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Women Gambling History - A Look at the Past, Present and Future

Learn about notorious female gamblers from the past who helped shaped today's gambling industry.

  1. Ancient Gambling: An Historic Overview

    Where it all began

    Humans have been betting on games of chance for a few millennia, with the first historical accounts dating back about 4,500 years ago. There have been accounts of gambling in many ancient societies, including Egypt, India, China, Greece, Rome and beyond. Since its early beginnings, gambling has never failed to be popular, even when it wasn't always legal. It is one of the oldest activities known to the human race, surviving throughout the ages and embraced by cultures across the globe. Men and women, the young and the old, and people from all walks of life - from the richest aristocrat to the poorest peasant and slaves - have participated in one form or another.

    Most historians agree that ancient gambling and the tools used for the practice appeared in primitive pre-historic societies and are the product of pagan religious rituals. The purpose of these rituals were to foretell the future or explain what could not be understood. The rituals were carried out in a simple manner and involved throwing small objects (casting the lots) like pebbles, nuts, sticks, etc. out of a container or out of hands. The result from the throw was checked to see if the number of objects on the ground were "even" or "odd".

    An even number typically was interpreted as positive while an odd number was usually seen as negative. Over time, this process became more complex and eventually these rituals evolved to include sacrifices from the participants in an effort to encourage the Gods or Fate to send positive signs and assistance. The sacrifices began as personal stakes, turning observers into actual participants. The participants gambled their stakes on the outcomes that depended only on chance.

    In time, gambling expanded beyond religious rituals and became a part of everyday life. As an activity separate from religion, it was used to help people make decisions, such as who would receive the better piece of meat from a kill, who would get the more attractive woman, etc. Finally, gambling evolved into the activity that we recognize today when people made the choice to gamble with their wagers to gain only material items.

    Fortuna, the goddess of gambling

    While gambling existed in many cultures across the globe, gambling in ancient Rome was particularly noteworthy both as a popular activity and because women were allowed to play. In fact, even the ancient Roman god of gambling - Fortuna - was female.There were many legends, myths and religious beliefs surrounding Fortuna, who was the Roman goddess of chance, good luck and gambling. Her name is derived from "fortunatus", a Latin word that means happy, lucky and prosperous. She is depicted in many forms from prosperity to disaster in order to reflect the fickle nature of chance. Fortuna was most notably favoured by slaves and plebeians because it was believed that she possessed the power to bestow riches and liberty.

    Acceptable gambling activities for women in ancient Rome and Greece

    In ancient Rome there were set social rules in regard to what was considered acceptable when it came to entertainment and games. For instance, men could gamble in public houses and in their homes, while women were allowed to engage in gambling only during the Bona Dea festival; an event that was just for women. The game that was typically most played during this event was Tabula, which is like a type of backgammon. However, during the reign of Emperor Nero (37 AD - 68 A), rules became less strict and there were many instances where women engaged in public games, sports and leisure.

    Board games - Among the most popular games played in ancient Rome were those played on boards called tabulae lusoriae. These boards were made form many materials ranging from wood to marble, bronze, etc. Some were portable boards but many of these tabulae lusoriae were carved directly into the floors of public buildings. The most common games played on these boards included Tic-Tac-Toe, Duoddecim Scripta (a game of twelve lines) and Latrunculi (a game similar to chess). Tic-Tac-Toe was one of the games most associated with women. In the third book of Ovid's "Ars Amatoria", the famous ancient Roman poet recommend the game to women seeking luck in love.

    Dice games - In ancient Greece, historical evidence reveals that dice games were very popular, with the earliest cubical dice found in archaeological sites dating back to 7th Century B.C. At this time, before six-sided dice game into existence, ancient Greeks used astragali (specially marked asymmetrical dice with letters and numbers) for their dice games. Two types of dice games were played. There was one that required only dice to be tossed with the person who threw the highest result winning. The other dice games were played on boards. Even more interesting, architectural reliefs that date back to 4th century B.C., reveal that there were many gambling sessions involving both male and female figures throwing dice. There is one relief that depicts a dice game taking place between the god Eros and the goddess Aphrodite and a young man. However, perhaps the most well-known artwork related to dice depicts a scene from the Trojan War in which the Greek heroes Ajax and Achilles play a dice game.

