Given how few women play poker, it’s always a topic of considerable interest how they fare at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Outside of the Ladies’ event, women only make up a few percent of the field in most WSOP tournaments; last year’s Main Event could be considered a fairly typical example, with 252 women players to 6168 men, or about 4% of the total. That means that one would expect two, sometimes three bracelets to go to women over the course of a typical summer, though the actual norm in recent years has been one, and sometimes two.
Depending on how one looks at it, then, these occasions can be seen as either confirmation that the best women players can stand toe to toe with the best men in the game, or else evidence that women in general don’t perform quite as well as you’d expect for their degree of representation. Needless to say, there are plenty of people who will argue strongly for one side or the other, and an equal number of fence-sitters who will claim that it’s too small a data set to draw conclusions, or remark that it’s good for the image of the game when women win, and leave it at that.
It never rains but it pours
The last series at which no open-field bracelets were won by women was 2011, and up until last week it looked like we might see a repeat of that unfortunate occurrence. That changed in a hurry, however, as 2013 Ladies’ Event Champion Kristen Bicknell and WSOP Circuit grinder Safiya Umerova won events nearly back-to-back.
Bicknell’s win came in Event #46: $1,500 Bounty No-Limit Hold’em. It had been scheduled to finish on Tuesday the 29th, but the final day ran long and ultimately three players – Bicknell, Norbert Szecsi and John Myung – had to come back for a fourth day. Bicknell came into Day 4 as the chip leader and fairly well dominated her opponents, taking only 34 hands to eliminate both, of which she won 19, most of them without a showdown.
As for Umerova, she took down Event #50, $1,500 Shootout No-Limit Hold’em the following day. The final day began with twelve players remaining in two tables of six, but quickly switched to a single full ring table following the eliminations of Sam Greenwood by Umerova and Erkut Yilmaz by her eventual heads-up opponent Niall Farrell. The two of them entered the final table in close competition with one another for chips – Farrell’s 215 BB to Umerova’s 184 BB – but far ahead of everyone else.
Umerova wasn’t the only woman at the final table either; Vanessa Selbst, often considered the strongest female player in the game, was there as well, but lasted only four hands before being eliminated in 10th. Umerova’s victory was considerably harder-fought than Bicknell’s; it took 92 hands before she and Farrell found themselves heads up and nearly even in chips, and another 60 hands and considerable back and forth swings before she managed to finish him off.
— Vanessa Selbst (@VanessaSelbst) July 2, 2016
With these two bracelets won and another 16 events left to come, it’s already been an above-average series for women. Aside from Bicknell and Umerova, we’ve also seen kindergarten teacher and amateur player Lisa Meredith take the spotlight – albeit not a bracelet – as one of the year’s feel-good stories when she finished 3rd in the $1,500 Millionaire Maker for an even half-million.
Harwood for the XX hat trick?
Today, we may find ourselves one step closer to history being made, as Event #54: $888 Crazy Eights 8-Handed No-Limit Hold’em is down to its final 12 players, yet another woman among them. Not just any woman, either, but Loni Harwood, who already holds two bracelets, for a $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em Event at the 2013 series, and last year’s WSOP Circuit National Championship. She may be starting the day ninth in chips, but there isn’t all that much spread in stacks, and her credentials are more impressive than any of the other remaining players, so her odds of taking it down are fairly decent.
A win by Harwood would create a tie between 2016 and the 2004 series, when bracelets were won by Cyndy Violette, Kathy Liebert and Annie Duke, while leaving plenty of room left in the series for someone to bump the record up to four.
Will the November Nine sausage fest continue?
Bracelets aside, the other big question for women at the WSOP is whether this will be the year we see a woman make the November Nine in the Main Event. This will be the ninth year since that concept was introduced, meaning we’ve seen 72 men and zero women on that stage so far, well below expectation. That doesn’t make it any more or less likely to happen this year, of course, but it is something which should happen sooner or later, and until it does, you can be sure plenty of people will be wondering whether this will be the year.
The odds do look fairly good this year. There are all the usual suspects, of course – Selbst and Harwood, plus people like Liv Boeree, Maria Ho, Jen Harman and so forth – but also several promising up-and-comers. Natasha Barbour and Kelly Minkin both had strong showings at last year’s series and are back on the prowl this year, and Minkin was last year’s last-woman-standing in the Main Event.
And then there’s Cate Hall, who exploded onto the tournament scene out of nowhere last year and came up only just shy of winning the honours for World Poker Tour (WPT) Player of the Year. Several people had predicted a big series for her this summer, and although she hasn’t managed any deep runs yet, she does have a fairly respectable six cashes so far and, for all we know, may be saving all her rungood for the Main.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.