Absolutely everything that is bewildering, magnificent, exciting, appalling, and thrilling about the contemporary poker scene was on full display in the 2011 World Series of Poker Ladies No-Limit Hold’em World Championship, which concluded today at the Rio in Las Vegas.
Let’s go through the entire gambit of adjectives, shall we?
The Ladies World Poker Championship is much more than just a poker tournament. It’s a celebration of women in the game of poker. The WSOP brings together more women than any other poker event or attraction in the world.
Yet, even though millions of women all over the globe now play poker, the odd fact remains that men continue to dominate tournament poker -- and the WSOP in particular -- in terms of sheer participation.
According to the most recent estimate, women make up about 4 percent of all open tournament fields at this year’s WSOP. That’s a bewildering statistic, since women make up slightly more than half of the general population. The percentage of women in most cardrooms is certainly much higher that just 4 percent. There are many reasons fewer women than men play in major poker tournaments, and we’ll leave for others to debate and try and explain this complex issue. But the one thing just about everyone agrees on is more effort needs to be made to attract more women into the game.
The WSOP has been doing its share to support women in poker for the past 34 years. In fact, the WSOP hosted the very first ladies poker event in history. What later became known as the Ladies World Poker Championship, debuted in 1977. The competition has been an annual fixture on the official schedule ever since.
It’s been 34 years since that memorable moment in our poker history. Sadly, through the years, many female champions and pioneers of the game have been forgotten.
And so, July 1, 2011 officially became “Women’s Day.” The WSOP rolled out the red carpet for all ladies for the first-ever Women’s Parade of Poker Champions.
Prior to the start to the three-day tournament, Women in Poker Hall of Fame inductee Jan Fisher emceed a highly-anticipated parade of former female WSOP bracelet winners in front of more than a thousand other ladies in the audience who were eager to show their reverence to all those who came before them and blazed a bold new path for all women in the game, including various times in history when things were not always so easy for women in poker.
One by one, 16 former champions were introduced. Most of these gold bracelet winners had never received any public recognition before. There were a lot of smiles and cheers. There were also more than a few hugs and tears.
Vanessa Hellebuyuk, the defending champion from last year’s Ladies Championship was the first player introduced to the cheering audience. She was followed onto the stage by Marsha Waggoner, Vanessa Selbst, Jennifer Harman, Svetlana Gromenkova, May Jones, Jennifer Tilly, Cyndy Violette, Maria Stern, Linda Johnson, Susie Isaacs, Barbara Enright, Karen Wolfson, June Field, and finally -- Deby Callihan, the 1980 Ladies Poker Champion.
The final portrait was the most accomplished collection of women in poker ever assembled.
The WSOP hopes to make this an annual tradition.
This year’s Ladies No-Limit Hold’em World Championship began with 1,055 entrants. Over three days, the field was gradually reduced until players reached the money during the middle of Day Two. The top 117 finishers were paid. By the start of Day Three, only 15 players remained in contention for the world championship title.
The final table began during a late Sunday afternoon with nine players assembled around a stage that can best be described as a bandbox trying to conceal a tuba. Interestingly, as the number of ladies in the tournament slowly declined one-by-one, interest and excitement in the final outcome began to build.
By the time the final table was reached, the gallery of spectators was packed 10-12 deep around the rail. No one could remember a larger crowd of spectators ever assembled before for any ladies event. There were some highly unusual circumstances why this was so, which do not merit further comment. But when guest announcer and high-stakes pro Kristy Gazes began introducing the nine finalists, it was impossible to see the action due to the enormous crowd size that was close to a mob scene.
One of the nine players assembled around the final table was on the verge of immortality. Their names were as follows -- Carol Tomlinson, Valerie McColligan, Katherine Stahl, Jennifer Cowan, Genevieve Gloutnez, Peg Ledman, J. Epstein, Karina Jett, and Marsha Wolak.
Despite near-universal appreciation for what the WSOP offers to all women and the ceaseless devotion of huge numbers of extraordinary ladies who travel to Las Vegas from all over the world to play in the Ladies Championship each year, there were and are a few misfits.
To make things perfectly clear, no gentlemen participated in this year’s Ladies Championship. No gentleman would dare play in an event designed especially for ladies, to be played exclusively by ladies, which presumably allows one very special woman her moment to shine in front of the entire poker universe.
Sadly, some people seek to steal that beam of luminosity and seize the spotlight for themselves.
Fortunately, most people understand that when this unfortunately happens, the shining light intended for a female champion only serves to illuminate the darker side of those who just don’t get it – and probably never will.
And so it was. The WSOP had a potentially perplexing disaster averted about 90 minutes into the finale. Once the tournament played down to the final eight players, a bona fide female champion for 2011 was guaranteed.
The heads-up match between Marsha Wolak and Karina Jett was a match of two winners. It was everything a women's poker championship should be. Alas, it was everything any WSOP should ever hope to be -- a fair competition between two fiercely competitive champions in their own right, hoping to achieve a status attainable only to a single victor.
In the end, Wolak defeated Jett. But you couldn't tell it by looking at either player. Indeed, Jett -- a woman who has paid more than her fair share of dues in this game over the last decade and who has suffered unspeakable tragedy in her personal life in the past year -- had every conceivable reason to hold her head high. Eight-months along in what will inevitably be the delivery of the youngest "player" ever to appear at a WSOP final table, Jett was standing there with a congratulatory hug and handshake for the champion, with her own beaming radiance on full display. It was her shining moment.
Meanwhile, every last poker chip in a tournament that began three days earlier with the most accomplished women in poker history leading the charge, belonged to one special person and the new champion -- a former real estate investor-turned poker pro from Sarasota, FL named Marsha Wolak.
Wolak collected $192,344 in prize money for first place. But winning the gold bracelet was all that seemed to matter from the winner's reaction. Thus Marsha Wolak is crowned as the official 2011 Ladies World Poker Champion.
Considering all the interesting and unusual things that happened at this year's Ladies Championship, perhaps one more adjective was left off the list that best describes what this event means for the ladies who are now its caretakers. It's the word that magnifies the importance of this tournament as a tradition and a magnet for what will hopefully be many more women coming into poker in the years to come. And, that word is.....EVERYTHING.
For a comprehensive recap of Event #53 including the official report, please return again to WSOP.COM soon.