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Women in Gambling
A Look at the Fairer Sex
The History of Gambling is a long and varied one, but much as with the history of many other industries, and primarily due to the, 'Glass Ceiling,' effect even in recent years; it is only recently that women play on a (well, more) equal playing field in the gambling industry as men.
Even if one were to look at the preferences of women and men with respect to gambling, gambling has long been considered a recreation of men as opposed to women. If you need verification of this fact, then simply go to any Craps, Blackjack or Poker Table in virtually any casino anywhere and, more often than not, there will be more male players than female players. This even holds true in the realm of professional players, such as professional poker players. While there have been long-time great female poker players such as Jennifer Harman and Cyndy Violette as well as a newer crop of excellent female players such as Vanessa Selbst (who is, in fact, one of the absolute best right now) and even celebrities making a splash in recent years, Jennifer Tilly being one example...Professional Poker is still very much the domain of men, for the most part.
Going back to the, 'Glass Ceiling,' effect, while there is a near-expectation that cocktail waitresses will be female, (I mean, they're called, 'Cocktail Waitresses,' as opposed to, 'Cocktail Servers,' right?) and in the last several decades it is hardly unusual to see a female dealer or cage attendant, as with many other industries, women have experienced some difficulty breaking through into the higher management positions or positions on the Board of Directors.
Obviously, this is not due to any lack of ability to do the job when comparing men to women, in fact, I think that the fact that the higher echelons of gambling positions tending not to go to women too frequently might have something to do with the fact that women are generally less interested than men in many forms of gambling. Of course, even that is not always true as there have been any number of Bingo Halls throughout this country that are full of women, and in the event that men are also participating, in some cases, they came along with their wives begrudgingly. For example, a study in the UK suggested that seventy percent of its Bingo players are women:
Furthermore, slot machines largely came about and expanded because they were a pastime for women who were at the casinos with their husbands who were playing Table Games.
Naturally, there are exceptions to every Rule, and for this page, we are going to take a look at many of the most well-known females in the realm of gambling. Generally speaking, we are going to try to stick to women who were established prior to 2010 because a woman in a prevalent position in a segment of gambling, while certainly not in the majority, really is much less of an, 'Exception to the rule,' as this rule is ceasing to exist as with other industries.
The Poker Players
Since they were briefly mentioned in the Introduction of this page, we're going to first take a look at some of the most well-known Professional Female Poker Players over these many years. This may perhaps represent the largest segment of well-known females in the world of gambling, but that's not necessarily because there are more female poker players than there are females in the other aspects of gambling, but it is more due to the, 'Poker Boom,' which brought all Professional Poker Players front and center (men and women alike) for several years in the early 2000's. During this time, there were a few other nationally televised events such as a few Blackjack Tournaments, and also a show I recall (but forget the name of) that was a strange hybrid of casino tournament games of Blackjack, Craps, Roulette and maybe Baccarat...but I'm not too confident on that last one.
Vanessa Selbst is the youngest female Poker player in this section, (at the age of 31 as of the time of this writing) but she is also the most successful, at least, when it comes to live tournaments. With respect to cash games, those can often be difficult to determine over the course of an individual's entire career given the fact that not all of them are necessarily reported and tracked. In any event, Vanessa Selbst has won three World Series of Poker Bracelets, each of which was in a different Poker game which is an excellent testament to her versatility. One of these Bracelets, for example, is specifically that: 10-Game Six-Handed, which leaves little to no doubt that she is one of the best all-around poker players out there.
Speaking of being well-rounded, as if being one of the greatest Poker players of all-time at her young age wasn't enough, she also holds a degree in Political Science from Yale University. As well as the aforementioned accolades, she is (again, as of the time of this writing) the only person, male or female, to win two consecutive North American Poker Tour events having first won in 2010 and successfully defending her title in 2011.
Vanessa Selbst has over 11 million dollars in tournament winnings and, at one time, was ranked #1 on the Global Poker Index. Again, given that she is only 31 as of the time of this writing, she has plenty of time to get there again.
While she has enjoyed great success in tournament poker, it is possible that casual fans are more likely to have heard of Vanessa Selbst as Kathy Liebert only has one World Series of Poker bracelet to her name for a win back in 2004. Of course, anyone with more than a passing interest in Poker will have heard of Kathy Liebert as she has raked in more than six million dollars in Tournament Winnings throughout her career and has finished in the money on the WPT nearly forty times.
