He Said: Reporting on Women at the WSOP

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“Deuce! Deuce! Deuce!”

So chanted the crowd a little after midnight on the last day of play for the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event this summer.  Just 10 players remained, with the last woman standing, Gaelle Baumann of France, all in and at risk with pocket kings.  With just one card to come, the crowd — including many in the media tower — were screaming for a harmless deuce to fall to ensure Baumann’s survival.

The dealer burned a card and delivered the river — a deuce!  The very card for which the crowd had been calling!  Baumann had survived!

I had the opportunity again this summer to help cover the WSOP for PokerNews, and thus found myself writing up that hand amid one of the wildest scenes I can remember during the many years I’ve been reporting on tourneys.  The stands literally shook around me as people jumped up and down, chanting and screaming.

gaelleAlas for Baumann, the excitement was short-lived as just a few hands later she’d be all in again against the only other non-American at the table, Andras Koroknai of Hungary, and that time would not survive.  The WSOP Main Event final table was set, and as has been the case  every year since 1995 all nine seats were filled by men.

While various story lines crisscrossed during that last Day 7 at the WSOP ME, the possibility of either Baumann or the Norwegian Elisabeth Hille surviving as the field was trimmed from 27 to the final nine was foremost in everyone’s thoughts.  Baumann had entered the day with a short stack, but Hille began in the top five.  And when both were still alive with 11 players left, the “Will a woman finally make it?” story had easily eclipsed all others.

Neither did make it to the final table, of course, with Hille going out in 11th just before Baumann busted in 10th.  Even so, with the lengthy delay before the final table plays out in October — and ESPN’s planned for coverage between now and then — there will continue to be a great deal of attention during the coming weeks given to both Baumann and Hille and how they performed at this year’s Main Event.

As a fan of poker and of the WSOP, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement connected to Baumann and Hille’s deep Main Event runs.  Of course, as a reporter I necessarily try to avoid playing favorites in an effort to remove any bias or editorializing when simply chronicling the action.  Even so, the situation did bring up some interesting issues connected to tourney reporting and women’s participation.

One concerns an objection I’ve heard a few raise that any special attention afforded to women players when reporting on poker tournaments is by definition “sexist” and thus undesirable.

hille2When less than 100 players remained in the Main Event and five women were still alive, I was certainly well aware of all of them (Baumann, Hille, Vanessa Selbst, Marcia Topp, and Susie Zhao).  And it’s probably safe to say each received extra attention during those final couple of days primarily because they were women — both from me and from other reporters.

Some of those raising the objection about women players getting more coverage liken it to focusing on race, nationality, or other not-necessarily-poker-related characteristics sometimes used to define groups of people.  I’m not so convinced by such comparisons, though, since when it comes to poker and the WSOP, the degree of participation and/or success of women has been and continues to be a non-incidental part of the game’s history and culture.

In truth, I believe it would have seemed strange to have ignored or downplayed the significance of women doing well in the World Series of Poker Main Event.  Or of women doing well in other open-bracelet events, as happened frequently this summer at the WSOP.

Why?  Because — for better or worse — nearly everyone who plays in WSOP events and who watches them assigns such significance.  Whether a player is a man or woman is still considered meaningful and thus are such distinctions still a major part of the culture in which poker is played.

Of course, poker likewise has a legacy and history in which women often have been regarded in ways that devalue their skills and/or ability to compete.  Thus arises a second issue with coverage of women at the WSOP, namely examples of reporting that utterly focused on a player being a woman while ignoring the actual poker being played.  Under that heading would go reporting that concentrated primarily (or entirely) on women players’ relative attractiveness rather than on hands won or lost.

I’ll leave my “He Said/She Said” colleague to explore that latter issue in greater detail, mostly because I didn’t follow examples of such in the other coverage as closely as she did.

But I will say that unlike that deuce that fell on the river in what was probably the most exciting hand I watched all summer, that sort of sexism in reporting is anything but harmless.eom

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See Also: She Said: Looking Past Baumann and Hille at 2012 WSOP

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