My first boss in Hollywood gave me a Ten Commandments of sorts when I started in the industry to guide me through all the angst and fear and nausea I was sure to experience in the coming years. The first one, of course was the most important principle for anyone to understand when entering a business completely based on perception, self-promotion, and the acquisition of money. It's really very simple. Hollywood is not a meritocracy. Think about it for ten seconds and you'll realize how true it is.
Like many in the poker world, I was pretty surprised when this year's lineup for WPT Ladies Night was released. I'd long been speculating about who would be included, especially given that most of the "name" female players had already participated in the first two seasons' outings, and thus, would likely not be included a second time. This time, the powers that be had to think a little deeper. So with Harman, Duke, Liebert, Violette, Gowen, Ng, et. al on the rail, upon whom would Steve Lipscomb and Co. bestow the four golden tickets? Isabelle Mercier already has hers punched as defending champ. And of course, there's the one slot I'm estimating about 600 of us will be competing for tomorrow night. But for those other four slots, like anything in life, or in Hollywood, it's all about casting.
So how does the "invitation-only" lineup shake out? We have Marsha Waggoner, Cecelia Mortensen, Aidiliy Elviro, and Jennifer Tilly. Some of those choices are surprising. Others I wish I had sidebet on before the press release came out.
In the movie business, we love lists. Writers lists, directors lists, cinematographers, composers, and, of course casting lists. We make them, pore over them, and discuss them ad nauseum. It's really how we justify our presence and salaries as development execs. So let's take this showbiz process and apply it to Ladies' Night. What would this "casting" list look like? I guarantee you someone at WPTE made one.
First rule of the casting list. You throw everyone on there that's remotely appropriate and pare it down from there. Sometimes we call it the "kitchen sink" version. Off the top of my head, mine would look like this:
Jennifer "Jennicide" Leigh
Who had a particulary great year among these ladies? Gazes and Jett racked up some major finishes, Kristy in the Full Tilt Championship and Karina in the London Open. Mimi Tran made 4 of her 10 WSOP cashes just this year. Liz Lieu, typically a high-limit cash specialist made a final table in the largest preliminary event field in WSOP history. Surely these accomplishments should factor in.
Johnson probably can't play because of her role as WPT commentator, as much as we'd like her at the table. So she comes off the list. Patty Gallagher would be entertaining for sure, but they'd have to have a producer on standby to bleep out all those f-words. Ness, by her own admission isn't a pro and though she may have a great future in the game, she's too green for this crowd. Same with Petresco, Leigh and Kim. Good players all, but maybe next year for them.
Next, let's think about each "slot." What roles are we trying to cast here? I'm guessing the stucture isn't too rigid, but based on last year's lineup, it looks something like this:
1. Defending Champion (Clonie Gowen)
2. Bicycle Club qualifier (Lavinna Zhang)
3. "Superstar" player (Cyndy Violette)
4. Up-and-comer/cash specialist/ TV-table bubble finisher (Sharon Goldman, who took 7th in the 2004 WPT Invitational)
5. Up-and-comer/tournament specialist (Isabelle Mercier, who had just turned pro and was already a somewhat familiar face to audiences from WPT Paris)
5. Representative of the "old guard" (Wendeen Eolis)
So it's essenitally a split between newer players on the circuit and experienced pros. We take that into consideration and narrow our list. Which is when the third element comes into play. Who does the audience want to watch? In other words, what combo makes for the best TV?
As a representative of the "old guard" of more experienced pros, Marsha Waggoner is an excellent choice. 2 WPT cashes, 16 WSOP cashes, 7 WSOP final tables, and a 2nd place PPT finish this year at Bay 101. She's aggressive, colorful, consistent, and married to Cowboy Kenna James.
Cecelia Mortensen is another fantastic choice, this time in the "up and comer" category. 5 WSOP cashes, 2 WSOP final tables including one this year, and 1 WPT cash. I watched her at the WSOP this year and she's definitely a force to be reckoned with and possibly the player I'd fear the most at that table. And she's married to 2001 WSOP champ Carlos Mortensen.
OK so we need two more. A superstar and a rising star. Here's where the casting gets a little funky for me.
In the role of the superstar we have a Hollywood star, WSOP Ladies' Champion Jennifer Tilly. A monkey could have predicted this. You can make the case that the WSOP Ladies Champ should automatically be included in the lineup, but if so, where was Crystal Doan last year? Hmmm... manicurist or Academy Award nominee? I wonder. No other major finishes to speak of for Tilly, but come on, you knew the minute she won that thing she was getting an invite because she's famous. WPT needs those ratings more than ever this year. And she's dating the Unabomber.
Our other rising star is Aidiliy Elviro. She started playing major tournaments only this year and has a nice short-term record with one cash from the WPT Reno event and one other cash in a $1K NLHE event in Tahoe. And she's married to Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi.
Now do you see this year's theme emerging? I don't know who Isabelle Mercier is shacking up with, but all four of her invited competitors are dating or married to some of poker's biggest names! This includes 3 WPT Champions, two from just this past season. (Mortensen won the Doyle Brunson North American Championship in October 2004, Mizrachi the L.A. Poker Classic in February 2005, and "Unabomber" Laak the WPT Invitational in February 2004).
Moreover, how do these "casting choices" reflect the female poker-playing world today? WPT Ladies Night is arguably the most visible women-only tournament on the planet. Does it say that dating a poker "star" is the best road to success for female players? It sure seems that way by this lineup. And while I can't deny the playing abilities of any of these women, as they've all won far more money among them than I could ever dream of, I'd bet my whole bankroll that aside from veteran Waggoner and famous-actress Tilly, the successes of Elviro and Mortensen's husbands on the WPT had a helluva lot more to do with their invitations to this event than their own successes would have dictated had they been married to "non-pros" or evene "non-name" players.
To me, it's distressing, but not unexpected. The minute poker crossed into the mainstream of American Celebrity Culture, poker's status as a true meritocracy was doomed. It's becoming like anything else in the media. The most famous, the most dramatic, the most scanadlous, and the most connected get all the attention. Like US Weekly covers and reality shows and clothing lines. Or, in poker's case, televised freerolls.
So who should be in there that isn't? I think the biggest case can be made for Mimi Tran, as she's by far the most successful American player not to make the lineup. But despite her amazing skills at the table, she doesn't necessarily make for great TV. And yes, that is a major factor. Even though she does have a famous-player mentor in Barry Greenstein.
Thinking about all of this brings me back to an issue I touched on in my earlier post on Women and Poker. Female players with male mentors vs. self-taught female players. Is it easier for women to find success in the poker world with a male mentor than without one? Aside from Jennifer Harman, who are the female players out there enjoying great success in either cash games or tournaments who haven't had the benefit of one? Poker is a steep, steep mountain to climb without a guide, and I want to know who those ladies are who are scaling it alone. Like I posted before, it's great if you have a mentor or a teacher. Anyone in any field should be so fortunate. But for developing female players online and in cardrooms across America without such benefits, seeing a table full of famous players' wives doesn't exactly offer inspiration. Isn't that the point of these things anyway? To get MORE women playing?
Well, I'll be at the Bicycle Club for sure tomorrow night, trying to grind my 800 in starting chips up to the final table. I've never played a Ladies' event before, so it'll be interesting to see how I fare against my fellow women on the felt. And whether it's me or Shirley Rosario or Shannon Elizabeth or some other fabulously aggressive lady we've never heard of that makes it through the field and onto the WPT set one thing's for sure. It sure as hell won't be easy. And in poker, nothing really should be. It's why we play, right?