Vanessa Rousso is another indisputably successful female Poker player who, at the age of 32 as of this writing, would have come up around the same time as Vanessa Selbst, the first entry on this list. While Rousso may not have enjoyed quite the success of Selbst to this point, she may be more well-known publicly as she was a member of Team PokerStars for nearly a decade and is also a spokesperson for GoDaddy.com. Furthermore, Rousso has also appeared on CBS' Big Brother and finished third.
While Rousso has yet to earn any WSOP Bracelets or WPT Titles, she is certainly no slouch given that she has amassed over 3.5 million dollars in live tournament winnings as well as four Final tables and twenty-five cashes between the WSOP and WPT.
At the age of 27, Obrestad is the youngest on this list and, perhaps, would not have been as successful as she has if not for her Online Poker acumen. There is little doubt that she lived the dream in Online Poker as she became one of the winningest players on multiple sites claiming that she never even had to deposit any money, instead building her bankroll on freeroll tournaments prior to buying her way into games that needed to be paid.
She has finished in the money at ten World Series of Poker events and earned a Bracelet in 2007. She also placed second in a European Poker Tour event after leading for much of the final table. As of this writing, she is the youngest player ever (of either gender) to have won a WSOP Bracelet.
Jennifer Harman is the former girlfriend of Doyle Brunson's son, and fellow Professional Poker Player, Todd Brunson. It was during this time that she first met Daniel Negreanu as Todd Brunson took a stake in Daniel Negreanu during the first tournament that the latter won and Harman was tasked with collecting Todd's share of the money. A friendship quickly developed between the two (Harman and Negreanu) and it was Jennifer Harman who finally instilled a degree of discipline into Negreanu, particularly with respect to playing in games within his bankroll.
For anyone who watched Poker during the Poker Boom, it is almost a guarantee that you have heard of Jennifer Harman as she has made a wide range of final tables and also appeared on popular poker shows such as Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker. Despite being known amongst her peers as a cash game player first, and the only woman who regularly plays in the, 'Big Game,' at the Bellagio, Jennifer Harman is one of only two women to have two WSOP Bracelets to her credit.
Annie Duke should be another familiar face for anyone who watched the game with any degree of frequency during the Poker Boom. She is most notable for having more finishes in the money in WSOP events than any other woman, and also won a WSOP bracelet back in 2004. Annie Duke may well have poker in her blood as she is the sister of Poker Professional Howard Lederer. In fact, it was Howard Lederer who first saw the potential in Annie Duke and, while she was living in the State of Montana, would regularly provide her with lessons and send her money to play in poker games there.
After experiencing a great deal of success in Montana, Annie Duke was visiting her brother in Las Vegas and won quite a sum of money playing poker out there. It was at that point she decided that she was a strong enough player to move to Vegas and make it her full-time source of income. You can read all about it in her autobiography which is only one of among a few Poker books she has authored with the others being instructional books.
Owners and Executives
While the female professional poker players on this list have no doubt accomplished a great deal, it can reasonably be argued that, at least in recent decades, there is no fundamental handicap for a female poker player as compared to a male….there are simply fewer of them. In other words, Poker is not a game that relies on biological attributes such as strength or speed, which, while this may not be a popular opinion, is why there tend to be different sports divisions for men and women.
The upper echelons of casino employees, whether they be owners or executives is a whole different dynamic altogether. The determination and tenacity required to ascend the ranks of the casino industry are especially pronounced in women who have done so, as they have been in any other industry, but even more so as the casino industry has been dominated by males to an even greater extent than others.
With that, let's take a look at some of the most successful women on the business side of casinos:
Judy Bayley might not be a household name to many outside of Las Vegas, but the residents have largely heard of the Judy Bayley theater which UNLV named after her. Born Judith Florence Balk, the, 'First Lady of Gambling,' married Warren 'Doc' Bayley and together, they opened the Hacienda in 1956.
Located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the Hacienda originally opened as a hotel without a casino, and so the couple was forced to add a number of other activities to the property so that it would remain solvent until a casino license could be obtained. Among these ideas was the fact that the Hacienda was the first hotel to offer helicopter tours of the Hoover Dam.
The Hacienda was equally creative in its Marketing and offerings when it did finally obtain its gaming license. At one point, it offered $10 in casino chips with the purchase of an $18 hotel room thereby attracting its visitors to the casino in order to use their chips.
