The bloom was still on the rose of the poker boom when James (Jimmy) Woods strolled into the Commerce Casino, just outside Los Angeles. We met up for coffee and then walked over to a no limit hold’em game with “open seating.”
Tobey Maguire was in the game. So were Leonardo (Leo) DiCaprio and David Schwimmer. The rest of the players were a mixture of local pros and other recognizable regulars. There was no fanfare--no handlers holding court, protectively, no velvet ropes to keep gawkers at bay, no caviar on the side tables for the celebrities.
Except for the cast of Hollywood characters at the table, it was a typical, no limit hold' 'em game in the country's biggest card room The blinds ware relatively small. the buy-in was uncapped, and thousands—not hundreds of thousands--of dollars changed hands in the course of the night. Like the rest of the players at the table, the Hollywood pack seemed to care mostly about how people were playing their chips and the odds of a reversal of fortune on the turn of a card.
Way before Before Molly’s Game
In the mid 80s, when I first sidled up to a poker table, the WSOP was the one tournament that meant something to any poker player worth his salt. In that era, poker players were accustomed to seeing the likes of Gabe Kaplan and Telly Savalas at the World Series of Poker, but generally, movie stars were not aficionados of public poker rooms. Very few women took seats at the tables. During the three week World Series at Binion''s Horseshoe; blue language and vulgar comments were part of the game--except when a lady was at the table. Benny Binion, had no patience for such bad manners! Neither did Jack Binion. And good old Texans jumped right in if a guy got out of line when the fairer sex was present. But not so much in many other card rooms where male players viewed women as intrusive on their boys' nights out.
New York's Mayfair Club did better than most. In the mid 80's the Mayfair began its evolution into the hottest underground poker den in America. There was an egalitarian spirit at the table. Originally, a bridge and backgammon club, the Mayfair attracted some of the best and the brightest game players in the world; a slew of them were poker players; some were women. Once poker was an option at the Club, word spread like wildfire among local game players and sports bettors.
In no time flat, the Mayfair's ambience roped in low limit poker players from all walks of life. Pros, Wall Street whales and a smattering of celebrities were part of the Club's regular ebb and flow. There was one big no limit game; I decided to make high stakes no limit hold 'em my game. Few women dared to take a shot at pulling down a four or five figure pot. Most of the time I was the only woman at the table.
Needling fellow players and "coffee-housing" (harmless trash talk) were encouraged. Cursing was discouraged. The F bomb was never acceptable as a regular part of the conversation. Disparaging whispers about women and fish were routine but down and dirty abuse at the table was verboten.
And, Molly Bloom the poker hostess with the mostest, and author of a new book about high stakes poker games, in hotsy- totsy enclaves, was just a kid in Loveland, Colorado.
The 90s takes poker up a notch
In the 90s, screenplay writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien discovered New York’s Mayfair Club. The Mayfair was the inspiration for their 1998 film, Rounders, starring Matt Damon, Ed Norton and John Malkovich. In the years that followed, increasingly, celebrities made their way into poker rooms. Damon took a fancy to the game. His close friend, Ben Affleck also got into poker; first at Foxwoods, in small no limit games, later in Atlantic City’s high stakes mixed limit games--with Jennifer Lopez at his side. After their break-up, more often alongside Maguire, and DiCaprio in California--the poker capital of the world. Woods, caught the poker bug, independently. He eagerly, made visits to tournaments and cash games on both coasts. and Schwimmer was a frequent player, too.
The movie stars generally behaved in poker rooms as they would in any other coed domain, where manners count and unwritten rules of basic etiquette frown on being disrespectful or making fun of women for sport. As to the rest of the poker players, across America, they were as orderly as required by the game runners and poker parlors personnel; few public card rooms muzzled provocative commentary.
The Poker Boom Years in the Oughts
With the advent of online poker, the average age and social skills of poker players dropped, dramatically, during the next decade of the "oughts." A small influx of never-seen-before women of varying ages began to take seats at casino card room tables. If they wanted to play poker, they wee forced to adapt to a new lexicon of acceptable curse words and more table chatter that portrayed women as nuts and sl---s .
Of course, some women in the poker world never have looked upon a poker table as a place to be a prim and proper lady! One-time poker star and runner-up contestant on Celebrity Apprentice, Annie Duke was among them. At one Ante Up for Africa charity poker event, the outspoken Duke, came running to our table where Matt Damon was the center of the universe. Mugging for the cameras, she said to him in earshot of the well-heeled crowd, “You are such an attention w---re!”
