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Home / Features / Timeline: Women poker pioneers who changed the game forever

You’ve no doubt heard by now about International Women’s Day, taking place around the world on Tuesday, March 8.

Perhaps you also know about the special PokerStars Women’s Sunday tournament happening this Sunday at 14:40 ET. It’s a $22 buy-in with $2,000 guaranteed, but there’s also €11,500 in value added in the shape of a full EPT Monte Carlo package worth €8,500, plus a France Poker Series package and other online tickets.

This Sunday’s event is awarding a full package to EPT Monte Carlo

The occasion has us thinking back about women in poker history, both in the past and more recently, and various examples of pioneering achievements by women in poker.

Here’s a timeline of notable moments in poker history involving women at the tables, emphasizing many of the game’s most famous females and especially during recent decades a lot of firsts.


Carlotta J. Thompkins, a.k.a. Lottie Deno, arrives in San Antonio, Texas and subsequently becomes one of the state’s most celebrated poker players. She and her gambler husband traveled the state over the next decade-plus before moving to New Mexico where they opened a gambling hall.


By her mid-20s, Mary Hamlin, often called “Mary the Owl,” had already established a reputation in California as a winning poker player. She was an expert con artist, too, and in this year is credited with having masterminded a scheme with accomplices later known as “The Great Diamond Hoax” that becomes national news when exposed in November.

1860s or ’70s

“It was on a trip from Memphis to Natchez that I first saw a woman gamble in public.” So says the narrator of a story in David A. Curtis‘s 1899 collection Queer Luck, here referring to “Flash Kate, a woman he identifies as a “a notorious character in New Orleans” whom he witnesses here participating in a high-stakes steamboat poker game.


Minnie Smith was a dealer and poker player in Colorado of some renown. While playing in a game in Colorado City she discovers an opponent cheating, and when he reaches for his gun she manages to disarm him with a dramatic crack of her bullwhip. In doing so the player’s holdout device containing hidden cards is revealed. Smith then cracks her whip several more times to deliver punishment to her opponent and considerably increase her notoriety.


The famous outlaw Belle Starr, known to participate in saloon poker games where she won more than she lost, is fatally shot by unknown assailants in an ambush just shy of her 41st birthday.

“Poker Alice” Ivers


The most famous female poker player of poker’s early history, “Poker Alice” Ivers, dies at the age of 79. For more than a half-century Alice played poker and other games while also running her own brothel-slash-saloons, including one in South Dakota called “Poker’s Palace.” By some accounts (including her own), Alice won more than $250,000 at the poker tables, though don’t bother trying to find her listed on Hendon Mob.


One of the best western-comedies and a great “poker movie” as well, A Big Hand for the Little Lady premieres starring Joanne Woodward and Henry Fonda, a terrific, twisty tale humorously challenging long-held ideas about poker being strictly a “man’s game.”


The first “Ladies event” is held at the World Series of Poker, a $100 buy-in seven-card stud event won by Jackie McDaniels. The tournament buy-in gradually increased to $1,000 in 1992, and through 1999 it remained a seven-card stud event. From 2000-2003 it was a split limit hold’em/seven-card stud event, and in 2004 they played limit hold’em only. Finally in 2005 the game was permanently changed to no-limit hold’em. The photo up top is from the 2019 WSOP Ladies event in which nearly 1,000 players took part.


In press materials for the 1978 WSOP, Jack Binion is quoted discussing the new Ladies Event and the possibility of more women taking part in other events, too. “I don’t know how soon it will happen, but I’m certain we are going to see women participating in many other events as well… including the big hold’em game,” speculates Binion.

Indeed, that year Barbara Freer becomes the very first woman to enter the WSOP Main Event. One report on the tournament noted how her entrance “caused some disgruntled reactions from several of the players.” There were 42 entries that year, and Freer outlasted more than half the field before going out in 18th. Freer was back at the WSOP the following year and would win the Ladies Event. She’d also play the Main Event again in 1979, as would Betty Carey.

Barbara Freer and Jane Drache (courtesy UNLV Center for Gaming Research, Special Collections)


Starla Brodie becomes the first woman to win a WSOP bracelet in an event besides the Ladies event, joining with Doyle Brunson to win the $600 mixed doubles event. An early version of today’s “tag team” event, the mixed doubles event in which one man and one woman played as partners was part of the WSOP schedule from 1979-1983.


Vera Richmond tops a field of 77 to win the $1,000 Ace-to-Five Draw (Limit) with Joker event. Looking at the WSOP’s reports on the event and player list, it appears she was the only woman to take part. That year the WSOP awarded gold watches instead of bracelets. However, as the WSOP explains, “Since Vera has her heart set on a bracelet, an exception will be made in her case.”

Another article produced by the WSOP press corps that year titled “Poker Faces With Lipstick” discusses increasing women participation, reporting how “over 100 were listed on last year’s roster” of players in all of the events. Among the women mentioned in the article are Jane Drache, Rosemary Dufalt, and Kathy Burks.

