At World Series of Poker, is deck stacked against women?

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LAS VEGAS - For the first five hours of the second round of the World Series of Poker main event Sunday, Barbara Enright - the only woman to ever reach the final table of the famous No Limit Texas Hold 'em championship - played exactly four hands.

Considering Enright's typically aggressive style, this was the poker equivalent of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning throwing four passes in the first half of a football game.

Never looking at anything better than a pair of eights as her hole cards, Enright saw her stack of chips dwindle to $2,500. But when play was halted for the day, at midnight, Enright had painstakingly built that modest stake to more than $44,000. Along the way, she outlasted nearly 5,000 competitors, including top pros Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu, and was within striking distance of making it to the prize money.

The WSOP main event, which began Thursday with 5,619 players, is expected to end Saturday. From a prize pool of more than $50 million, the winner receives $7.5 million and the top 560 finishers cash in, with the smallest payoff at $12,500.

"If I get a good hand, I'm playing it," Enright said as the field dipped to less than 570 remaining late Sunday. "A lot of people would lay down [a good hand] just to make sure they didn't get beat and miss the money. But I'm here to win it."

Since 1970, when the poker World Series was born, Enright is the woman who has come closest to doing just that in what has always been strictly a male-dominated game. In 1995, she finished fifth when veteran Dan Harrington, who went to the final table in both 2003 and 2004, won the title. Sunday, Harrington exited to a standing ovation while Enright played on.

Despite Enright's final table challenge 10 years ago and contentions by poker's promoters that it is the most egalitarian of games, heedless of age, gender and physical prowess, participation by women in poker's biggest showcase remains small. The percentage of women playing in the main event in 1995 and 2005 is about the same, approximately 3.5 percent.

And though 2004 appeared to be a breakthrough year because three women won open tournament WSOP bracelets, which are given to the winners of any World Series event - a total of 45 are held here over six weeks - no woman has yet earned one this year. Only actress Jennifer Tilly won a 2005 bracelet in the all-women's tournament.

"I think last year was an anomaly that had never occurred before and we'll never see again," said Wendeen Eolis, a female player who writes for poker publications and runs a New York legal consulting company. She made it into the money at the main event in 1986 and 1993. "Bluffing has just gotten to be so important a part of the game, especially with all these 20-something Internet players."

Eolis points to something on which many women players, pros and amateurs alike, agree - it is harder for women to successfully bluff than men because male competitors simply call females more often.

"That can work to your advantage," said Clonie Gowen, a Dallas professional player who is part of a collection of top stars, including Howard Lederer and Phil Ivey, associated with a poker Web site called Full Tilt Poker. "When you do have a good hand, you will always get paid off ... because if they have any piece of it, a guy is going to call you."

Before Gowen was eliminated yesterday in 449th place, she and Enright were two of the more recognizable women left in the main event marathon after others who have become familiar because of the game's ubiquitous television coverage - Annie Duke, Cyndy Violette, Kathy Liebert and Jennifer Harman - were bounced on their first days of play. The starting field was so large, organizers had to begin the event over three days.

Mindy Barker, a small-time player from Salt Lake City, won her seat, normally a $10,000 buy-in, at a $200 satellite tournament in Wendover, Nev. She said women have to be more careful that they don't display "tells," hints about their hands, because so much more attention is focused on them.

"Men are watching your every move," she said. "They're always trying to get a read, where the guy next to you goes unnoticed."

Gowen, a former Oklahoma teenage beauty pageant winner who has become a tough cash game player, agreed.

"If the woman is attractive, she's going to be the center of attention," Gowen said. "Even if it's subconsciously, they're focusing on you."

Although poker is among the most individual of games, camaraderie and friendships are still important because players learn a great deal from one another. There, women can suffer as well, Gowen said.

"A man will almost always go to another man for help," Gowen said. "And I think a woman does feel more comfortable with another female, because if a man takes her under his wing, she wonders, 'Is he doing it because he wants to date me?'

"There's not a lot of support for top women players. Respect, we'll get sometimes. But not friendships like men have."

Still, poker remains a game where physical characteristics are less essential to success than most others. In the same second round in which Enright, now a grandmother, was scrambling for every chip, 80-year-old Paul McKinney - winner of this year's WSOP Seniors tournament - was going strong. Meanwhile, hundreds of those Internet hopefuls were sent from the tables defeated and dejected.

"I never looked at myself as a woman player; I was just a player," said Enright, who has switched from playing in California's card rooms to mostly Internet play from the comfort of her home in Los Angeles. "Back when I was playing more live games, the guys said I had [more nerve] than they did. And they were right. I was pretty aggressive. And I'd be again here - if I could just get my hands on some chips."

Yesterday, she made good on her word. Just a few spots shy of making the money, she risked it all by going all in against Lederer with pocket queens. Enright won, assuring another poker payday.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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