Friday, September 24, 2010

Year of the....what?

In March of this year, Vanessa Selbst won the NAPT event at Mohegan Sun and Annie Duke won the NBC Heads Up Poker Championship. In April, Liv Boeree won the EPT San Remo event. On the basis of those three wins, the meme quickly spread in the poker media that 2010 would be "The Year of the Woman."

Here's a partial list of people/entities/blogs/outlets that affirmatively shared in this assertion (i.e., I'm excluding those that simply noted that others were using the phrase, or discussed it with evident skepticism):

Taylor Kent (for the Cake Poker blog)
Bernard Lee (for ESPN)
Ty Stewart (WSOP VP)
Kevin Mathers (Pokerati)
Jennifer Newell (
Wicked Chops Poker
Ruff Poker (unsigned article)
Trishelle Cannatella (Absolute Poker blog)
Dr. Pauly (Tao of Poker blog)

Please note that (1) this is a woefully partial and completely arbitrary list, made mostly of the ones that popped up most obviously in a Google search, or links from those, and (2) I'm not implying any criticism for use of the phrase.

But now let's note what else has happened this year: David Williams won the WPT Championship in April. LeRon Washington won the WPT Invitational in February. Phil Ivey won his eighth bracelet at the WSOP in June. And last night, Dwyte Pilgrim won the WPT Borgata Open. What do these four men have in common? They're all black.

So if three women winning major poker tournaments in one year makes it "The Year of the Woman," surely four blacks winning major poker tournaments in one year makes it "The Year of the Black." Right?

Of course, when Ivey won his bracelet, that already made three for the year--the same as the number of women winners, and that didn't result in any chorus of "The Year of the Black." So I'm guessing that adding a fourth to the roster won't, either.

But why not? Being black has every bit as much to do with being a good poker player--or being unable to be a good poker player--as being a woman does: They're equally irrelevant factors.

So why do people like Duke and Jennifer Harman and Kathy Liebert have to wrestle with the qualified compliment of being said to be among the best female poker players, while nobody speaks of Ivey as being among the best black poker players?

Why do so many pay close attention and write news stories and give interviews to the "last woman standing" in the WSOP Main Event, while nobody (except me) calls attention to the "last black standing"?

Why do so many poker tournament series have a women-only event, but none have a blacks-only event?

And, again, why will so many readily blog/publish about "The Year of the Woman," while, if my prediction is correct, none of the same individuals or corporate entities will make a peep about "The Year of the Black," even though there is objectively a stronger case to be made for the latter than for the former?

There's only one reason I can think of, and it ties all of these things together: Because if you modify the phrase "among the best poker players" with the additional term "black," if you watch to see who is the "last black standing," if you sponsor a blacks-only tournament, or if you call attention to the "Year of the Black," you imply that there's something special, something remarkable about a black person playing poker well. And that, in turn, would imply that blacks are somehow inherently inferior at poker. It comes close to echoing that famous phrase about a performing poodle walking on its hind legs--what's remarkable is not that whether he can do it well, but that he can do it at all.

Everybody instinctively senses that that would be the implication of making any noise at all about race when a member of a minority wins a poker tournament. Furthermore, they know that saying or suggesting that blacks are intrinsically inferior at poker is neither politically nor factually correct. So nothing is said of it.

But obviously, many people have no similar qualms about the same implication as it pertains to women. That is, they see nothing amiss about commenting on how remarkable it is that a woman wins a poker tournament. In order to do that, I think, you have to buy into the premise--consciously or unconsciously--that women can't really be expected to win poker tournaments because they are inherently inferior at the game, and therefore it is newsworthy when it happens.

Here's my challenge to those listed above, as well as everybody else who echoed, adopted, and otherwise approved of "The Year of the Woman" thing: Put up a post or story or essay of equal prominence declaring this to be "The Year of the Black"--or, alternatively, explain why you won't, why you think the former is perfectly OK but the latter unacceptable.

I'll be watching.


NumbBono said...

Interesting thoughts, I have no comment though, as I'd hate to offend the female poker playing population, or the brothers that play poker.

You can't tell me this is the first time you've noticed this idiosyncrasy in today's society?

On a different note, I'll be in LV for two weeks starting on the 1st, I'd love to meet you, and maybe any other poker bloggers that are there that I haven't met yet.

Jennifer said...

First, I'd like to take issue with my placement in a list of people who affirmatively used the "Year of the Woman" phrase. The one and only time I used the phrase was in the He Said/She Said article to which you linked, and my entire point was that I disliked the phrase, as it brought into the public discourse by MEN, not women, and it applied undue pressure to women. Though I discuss some successes by women in the article, I hoped to relay the message that the "Year of the Woman" talk was unfair and somewhat distasteful. But if you thought that I was loving the "Year of the Woman," I clearly didn't do a good job of relaying my message.

