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Linda Johnson and Maria Ho Discuss the Past, Present and Future of Women at the WSOP

Maria Ho

The World Series of Poker is the largest gathering for the top players in the poker industry. What started as an unintentional boys club has transformed into an equal-opportunity tournament series. Women may not have created the WSOP or been in attendance in the first few runs, but they definitely have broken into the game while holding their own against the men.

The WSOP was introduced in 1970, with Johnny Moss awarded the Main Event title by his peers. Year after year, the event began growing by the numbers, and major moments were being marked in the history books.

In 1978, during the 10th Annual WSOP, the Main Event’s prize money was divided up for the first time rather than awarded as a winner-take-all format. That year also marked the first time a women entered the series as Barbara Freer broke the sex barrier by buying into an official event. The following year, the WSOP introduced $400 Women’s 7-Card Stud event, and Freer made he mark again by defeating 53 women to win the $12,720 top prize and the first bracelet awarded to a woman.

Perhaps it was Freer who got the ball rolling. By 1982, the WSOP had added a Ladies World Championship event to its tournament schedule. The following year, Freer cashed in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event, finishing in ninth place for $5,820. She went on to cash in four other WSOP events for a total of $39,775 in winnings.

Linda Johnson, inked as “The First Lady of Poker,” has also left her mark in history due to her lengthy association with the game. Not only has she thrived as a player with more than $375,000 in lifetime earnings, but she also acted as publisher of CardPlayer Magazine for nearly a decade.

Her career began in 1974 when women were scarce in the game. She loved the poker so much that she ended up moving to Las Vegas in 1983 to pursue it professionally. When asked what was like to be a female player back in the day, Johnson told PokerNews, “Men weren’t used to seeing women at the table and a lot of them didn’t want us walking into their domain. Some players were very nice and some felt that you were intruding into their space.”

It is evident that women in poker have become widely accepted. Players like Jennifer Harman, Annette Obrestad, and Kathy Liebert have contributed to this acceptance and women like Johnson are thankful. “Poker is a much nicer environment today than it used to be,” said Johnson.

Linda Johnson
Linda Johnson

“There are so many women who have helped to expand the industry," she added. "Jan Fisher, Marsha Waggoner, Barbara Enright and a lot of women in the Poker Hall of Fame have led the way. Vanessa Selbst is an inspiration. That goes for both Selbst and Vanessa Rousso. There are a lot of great women players today who are role models and an inspiration to others. You can see that women are great players and I admire Selbst’s record at the poker table.”

When asked if a woman will ever win the WSOP Main Event, Johnson was quick to say, “Absolutely! It may not be this year, or the next, or it may. I think it will happen in my lifetime for sure.”

Johnson currently works as a Poker Relations Consultant for the World Poker Tour and a partner in CardPlayer Cruises.

Although a woman has yet to win the Main Event, one woman did come close. Barbara Enright is the only woman to have ever reached a final table of the Main Event. She did so in 1995, finishing in fifth place to collect $114,180. No one has been as fortunate since. Enright was recognized for her efforts and inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007. Johnson was enshrined in 2011.

Last year, two women nearly made history again at the 2012 Main Event. Elisabeth Hille finished 11th, while Gaelle Baumann took 10th, just one spot shy of the final table. Although neither made the final table, both still left their mark in WSOP history. According to WSOP officials, 2012 marked the first time since 2000 that two women made the final 27 of the Main Event. That year, Liebert took 17th and Annie Duke bubbled in 10th. Other than 2001 and 2002, a woman has cashed in every Main Event since 1993.

With big names like Vanessa Selbst, Vanessa Rousso, Jennifer Harman, Liv Boeree, Xuan Liu, and Maria Ho still very active in the WSOP every year, it’s very possible that one can lead the way at this year’s Main Event.

Ho, one of the most recognizable faces in poker, was quite optimistic on the future of poker for women. She stated, “I think that the future is really promising. I feel like you can see that there are more girls playing poker year after year. Not only that but there’s more women that are doing well so you see a lot of improvement among the female contingent of poker player players that are getting better. There’s a lot of room for more females to come in. Simply put, we can play this game just as well the men do.”

As far as her thoughts on when a woman will win the WSOP Main Event, Ho said, “Honestly it can happen any year now. Every year a woman has cracked the top 100 and so now it’s just a numbers game. We represent such a small percentage of the field but I’m going to say that next year will be the year that a woman takes it down.”

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