Women Are Different from Men… Really

First published ‘Two Plus Two’ magazine – February 2012

Leo Margets: “There’s no difference between excellent men or women players although each will have their own style. It’s my observation that with lesser skilled players, men will make more mistakes being too aggressive in the wrong spots and women will be too passive.”


Despite stereotyping getting a bad name, it is an extremely important part of people’s psychological make up and without stereotyping, it would be impossible to function. Stereotypes are natural, vital and helpful. If with each person you met you had to begin from scratch filling in their characteristics, you simply wouldn’t have enough time in your life.  Stereotyping allows you to fill in the gaps. It gives you a pretty full initial picture that allows you to add to, refine and remodel as you get more information.

For instance, you sit down at a poker table and you’re playing with players you’ve never met. One of these is a hotshot Scandinavian and another, a young blonde girl who doesn’t look old enough to get into the casino. I suspect you already have a different strategies planned for each. This may not be a conscious decision, and you may well think that you are approaching the game with a totally open mind, but that would be practically impossible. You will have already formed some stereotype, some “fixed, over generalised belief about a particular class of people”.

The assumption you have will be based on a number of factors including your upbringing, culture, media, beliefs, personal experience, etc.

In an interview Gus Hanson, Scandinavian player describes his stereotyping experience:

 “Every time I’m at a table with 8 players I’ve never seen before, they might have seen me on TV. They kind of already have it in their minds that the last time they saw me I was bluffing with 2-4 off-suit and called all in with this and that. So naturally they will give me a little more action because those are the hands that they’re seeing me play. But they might not have seen the fact that I won a big hand with kings a day earlier or whatever, so it definitely gets me more action that’s for sure.”

Your assumption of the young blonde girl who didn’t look old enough to get into the casino may be along the lines of Daniel Negreanu who writes about his first experience of playing poker against Jennifer Harman;

“I had my strategy all figured out: I wouldn’t bluff the crazy young kid, but I’d attack the poor little blonde girl. I thought, what is she doing playing so high, anyway? Well, she probably won’t last long, so I’d better get some of that money before it’s gone. That annoying little blonde girl was crushing me! Every time I raised, she reraised me, and every time I bluffed, she called. I was now stuck a little more than $9,000.”


Jennifer Tilly: “We are raised to be polite and honest. We are not raised to be most of the things that make good poker players.”

The typical stereotypical traits of a woman poker player are: passive, polite, non-competitive, honest, likely to fold in the face of any raise, quiet, slow….

There’s a fair amount deal of truth in a lot of this. There has been a great deal of research carried out in some relevant areas around gender differences. The research is fairly consistent and has been carried out over many years from a variety of sources. The most interesting from a poker playing viewpoint lie in the areas of competitiveness, problem solving and self esteem.


Annette Obrestad “I’ve always said that girls suck at poker. I say that because they do. Maybe they just aren’t as competitive and don’t try to learn from their mistakes.”

This seems to be true, or at least, partly true. It does however, only tell half the story. Research by Hoygena and Hoygena suggest that women frequently compete as vigorously as males. However, there is an inherent stigma that seems to prevent women being seen to be competitive. This appears to come principally from centuries of social conditioning.  Throughout history, women have had to adapt to be taken seriously in a ‘man’s world’. For instance, the world of arts and writing has primarily been a male-dominated arena for centuries. The only way for some authors to get their work published has been to adapt. Mary Ann Evans had to change her name to George Eliot, and even recently Joanne Rowling was told by her publishers to use her initials J.K.as they felt boys would not read a book written by a woman.

It’s also been proven that women are significantly more likely to compete where they are unlikely to be discriminated against and where they believe they have an equal or better chance of succeeding. Highlighting this, one study by Robinson-Staveley and Cooper found that females outscored men in an isolated competition but men exceeded women when other people were present.

This would explain the influx of women to online poker.

Victoria Coren explains;

“Internet poker is the best thing ever invented for women. Everything that didn’t suit women about live poker was removed at a stroke. It allows you to be as competitive as you like and you won’t get men giving you funny looks. Live poker, broadly speaking, is a more masculine activity.”


The stereotype of a passive woman is very strong. Stereotypes tend to be. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, people will cling to their stereotype. One way of rationalising this is reframing. Even when a person acts totally against the stereotype, others rationalise it.

In an interview Vanessa Selbst gave with Kirsty Arnett, she tells of her experience at the final table of a WSOP event. In the hand she was dealt the 5spade2spade. She raised preflop, got re-raised and then she pushed all in. Unfortunately, she was up against a pair of aces and lost. She continued;

Vanessa: “I got a ton of flack for it. I still get a ton of flack for it.
Kristy: “When I watched that hand, I was thinking, she is second in chips against the chip and leader, and this is absolutely brilliant and ballsy, because he has to fold almost all hands!”
Vanessa: “Yes, exactly. If he has A-Q he folds, and I look like a genius. If he has aces, I look like an idiot. That’s the way it goes.”