  2. Female Rule-breakers of the Past

    Gambling wasn't always legal

    Throughout history, gambling has toggled back and forth from being an acceptable legal pass time to an outlawed activity. For instance, Amadeus VII, duke of Savoy, issued an anti-gambling edict in 1430 that forbade men to play any game for money. Interestingly, however, women were exempt from the Italian duke's edict and were permitted to play cards for "pins".

    Later, in England, during the 1700's, the only legal gambling that was permitted were lotteries run and authorized by the government.. Still, even the lottery was considered by many to be more of a hindrance on society than anything else. Due to gambling being highly opposed, by 1739, several games had been deemed illegal, including ace of hearts, roly-poly, hazard, basset, and faro.

    The Notorious Faro Ladies

    Illegal or not, this didn't stop the nobility from partaking in their favorite gambling games. In fact, a group of aristocratic women dubbed the "Faro Ladies" or "Faro's Daughters" became notorious for engaging in games of faro. The group of women - Lady Buckinghamshire, Lady Sarah Archer, Mrs. Sturt, Mrs Concannon, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell - would host faro tables late into the night. Well-known for their love of gaming, the ladies provided a place for women of the aristocracy to gather, socialize and play as they discussed political and social matters.

    A "Proclamation against Vice" was made by George III in 1792, which stated that gambling was a threat to society's health. Faro players were warned that if they continued to engage in the activity, they would be fined and publicly shamed in the pillory.

    Although the women and men continued to play faro, it was the faro ladies who were the target of critics, not simply because they were breaking the law but - more importantly - because they were women. This made their transgression exceptionally disgraceful. During this time period in England, it was believed that it was unacceptable and unhealthy for women to engage in gambling, with some believing that such activities would hinder a woman's ability to produce healthy children.

    Illegal or not, this didn't stop the nobility from partaking in their favorite gambling games.

    Furthermore, the activities of the ladies - gambling and horseback riding - which were perceived as men's sports, worried Romantic idealists who believed that the actions of the faro ladies threatened to disrupt social order and political power. They saw it as a destruction of boundaries between men and women and the classes.

    As such, the faro ladies quickly became the face of anti-gaming literature, which showed them as wonton and greedy women. They were often depicted in satirical caricatures serving as a symbol to warn others that those who engaged in illegal gambling would not escape punishment. Even the faro ladies were eventually found guilty and while they didn't suffer the pillory, each had to pay a £50 fine.

  3. Wild, Wild West Gambling

    The California Gold Rush gambling boom

    While there was never really a time period in which gambling didn't exist, there were certain time periods when it was notably more popular than others, such as during the mid 1800's to the early 1900's in the U.S. state of California where the state's Gold Rush set off a gambling boom. Mining booms boosted the rush to the Far West of the country and ambitious people willing to take high risks on mining, flocked to the western frontier in search of riches.

    Mining itself was a huge gamble and the risk-takers already dedicated to finding gold were naturally drawn to games of chance and this dramatically increased the amount and types of gambling that occurred in California. In fact, it boosted it so much that San Francisco replaced New Orleans as the center for gambling in the USA.

    Gaming was an integrated activity and women were welcome to participate, and they sure did

    Eventually, gambling became more widespread throughout the state and also became more integrated. In addition to the activity being enjoyed by white men, other participants included women as well as other ethnic groups like African Americans and Chinese. Finally, by 1850, the state and its cities began to license gambling establishments to make a profit.

    Wild Women: Famous Gamblers of the Old West

    Just like 18th century England, the 19th century Wild West was also very much a man's world in terms of gaming. The poker players in the Old West saloons were primarily dominated by single men looking for a break from labor by escaping through drinking, fighting and gambling.

    While it was odd for a woman to be seen at a poker table during the time of wild wild west gambling, it wasn't illegal. Gaming was an integrated activity and women were welcome to participate, and they did. In fact, many of the women who played drew as much attention and were considered just as infamous as many of the most well-known famous male gamblers of the Old West.

