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Best of Clare Fitzgerald

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Top 10 observations from joining a women's poker group

27 June 2016

Somewhere around New Year's resolutions-making time, I decided that one of my projects for 2016 would be to start playing poker. It's difficult to properly edit poker content without a good grasp of the game, so this project is definitely for serious career development reasons and not at all because I am a big nerd who loves tabletop games.

I've tried to cajole my friends into playing with me, but it's been difficult to get games going with any sort of regularity, as most of my friends are pretty busy with their existing gaming schedules. So I did what anybody my age would do when faced with any problem whatsoever: I took to the Internet.

Meetup.com has saved my social life on more than one occasion, so that was my first stop to look for low-stakes/beginner-friendly poker groups in the Boston area. It turns out that there are quite a few. I was open to joining a mixed-gender group — I've spent plenty of time playing games in mixed and male-dominated environments before — but, I admit, it was for exactly that reason that I was thrilled to stumble upon a women's-only group specifically geared toward "encourag[ing] more beginners to play in a low-pressure, non-casino environment."

The group only started having regular games in April, and we've had 10 so far. I've attended all of them. While this hasn't been nearly enough practice for me to yet be anything other than a laughably bad player (more on this later), it's still been quite educational. Here are 10 of my assorted impressions, opinions and things I've learned since joining the group:

Is this normal? Do other people do this? I have no idea but I find it delightful.

Is this normal? Do other people do this? I have no idea but I find it delightful.

10. Making a living dealing poker out of your living room is a real thing you can do

I knew that there are home games and there are casino games, and there are sketchy underground games run by Oreos-eating Russian mobsters, but what I did not know until I met our hostess was that it's legal to run a private poker club out of your living room as long as you don't take rake.

The woman who hosts our group used to play professionally, but quit because she disliked the casino environment and because it's a giant pain to get down to the Connecticut casinos from Boston if you don't have a car. Now she makes her living by dealing games out of her condo in Cambridge for tips. Apparently it's good money, because she has a condo in Cambridge.

We found this out when we showed up expecting a kitchen-table game and instead discovered an eight-handed poker table that takes up a third of the apartment, a personalized chip set, and a list of house rules posted up over the toilet to make sure the guys in the regular games see it.

I have no real sense of how normal it is to do any of these things, but I may be spoiled for home games for life.

9. Finding enough women to play is hard . . .

According to Meetup, the group was in existence for nearly a year before we hit the 50 members our hostess figured was sufficient to start actually meeting up. We're up to nearly 70, and most of them we've never seen or heard from. Many of the games have not been full, and there's rarely a waitlist.

Some of this, I think, is a difference in what counts as planning for poker players and what counts as planning for your average American adult woman. The games are posted with between one week's and two hours' notice. I and nearly every other woman I know are regularly filling our calendars weeks or months in advance.

As a result, we have on occasion had to bend the ladies-only rule a little bit and invite guys from the other games to join us. One of our regular players' husband has nearly become a regular himself, showing up every time we're short-handed on short notice, or playing the later half of the night when someone else has to leave early.

8. . . . but once they show up, they keep coming back.

So far, our retention rate has been excellent, especially for a Meetup group. We established a core handful of regulars right off the bat — some more experienced players, some complete newbies — and it's been slowly expanding. We've stopped having to invite boys to games scheduled with more than 24 hours' notice. There's one other woman besides me who has never missed a game; we have bet on which of us is going to miss one first.

Since most of us lead pretty full lives outside of poker, attending games can require some advanced schedule Tetris. Games have been split into early shift and late shift to accommodate people driving in from other states, usually trading off a seat with someone who has plans at 5 a.m. the next morning. I've personally hightailed it to games 1) directly after a daylong conference in Connecticut, a 3-hour drive away; 2) in the middle of a party after getting the phone notification less than an hour before the game started; and 3) straight from a casino.

There's one lady who has me beat, though, because she came right from getting off a plane after a weeklong vacation. She had never played a hand of poker before joining the group.

7. There's a range of experience, attitude and adaptability

While the group is geared toward beginners, there are several people in it who have been playing for years. There are other people in it who have never played at all, necessitating a couple of example hands before the game where our hostess teaches them the rules. We've got a couple nerds who are actively try to learn about strategy, reading articles or listening to podcasts in our spare time; a couple people who are having fun just doing their best when they're playing but aren't dedicated to studying; and one lady who cares so little if she wins or loses that she sometimes doesn't look at her cards.

