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International Women's Day: Lessons in empowerment from the felt

Thumbnail image for PS Women logo.jpgInternational Women's Day was established in 1911, and is a national holiday in 25 countries. March 8 is observed as the day to celebrate the achievements of women worldwide, and in the United States, the entire month of March is designated Women's History Month. In honor of the annual event, PokerStars would like to honor women who have defied stereotypes and broken barriers to make their mark in the world of poker.

Women have been playing and winning at poker at least since the mid-1800s when Alice Ivers, or Poker Alice as she was known, gambled her way across the West, taking money from men at each stop. She supported herself playing poker and was reported to have won as much as $6,000 in one night. However, since the majority of poker playing in those days was done in saloons, most women who had a reputation to preserve steered clear of them if they could. But that didn't mean they didn't play--they just did it with friends and family in the privacy of their own homes. And many decades later, that's how I learned to play, starting at around the age of five. I used to "sit in" (on my grandfather's knee) at the family poker games and tell him what to do when he showed me his cards. Usually he followed my advice (or at least pretended to) and if he won he would slip me some of the change from the pot when my mother's back was turned.

Those games are some of the fondest memories of my childhood because they gave me an opportunity to see my mother and aunt interacting with the men in the family in a different way, a way that I liked but didn't really understand. My mother, who normally shunned the spotlight and preferred to hide in the kitchen or in a quiet corner of her garden, would turn into an entirely different person during these games. She and my aunt, both Southern Baptists to the core, would laugh and joke with the men while nursing a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, all the while raking in the chips. Their laughter would go on into the early hours of the morning when they all finally called it a night, and then if it was a holiday weekend it would start all over again the following evening.

On those rare occasions, everyone was equal and having a good time, and for a little while at least, my mother wasn't worrying about how to pay the rent that month. She was a woman who smiled and laughed and had fun. She was a woman who spoke her mind and played her hand as she saw fit, and made apologies to no one for it. She was a winner, and equal to the men around her.

This is the element of poker that appealed to me from the beginning--the frightening but intoxicating idea of matching wits against men on what was most certainly at that time, their turf--and coming out of it if not a winner, at least knowing I played my cards right.

And I did win a lot of those times, but I had my share of humiliation too as the male players would sometimes smirk and make comments about how I "should" have played. This was the love/hate part of the poker experience that was so difficult for me in the beginning and is still a huge stumbling block for a lot of female players. It's very intimidating to walk into that poker room the first time, often as the only woman at the table, and to sit down to play when you're unfamiliar with how everything works.

But online poker, and PokerStars in particular, has made tremendous strides in changing that. Online poker has allowed women to enter the game in record numbers, with the latest research indicating that as many as 30-40 percent of online cash players are women. In addition to offering online games that make it much less stressful to learn the game and to compete against men, PokerStars was the first major online site to offer a women's community with special online tournaments for women, luxurious live events in locations around the world, and over 200 articles and videos to help acquaint women with the nuances of the game.

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Kristin Bihr won the 2011 PCA Luxury Ladies Poker Event for $29,798

Over the last 18 months, PokerStars Women has offered over 50,000 women the opportunity to win a seat to play in tournaments in London, Madrid, the Bahamas, and Monte Carlo. Over 600 women won seats to play in eight live tournaments and cashed for over $375,000. Additionally, thousands of women play weekly in special tournaments and leagues designated for women.

In the last two years women have brought home trophies from several major events and Vanessa Selbst (Team PokerStars Pro) has shattered expectations by winning back-to-back championships at NAPT Mohegan Sun. She has garnered a cumulative $4,000,000 in lifetime earnings, and over $2,000,000 of it in one year (2010) while still in law school and taking time off to study for exams.

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Vanessa Selbst



Poker has much to offer women and women have much to bring to the game. The next several years will be especially interesting to watch as they continue to break through barriers on their way to further success in the poker world. And every time they do, I'll be remembering my mom's laughter and her smile as she showed me what it was like to be a winner.

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