    Poker Alice - "Praise the Lord and place your bets...I'll take your money with no regrets" is a famous quote from Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert, better known by her nickname "Poker Alice". The 19th century British-born gambler, made a name for herself as an incredible poker player in various western saloons in the American Old West, where she dealt and played the game, for which she had a knack for figuring odds and counting cards. Alice quickly developed a name for herself at the poker tables during the 1870's and was known to win up to $6,000 on a good night and for carrying a .38 revolver to protect herself from the dangers of winning large sums of money in a game dominated by men. Eventually, in 1910, Alice opened up her own saloon - Poker's Palace -which offered liquor, gambling and prostitution. By the time of Alice's death in 1930, she had had three different husbands, had shot two men with her .38 revolver, was a convicted felon and had won over a quarter of a million dollars playing poker.

    Lottie Deno - A famous gambler of the 19th century, who was known by many names throughout her lifetime (ex. Carlotta J. Thompkins, Charlotte Thurmond, Mystic Maud, "the Angel of San Antonio, etc.), Lottie Deno made a name for herself as a gambler all over Texas and even played against a famous professional gambler of the time, Doc Holiday. She learned how to gamble from her father and had a natural skill for the game. Eventually, she was convinced by her first husband to become an itinerant gambler, which lead her to San Antonio Texas in 1865 where she met and fell in love with Frank Thurmond, who would later become her second husband. Thurmond's family owned a gambling parlor where she worked until she left with Thurmond. The two traveled the Texas circuit until they finally opened their own gambling room and restaurant in New Mexico. As time went on and the two settled in Deming, New Mexico, Lottie quit gambling and became a founding member of the local Episcopal Church. It is believed that Lottie Deno was the inspiration for the television show Gunsmoke character "Miss Kitty".

    Eleanor Dumont/Madame Moustache - While her place of birth remains a mystery - with some believing she came from France and others from New Orleans - famous gambler Eleanor Dumont was considered to be a very beautiful woman when she was young and only earned the nickname "Madame Moustache" in her later years due to her appearance. Dumont first gained notice with her French accent and her French terms in Nevada City, California during the Gold Rush, where she opened a blackjack parlor and called it "Vingt-et-un". Interestingly, she was the only woman allowed in her establishment, but the male customers reportedly had to behave as if other ladies were present. Her first casino was a success and she opened a second one that included more gambling games. At the end of the Gold Rush, Dumont quit the gambling scene, bought a ranch and - unbeknownst to her - fell in love with a con man who took everything she had. Although she got her revenge by tracking him down and shooting him dead, Dumont had to return to work and made money gambling, as a prostitute and a Madame. Her work lead her all over the Wild West to wherever she could find money, until eventually she ran out of luck in California and committed suicide after she lost a large sum of money that she had borrowed, gambling.

    Other notable notorious wild west female gamblers include: Belle Ryan, Kitty Leroy, Minnie Smith and Mary Hamlin.

  4. Rise of Las Vegas

    The turn of the 20th Century and pre-WWII

    In spite of it being evident that more and more women were taking part in gambling during the 19th century, many societies in the United States - and in other parts of the world - still considered gambling to be very much a man's game. As such, there was particular concern shown to women who engaged in the activity, with there being strong suggestion that women needed greater protection from their own folly than their male counterparts.

    Nineteenth century British social researcher and liberal politician, James Myles (J.M.) Hogge noted that gambling had increased amongst women around the turn of the 20th century. Hogge was particularly concerned for working class women who gambled. He had heard of police reports regarding cases where women had pawned possessions to meet gambling debts and feared that working-class women would spend the housekeeping money on gambling, while the assumption was that men would bet using "pocket money." This was not an uncommon sentiment.

    There was particular concern shown to women who engaged in the activity, with there being strong suggestion that women needed greater protection from their own folly than their male counterparts

    The start of the 20th century brought very little change to people's attitudes regarding woman and gambling. In fact, the casino continued to remain a place for men where they could go to relax, unwind and indulge their desires. Even in 1931, when the state of Nevada enacted a wide-opening gambling law, that made most games of chance legal, it was still an arena heavily dominated by men, both in terms of the patrons of these establishments and the workers.

