Is Poker Sexist? Doug Polk Sparks Heated Twitter Debate on What Constitutes a ‘Top Player’

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Whether you agree with him or not, you can always rely on Doug Polk to spark a debate. This time, the high-stakes pro has taken aim at CNN and its reference to “top poker player” Maria Konnikova.

Doug Polk
Doug Polk has sparked a heated debate after criticizing CNN’s description of Maria Konnikova as a “top poker player.” (Image: Poker Central)

For clarity, Polk has said he doesn’t have a problem with Konnikova, nor does he think she had anything to do with the headline. What he does have a problem with, however, is the definition of a “top” player by certain media outlets.

His tweet (see below) sparked a debate last night that not only brought into focus the question of how we should describe poker players, but whether or not the industry is sexist.

Polk wants better definitions of “top” poker players

An article published by CCN Health titled How do you navigate risk in the pandemic? A top poker player tells all, started the debate. That “top poker player” was Maria Konnikova.

The American, who was born in Russia, is a best-selling author, has a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University, and wrote for The New Yorker. A complete neophyte when she turned her attention to poker in 2016, Konnikova convinced Erik Seidel to tutor her in the game.

A year later, she started cashing in small stakes live events and, today, she has over $310,000 in tournament earnings. That record includes a first-place finish in a $1,500 side event at the 2018 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $84,600.

Despite her impressive rise, Polk balked at the suggestion that the writer-turned-poker-pro is among the game’s elite. To her credit, Konnikova has never made that claim herself, and makes that point clear in a tweet.

Even so, Polk dislikes the hyperbole that’s often used to attract readers, particularly when it comes to poker talent. He’s also tired of not being able to address these topics without people accusing him of being hurtful or sexist.

“Also lol at all the nonsense comments – omg so mean. Are we going to call a spade a spade or not? It’s insulting to the game to call amateur players top players,” Polk tweeted.

Jaime Staples calls out nitpicking

One of the first people to call out Polk’s comment was Jaime Staples. The Canadian pro believes Polk only posted the tweet because Konnikova is a woman.

Polk hit back at the claim he was “cherry picking some moment where a woman in poker is getting attention” by saying he doesn’t view the issue within a gender-based framework.

Staples responded by saying that, even if Polk wasn’t “nitpicking” because of Konnikova’s gender, it’s still a problem.

“Surely you can see that navigating through poker as a woman would be more difficult than it is for a man. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of men (or you), but it’s worth recognizing the hurdles in the way. Supporting women is removing hurdles,” Staples tweeted.

Is poker sexist?

Poker, in general, is an inclusive game that anyone can play if they have the necessary funds. However, we know there are significantly more men in poker than women. For example, in the 2018 WSOP Main Event, only 3.8% of the field were women.

A February 2020 study conducted by 888Poker showed that some women are often uncomfortable when they play in a casino. Of the 2,000 British women surveyed, 68% said that poker is a “male-dominated” game, and 45% said they felt intimidated by men at the table.

Canadian poker pro Kristen Bicknell has said that, although her experiences in poker have been positive overall, she has witnessed gender bias on the felt. Then, of course, there’s the whole saga with Vanessa Kade and her response to Dan Bilzerian calling her a “hoe.”

There is evidence to support the argument that poker is sexist or, at least, has sexist elements within it. Polk, however, isn’t disputing that point. He believes that it’s actually harmful to women’s position in the game if their accomplishments aren’t considered in context.

“I don’t view pretending small accomplishments are big ones for women as support. I view that as belittling” he tweeted.

Polk is certainly no stranger to controversy and stirring up heated debates. However, for all the usual vitriol his tweet caused, it has raised some interesting issues. Is poker sexist? How should we define “top” players, and does it actually hurt the game’s image if we get it wrong?

There are no clear or easy answers, but that doesn’t mean these issues aren’t worth thinking about. Polk may not have been trying to be deliberately provocative, but his tweet has sparked an interesting and important discussion.

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