In a televised High Stakes Poker game, Phil Ivey played a hand that ended with him going all-in with 5 -2 against Lex Veldhius. This was described as “one of the greatest bluffs in the history of HSP”.

Problem Solving

It has long been established that men are more risk prone than women. Women tend toward a strategy of risk aversion and accept risk as a last resort. They would prefer to take a risk ‘when the benefits are maximised and costs minimised’. Men are generally more comfortable with risk-taking. Men tend to want to rush to a solution whereas women are more likely to spend time longer conceptualising a solution and then implementing it. In their research on competition, Daly and Wilson found that women tend to “develop elegant solutions”, rather than ‘good enough’ solutions.

In poker, as in life, there is generally a time limit around problem solving and quick, successful risk taking is widely admired especially in public. In strict time limit situations, men will more rapidly identify and select a ‘close enough’ solution and implement it. Women may feel more anxious and have performance issues, at least initially.

Both parties can learn and adapt to the situations. The better poker players are either instinctively more flexible in their approach or can learn quicker and adapt more effectively. In general, men have an advantage learning poker in public arenas. In many situations it is almost a mark of honor to play hyper-aggressively even if you lose big. Women tend to be more risk averse and initially at least, handle failure more personally.
Kathy Liebert talks about her strategy in the 2007 WSOP heads-up event;

“You have a series of events in your head already planned out at the beginning of every hand. So, if you see a line from a player, and it winds up being similar to how other players play the same hand, it makes it easier, especially heads up. You’ll see spots where it is pretty obvious someone is going to bluff, or where someone raises and you know they don’t have x, y, and z hands, or whatever it is, just from experience.”

Self Esteem

Clonie Gowen: “To be a successful player, you need a lot of confidence”

Another aspect of the female stereotype is that women lack confidence. There is a great deal of evidence to support this. This seems to emanate from childhood.

Studies on school children have found that girls’ performances are often strongly influenced by the way boys perceive them or the way the girls think boys perceive them. This will greatly affect their performance in the classroom. Many times, girls act naïve or hide their intelligence and abilities because they think this is the way to be socially accepted and popular with boys. Also, it has been shown that even when female college students have the same intellectual results as males, there are frequently huge differences in their perceptions of themselves. A recent example seems to indicate that this perception continues beyond school;

A senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 a year. The advert did not attract one female applicant. However, when the same post was re-advertised for £35,000 a year they were overwhelmed with applications from women.

The way of building self-esteem seems to be a fairly reasonable and well-documented one. The way to build self-confidence is not by throwing them in at the deep end and hoping they can swim. The approach is a systematic series of small steps and confidence building.

Maria Ho: “I would have to say it was online poker that I credit with being able to jump so fast. I’ve always felt more comfortable playing higher online than I did live… I think I was just intimidated in the beginning. So playing online really helped me like get over that intimidation because once I became a winning player at the higher limits, then the limits didn’t intimidate me as much, so I was able to take that into the live arena.”


This, of course, isn’t true for all men all the time, or all women all the time. There are numerous examples of uncompetitive male players, females that make snap decisions, etc. However, the evidence indicates that there is a degree of truth in the stereotypes.

However, the learning is about playing the person, not the stereotype. For poker players, stereotypes can be dangerous and the better players will take advantage of them. Female poker players will happily play to this;

Kathy Liebert: “Most men treat women as stereotypes at the poker table, not as unique players. This makes it pretty easy to play with men that have never played with me before. Certain types of men check a strong hand because they want to be the “nice” guy. Other types of men might try to bully a “weak” woman. Whatever the case, I win bets. This is a huge advantage to me. There is less advantage against regular opponents of course.”

For women players, the learning here is that if you don’t feel confident playing poker initially, you’re not on your own. Online poker will help some people. Women-only tournaments will help some people. Ultimately, women are different from men, really. Whether the reason is genetic, cultural, behavioural, it really doesn’t matter. There are psychological differences. This should be recognised and acknowledged as it should be for all groups of people. Lucy Rocach’s thoughts on women only tournaments seem to be some of the most sensible on the topic;

“In any activity dominated almost exclusively by one group, there has to be a case for positive discrimination. In the case of live poker, the whole casino experience can be intimidating for the lone uninitiated woman, where the gambling industry is geared towards men. If you can get women used to going to a cardroom and have an enjoyable night out in a non-threatening atmosphere, half the battle’s won.”


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