Meet The Female Poker Players Trying to Break the Sport’s Gender Barrier

Women playing poker
Elisabeth Hille of Norway checks her cards as she competes in the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 16, 2012. Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus/Reuters

Updated | A live poker tournament can be a daunting place to be. There’s the concentration required, the tension and the stakes—and for women, the challenges of playing within a male-dominated game. Female players make up only six percent of live tournaments according to The Global Poker Index, meaning more often than not women will be alone at an all-male table.

At the PokerStars Championship presented by Monte Carlo Casino, held in Monaco from April 29 to May 5, some of the highest flying women in the sport are proving why they have their place at the table. Celina Lin, who earned her bankroll of $10,000 in just three weeks of playing, is now one of Asia’s top female poker players. She says more women play now than when she got into it. “I was one of the first ones to really step out of that comfort zone and professionally play poker,” Lin tells Newsweek. “At that time there was really not many [women] at all and in recent years we have seen a great increase,” she adds.

Some women have experienced harassment during tournaments, including Russian-American Maria Konnikova, a psychology writer and journalist, who has learned to play poker as part of an experiment for book research: “At the lower stakes in Las Vegas I’ve had some really horrible experiences,” she says. “I’ve been called everything at a poker table, b***h, c**t, to my face,” adds Konnikova.

Liv Boeree, an English player who has a first class honors degree in physics, won the 2010 European Poker Tour in Sanremo (only the third woman ever to do so). She says isn’t phased by the levels of testosterone at the table. “You know, I just love the game, and you’ll meet great opponents who are very friendly towards woman, and then the occasional one that perhaps are a little bit more sexist towards women, but they are rare,” she says.

Dutch ex-Olympic hockey player Fatima Moreira de Melo has a similar stance. “A lot of people ask me what it’s like to be female in the poker world, because it’s very male dominated,” she says. “To be honest I don’t find it daunting at all. I’ve always felt very comfortable sitting at the table with men.”

All three women agree that poker has given them one thing above all: freedom. “I did the 9-5 thing for a little while and it wasn’t really for me,” says Boeree. “[I have] the freedom to choose where I go and when I go. And [what] obviously came with it was financial freedom as well. It’s giving me more freedom, being my own boss, that’s really important to me.”

Due to a typographical error, an earlier version of this article spelled Celina Lin's name as Lim.