I like observing the brand new players because I like seeing how quickly their game changes away from what seems to be the default I-have-no-idea-what's-going-on playing style of "call everything and see what happens." Younger players do seem to adapt faster, either following the general trends of the table or possibly just getting bored with limping every hand faster. Some of this might be because the group as a whole skews late 20s/early 30s (whether this has more to do with the demographics of poker or the demographics of Boston, I can't tell), so new people within that age range may be the most likely to mirror the rest of the group's behavior to fit in. The older women in the group aren't going to start doing stuff just because a bunch of twentysomethings are doing it.

Of course, I also like observing the more experienced players because they're the ones I'm going to learn the most from. Also, they usually have all my money, and I know I have to watch them very closely if I want to have any hope of getting it back.

6. The boys assume we're going to spend the whole time making fun of them . . .

A lot of the women in the group have husbands or boyfriends who play, many of whom know our hostess and play in her regular games. Some of them are apparently very concerned that we're going to trash-talk them when they're not there to defend themselves. One guy even showed up last weekend to "observe," a process that largely entailed watching WPT Alpha8, loaning his girlfriend money for rebuys, and looking startled every time we started laughing. The guy is a former online semipro and casino dealer. The girlfriend is one of our newest members and had never played before she joined the group. Chill, dude, we should be worried that you're going to make fun of us.

Granted, those who know the guys do a little bit of poking fun at them, mostly because if someone says that then you're sort of obligated to. And our hostess does comment on some of the differences in behavior she sees between the women's game and the regular games, which functionally constitutes making fun of them.

5. . . . but mostly we talk about takeout instead.

By far, the most common non-poker topic of discussion at the table concerns the Boston/Cambridge area's stellar selection of takeout options. There are a lot of them. Many of them are cheap. The good cheap takeout places may be the only cheap things left in the entire Boston area. Other takeout places have gotten expensive and trendy — one game I ended up getting talked into buying a $14 fried rice hipstered up with grilled pears. It was delicious.

Despite the varied richness of Boston's takeout scene and the high degree of takeout-foodieism among our members, we almost always end up ordering from the same dumpling place next door to the condo building, even though it often takes them upward of an hour to deliver. The food is that good.

Anyway, if you were expecting something salacious or controversial, sorry to disappoint. And if you're ever in Boston and need takeout recommendations, I have several.

4. Ladies love no-limit

I don't really want to get super political in this post, but there's a few things I've seen cross my desk/timeline since I had to start following the gossipy world of Poker Twitter that I wanted to address: Whatever the answer to the "Why don't more women play poker in general/NLHE specifically" question is, the problem does not lie in the rules or structure of the game of no-limit Hold'em.

Our group plays exclusively no-limit Hold'em cash games at $0.25/$0.50 blinds, which at an average buy-in of $40 seems to be little enough money that people can afford to lose it but still enough money to make people pay attention and give them an active interest in trying to hang on to at least some of it. Nobody has complained about the rules. Nobody has stopped playing when they realized that getting better will eventually involve math. Some people take a while to get a handle on all the vocabulary, but this tends to be true of any new hobby. Nobody wants capped betting — the people who are playing aggressively are doing it because they want to play aggressively, and the players who aren't ready to play that aggressively learn to fold and enjoy watching the action, because it's enormously entertaining to see how far things escalate.

Whatever is going on over in casinos — I haven't yet played in one, because nobody has yet made it sound like a good use of my time — the problem is not that women don't like no-limit. Everyone who has shown up to play it has liked it, including the ones who have joined us without knowing what no-limit Hold'em even was because they'd just searched "card games" on Meetup and figured they'd try something new.

Personally, I think casinos could stand to find a way to offer games at lower stakes to appeal to beginners, but that's probably a whole other political discussion about the Disappearing Middle Class and disposable income that I also don't want to have in this post.

3. Editor-brain is not poker-player-brain

There's a thing I've done on occasion where I'll pick a new interest precisely because it's different than other stuff I've been doing lately and I want to exercise different parts of my mind and be all well-rounded and stuff, and then I'll be floored at how hard it is because, like most people, I like to consider myself a relatively intelligent person. Anyway, I figured poker would be good for general mental skill-building because it's so multifaceted — and I hope it will someday, but for right now, mostly just my ego is being trained to live with the fact that I am a shockingly bad poker player.

Editorial and writing work has left me woefully unprepared for the no-takebacks nature of poker. In addition to the things I was actually anticipating — like that learning the math will be hard because I haven't done math in 10 years — I'm finding myself embarrassingly challenged by some of the types of thinking required and how to apply them.

