Controversy Rolles Over RYE

During a recent Ask Me Anything online, Raise Your Edge (RYE) founder Benjamin “bencb” Rolle fired another salvo in the war of the sexes. While that general war has been ongoing since the beginning of time, the world of poker is no exception.

Asked by a fan why he thinks men have “an advantage” over women in poker, Rolle let loose with an answer that pointed exclusively to innate differences between the sexes without discussing possible societal factors.

That set off something of a firestorm on X, formerly known as Twitter (and currently known by some as Xitter), as poker insiders weighed in from all angles. Criticism was quick from women players, as was to be expected, but they got some perhaps unexpected support from many men in the audience as well.

Among the luminaries to weigh in were Kat Arnsby, Vanessa Kade, Victoria Livschitz, Blaise Bourgeois, Justin Bonomo, and Will Jaffe with a patented satire video. In Rolle’s aisle were a few notables as well, including Charlie Carrell and Daniel “Jungleman” Cates.

The Competitive Edge

At the heart of Rolle’s point was an apparent difference between the innate competitiveness between the genders. As men are more competitive by nature, the argument goes that they naturally excel in an environment like poker. Rolle pointed to a lack of women in the top 100 money earners as “proof” of the notion.

The highest money earner on the Women’s list is Vanessa Selbst, with nearly $12 million in lifetime earnings, and she is the only woman on the list with 8 figures in earnings. There are a total of 59 women with $1 million or more, which compares to nearly 2,800 men who have made at least a million at the live poker tables, according to Hendon Mob.

Based on raw numbers, it might appear like a solid point – women appear to be highly underrepresented at the highest levels of the game. Even by percentages, it doesn’t look good – about .35% of women in the game have hit the $1 million mark, but for men, it’s a bit higher at .41%.

The Fallout

What caused much of the pushback was Rolle’s apparent insistence on innate differences. “Men and women are different,” he says bluntly and rather obviously. What he doesn’t go on to explore are the societal factors that tend to breed highly competitive men and highly cooperative women. While Rolle’s answer plays the differences as innate, several responders pointed out that socialization from very young ages is radically different between the sexes, emphasizing and highlighting different skills for development.

Kat “ThePokerBaffer” Arnsby had typically insightful additions to the conversation. With the rare ability to both take a subject seriously as well as take the ever-loving piss out of it, The Poker Baffer gave the community both barrels from her impressive arsenal on this one.

In the first, she lays out with academic detail some of the factors, other than innate ability, that might contribute to fewer women in the upper echelons of the poker world. In the second thread, she pulls out her trusty lance of satire and effectively skewers the main point with one deft thrust.

Among the other poker luminaries to weigh in on the subject of societal factors were Sunday Million winner and outspoken defender of women in poker, Vanessa Kade, Blaise Bourgeois, chess phenom Jen Shahade, Victoria Livschitz, and Will Jaffe, who brings the Dankness with one of his inimitable impersonation videos.

The Debate Rages On

The debate shows no signs of abating on social media with new contributions to the topic daily. While it’s a painfully obvious point to make that “men and women are different” – every 6-year-old knows that perfectly well – there are innate differences between men and women. What those differences actually are and how they manifest is a much more complex issue, as is the issue of socially constructed barriers that masquerade as innate factors.

Competitiveness is a perfect example of this. Pretty much from birth, boys are pushed into competitive sports of some kind or other, whether they want to be there or not. At least until very recent times, girls were, in contrast, generally steered away from competitive sports.

That’s just one example of how society molds gender roles in the background to produce differences that can easily appear “natural” given they manifest nearly from birth. The problem is, the socialization begins essentially at birth as well, so innate and environmental factors are easily confused.

To circle back to one of the main points in Rolle’s initial response, we probably shouldn’t expect to see a woman in the top 100 on Hendon and, in fact, the placements of Vanessa Selbst and others at the top of the women’s list shows they are well-represented at the highest levels.

Women represented about 4.3% of the field in the 2022 WSOP and about 2.5% of Hendon Mob profiles. Of 668,731 total profiles, the site lists 16,937 profiles of women players. That puts 651,794 male profiles on the site.

To make the top 100, men need to be in the in the top 0.0149% of male players, while Selbst placing at 112th on the all-time list puts her in the top 0.0167% of all players.

The numbers are definitely lower for women in the game, both in terms of participation and results at the highest levels. But while it’s easy to see that representing an innate difference between the two, the fact that women are so well represented in the top 500 players, with 5 entries, shows that many can overcome whatever barriers there are.

What makes the discussion more complex than social media can handle is the way causes come together in the real world to muddy a clear picture. There is never just a single factor influencing any trend in human society – human society is a messy morass that mixes together in ways that can’t be broken out into discreet individual causes without acknowledging all other contributing factors.

In this case, society tends to discourage girls from competitive activities early in life and instead direct them to more cooperative activities. The opposite effect is in play for boys, which leads to a huge imbalance in various sectors of society, with men outnumbering women in many competitive fields while women often outnumber men in more nurturing fields (such as healthcare or education).

What is dangerous is attributing that to innate factors. With many individual examples of deeply competitive women, such as the aforementioned Selbst (a Fullbright scholar with a law degree from Yale) from the poker world, it’s clear that socialization can play a part in how competitive a person is with more opportunities. 

Other top women also came into the game from competitive backgrounds. The #2 woman in the world in terms of earnings is Canadian Kristin Foxen and she found the game after spending her youth crushing boys on the carting tracks.

Competitiveness is a human attribute, not a gender-based one. The level of competitiveness in humans is biologically determined to a degree, but it can also be cultivated through socialization. 

The differences we see today between men and women in poker look to be much more closely related to social factors, though, as we see a much stronger social push towards young boys in competition than young girls. As long as that clear difference in socialization exists in our larger society, writing off gender differences in the poker world as innate is short-sighted and ignores the social factors that discourage women from pursuing those kinds of activities.

Women are under-represented in poker – a look at any tournament field or all-time list will make that apparent. Trying to work out why that might be is a complex issue, but one that poker businesses should really be trying to solve.

And that’s really the final point here. As a businessman hawking poker training, Rolle seems to miss the fact that being under-represented in the game and at the top levels makes women a massive target demographic for the industry. While everyone is entitled to their beliefs, one wonders whether he fully considered the business ramifications of alienating a largely untapped market of women players wanting to learn the game. I have to guess that for new women coming into the game after this week, RYE won’t be their first coaching choice.

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