    Gambling was a growing industry in Nevada and, according to a Gaming Law Review and Economic article by Chuck Weller, once it became legal, the law imposed monthly license fees for each device or game within a betting establishment. Licenses were issued by counties and the fees were collected by the local sheriffs. From there, the money that was collected was distributed to the state and county. This law continued to remain in effect before and during World War II.

    The Men go off to war. Women begin working at casinos

    A women gambling history turning point was in 1939 with the start of World War II. The majority of male workers went off to war overseas, which meant that the workforce of many businesses - including Nevada's casinos - decreased significantly and women were called upon to fill the spots.

    The first advertisement for a female operator occurred in 1943. The ad was placed in The Nevada State Journal. While it was initially done out of necessity, it opened a new door of opportunity for women and also attracted the attention and interest of male patrons. It wasn't long before every casino in Reno began to hire women in order to stay afloat with the competition.

    Las Vegas eventually followed in the footsteps of Reno and in 1971 hired their first female cards dealer who worked at the Silver Slipper. From this point forward, women continued to be a part of the casino workforce, including these notable pioneers:

    Shirley Brancucci - The first female baccarat dealer on the Vegas strip, Shirley Brancucci, worked at the Stardust and experienced both gender bias and was sexually objectified during her casino career. She noted that some men would only play at her table if she was on the "money" but not if she would call the game. As a result, she sat on the "base" most of the time to keep patrons happy.

    Deborah Nutton - Vegas's first female craps dealer was Deborah Nutton, who claims she pursued the position even though she was initially warned by casino bosses that "bending over the game would ruin your ovaries." Having previously received her nursing degree, Nutton knew there was no substance to their claims and went on to become an incredible craps dealer. At the age of 25, she had been promoted to boss of the dice pit at the Sands. Still, in spite of her skill, she wasn't respected by her male co-workers who often referred to her with derogatory remarks. Still, in spite of how Nutton was treated, this didn't stop her and she pushed forward in her career and was eventually appointed the Senior Vice President of Casino Operations and Marketing at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas and is now the Executive Vice President of Casino Operations at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas.

    Judy Bayley - Known as the "First Lady of Gambling", Judy Bayley and her husband Warren "Doc" Bayley opened the Hacienda hotel in 1956. Located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the hotel eventually obtained a gaming license. After the death of her husband, Bayley became the chairwoman of Casino Operations, Inc. (the company that owned the gambling portion of the Hacienda) and, among other achievements, enabled the Hacienda to be the first casino to bring Live Keno to the Las Vegas Strip.

    Claudine Williams - The gambling scene was a part of Claudine Williams's life since she was 15 years of age, when she became an employee of a betting establishment. At the age of 20, Williams opened up her own after-hours gambling club with another woman. Eventually, after marrying Shelby Williams in 1950, she headed to Las Vegas and in 1964 the two purchased the Silver Slipper Casino. Later, the couple built the Holiday Casino in 1973. After her husband's death in 1977, Williams became the President and General Manager of the casino, making her the first women to hold such a position. Claudine Williams was also the first woman to be inducted into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame.

    The 1960's working woman and gambling stereotypes

    By the 1960's and beyond, not only were their more women working in the gambling industry, more women were also publicly gambling. According to Dr. Carolyn Downs, who wrote "A social, economic and cultural history of bingo (1906-2005): the role of gambling in the lives of working women", gambling among women developed in a way that was not unlike that of men.

    Dr. Downs stated that "Women took part in a range of gambling games, and were also involved as entrepreneurs of gambling (running small lotteries and becoming bookmakers (illegal and legal). Women were also keen to take part in the football pools but the Mass Observation Study of Penguin Books found that while men formed consortiums for the pools and would decide their choices based on making a judgement of form women tended to make their decisions based on luck numbers. Women were also less likely to place regular bets, and more likely to be betting on the classic races such as the Derby or the Grand National. Women were often involved in group sweepstakes on these major races (organised in the workplace or street) rather than placing their own single bet with a street bookmaker (although, of course, women did also place bets and act as illegal bookmakers)."