I'm used to going over all "thinking work" multiple times. Copy editing usually consists of multiple passes of a text, with different focuses for each pass — at absolute minimum, I do a main pass and then read the piece over a second time to see if it's clean. Media criticism usually means reading or watching a piece all the way through once, and then going back and double-checking the bits you specifically want to talk about. Writing, of course, always requires as much editing and revising as you can squeeze in before deadline.

Basically, I've gotten used to living my entire life under the assumption that the first draft is always crap, and I can go back and fix the mistakes later. Honestly, it's amazing I can do anything with real-time consequences at all, like drive a car. And even then, I always manage to take at least one wrong turn.

In poker, once you make a mistake, you've made it and you have to live with it. It's like if you took a wrong turn driving and now you just have to drive to somewhere else instead. It's like publishing a first draft of something — in print. You can't correct your mistakes. All you can do is try not to make them again the next time, which is not even how I usually deal with mistakes — usually I put them on the editing checklist and do an additional pass to make sure I catch them and change them.

Working in editing and criticism does mean that I am, in general, pretty good at noticing mistakes, and as I learn what mistakes are in poker, I have been making progress in identifying ones that myself and other players have made. Sometimes I'm able to notice a mistake as I am making it instead of afterward; on a good day, I can notice some of my own mistakes before I've even made them — but then I go ahead and make them anyway.

I'm also having some trouble with the fact that most of the things I have to pay attention to at the table are not text-based, and that I have to actually store information in my memory instead of on paper. It's been years since I have needed to remember anything except where to look up the information that I need. The result of this is that I can read a poker book, understand everything in it, and when I'm done reading, I can . . . visualize the exact spot on my bookshelf where the book is sitting.

2. We're relentlessly polite

I don't mean that we act at all formal and ladylike, because we don't, but we try to be good guests considering our hostess is giving her address out to a bunch of strangers on Meetup and she doesn't even get to play. For example, everyone brings snacks or drinks, not because the invitation says to — it specifically says snacks and drinks are provided — but because it's rude to show up to someone's house empty-handed. The boys, apparently, don't do this. They also have to pay for the snacks our hostess provides, whereas the women's game doesn't, and I'm not sure if they don't bring snacks because she sells them or if she charges them because they don't bring any.

The women's game is not part of her business, so we're not expected to tip. The outcome of this is that we don't tip as much as if we were at a card room or at one of her regular games. After much insistent protest on all sides, she's stopped arguing when we tip her out of larger pots or don't take back the full amount when we cash out at the end of the night. It took several weeks to get to this point.

There's also been more than one occasion where someone has busted and another player has just slid them a dollar or two in chips to keep them playing. This generally only happens a) later on in the night, when the player would otherwise definitely have just gone home instead of rebuying, b) the player being charitable both has a large stack and is the one who busted the other girl, and c) when the table is short-handed already. It might run against the entire point of playing poker, but it's nice to keep people included.

1. It's monstrously fun

I feel like this point should be a given, but perhaps it isn't. In my days helping run a board game club, I've seen many examples of nerds getting so deep into a game that they're not even enjoying themselves anymore; usually, that's when they stop being enjoyable to play with, as well. In a lot of the coverage I see and work with here at Casino City, poker is a very serious business — a complex knot of legal, regulatory and economic issues where the interests of various groups of people all trying to make their livings regularly come into conflict. The word "grinder" exists, which sounds like the least fun thing ever. Part of the fight (it has not yet risen to the level of debate) over women playing poker seems to involve an actual disagreement over whether or not it is reasonable to expect us to play if playing is going to be a completely miserable experience.

So I'm happy to report that sidestepping all the institutional dysfunction, leaving just the game itself and a bunch of strangers from the Internet, is one of the best decisions I've made about how to spend my leisure time in several years. It's been wonderful to get proper instruction on the game and its etiquette from someone who knows what she's talking about, and to hear her stories from her time as a pro player. We all have the freedom to be as bad as we can afford to be until we decide to do something to get better, and to learn at our own pace without anyone making us feel stupid. Everyone I've met has been super friendly, and it's interesting to hear the variety of stories behind people's decisions to join the group.

I don't know how long this group is going to run or if it's going to get bigger or if I'll ever stop being terrible at poker, but I plan to keep attending every game I can make indefinitely. I'm having too much fun to consider doing otherwise.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.