It's Ladies Event Friday at the 2017 World Series of Poker, a day filled with heritage, tradition, and even a little bit of pageantry. Long a staple on the WSOP's annual schedule, the Ladies Event offers its participants a chance at a life-changing money, a gold bracelet, and the chance to participate in a friendly, welcoming and unique poker environment.
The Ladies Event has been around for a long time at the WSOP, even if it doesn't quite stretch back to the launch of the WSOP itself. The first edition was held back in 1977 at the WSOP's original home, Binion's Horseshoe, in the form of a $100 seven-card stud tourney. Jackie McDaniel became a part of WSOP lore by winning that first Ladies Event for $5,580.
The event was successful enough that in 1978, the entry fee was doubled to $200, then doubled again to $400 in 1979. By 1982 that entry fee was $500, where it stayed for a decade. In 1992 the fee was moved to $1,000, where it's been ever since, a staple among the special events that add variety and flavor to the WSOP.
Along the way, three women have won the event twice, Barbara Enright, Susie Isaacs, and Nani Dollison. Enright won her bracelets in 1986 and 1994, while Isaacs and Dollison accomplished the feat in back-to-back years – 1996 and 1997 for Isaacs, and 2000 and 2001 for Dollison.
Dollison's wins also figure into the other big change in Ladies Event history, its format. The event was originally introduced as a seven-card stud tourney, because that was a more prevalent mainstream game than Texas Hold'em 40 years ago. By the late '90s, though, interest in 7CS had waned, and the Ladies Event itself entered a brief stretch of flattened participation. In 2000, the WSOP's organizers tried a hybrid format of half seven-card stud, half-limit hold'em; the switch did boost attendance, as Dollison won a then-record $53,200 in the event.
By 2001, though, the increasing popularity of no-limit hold'em was clearer than ever. The tourney was shifted to that format, and the framework of the modern-day Ladies Event was complete. Dollison won again that year, showing again that good players often excel in multiple formats. Since then, growth in the Ladies Event has mirrored growth in the overall WSOP. The single-largest turnout was 2007's 1,286 players, and year after year, the event draws a thousand or more hopefuls.
WSOP TD Jack Effel's Viewpoint on the Ladies Event Heritage
To get the best take on what the Ladies Event means as a important piece of the WSOP and its history, we visited with WSOP VP and Tournament Director Jack Effel. Effel has seen the modern history and evolution of the Ladies Event first hand, and he's well-versed in the event's earlier days as well.
“First of all,” starts Effel, “the Ladies Event is an event that's been around for many, many years – forty years at this point in time. The event was originally created with the intent of getting ladies interested in playing poker, in hopes of them transitioning over to open events and getting to play other stuff... creating a new poker player.
“That was the original intent, and also, giving the ladies something to do when their husbands played cards, and all of those things.
“Then, over the years, when we [Harrah's, now Caesars Entertainment] came on the scene, there were already 20-plus years of history with the event, and it started out as not even the game that they're playing today. They started out playing seven-card stud and they're playing no-limit hold'em today, so it's really evolved a lot.
“Throughout the years, it's continued to be that one special tournament that the ladies who either may not feel comfortable playing in an open event or enjoy the cameradie of getting to hang out with the other ladies and participate and compete at high levels to say, 'I'm the best female player.'
“Because poker is a sport now!” interjects Effel. “I think that's a great thing.”
The heritage factor, indeed, is what makes the Ladies Event such a special component of the WSOP. There is literally nothing else quite like it in poker.
Effel continues on this aspect. “It's very special to be that one event of the year that the ladies that come here look forward to; it's kind of like the Seniors Event or the Super Seniors or even the Casino Employees Event in that regard. It's a special bracelet for a special group. I think it has a silver lining and a more defined purpose [than those other events], in getting ladies more interested and willing to play in poker. And hopefully, to want to play some other stuff as well.
