Sexual Identity and Online Poker

By Short-stacked Shamus
originally written for

Poker has never been more popular, and one consequence of its growing popularity is an increasing number of women playing the game. As Barbara Connors notes in her essay “Power Play,” appearing in the collection Women’s Poker Night (edited by Maryann Morrison and reviewed here), there has been a “boom within the boom” over recent years, namely, that “women are now starting to play the game in record numbers.”

The rise of the online game over the last decade is one factor many observers cite as having further encouraged the participation of women in poker. In Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (reviewed here), James McManus says that “women already comprise roughly a third of Internet players.” That estimate strikes me as possibly being a bit high, but certainly there are many women sitting around the virtual tables — perhaps more than the men realize.

“Anxiety about competing is presumably less of a factor online,” McManus goes on to write, speculating about why women might be particularly attracted to the online game. Other factors are likely relevant here as well. Last week I asked Victoria Coren to comment on the status of women in poker today, and in her response she noted how online poker in particular had served to introduce many women to the game. “Internet poker made it possible for women to bypass all the things that had kept them away before,” said Coren, enabling them to avoid “the intimidating nature of a male-dominated room” as well as other possible obstacles. (See the interview for more.)

Online poker is indeed an interesting world, one in which the whole issue of differences between the sexes — both actual and perceived — can be muted or ignored entirely. In The Badass Girl’s Guide to Poker, Toby Leah Bochan points out how when playing online “you are a faceless, genderless, unknown player.” She’s right, one can be “genderless” if one wants. Of course, some players deliberately choose otherwise when they play online, and go ahead and identify themselves as a man or a woman.

In fact, some choose to identify themselves falsely, appearing as the opposite sex than their actual one. Like I say, online poker is an interesting world. Or, as Ray Davies might sing, a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

I have accounts on several online poker sites. Unlike some players, I do not use the same username on every site, but have different IDs on each. These days I generally play on only two or three sites on a regular basis, although I’ve probably had accounts on as many as ten sites over the years, which means I’ve had to come up with a number of different handles.

As it happens, none of the usernames I’ve chosen on any of the sites have any special significance to me personally. That is to say, I’ve never chosen variations of my real name or my favorite sports team or that sort of thing when deciding on my nick. In most cases, I’ve picked relatively random words/names which if they have any common theme at all would be that they sound funny — you know, like “balderdash” or “Rumpelstilskin” or the like. (Those are just examples, neither of which are names under which I actually play.)

On one particular site — one which I still frequent from time to time — I deliberately chose a woman’s name under which to play. I even went so far as to upload a cartoon image of a woman’s face as my avatar. I can’t remember my reasoning at the time, although I do recall having realized that I might well be conducting a kind of informal sociological study by playing “as a woman.” Would it make any difference? Would players play differently against me?

I’ll admit when playing on the site I generally don’t spend a lot of time wondering about these questions, although occasionally situations have arisen buying accutane online when I’ve been reminded that some of my opponents might well think I am female.

For example, I recall one particular session from a while back during which I noticed that one player had begun consistently typing “nh” after I’d won a pot. After a few times I picked up on the fact that he — I’m making an assumption the player was male — was congratulating me on every hand I won, regardless of whether or not he was involved.

Then came a “u go girl.” Then, a more specific compliment: “i like your pic.”

Erm, okay. Thanks?

Eventually I came to realize during that session that my opponents were frequently folding to my raises, something which I took as possibly a response to my “image” (literally). Having been encouraged to consider how women are often thought not to be inclined to play aggressively, I’d begun to wonder whether my opponents, having decided I was a woman, had also decided I wasn’t capable of betting without a hand.

I recall a study from 2007 commissioned by a group called eCOGRA — e-Commerce Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance — in which they found that 12% of players who gamble online play under a different sex (if given the opportunity to identify themselves by sex, that is). The study also found that those who do play under a different sex “reported having less profitable play than any other type of player.” One theory that was suggested was that those who play as a different sex “may have been less successful as a consequence of over estimating the advantage of playing poker as a different sex.”

I was back on that site just last week, where I found myself in a hand of pot-limit Omaha which brought all of that back to me in a curious way. The hand itself wasn’t all that remarkable. Four players limped to see a flop, including me in the small blind with A-K-x-x. The flop came a convenient Q-J-T (three different suits), giving me Broadway. I bet three-quarters of the pot, and all folded except a player on the button. The turn was an eight of the fourth suit — that is, no flush draw. I bet the pot, my opponent reraised pot, and eventually we got it all in. The river was another eight, pairing the board (which I didn’t like), but to my surprise my opponent showed J-T-9-x, having flopped bottom two pair, then ended with a lesser straight.

It was an especially poor play by my opponent, proving once again that we make most of our cabbage from bad players. I was amazed by the fact that he (again, I’m guessing “he” here) didn’t realize my bets and raises from out of position signaled I had the nuts. I kept thinking about the hand, eventually realizing that my surprise was further compounded by the fact that I figured he’d know I was good there because… well… after all… a woman wouldn’t bet like that without a hand!

That’s when I realized I was making a conjecture, based on sexual stereotypes, that my opponent would play against me in a certain way simply because of my username and avatar. I’m definitely asking for trouble, making such potentially reckless assumptions about my image and how others might respond to it. I thought about how that eCOGRA study could well have been onto something about gamblers who play under a different sex perhaps overestimating the significance of their decision to do so.

One lesson, I suppose, is that when playing online, there are always going to be a ton of unknowns out there, including whether or not one’s opponent is a man or a woman. So it probably is not a good idea to get too carried away with assumptions along those lines.

Never mind the fact that sex-based hypotheses about playing styles aren’t always going to be accurate. That lady with the pretty picture over there… she might be a dude!


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