“In fact,” says the article, “their reputation is gaining such momentum that a trucker was recently overheard complaining, ‘you gotta watch out for those li’l ladies who play every day… they’ll bust you sure as hell.'”


Barbara Enright becomes the first woman to make the WSOP Main Event final table, ultimately finishing in fifth place from a field of 273. Enright entered the event having won two Ladies titles at the WSOP in 1986 and 1994. Then the following year she would be the first woman to win three bracelets — and second to win one in an “open” event — by taking down the $2,500 pot-limit hold’em event.

Barbara Enright


Susie Isaacs becomes the first player to win back-to-back Ladies Events at the WSOP by successfully defending her win in 1996. The following year she’d make a run at matching Barbara Enright’s success by making it all of the way to 10th place in the 1998 Main Event.

Meanwhile two other women capture open events at the 1997 WSOP as well — “First Lady of Poker” Linda Johnson in the $1,500 razz event, and Maria Stern in the $1,500 seven-card stud. Maria’s husband Max Stern also won a bracelet that summer, making them first husband-and-wife duo to accomplish that feat (and still the only one ever to do it in the same year).


Jennifer Harman joins the list of women winning “open” bracelet events by taking down the $5,000 no-limit deuce-to-seven event, the first open bracelet won by a woman in a no-limit event. Harman would win a second bracelet two years later in the $5,000 limit hold’em event.


In a much-watched televised event shown during the height of the “poker boom,” Annie Duke wins $2 million in the WSOP Tournament of Champions, a one-table, invitation-only, winner-take-all freeroll shown on ESPN. At the time it was the largest tournament prize ever won by a woman, though that record would be broken three years later (see below).


Victoria Coren becomes the first woman to win a European Poker Tour Main Event by winning the EPT London event during the tour’s third season. Eight years and one wedding later, Victoria Coren Mitchell becomes the first player ever to win two EPT Main Events when she wins EPT Sanremo during Season 10.

Victoria Coren Mitchell

The latter record has since been equaled when Mikalai Pobal won EPT Prague last December, his second Main Event title after having gathered his first in Barcelona in 2012. Pobal’s victory prompted the memorable report that he’d was the first male to win two EPT Main Event titles.


At the first ever WSOP Europe in London, Annette Obrestad wins the Main Event one day before her 19th birthday. The Norwegian took away a first prize of £1,000,000, which at the time represented a little over $2 million USD.

Also this year, Barbara Enright becomes the first woman elected to Poker Hall of Fame. Since then Linda Johnson (2011) and Jennifer Harman (2015) have been inducted.


The Women in Poker Hall of Fame is created, with Enright, Johnson, Susie Isaacs, and Marsha Waggoner comprising its charter class. The following year Cyndy Violette, Jan Fisher, and June Field are honored as inductees.

Linda Johnson


The WSOP Main Event almost had not one but two women reach the final table, with Elisabeth Hille finishing 11th and then Gaelle Baumann getting knocked out in 10th. The near-miss recalled the 2000 WSOP Main Event where Annie Duke finished 10th and Kathy Liebert 17th.


Vanessa Selbst wins her third WSOP bracelet, tying Enright and Dollison for the most by a woman. For Selbst, all three of her bracelets were won in open events, with her victory in the $25,000 Mixed-Max No-Limit Hold’em this year following her wins in a $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event in 2008 and a $2,500 10-Game Six-Handed event in 2012.


Ema Zajmovic becomes the first woman to win an “open” World Poker Tour title when she bests a 380-entry field in the WPT Playground Main Event. Van Nguyen had been the first woman to win a title on the tour in 2008 in the WPT Celebrity Invitational.

Also this year, Liv Boeree wins a bracelet in the $10,000 Tag Team No-Limit Hold’em Championship, playing the event teamed with her partner Igor Kurganov. The win made Boeree the first woman to win both a WSOP bracelet and an EPT Main Event after her victory at Sanremo in 2010.

Igor Kurganov and Liv Boeree


Maria Lampropulos wins the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, making her the first woman ever to do so. She finished first in a field of 582 to win the title and $1,081,100 first prize. That was actually Lampropulos’s second seven-figure score inside of eight months, as the previous April she’d won a first prize worth $1.25 million at the partypoker MILLIONS.

Maria Lampropulos


Kristen Bicknell concludes another year’s worth of tourney triumphs by becoming the first woman to win a Poker Masters title, topping a 51-entry field in a $25,000 event. That clinched Bicknell her third-straight Global Poker Index Female Poker Player of the Year award.


Vanessa Kade takes down the biggest Sunday Million event in history–the 15th anniversary edition–for $1.5 million, defeating a massive 67,876-player field. “This win gives me freedom,” she told us. “That’s what I get from this. If I don’t mess this up, then for the rest of my life, I don’t have to do a single thing that I don’t want to do.”


For the first time in it’s history, the PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) introduces a women only event to it’s tournament schedule.

WSOP photos by Poker Photo Archive.

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