experience. There have been a couple of occasions where I’ve seen male-identified players make stupid sexist comments about other players’ big-breasted female avatars, but overall I haven’t noticed it as a constant.

    Once, I was playing in a tournament online where a male-identified player remarked to me that my “bets were bold.” When I asked him, tongue-in-cheek, whether he wasn’t used to aggressive women, he replied “aggressive in bed or talkative?” I was like “neither, you dolt. aggressive in poker.”

    So yeah, sexist stereotypes of sexual objectification are alive and well in poker.

    The biggest thing that bugs me about the gender thing in online poker rooms is something you touched on briefly — the avatars. Why is it that most, if not all, female avatars have to have huge tits and low cut tops?

  • This is interesting because it draws from direct experience, which makes it quite relatable.

    What I find most uncomfortable, alongside the sexist vitriol, is the assumption by your ‘stalker’ that you couldn’t be a woman because you were like, beating him…

  • The stalking behavior is disturbing. There are analogs in male/male behavior – I’ve had and seen real-life game losers extend interactions in threatening manners.

    As to the idea that women couldn’t beat men, again there are “more innocent” explanations. It’s a fact that men tend to obsess more about various games, (chess is the standard reference here – women’s participation after puberty is a far minority) and to the extent that experience is a teacher, “obsessive” men should be better players than “casual” women. I’ve played enough sports at all levels (including refereeing International competitions) to know that some players of each gender are better after a year than some others after a decade. But it’s an ego bruise to be taught that in direct experience.

  • Joanna,

    Being an online gamer myself, I still find it interesting that male players typically approach female players with the not-too-subtle “Are you even a girl? Prove it.” question, that’s not the only thing, as you’ve said before, when you identified yourself as a female on Poker sites: you received all sorts of feedback, most of them being negative when you did exceptionally well at the table. From what I’ve seen and heard it has become a widespread problem not only in Poker but in any male-dominated genre. Call of Duty being a good example; in the very few times I’ve encountered females in multi-player, they are ridiculed for doing so well, weather it be through high-kill streaks or just beating the norm, and its because of that process that a roadblock is placed, making it difficult for women to compete, and they eventually ask themselves why they should invest their time in something where they are mocked?

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