The golden era of Molly Bloom’s poker games was on the horizon.
Molly’s Game: Beyond Imagination
The poker festivities described in the new blockbuster book, “Molly’s Game,” by Molly Bloom became the hottest tickets in town in the latter years of the oughts. Business titans mixed it up with movie stars and the occasional well-known poker pro.
Dubbed the “Poker Princess,” of Hollywood and New York, Bloom operated private, exclusive, high-stakes poker games until the Government shut them down. Her game got hit by a sting operation that targeted big fish in sports betting businesses and organized crime.
This past spring Bloom resolved the criminal case against her with one year of probation.
Ms. Bloom’s games were always carefully laced with celebrities the likes of Maguire, Schwimmer, Di Caprio, and Affleck. Movie icons attract billionaire businessmen into the fold, she explains. Bloom catered to Spiderman Maguire because he was a regular who encouraged other A-listers to join the fun. And for a good while, Maguire helped to keep Bloom's business a captivating affair.
According to Bloom, Maguire was a big winner and a poor tipper who messed big-time with her sense of dignity. Showing him as a cad toward women, she cited an incident in which Spiderman insisted she bark like a seal for the reward of a $1,000 tip. She found it in herself to decline. She got the tip anyway. It was not the first example of Maguire's penchant for humor at a woman's expense, in a poker room, nor the last.
Maguire is part of a sizable demographic of men who push the boundaries of “arguably acceptable” conduct outside , brothels, male locker rooms, and bedrooms--by mutual consent.
“Mike the Mouth” Reflects a Popular Mindset
In recent years, at the World Series of Poker, women have learned that many floor people and most dealers are inclined to turn a blind eye toward foul language, vulgarity, and disregard for the presence of women—as if it is disruptive of the fun—of the predominantly male customer base.
This past summer, at the WSOP, poker pro, Mike Matusow (Mike-the-Mouth) was apparently a poster boy for spewed epithets and vulgar comments, at no one in particular. He reportedly insisted to tournament officials, that his verbal assaults were not directed toward anyone , and therefore were well within the rules of proper decorum—at least for a poker star who has established himself as “The Mouth.” One might say he was just being true to his brand!
Matusow reportedly ranted, raged, and celebrated, pounding his fists on the table as part of his act, periodically, over a couple of hours, before the WSOP issued a 20 minute time out, conduct penalty.
Allyn Jaffrey Shulman, a lawyer and a WSOP bracelet winner was a witness to the antics. She served up her version of the facts in an article for CardPlayer Magazine. She wrote dispassionately, but she did not mince words. And, the unpleasantness, of Matusow's monologs came through loud and clear. So did the implicit sexism that is rampant in poker--one of the last bastions of scratch and spit and take-your-political-correctness-and-shove-it-arena of rugged male individualism.
Underground Games: Women Usually Take Insults in Stride
Women who find sexism an issue in a public card room, may well find underground games tougher challenges. Molly Bloom's book is instructive. Her posh poker parties were about money, power, and raunchy storytelling about women. The all-male table of players bragged about “hand jobs” and bedding broads-- in front of Bloom and her female assistants.
The environment is much the same today in many underground card rooms in New York. Few of the women, present, as players or house employees, take exception. Colorful profanities--and gritty words that disparage women-- are treated as fair game. Most of the women try to tune out the contempt, at least until it gets totally out of hand.
Women Recreational Players Revolt—Quietly!
Recreational players are the key to growth of the poker economy. Women are a significant part of that demographic but they have been notably slow to venture into public card rooms. There are indications that only a low percentage who try their luck there, return very often--if ever.
A dozen women--avid recreational players--talked to me about their public card room experience for this article. The report card left a massive opportunity for improvement. The top gripe was that men insult women's poker abilities--at the table. Raunchy conversation came in second. Cursing was the third most stated complaint. The specifics of the conduct that keeps women away from public card rooms and big tournaments is not entirely clear--from this small sample. But, the interviews suggest that by-and- large, women fear putting themselves in an abusive environment and hold the card room operators, not the players, responsible for their plight.
Among the several hundred players in the WSOP tournaments held in the mid 80s, women accounted for an estimated 2% of the field. This summer, the WSOP attracted 82,360 players. Women accounted for less than five % of the participants. As the pre-eminent force in the poker world, the WSOP is positioned to take the lead in rethinking the boundaries of male fun at a poker table, and how to make poker equally hospitable to women. And maybe "the time hath come" for all poker rooms to put this mind sport and game of skill on a faster track to making women feel more genuinely welcome. Women can wish!