Second, your use of the term "the Black" shows that you might be a little out of touch with the race of which you speak. I've never heard of anyone, especially a black person, call herself or himself "a black." "A black person," yes. But saying anything about "the black" is like referring to "the gay." It sounds as if you're calling that person a name instead of referring to a quality of that person.

Third, I actually think it should be discussed in written form that black people are winning tournaments, as they are a minority - as are women - in most poker tournament fields. I've long noticed that black people make up a disproportionately small portion of any tournament field, and I've wanted to discuss it, but none of the clients for whom I wrote felt that it was appropriate. I probably should have written about it when I had the chance at Pokerati because no one else thinks it's appropriate.

For you to say that anyone who wrote about the "Year of the Woman" because women are "inherently inferior at the game," thus making it a newsworthy item, is simply an erroneous conclusion, though. People write about a woman winning a poker tournament because the odds of a woman winning are low due to the disproportionately low number of them in the field. Same with black people. If a 90-year old man won a poker tournament, that would be a feat as well because most players are not in that age range. When an 18-year old player wins a poker tournament in Europe, it's discussed because of the remarkably young age at which the player competed in a field of predominantly older players. It's simply an acknowledgment of the extraordinary, something that doesn't happen often, something that deserves a bit of attention. So yes, when a woman wins a tournament, that is noteworthy, and when it happens several times in one year that women take down major titles, that is significant. My issue with the "Year of the Woman" title was that it made too much of it, which was the point of my article on the topic. But to acknowledge when a minority in any field does something spectacular, that is certainly newsworthy.

unaha-closp said...

Poker would benefit with such headlines if they attract a higher proportion of women to the tables.

Poker sites with stories about poker and women cater to two of the biggest interests of us average poker players.

Cardgrrl said...

Hey, Pauly was touting the prospective "Year of the Brits," and I don't think there was any suggestion that it would somehow be like a dancing pig if Britons did especially well.

I think women are generally a smaller percentage of the field in any poker event than people of color. Women's proportionately tiny representation makes any major success they have that much more noteworthy. Also, it is in the interest of most poker enterprises to try to expand their potential customer base by bringing in more women, and there's some notion that seeing women succeed at the highest levels will be more likely to do that.

edgie212 said...

Year of the African-American, please.

Brian said...

I actually agree with you that the whole Year of the Woman thing seems silly. I have played with Jen Harman and Vanessa Selbst in the WSOP and they were clearly the best players at the tables. Period.

And all the nitpicking about specific words used is tiresome. It's not as though he used some derogatory term to describe someones race. Is it the current politically correct term. No. But I find it hard to believe any offense was intended. The only people that seem to be offended by some of these terms are middle aged white people.

Rakewell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rakewell said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'll see if I can be as thoughtful in reply.

1. This is the part of your essay that sounded to me like approbation of the phrase in question: "Hopefully, the “Year of the Woman” mantra will inspire women in 2010. It would be wonderful to see females sign up in droves for online poker accounts and win their way into the Main Event in high numbers.... I, for one, will be in your cheering section." But if I'm reading into that more endorsement of the meme than was intended, I'll take your word on it.

2. I was well aware that my usage was a little awkward. "Blacks" as a plural noun is common and, as far as I can tell, inoffensive. "Black" as a singular noun (as opposed to an adjective) is admittedly much less common. It's not so much that I'm out of touch (though it would hardly be the first time), as that I deliberately chose stylistic parallel with "woman" over social convention, for the purpose of making my point.

3. Interesting. I wish I could interview the bosses you write for and pin them down on why they think it's fine to make a point of a player's sex, but not race, when somebody other than a white male wins a major event. Why is one newsworthy but not the other?

4. When I mentally outlined my post, I originally intended to address this objection in anticipation of it coming, but then somehow forgot about it along the path to composition.

I don't believe it is accurate to say that it's just the statistical unusualness of it that makes for headlines and extra comment when a woman takes a major title. And the reason I conclude that is exactly because the same kind of comments are not made about racial minorities similarly situated.

In the larger world, when some breakthrough is first achieved by somebody other than a white male (e.g., Supreme Court justice, astronaut, Nobel Prize, or whatever), media outlets are just as likely to make note of the fact that the person in question is black as that she is female. You can therefore make a plausible argument that it is just the historical rarity that is being noted, with no underlying assumption about whether we should be impressed that women or blacks are capable of such accomplisments.