After the death of her husband, she became the chairwoman of Casino Operations Inc., the company which operated the gaming aspect of the Hacienda, and she actually had an uphill battle on her hands as it turned out that her husband was no stranger to the other casinos in town (only, this time as a gambler) and he had a number of other casinos debts which rendered the Hacienda in unenviable financial condition upon his passing.
Among other ideas, she enabled the Hacienda to be the first casino to bring Live Keno to the Strip as it was largely a form of gambling, to that point, to be relegated to Downtown. While Live Keno is not currently as popular as it once was, at the time (the mid-60's) this represented a major development and proved to be quite the attraction for players.
Mandalay Bay (an MGM property) currently stands in the spot that was previously occupied by the Hacienda and is the southernmost property on the main drag of the Las Vegas Strip. If not for her successful implementation of Keno in the mid-60's, it is possible that the Hacienda would not have survived.
More than anything, though, Judy Bayley was known as a civic activist and philanthropist who had endeared herself to the resident of Las Vegas and was known affectionately as, 'Our Judy.' When it comes to activism and philanthropy, there was almost no aspect of Las Vegas in which she wasn't waist-deep whether organizing events or getting donations (as well as donating herself) to various causes.
The Hacienda was sold shortly after Judy Bayley's death (1971) in 1972, however, the foundation has been built for a successful casino that, through various ownership entities, remained in operation until 1996.
Claudine Williams has an amazing history in the realm of gambling as she was not only the first female to accomplish a great many things, but also the youngest (or among the youngest) people to do the same. She was born in Louisiana in 1921 and began working at only twelve years old to later become an employee at a gambling establishment at only the age of fifteen!
However, Claudine Williams was not satisfied with merely being an employee at a gambling establishment and worked tirelessly to learn everything that she could about the industry. Given the time at which these events occurred, it can be rightfully said that Claudine Williams was one of the first women determined to break through the Glass Ceiling, and she did when, at the age of twenty, she opened an after-hours gambling club with another woman.
During this time, she met and worked with an individual named Shelby Williams, who she would go on to marry in 1950. Eventually, they took themselves to Las Vegas and bought the Silver Slipper Casino in 1964 which they developed and ran until 1969 at which point they sold the property to none other than Howard Hughes. They decided to focus on a new venture and built the Holiday Casino, across from the Caesar's Casino, in 1973. While Judy Bayley stayed mostly behind-the-scenes at the Hacienda until her husband's death, both publicly and privately, Shelby and Claudine Williams were true partners sharing in every aspect of the operations at all of the properties that they owned over the years.
After the death of Shelby Williams, Claudine immediately assumed the mantle of President and General Manager in 1977 making her the first woman to do so. She eventually sold all of her interest in the property to the Holiday Inn Corporation and became the Chair of the Board of Directors. Not satisfied with being the first truly successful female chair of a casino, she eventually expanded her horizons and helped create the American Bank of Commerce, her chairmanship of such making her the first female chairperson of a bank.
Much like Judy Bayley, she was known as a Philanthropist and activist and accomplished a great many charitable acts in and around Las Vegas, perhaps most notably, she worked extensively with UNLV.
Claudine Williams is also the first woman to be honored by being placed in the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame.
Jan Jones Blackhurst
A more recent (2014) inductee into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame, Jan Jones Blackhurst is a former two-term Mayor of Las Vegas during which time Las Vegas was denoted as the #1 city in America for Entrepreneurs as named by Inc. magazine and was the fastest growing city in the nation during such time.
She also served as Chairwoman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority as well as having served on the Nevada Resorts Association as director. She now serves as an Executive Vice President for Caesars Entertainment Corporation.
Far above just taking care of herself, Jan Jones Blackhurst spends a great deal of her time championing LGBT issues, environmental issues and is one of the better-known proponents of equal pay for equal work for women. She was the first woman to ever be elected Mayor of Las Vegas.
Patricia Becker's claim to fame comes in the Regulatory capacity as she is the first woman to have ever served on the Nevada Gaming Control Board. However, she has taken the knowledge and skills gained in that position and has also applied it to working for casino companies as she has been Chairperson of the Compliance Committee at Bally Technologies as well as Tropicana Resorts. Patricia Becker also had a number of other Executive-Level roles as various other casino and gaming companies.
