Why you should care

Because kick-ass women are unbeatable entertainment.

For almost a decade, Stacy Matuson was a recluse. She sat inside her South Florida home for 14 hours a day playing online poker for measly $100 pots. Then, in 2005, she won a coveted seat at a live — real-life, in-person — World Poker Tour event. The big leagues! Matuson killed it. Sixth place, $100,000 win. Besides which, she was among only a handful of women to reach the final table in a realm that is, to put it mildly, male-dominated. But she couldn’t help thinking, “What the hell took me so long?”

A woman slinging chips was a rarity back then and still is — women rarely, if ever, win major poker tournaments. But not for long. While the fairer sex may not have been present at the traditional poker table, it’s turning out to be a whole different story when those tables are virtual. Of course, it’s not entirely surprising that women would be more comfortable enjoying their game without the condescending glare of he-man Neanderthals. (In Matuson’s case, it has been more than a glare, recalling the time some douche bag called her a c—t after she took his money.) But come on, there’s another reason women are coming to the table — like, say, all that cold, hard cash.

Online gambling is legal in only three states, so gender stats haven’t been well-documented. But in the past two years alone, the number of women in social gambling has jumped 22 percent, according to virtual casino International Game Technology. Now they make up a third of social gamblers nationwide — and up to 60 percent in some states. Compare that with the minuscule 3 percent of women on the professional circuit, and it’s clear: The Web has welcomed the ladies.

International Game Technology estimates that approximately 2 million women play their games each month — and with the social game industry set to double in size by the end of 2015, to $4.4 billion, there’s no signs of slowing. And women gamble approximately 30 percent more than men, perhaps because women are less experienced and iterate in a trial-and-error manner, says Adam Goodie, director of the center for gambling research at the University of Georgia.

Liz Lieu competes in The World Poker Tour Foundation Ladies Night Invitational.

Liz Lieu competes in the World Poker Tour Foundation Ladies’ Night Invitational.

Source World Poker Tour/CC

There isn’t much data on which countries have the most women online gamblers. But, we do know that for both men and women, Finland leads the way in online losses, with about $200 per resident. It is followed by Ireland and Denmark. Australia loses more per capita than any other country in the world, but doesn’t do a whole lot of it online.

For most online poker players, like Stephanie Hubbard, it’s just a side gig. She has a full-time job running the Rite-Aid pharmacy in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, but still finds time to hit the virtual tables. Nightly tournaments start around 6 p.m. and can go past midnight if she’s doing well (which is often). She’s wrangled about $10,000 total since graduating pharmacy school in 2010. She tries to butter up some of the guys in the chat room — allowing her to take advantage of men’s tendency to bet recklessly against women — but most don’t believe she’s indeed a woman because of her “aggressive” playing style, which relies heavily on bluffing and forging ahead with all sorts of hands. But she’s got no illusions of joining the full-time circuit herself: “It would be a gamble,” she says.

The ladies’ low profile might be an advantage: When women finally get out onto tournament floors, men often underestimate them.

Playing full time may be less risky for Hubbard than it would be for others, particularly single women. One of the U.K.’s leading addiction specialists has said that about three-quarters of her patients are either single parents or living alone. Maybe you’re best off gambling only if you have a partner who can help you keep your head above water.

Granted, gambling isn’t all fun and games — even without real money at stake. Some experts worry that the widespread availability and popularity of social gambling will serve as a gateway drug of sorts. Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, says he treats almost quadruple the number of women for gambling addiction than two decades ago; women now make up almost half of his patients. Which is in line with how much women shop online in general — 57 percent of women, compared with 52 percent of men, made an online purchase in 2013. Maybe credit marketers have more aggressively gone after women, says Wong, because, well, women are more profitable.

Women first started really getting into poker in the early 2000s, when the online craze began. But a federal ban in 2006 and a major conviction of the biggest poker sites in 2011 put an end to online poker’s heyday. Illicit sites (duh) and social gaming (where no money is explicitly traded) rose to fill the void. Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware have passed state laws allowing online gambling, and a few others are hot in their tracks, including California and Pennsylvania. “It’s inevitable” online gambling will see a resurgence, says Kendall Saville, founder of online poker news site USPoker.com.

The ladies’ low profile might be an advantage, in the end. When women finally get out onto tournament floors, men often underestimate them, think they’re weak and go out of their way to show them who’s boss, says Matuson. She encourages it by “looking sporty sexy” and acting like she has no idea how to play. It sounds cliché, the savvy chick playing unsuspecting dudes for fools, but it could mean that stereotyping still plays a part in competitive games between the sexes. Matuson agrees: “I love playing against men.”

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