“From our standpoint, there's just a lot of rich heritage and history in the event. It's been around for a long time, and we want to continue to make it a staple, an anchor event, here at the WSOP, in hopes of attracting more ladies to come play. And also in hopes that they'll eventually play other stuff, and to transition, feel comfortable, in wanting to sit at a poker table, wanting to play poker, wanting to compete for a large prize and a WSOP gold bracelet and a magical moment. And I know that every lady who's ever won that event will tell you that it was one of the greatest experiences they've ever had playing cards.”
“I think from a competition standpoint, I would say it's just as tough as any other field. Nowadays, everybody knows how to play poker. Everybody's a great poker player! Ladies! Gentlemen! Kids!” Effel took special note that by saying “kids”, he meant the young group of 20-somethings who have taken the poker world by storm over the past decade or so, especially online, and also in comparison to the ages of he and his interviewer. “They're all kids if they're younger than you, right?” he adds, laughing.
The Ladies Event has produced its fair share of great moments, too, perhaps none larger than in 2005, when Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly took down the event. It's one of Effel's favorite moments, and it epitomizes how a player can use success in the Ladies Event as a springboard to a larger poker career. As Effel notes, “Jennifer Tilly said 'It's better than an Oscar!' I know she was being a little funny there but... she became a poker player after that. She won that event and then she went on to play some of the highest stakes in the world, and she still does today.”
For Effel, though, the Ladies Event is all about heritage and growth and providing an opportunity via a fun, competitive environment.
“There are others who are around it in different environments and who are able to come out here and compete in other events,” he says. “Maybe the Ladies Event is not for them, but I would say to all the ladies who are actually out there who like to play poker, who have learned to play poker, who may have never been in this kind of an environment or ever competed for a big prize or something quite like this, that I would encourage them to play. It's really a welcoming environment and a lot of fun to see the cameraderie with the ladies playing at the table. Everybody being polite and shaking hands and playing good poker. They'll play tough. They'll stare each other down and wait for the other to snap and when the other one gets busted out, shake her hand and say 'Great job.' It's a very, very good environment, this tournament is.
“We've seen our fair share of controversy over the years and there's definitely an opinion out there that an event not open to everyone shouldn't happen. But the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of events that aren't open at the World Series of Poker. There still is something for everyone, and this is a very special event for a very special group of poker players, and that's the ladies. They should get their tournament, too, just like everyone else, and they should have that great experience, just like everyone else. They should be able to play for big, life-changing money, and a bracelet, and glory, and they deserve that.
“That's why we continue to keep it. We want to have their championship, number one; we want new players to come to the game; then we want other players to be able to get better and hone their skills so that they can play other stuff.
“There's a lot of good things that come out of having a ladies' event. Here's another thing: Usually it's scheduled at a pretty decent time and date so that there's other stuff that a wife and husband might come [to the Rio]. The husband can play in an event. The wife can play in an event. They have a shot to win WSOP bracelets together. Those are cool opportunities.
“It's been around for a long time. There is a reason behind it, a reason why we have it. I think it's a really good reason, and I think it's a very special tournament. We want to maintain its prestige, and we want to see new ladies participate every single year. I want them to have a fun, quality experience when they do.
Ladies on Participating in the Ladies Event
We checked in with several ladies playing in other events in the days preceding both the Ladies Event and the upcoming WSOP Main Event. Those we spoke with echoed Effel's sentiments – it's both about playing good competitive poker and having fun. That held true regardless if the player was a former Ladies Event winner or a relative newcomer to the WSOP scene.
Take Jane Hitchcock, for instance. This 70-year-old suspense writer won a seat to last year's Main Event and she's been hooked on poker tourneys for just the past few years. East Coast poker fans might remember Hitchcock being featured in a Washington Post story that detailed how this D.C. socialite – at one time, a close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – ended up turning to poker as a cure for depression and anxiety.
