Craig Tapscott: Women can sometimes experience a different set of challenges at the poker table. Can you discuss a few experiences that made you a stronger player?
Xuan Liu: I’ve had a love affair with poker and strategy games since childhood, and I first started playing poker for real money during the Moneymaker boom. I had other friends who were just as interested in the game as me, but I was by far the most studious, and I immersed myself in every poker book and resource there was at the time. When you grow up without much and have always worked in jobs that pay hourly wages, the potential to make tuition or cover your entire rent for the semester in one session becomes really attractive. Not surprisingly and somewhat ironically, I couldn’t maintain my grades because of all the distraction and lost my scholarship.
When I first played in the United States I struggled immensely. I was angle shot and got hustled left and right. I was even held at gunpoint by the LAPD. I learned to put up a wall and am grateful those lessons happened relatively early in my career. I was fortunate to have people who believed in me and lent a helping hand when I was down.
Jamie Kerstetter: I’m not sure that experiencing adversity at the tables has really made me a stronger player, in that it hasn’t taught me anything strategic about the game itself. But I think some of the annoyances that happen from time to time to women can provide opportunities for self-reflection. It raises the questions: Is poker something I still want to do? Is it still fun? Am I still passionate about learning and improving?
It is usually after an unpleasant experience coupled with a losing session or downswing that I think about things like this, something I should be doing frequently anyway to make sure I’m spending my time and my life on a worthwhile endeavor that will lead to fulfillment.
Danielle Andersen: I feel blessed that just by happenstance the first seven years of my career as a poker professional were spent playing online. Honestly, I wasn’t very in tune to the happenings of the poker world, so I didn’t even really process being a female was unusual. Behind the computer screen, we’re all the same. By the time I sat in my first live game I considered myself a successful, confident poker player. So, it was surprising to me that I initially felt uncomfortable and intimidated as (usually) the only female at the table.
There was no reason for me to feel this way. I knew I had a better resume and more experience than many at the table, yet I felt like an imposter who didn’t belong. There was no single incident that helped me overcome this feeling, but every single day I just forced myself to show up and every single day I grew more comfortable and confident.
I know firsthand that the poker table can be an intimidating place for a female, especially one who is new to the game, but I think the biggest growth in poker and in life comes from pushing the limits of our comfort zone. I could have just run home and continued clicking buttons from the comfort of my office, but I suspected that if I could overcome my own insecurities, I’d grow to love live poker. And I was right. The cumulative experience of all those sessions where I faced an uncomfortable environment until it became a comfortable environment, allowed me to become a stronger (and happier) player.
Linda Johnson: Things have changed a lot for women in poker throughout the years. When I first started playing back in the ‘70s, I was living in Southern California and playing in Gardena poker rooms. It was rare to see another woman at the table. I remember one man yelling at me and berating me for “intruding where I wasn’t wanted.” He went on to tell me that “poker is supposed to be a man’s game.”
My scariest moment happened at the Las Vegas Club in the early ‘80s. I entered a $22 tournament and was apparently the first woman to do so at that venue. The card room manager said to me, “Welcome, honey!” The men were not too friendly. When I made it to the final table, we took a break, and I could see my eight opponents huddled up and conspiring how to bust me from the tournament. There were even some horrible threats tossed my way about what would happen to me if I won.
Back then, there were only a handful of women in Las Vegas playing professionally. I encountered three types of men. The first type was hostile against any woman who played. I learned to develop a thick skin and not let their comments affect me. The second type was condescending. The third type was protective and almost “fatherly.” Unfortunately, there was less of the third type.
Today’s atmosphere in the poker room is very welcoming toward women, although you still occasionally encounter a man who thinks he is superior and tries to make it uncomfortable for them to play. I think that overall, the dealers and floor people are better trained to handle these situations and I encourage more women to play our fabulous game.
Craig Tapscott: What was the first experience you had with poker that really inspired you to go deeper into learning the game? And how did you go about improving?
Xuan Liu: My first several European Poker Tour experiences were solo trips, but I quickly gravitated towards good players after seeing the same faces at each stop. At that time, I was still doing all of my mental math in Mandarin Chinese, so it was a little difficult for me to discuss hand histories, even though I hung out with all these elite players. I’ve always been a great observer, so I doubled down on that skill and learned a lot through osmosis.
Looking back, I wish I had been more engaged and asked more questions. I definitely had a complex where I was worried about sounding stupid, and I really wanted to be liked. That in combination with my staunch independence and stubbornness meant I learned a lot about the community, myself, and finances through trial and error. In the beginning I just wanted to get better and learn, so I made sure to never give anyone a reason to gossip or say something about me that would damage my reputation and close doors. I eventually realized that what others choose to think is beyond my control, and I can only make decisions based on the information I have at a given time.
Some people think women objectively have it easier because we can use our social skills and distinguished advantages to network and have access to the best poker minds. While that may be true if you’re young, attractive, and socially adept, the portion of the gender that don’t check those boxes can expect standard treatment to range from simply being ignored to blatantly harassed and gatekept out of the elite community.