    When asked why it was important for Dr. Downs to make the distinction between women in general and working class women, and what she learned when comparing this to women slot machine and bingo playing stereotypes, she explained:

    "Middle and upper class women were also engaged in gambling, but of a more socially acceptable form, whist, bridge or visiting casinos when overseas. However, working class gambling, particularly among women was vilified in the press and women were often ashamed to admit they gambled. The press called bingo ‘a cretinous pastime’, and said women were wasting money that should be spent on their family or food. This stigmatisation was interesting to me, and indeed, I saw my own mother make such a distinction, where neighbour that played bingo at the local bingo parlour were criticised by her, but her friend that played in the local Catholic church was not criticised ‘because she is playing for charity’."

  5. WSOP Ladies Event & Famous Poker Stars

    1977 World Series of Poker's Ladies' Event

    For many people, Friday, 6th of May 1977 - the date that marked the very first women's World Series of Poker (WSOP) - was one of the most important and progressive turning points in women gambling history because it represented a shift in people's attitudes toward women and gambling. Instead of being criticized for playing games of chance, women were actually being encouraged to take part, and would no longer feel unwelcome at a poker table.

    That being said, while the 1977 WSOP Ladies' Event was considered pretty revolutionary, very little is known of the premiere event as no official records were made. Although it is unknown how many women participated, there was a minimal $100 buy-in for the seven-card stud poker game and the winner was Jackie McDaniels, who won $5,580; the lowest prize pool in WSOP history.

    As the Ladies' only WSOP grew in popularity, it became more important for some to keep the event one that was for female players only.

    In the years that followed, the buy-in was raised to $400 (1979 - 1981) and then increased to $500 in 1982 with 64 entrants. By 1991, there were 110 entrants and it was evident that the interest to take part in the event was there and each year, more and more women were keen to join in poker and in the World Series. To put this into greater perspective, in comparison to the first event in 1977, in 2016 there were 818 female entrants who took part in the $10,000/$1,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament and the winner, Courtney Kennedy, won the $149,108 top prize.

    As the Ladies' only WSOP grew in popularity, it became more important for some to keep the event one that was for female players only. Over the years, some men have crashed the event, both citing anti-discrimination laws and with the intention of offending the female players. However, the behavior of these men made it more than apparent that women did need an arena where they could play serious poker, be treated with respect, compete as equals and be free of discrimination.

    Famous female poker pros

    Throughout the years there have been many famous female WSOP poker players. Some of the most notable winners include:

    Annie Duke - She won the WOSP bracelet in 2004 and is most well-known for having more finishes in the money in Worlds Series of Poker events than any other woman.

    Jennifer Harman - She was famous during the poker boom and appeared in popular poker televisions shows like Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker. Harman is one of only two women to have won two WSOP bracelets and the only woman who regularly plays at the Bellagio in the "Big Game".

    Kathy Liebert - She won the 2004 WSOP bracelet and throughout her career has accumulated over six million dollars in tournament winnings. She has also finished in the money on the World Poker Tour (WPT) almost forty times.

    Annette Obrestad - When this article was written, Obrestad is the youngest player (male or female) to have won a WSOP bracelet, which she earned in 2007 at the age of 18. She has also finished in the money at ten WSOP events and placed second in a European Poker Tournament event.

    Vanessa Selbst - Considered by many to be one of the best poker players in the world, Vanessa Selbst has over 11 million dollars in tournament winnings and once ranked first place on the Global Poker Index. She has won three WSOP bracelets, each one in a different poker game and - at the time of this writing - is the only person (male or female) to win two North American Poker Tour events in a row (2010 and 2011). What's even more impressive is Selbst is currently only in her early 30's.

  6. Online Gambling & Breaking the Glass Ceiling

    Online gambling levels the playing field

    Online gambling in casinos changed everything for women. The internet gave them the freedom to play any game of chance with anonymity. Women who would have otherwise been too intimidated to take a seat at a poker table filled with men at a land-based casino, could do so without a second thought online, and that's exactly what was happening by the turn and beginning of the 21st century.

