For many women, poker trumps an evening out or a book club — and feminine wiles can help beat men at their own game, says Lorraine Courtney
At the centre of the Scandi-style living room is a dining table draped in green felt. Looping her arm into mine and escorting me to the cards is Danielle, this evening’s host in Dublin 4. The other women are sipping negronis and debating the best eyebrow bars. Soon, ₣5 notes are flying around the table as cards are dealt and bets placed. This group of work colleagues began taking turns to hold poker nights in their homes a few months ago because, Danielle laughs, “poker is Pilates for the mind”.
The game was once a testosterone-steeped demi-monde, but female players are increasingly getting in on the bluffing action. At the All Ireland Poker Championships this year, 10% of the 200 amateur competitors buying in for €250 were women, up from 2% in its first year. In casinos, the proportion of female players has increased from 1% to 25% since 2006, and in the Dublin suburbs, amateur groups, such as the one I played at, are setting up their own poker circles as a modern alternative to the book club.
It’s become my social escape. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met, I’ve met through Poker
“The fun element has definitely superseded the money,” says Stephen Loane, owner of Irish Poker Nights, a club that hosts games in Dublin pubs where the buy-in is only €20, compared with an average of €80 in casinos. “The game has changed from being money-dominated to being more affordable,” he adds. Loane has also launched a weekly women-only class. “Women are still in a minority, but they’ve come a long way from the days when a female face at the table was rare.”
The talents required of a poker player are arguably traditionally male traits, such as aggression and the ability to conceal emotions. Even though some women are starting to beat the men at their own game, many men cling to the retrograde notion that women won’t bluff. “Men think that we only play when we have a good hand,” says the current All Ireland ladies’ champion, Joan Fitzsimons. “That’s just not true. I love playing against men, because they think they’ve won before the cards are even dealt.”
While the winnings are welcome — enough to supplement an income nicely — there are other benefits that the game brings. “Poker has taught me to notice the little details,” says Rebecca McAdam, a poker player from Rathfarnham and author of How to Become a Poker Queen, which explains how to harness your femininity to outwit male players. “It’s taught me how to spot weaknesses better and take advantage of them, but also when not to force something to happen. You’ll learn things about yourself and humans in general that would truly surprise you, lessons you’ll carry with you to make you more observant and strategic in business and life.”
As a mind game, it flexes the brain in all sorts of positive ways. “When I’m playing, I’m able to switch my mind off everything else,” says Fitzsimons. “It’s become my social escape. Rather than heading out for drinks or buying a new blouse, I’d rather go and spend that money on a poker game. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met, I’ve met through poker.”
Back in Donnybrook, Una is barely visible behind her tower of chips. “Beginner’s luck,” she jokes. Next hand, she goes all in, prompting most of the table to fold. Sinead wins the next with a pair of sevens. I’d watched her bluff her way through hand after hand (“Classic business tactic,” she whispers), while everyone else was engrossed in office gossip. At 11.15pm, Maria, the dealer for the night, announces that the next hand will be the last.
“Everyone’s got work tomorrow,” she says. I’m out; Sinead wins. It’s more racy than a Jane Austen book club, that’s for sure.
WIN AT POKER, WIN AT LIFE BY REBECCA MCADAM
You’re a woman, so you’ll back down when confronted, right? Use this misinformation to surprise your opponents.
A girl at the poker table can sometimes be like a fox in a henhouse, an unknown entity with the potential to cause chaos. Use the mystery to be fearless.
You’re not going to know everything and that’s OK. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn. I used to hate showing that I was unsure of something, but poker players discuss what they should have done differently all the time. Speak up, read up and question.
You may be dismissed. You may be tested. You may be flirted with. Don’t rise to it. Let your wits, patience, observation, position and timing do the talking instead.
If you lose your chips but think you did the right thing, step back and evaluate. You’ll know better next time; plus, you’ll be stronger.