But of all the unsavory things I’ve witnessed and experienced in the industry, the dynamic that guts me the most is when other female players at an equal or greater level than you see you as competition. The industry perpetuates an aura of scarcity and structurally pits us against each other. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone tries to give me a compliment by putting someone else down. There’s plenty of room for everyone to shine.
Jamie Kerstetter: Moving to Rosarito Beach, Mexico a year after Black Friday, and being surrounded by some very successful online players who lived and breathed poker was my first introduction to how complicated poker could be. I also learned how hard the best players were willing to work to be the best. It was the first time I really felt like I was fully immersed in poker, instead of telling myself I was just playing poker “between jobs” or treating it like a hobby as I had always done in the past.
No matter how hard we all tried to take mental breaks from the game, there would always be a stray hand history discussed over dinner or at the beach. Being around people for the first time who truly loved poker and who were willing to discuss not only strategy to use in-game, but also their overall approach to studying the game, was invaluable at the time.
Danielle Andersen: I was a broke sophomore in college when I won my first $100 pot playing online poker. I remember practically floating to my next class, adrenaline rushing through my veins. That night I distinctly remember having a conversation with my boyfriend (now husband), Kory, about how this poker hobby might actually be a viable way to make some extra money. We excitedly discussed how much stress it would relieve if I could just grind out $100 a month.
What I should have done at that point was dive into some books, join poker forums and watch some strategy videos. But I didn’t, because frankly, that just didn’t sound fun, and I couldn’t be bothered to stop clicking buttons long enough to study. Thankfully, Kory also loved poker and took a more studious approach to the game. He understood concepts like pot odds, bankroll management and variance before I did, and he tried his best to pass on valuable information to me. I wasn’t the best student (I was certain sitting with half of my bankroll on the table at once would end up just fine!) but he was a persistent teacher and eventually I started to grasp some of these important concepts on my own.
Working with poker author and mental coach Tommy Angelo was a pivotal turning point that really changed how I think about poker. I was really struggling with the emotional highs and lows of being a professional gambler. My moods off the table were often dictated by my results on the table, which was unfair to my family and to myself. Tommy really helped me learn to have better control of my emotions which led to less tilt, higher profits, and a significantly happier home life. I’ve seen so many poker players who were far more strategically talented than I fail as professional poker players because they didn’t have the emotional fortitude to handle the ups and downs. I highly recommend players looking to improve to not overlook the importance of working on their mental game.
Linda Johnson: When I turned 21, I started going to Las Vegas to play blackjack. My father told me that if I wanted to gamble, I should learn how to play poker so I would not be playing against the casino. I bought myself a few books (there weren’t many available at the time) and learned the basics of how to play. I knew right away that I would love the game.
My first live experience was with my coworkers at the Post Office. Eventually, I became a constant winner and was no longer welcome to play. I started going to the Gardena cardrooms after work and would fly to Las Vegas on my days off. Poker was my niche, and I knew I could excel in it with a lot of work and study. I realized that poker was a game that could be beaten if I played better than my opponents.
I bought every poker book I could find, talked poker with my friends, and attended poker seminars. I played poker every spare minute of the day and I loved it! I eventually felt that I could support myself from poker, so I quit my secure, high-level government job at the Post Office to move to Las Vegas. That was the best decision of my life.
Poker is my passion. I never stop learning and studying. I have read hundreds of poker books. I joined some poker discussion groups. I attended and then eventually taught WPT Boot Camp. Today there are a lot more resources for people to improve their poker skills than when I first learned the game. There are magazines, online training sites, videos, coaching sites, etc. Unlike roulette and craps, poker is a game that can be beaten if you are willing to do the work and put in the time to learn the game. ♠
Xuan Liu is an instructor at Poker Powher and operates her own real estate business. She has more than $3 million in combined live and online tournament winnings, including a $600,000 score at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and another $524,000 earned at the EPT San Remo main event. Liu lives in Vancouver, Canada with her rescue mini-poodle Didi.
Jamie Kerstetter is a professional poker player and broadcaster, commentating for a variety of poker tours including the WPT, PokerGO and the WSOP. For the past two years, she worked the WSOP main event on ESPN alongside Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, receiving a Global Poker Award nomination for Broadcaster of the Year. She is host of The Rake, a Run It Once podcast.
Danielle ‘dmoongirl’ Andersen began playing online in 2003 and is one of the highest earning female online cash game players in history. She was featured in the 2013 film Bet, Raise, Fold, which documented the rise and fall of online poker in the United States. Andersen is part of the LearnWPT instructor team.
Linda Johnson is known as the ‘First Lady Of Poker’ and has a World Series of Poker bracelet. She is a proud member of the Poker Hall of Fame and Women in Poker Hall of Fame, and is also is a co-founder of TDA (Tournament Directors Association) and co-founder of Pokergives.org. She was a studio announcer for the World Poker Tour during its first six seasons. Johnson is also a partner in Card Player Cruises and a former publisher and owner of Card Player Magazine.