He Can’t Read My Poker Face – Life Lessons from Playing Poker with the Boys

by Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller

Despite, or because of, not having much disposable income, I play poker at a neighborhood bar where women make up roughly 10% of the players. (If you ever want to know what it’s like to be a female in upper management, the poker table is the place for you.) As you can imagine, some of the guys at the table would definitely prefer I be elsewhere, but I hang in there with confidence, assertiveness, and snarky come-backs that may not win the hand, but often win the day. And what’s really more important?

Attitude is 90% of playing poker. I don’t actually know what the other 10% is – possibly sweat. It helps to have a Zen-like quality and be in the zone at all times. Sure, it can be hard to balance your poker hand and a drink while you’re sitting in the lotus position and your eyes are closed, but you definitely need to breathe in and out and go with the flow. This is the same kind of trick you can use when some guy cuts you off in traffic and you’re trying not to track him down and smash his tail lights.

When I sense too much male-oppressive tension at the table, I make jokes. If I look around and see nothing but grouchy, scrunched-up faces, I’ll make a comment like, “Woah! I guess this isn’t the fun table!” Other times, when some of the guys seem to be straining their brains, trying to figure out what’s going on in the heads of the one or two women players, I like to give ‘em something to think about. “I’m just a nice girl from the Midwest,” I’ll coo in a sultry voice. In Brooklyn, where I live, this can be brain-taxing for them. How many guys from Brooklyn even know where the Midwest is? While they’re making mental maps of the U.S. trying to decide whether a nice girl from the Midwest is bluffing or hitting on them, I swoop in and make my next poker play.

Many of the techniques that help me in poker are the same ones needed to survive in a male-dominated city like Brooklyn. Once, this guy mouthed “Bitch!” from across the table after I’d just won a hand. I blew him a kiss and murmured, “You are just SO handsome!” I’ve learned to be disciplined, emotionally stable and not take crap from anyone. This works for poker players, cat-callers, and late-night Uber drivers who think you signed up for more than a ride.

Once, a guy sat down next to me and proceeded to spill his entire glass of beer all over my lap, my chips and my cards, entirely missing his own. Accident, I ask you? Or marking behavior?  I just took a deep breath and chanted my poker mantra, “Be one with the cards.”

There are a few weird things that female poker players will notice right away:

  1. Men who talk about us in the third person at the table as if we’re not there (“Why did she bet that much?” “She went all-in with a pair of 9s?!”)
  2. Guys who chat us up and it’s not clear whether they’re trying to determine whether we’re newbies or get in our pants. “So, what did you have, a pair of Queens? You can tell me. If not now, maybe later, over drinks.”
  3. Men who try to dominate us by dispensing advice. “You should have folded sooner,” “You bet too much!” I usually stare them down as I imagine them hang-gliding off the Brooklyn Bridge.

I often imagine fellow poker players as bad blind dates and respond as I would in that situation – faking laughter, nodding at nonsense, and always keeping my eyes on the prize, uh, my chips. Men are just so dramatic!

And like a bad blind date, you may find yourself enveloped in machismo (and possibly Axe Body Spray.) You always need to have your feelers out for  misogyny, blatant or hidden behind a pair of dark glasses and be ready to stop it in its tracks, while not letting it get to you and turning it around to your benefit. And to think the guys at the table are JUST playing poker.

Some other life lessons I’ve learned from poker:

  1. Never apologize for winning.
  2. Keep an open mind because your luck may change in an instant.
  3. Nurture yourself, especially your self-confidence
  4. Be willing to take risks. Oh, and it also helps if you’ve had children, because the patience you’ve developed when they whine and throw tantrums will come in so handy when the men at the poker table do the same.

Last, but not least, it helps to be thick-skinned and know how to say “Fuck you” with a smile. This lets them know that despite their aggression and strong desire for you to move along, you’ll be back.

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