She is also the President of Patricia Becker and Associates which is a company that specializes in Gaming Consulting with a focus on Compliance and Regulatory issues. She also serves on the International Association of Gaming Advisors (IAGA) as a counselor.
Naturally, this list would not be anywhere near appropriate without mention of a woman who is perhaps the most well-known of female gambling Executives, Elaine Wynn. Also an inductee in the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame, Elaine Wynn is known as the wife of Steve Wynn and together they formed a partnership that would go on to become one of the most successful casino companies anywhere in the world.
Having moved to Vegas in 1967, her and her husband assumed control of the Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas and, in 1989, the company became known as Mirage Resorts. The duo built the Golden Nugget's in both Atlantic City, New Jersey and Laughlin, Nevada as well as the Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip.
Their company later purchased the Desert Inn Casino in 2001 and would go on to develop their namesake, the Wynn on the same site which opened in 2005. They would later go on to build and open the Encore Las Vegas (Wynn's sister property) as well as Wynn Macau.
Much like her predecessors on this list, Elaine Wynn has done extensive philanthropic work in and around Las Vegas and is also well known for same.
Elaine Wynn is currently in a protracted legal battle with now-former (for the second time) husband Steve Wynn to gain control of her Wynn Gaming Stock. She was unceremoniously discharged from her position within the company and is now engaged in every effort to gain control of her shares of the stock, Steve Wynn, in fact, still controls his former wife's stock with respect to voting rights within the company.
Professional Poker is not the only form of active gambling in which there has been a rise of successful women, there have also been successful female card-counters and tournament Blackjack players, as well. Much like Poker, Blackjack has long been considered a game that is dominated by men, but there are many women who have changed that over the course of the last several years.
Interestingly, Alice Walker hails from Houston, Texas, a state in which there are no legal Commercial Casinos. That did nothing to stop her from becoming the first woman to win the World Series of Blackjack Tournament back in 2007. This tournament was developed by the GCN and consisted of the best Blackjack Tournament players in the world.
However, while Blackjack might be Alice Walker's best known claim to fame, she has excelled in other forms of Table Games Tournaments as she has also won the Three-Card Poker Tournament. In fact, she won both of those Tournaments back-to-back and continues to excel in other Table Games tournaments that are not televised. She has been playing Blackjack since the age of thirteen.
Even though Blackjack has long been considered the domain of men, Eleanor DuMont broke through the glass ceiling before the term, 'Glass Ceiling,' even existed. Born in France, DuMont was an expert at Blackjack's predecessor Vingt-Et-Un and would later move to Nevada City, California to establish a saloon that shared the name of the game in which she would dish out free champagne to players. She was nominated for the Blackjack Hall of Fame, at one point, but did not secure enough votes to gain her entry.
Cathy 'Cat' Hulbert
Cathy Hulbert is regarded by some as the greatest female gambler to ever live and made her early fortune playing Blackjack in Europe. She was not always successful, however, as she moved to Las Vegas with a dream of becoming a professional Blackjack player, but ended up dealing Blackjack, instead, just to make ends meet.
A well-educated and intelligent woman, Cathy Hulbert would, while dealing, go on to meet a player who consistently bested the house and got herself into his good graces. This man would teach her the principles of counting cards, and once she learned that, Cathy Hulbert would never look back.
Upon returning from Europe, she became a member of Ken Uston's notorious card-counting team, however, while successful and lucrative, it got her banned from well over one-hundred casinos and arrested nearly fifty times. She doesn't play Blackjack anymore, but is still an active Poker player.
The Future of Women in Gambling
One thing we can take away from this list of successful women in the world of gambling is that gambling is an industry (whether as an owner or a player) in which women were underestimated, and perhaps even excluded, and had to fight for everything they got. This is true not only in gambling, but also in other industries, but fortunately, there is a greater level of gender equality now than there was at one time even though we are still not where we should be in that regard.
At this time, though, it seems that women definitely have a better opportunity, assuming that they take an interest in gambling, to rise through the ranks in any aspect of gambling than they could before. Even for some of the pioneers of women's gambling, much of their successes came about, at least in part, due to the fact that they married a man who would go on to purchase a casino. In one of the aforementioned cases, in fact, the woman in question did not even have much to do with the operations of the casino (the Hacienda) until after her husband's death.
These days, women have the ability to get into any industry they want to provided they have the requisite education and experience required, and some of the more recent examples of well-known women in gambling, those who undoubtedly made their own way, are a testament to that fact.
