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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Editorial: Why The Amazing Race: Family Edition Doesn’t Suck

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

I must begin with a word of thanks to my oldest brother Chris, for without him I might never have watched The Amazing Race (TAR), let alone become a fan. You see, about a year and a half ago he started telling me about this great reality show where people travel all over the world and that I simply must watch it. Given that my brother is a world traveler himself (at time of writing he’s been to over fifty countries and more than 700 airports), I could understand why he’d want to watch such a show, but I just wasn’t that interested, and so ignored his recommendation the first time, and the second time (and the third, and so on). But eventually I grew weary of hearing “So have you watched it yet?” every time I talked to him, and finally gave the series a try with the premiere episode of the sixth season. I haven’t missed a show since, and caught up on the rest of the series thanks to GSN reruns.

So yes, I’ll admit it, my brother was right. I am now an avowed fan of the show, though I’m not typically one for gamedocs or competitive shows, and view most reality series as guilty pleasures rather than quality television. Accepting this reluctant path to fandom prompted me to consider just what it is about TAR that makes it so compelling, and why I’ve become just as annoying as my brother in urging others to watch it. Formal innovation has been one key to the series’ critical and commercial success, but without pre-related teams, the show could have ended up as some bastard child of Survivor and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of an Emmy-collecting powerhouse. I address formal elements and teams in turn.

The Amazing Race skillfully melds gamedoc, docusoap and travelogue. Its premise is, as with most gamedocs, delightfully simple — whoever gets there first, wins. Along the way are the requisite arbitrary challenges and regionally-themed roadblocks, end-of-leg rituals, and elimination twists. The series is shot in a docusoap/day-in-the-life style, where cameras are always present but rarely if ever acknowledged. Breaks in the otherwise invisible, mobile surveillance endemic to reality series shot in uncontrolled environments do crop up in TAR from time to time (most notably in shots of crowds and passers-by understandably gawking or smiling at the camera), but for the most part the show is masterfully edited down to what appears to be a seamless retelling of the race. These gamedoc and docusoap elements are then situated within a travelogue visual style that offers viewers every kind of voyeuristic perspective imaginable, from the air to the sea, from the street to the tops of skyscrapers, from static pre-shot sequences to the real-time teams’ views of the passing landscape. The cohesive amalgamation of these varied formal elements, each present in equal measures, allows for numerous points of entry into the series.

That said, what ultimately makes TAR such great TV are the teams and the team dynamic. Instead of individuals, TAR pits teams (of two) against each other. The significance of this construction of competitors emerges not from number, but rather from familiarity — the team members are all closely related in some way, whether they are friends, couples, siblings, or parent and child. The importance of these bonds cannot be overstated, as these pre-constituted alliances elicit far more drama than ones that are arbitrarily or “organically” crafted in front of the camera as on numerous other reality shows. It is one thing to see people who have known each other for days cohabit, argue and bond, but quite another to see the same from people who have known each other for years or even decades, and to witness it all happening while they are on a manic race around the world, plopped down in unfamiliar locales and situations and chasing the unknown on a daily basis. When situated within the formal context described earlier, the processes of relationship strengthening and breakdown constantly on display serve to create a more believable constructed reality narrative than in most other series, one that has more in common with serial drama than game show. The relationships between team members (as well as between teams themselves) produce a number of intertwining plots and sub-plots, as well as a host of identificatory scenarios.

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

It is these sorts of scenarios that I find even more fascinating in The Amazing Race: Family Edition (TAR: FE), and unlike many critics and fans, I think the introduction of a four-member, “family” team dynamic proves a nice twist on the series’ format. As a fan, I too lament the preponderance of race legs within the United States, and the contestants themselves have seemed annoyed by the amount of time spent in America this season — as matriarch Marian of the recently-eliminated Paolo family put it, “What the hell are we going to Phoenix, Arizona for? I want to go to New Zealand!” Still, even without the exotic locales, TAR: FE still has much to offer in the forms of interpersonal drama and viewer identifications. It does for me, anyway. For example, from the comparative lack of travel has emerged uncomfortably accurate portrayals of family excursions in America, such as of the ubiquitous road trip replete with missed exits, pointed bickering, random discussions, and instances of utter boredom. As I’ve traveled through and to nearly thirty states on road trips with various family members over the years, I found myself alternately laughing and cringing at the automotive escapades that dominated the first part of this season. Resonant scenes abounded – getting lost in New York, angry driver switches, knowing button-pushing, even coping with loss.

TAR: FE also successfully articulates the multiplicity of relationships within families (father-mother, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, big sis-little sis, big bro-little bro, brother-sister, sister-brother, father-son-in-law) and their often-uneasy coexistences. As the youngest of seven, I am all but too aware of these, but never have I seen so many of them represented on one show! This season offers up myriad examples of the imperfect nature of familial relationships, of power struggles and favorite-playing, of how conflicts between two family members still impact those not involved. Occasionally these types of direct conflicts — such as the scream-fights between Marian Paolo and her son DJ — are quite difficult to watch, but they speak a mediated truth about the frustrations of blood relations. Thankfully, what also emerges from these representations of family dynamics is a curiously inevitable solidarity. No matter what transpired during a particular leg, all of the families come together on the mat at the end, appraise their performances, and reaffirm their bonds in an earnest, upbeat coda. Of course, this is a false, televisual coda, since the race is not yet over and the next episode will surely produce yet more conflict and interpersonal drama. Yet each episode’s progression from one end of the family love-hate continuum to the other satisfyingly mimics the repetitive nature of familial relationships.

I find pleasure in other aspects of this season’s race, such as how teams have fashioned snarky, televisual nicknames for each other (Cleavers, Desperate Housewives). (I also find myself annoyed by the Weavers’ tiresome invocations, some suspect clue-box site choices (the World’s Largest Office Chair?!?), and increasing numbers of product tie-ins.) I initially got hooked on The Amazing Race by the competition and the travelogue, but while I would like to see the families cross one of the oceans sometime soon, I’ve realized that I no longer care who wins. What has kept me glued to CBS on Tuesday nights this time around is not the race at all, but the cacophony of familial dynamics and their, well, familiarity. Each week I am reminded of one or more of my many, many family members and various situations we’ve muddled through, and I inevitably end up thinking about and honoring those in my life and in my heart long after the credits have rolled. All that just from a silly reality TV show.

Links
The Amazing Race: Family Edition
The TARFiles
Television Without Pity: The Amazing Race

Image Credits:

1. The Amazing Race: Family Edition

2. The Schroeder Family from Amazing Race

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