    Data from online casinos and surveys revealed that for many of the games the casinos offered, the gender split of players was close to 50/50. These findings blew the previous gender gambling theories of philologists out of the water. While it had often been believed that women preferred to play the slots more than games like blackjack or poker because slots machines demanded less skill and were more suitable for social playing, this didn't make sense with the data found by online casinos. Perhaps it wasn't so much that women preferred slots, but that they shied away from the intimidating nature of sitting around a table with seasoned male players in person.

    Today, on average, nearly as many women engage in online gambling as men. Furthermore, according to data released by International Game Technology, women in the USA bet 30% more on online social casinos than men. Even though what is being bet is only virtual money, this is still surprising considering men are typically linked to betting more than women.

    Women working in the gambling industry now

    Today, there are still nowhere near as many females in executive positions within the gambling industry as there are men. However, times are slowly changing and there are women who have penetrated the proverbial glass ceiling and earned managerial roles. Some of these executives are presently leading the way for women in the industry.

    Patricia Becker - The first woman to have ever served on the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Patricia Becker has used her skills and knowledge throughout her career to gain prominent positions working for casino companies. In addition to holding a number of executive-level roles at various gaming and casino companies, she has been the Chairperson of the Compliance Committee at Bally Technologies and at Tropicana Resorts. Additionally, Becker serves on the International Association of Gaming Advisors (IAGA) as counselor and is President of Patricia Becker and Associates; a company specializing in Gaming Consulting with a special focus on Compliance and Regulatory issues.

    Virginia McDowell - Named one of the 25 Most Influential Women of the Mid-Market by CEO Connection in 2015, Virginia McDowell was the first and only female president and CEO of a major gaming operating company, when she worked for Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. She held an executive level position with the company from 2007 - 2016, serving first as President and COO and then as President and CEO. She not only has 35 years of casino experience and several accolades, but McDowell also currently serves as the president and board chair of Global Gaming Women (GGW). This is a non-profit organization designed to influence, support and encourage the development of women in the gaming industry via education and mentoring.

  7. The Future of Gambling and Women in the Expanding Industry

    Gambling will become more remote

    The popularity and growth of online and mobile gambling has lead many researchers to predict that in the future there will be more gamblers who enjoy their games of chance via the comfort and convenience of the internet rather than visiting land-based casinos. In other words, gambling will become more remote and more virtual.

    According to data from Juniper Research, remote gambling is expected to grow over the next several years. This prediction is likely to come true, considering during the period of October 2014 to September 2015, the UK gambling industry made €12.6 billion and 29% of that income came from remote gambling. Furthermore, the research company has forecasted that mobile and online gambling industry wages will significantly increase over the next several years, jumping from 552.6 billion in 2016 to 946 billion in 2021.

    For the future of gambling industry, it seems that while iGaming is likely to continue to see a growth in revenue, land-based gambling establishments will continue to see a loss in profit. Be that as it may, an increase in remote gambling may further help to bridge the gap between men and women in terms of both engaging in gambling and joining the industry's workforce.

    More women will find success in the gambling industry

    Whether they choose to play or own a company, in the future, women who take an interest in gambling and who are willing to work hard to rise through the ranks will have a greater chance of finding success than ever before in women gambling history. This is not only true in gambling, but in other industries as well. The reason is that the level of gender equality is better now than it has ever been and should continue to improve with time.

    With the growth of the industry and wages becoming bigger, just like men, women have the ability to make their mark in the industry provided that they have the requisite education and experience needed. Successful women like Patricia Becker and Virginia McDowell are proof of this.

    Gambling gender equality among men and women

    Will more women gamble online than men in the future? This is a question that many wonder, especially if the industry shifts more toward social online gambling. The reason is that - as mentioned above - more women engage in social casino play than men. Some theorize the reason for this is that men prefer to play real-money games of chance and are less interested in placing virtual money bets.

    While women may always dominate the social casino market, it is likely that when it comes to real-money online gambling, the number of men and women who bet via their computers or smartphones will be about 50/50.

    The bottom line: gambling, which was once considered socially undesirable for women in the past, has become acceptable for today's women and will likely continue to be more and more commonplace for them in the future.