Furthermore, there is a litany of information available on the Internet, including sites such as this one, for anyone (men or women) who wish to become more knowledgeable about gambling. There is a question, though, of whether or not the interest is there as one can take a look at our companion Message Boards, WizardofVegas.com, and will notice pretty quickly that it is made up of mostly men. Even with that, though, the information is out there for any woman who desires to learn more about gambling and to enjoy success in one facet of gambling or another.
Personally, I do not see much in the way of a woman who is determined to become successful in one aspect of gambling or another, as a player or otherwise, however, it does seem that there is a disparity in the interest levels of men and women, and this is particularly true in the realm of Table Games and Poker. Furthermore, the vast majority of Advantage Players that I know are also male, although, many work with their girlfriends or significant others in many ways. Once again, I think Advantage Play is something that a woman could learn how to do successfully in the event that she has the interest.
In fact, I would not be at all surprised if many of the individuals in the industry of gambling would continue to underestimate the abilities of women which would potentially open up the door for them to engage in Advantage Play with a somewhat greater degree of impunity than that enjoyed by many male advantage players. For example, if an individual is raising or reducing bets at the Blackjack Table and he is male, then usually the staff (often surveillance) will take a good hard look at him to determine whether or not he is card counting. I believe that it is possible that a woman could enjoy longer sessions at the table before drawing scrutiny, or perhaps, could even engage in, 'Acting,' by playing into whatever preconceived notions she expects the staff to have of her.
Josh Axelrad mentioned this sort of acting in his Autobiography, Repeat Until Rich, when he discussed going to the Blackjack Table as an openly (and flamboyantly) gay character to which extent he said he believed it reduced the suspicions of the staff. Axelrad also had a great many other personas that he would put on in the hopes of reducing his, 'Heat,' levels. I think an excellent idea, for example, would be that a woman could conceivably play the role of a, 'Ditzy Blonde,' who might even go to the table with an act that she hardly knows how to bet correctly, let alone be Counting Cards, Hole-Carding or engaging in any other form of Advantage Play. There are also other acts available to women, as well, for instance, a woman could pretend to be, 'Steaming,' given a recent fight with a significant other and, as a result, is varying her bets dramatically.
That's one example of how a stereotype can be used to one's advantage rather than letting a stereotype bother you and allowing the negative Psychological feelings inherent in being stereotyped serve as a detriment.
When it comes to Poker players, we have already given some details about a few Professional female Poker Players and, again, I think it just comes down to whether or not women end up being more inclined to take an interest in the game. There are many people who would cite the long lists of accolades and championships won by men compared to those won by women, but that is actually a bit of a non-argument considering that so many more Professional Poker Players are men. In any event, there are a bunch of young women (as shown above) that are successful in this realm, and hopefully, there will be many more to follow.
With respect to gambling amongst the General Population, it would seem that as there are as many women that gamble, in general terms, as there are men. Furthermore, there have been multiple studies that indicate that nearly just as many problem gamblers are women as there are men. One thing that is interesting, however, is that studies have noted that men tend to gamble for the excitement while female problem gamblers tend to gamble in order to escape their everyday lives.
Either way, it is difficult to determine whether there will be more Professional Poker Players (or other Advantage Players who are female) in the next decade compared to the number of same in the most recent decade. With that said, however, I think that women are less likely to be scoffed at for wanting to become professionals than there may once have been and there is also a bit of a support for those women as there are other professionals they can look at as having paved the way for them and proving that women can be successful in these sorts of endeavors.
In terms of being an Executive in Gaming, I do not believe that there are as many barriers to entry as there may once have been and that is evidenced, if not so much by more female gambling executives, then just by society at-large in which there are fewer barriers to entry in other industries than there once were. I would suggest that this is true in both the realms of Brick & Mortar Gambling as well as Online Gambling alike, and it is mainly just a matter of having the necessary qualifications for a particular position.
It will be interesting to see if more women get into these various aspects of gambling compared to years past, especially as Commercial Gambling tends to become more widely legalized throughout the United States. In any event, I personally think women are a welcome addition to gambling, as they should be in any other industry, and wish them every possible success in their gambling pursuits. By the way, if you are female and you are reading this and have not joined the WizardofVegas.com Forums yet, please do so because your gender is grossly underrepresented on the Boards!
Written by: Brandon James