Hitchcock began playing online in 2009 after con artist and “accountant to the stars” Kenneth Starr (not the prosecutor by the same name) had conned Hitchcock's parents out of what she estimated was tens of millions of dollars in a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. Playing online, Hitchcock created an alter-ego persona – a hyper-aggressive and possibly misanthropic, unemployed, 24-year-old male – while she learned the game and gambled away as much as $100 a week. It was better therapy than buying shoes, she told Post writer Roxanne Roberts.
Then online poker in the US went away, and Hitchcock discovered live games and tourneys. From there, the WSOP loomed, and this year, in her fourth trip to the WSOP, she's played in a handful of events, seeking to add to her three previous WSOP cashes (one at the WSOP, and two at WSOP Circuit stops).
There's no doubt, though, that Hitchcock is waiting for this year's Ladies tourney. “I think it's a really special event,” she began. Regarding its social and competitive atmosphere, Hitchcock added, “It depends on the day. I said last year that there's more testosterone in the Ladies Event than there is in the entire World Series of Poker. And I mean it! These girls are fierce. They are all Amazons, all ready to rumble, and they are all fabulous. They've taught me a lot about poker. In fact, I've just written a book which owes a lot to the women.”
Hitchcock downplays her own chances of winning the Ladies Event, however. “I would look at it, actually, as being on the cover of Ripley's Believe It or Not or Scientific American. That's how I would look on it. [Having] 'some' skill doesn't cut it here. These guys are fantastic. I came here to learn poker. I would love to win, but when you get to my age, you have very few illusions. You can hope, though.”
Just to Hitchcock's left at the table this day sits one of those “ready to rumble” veterans, Lisa Hamilton. Hamilton, who won the 2009 Ladies Event, was a veteran cash-game player before her bracelet victory, but she's no novice on the tourney scene these days. Hamilton's poker resume shows over $800,000 in career live-tourney earnings, more than $500,000 of which has come from her 19 career WSOP cashes.
Hamilton is far past the growth curve envisioned by Effel as part of being introduced to poker, though she still makes the Ladies Event a yearly occurrence. Hamilton said, “I'm always excited to play it every year. I think it's so much fun that there's a ladies event; all the ladies get together. I always feel that there's a really good vibe. I feel like everyone's happy, everyone's having fun.
“It's not as serious,” she adds, though having spent much of the day on Hamilton's right, Hitchcock might beg to differ. Hamilton continues, saying, “I mean, it's serious, but it's different than playing with the guys. I look forward to it every year. “Prior to that, I didn't even really play tournaments at all, so I certainly played a lot more...” after her 2009 bracelet win, which was also, coincidentally, her first-ever recorded tourney cash.
Somewhere between Hitchcock and Hamilton on poker's achievement scale is Perth, Australia's Melissa Gillett. The always-upbeat school principal has already provided one of the best human-interest stories of the summer's WSOP to date. It's her first WSOP, and she's been here for virtually the entire series, vowing to live life to the fullest after surviving a brain aneurism that nearly proved fatal. She'd noticed a weird flashing in the right edge of her normal field of vision, and when she was examined, the leaking aneurism was discovered and operated on in time to save her life and prevent crippling complications, such as a stroke.
Coming to play at the WSOP was one of Gillett's dreams. Little did she know or have reason to expect, when she arrived at the Rio, that she'd make her own deep run in Event #11, $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em. Gillett led after Day 2 and eventually finished fourth for $127,180. In the process, she's very happily prolonged her vacation from school, and this year's Ladies Event is now at the top of her list.
“Because it's the Ladies Event,” said Gillett, “it would mean more than anything, all of it. I think it's harder to play against ladies than it is against the guys.” It's her first time in the States, she adds; she has played in ladies' events in Australia, and they're always tough events.
Gillett goes on to the crux of why the Ladies Event is more than tradition, more than heritage, even though those are great things as well. According to Gillett, it's vital for the game's long-term health. “I think anything that celebrates any minority and increases the number of people playing poker is exactly what you want. I'd love to see the day where we don't need a ladies' event because 50% of the field is ladies, but for me it's about bringing everybody into the game that we possible can. It's such a great game.”