But I think the lack of parallelism in poker commentary torpedoes that claim in our little world. I clearly remember when J.J. Liu and Kathy Liebert and Maureen Feduniak made final tables of early-season WPT events, and Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten just would not shut up about there being a "lady" making that deep a run. But Phil Ivey and Paul Darden and David Williams did the same. Heck, Darden WON a WPT event that first season, and Ivey and Williams shared a final table in season 3--all without a word being said about their race.

That discrepancy, I believe, is inexplicable except for the mechanism I described in the post: At some level, people such as the WPT commentary team realize that crowing about how unusual it is would sound like a suggestion that blacks can't really be expected to perform well in poker. So why don't they have the same compunction about making much of women in the same situation? Because they see nothing out of line with the implied suggestion that women can't be expected to do well in poker.

If there is another plausible explanation for why one category is treated so vastly differently than the other, I'd be happy to hear it. But I honestly can't think of any, which is why the whole subject troubles me.

Rakewell said...

For some reason, my reply to Jennifer got posted 3 times. I deleted 2 of them.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post Rockwell. I am of the same ilk as you. I am so tired of all the "names" and "titles" that society or the media feels the need to do. I would be insulted if for some reasom people labeled me the best German-American worker I have. How stupid this country has become

Anonymous said...

Good article. For years, it's bothered me when the media refers to someone as "the first Asian to...", "the first African-American to...", "the first woman to..." etc. I thought we were supposed to be moving away from pointing out people's race/gender. I understand (I think) why it's show others of that particular ilk that anything is possible, but to me, it just separates people into gender and/or race. Why point that out? You're still separating people by race/gender.

Jennifer said...

Perhaps I was harsh in my response. I did write it during a bout of sleeplessness…

I’ll address #2 first by saying that I do understand why you used the word “Black” the way you did. I’ve just heard it used similarly on other occasions (by other people), and it bugs the begeezus out of me. I know that you used it to make a point.

As for my column, you’re right that I said I hoped it would inspire women in 2010, but it was only because the phrase “Year of the Woman” was already being used - even by those running the WSOP - and there was nothing to discourage that term by the time I wrote about it. Therefore, I hoped that it would inspire rather than put pressure on the women toward which it was aimed, like Obrestad. My overall message in the article, though, was that it was a phrase coined by men and intimidating for women, but I admit that I may not have been very clear on that point.

Those who run “news” websites in poker do not want to touch the race issue. They’ll discuss women in poker to a certain extent, but that gives them excuses to post pictures of “hot chicks.” To address the race issue opens another bag of worms with more sensitivities and potential outrage. And out of the people I’ve spoken to on a personal level, most don’t see it as a problem that African Americans are a minority in the poker community and didn’t even notice until I mentioned it. I mean, poker has Phil Ivey! He’s black!

Why do the poker media single out women who perform well in poker when they don’t do the same for black people? I can’t answer that. I do not agree that the implied suggestion is that women aren’t expected to do well in poker, but I can’t fully discount your assertion there because there is more than a fair amount of overt sexism in this industry, whereas the racism is not nearly as rampant. But I do feel that the race issue is more sensitive. When a woman wins a tournament and everyone exclaims, “A woman did it!” there are celebrations. However, if anyone exclaimed the same about a black person winning a poker tournament, it would shine the spotlight on how few black people actually play the big buy-in tournaments and bring up the issue of race, an issue that absolutely terrifies many people when faced with discussing it. Say the wrong word and you’re labeled a racist; that’s the fear.

Rakewell said...

I found nothing harsh in your comments, then or now. I appreciate the clarifications and follow-up thoughts.

astrobel said...


1. Most women are expected to suck at poker.

2. Most over 35s are expected to suck at poker.

3. There's not such a thing regarding race.

Points 1 and 2, yep, it's sad that many people think that way but I really think that the immense majority of players DO.

michalski said...

great post. and nice notice. i didn't catch it because i guess i am colorblind, lol. i personally would love to live in a world where race-based tournaments were acceptable .... and then a final sit-n-go with the black champion vs. the asian champion vs. the arab champion, etc.

semi-interestingly, i appeared on a black-focussed sports podcast in july '09 ("the black whole") to talk about phil ivey. there's an interesting stat that of all the black bracelet winners they are underrepresented by results overall, but have a disproportionately high percentage of wins in 7-stud events. We coudn't really figure out why that is. the guys on the show (all black) guessed it was simply generational ... that the "kids" playing now are playing texas hold'em, but they weren't back in the day. something like that.