At the current time, the poker world has ground to a halt. This has given this writer a chance to catch up with some other media productions that, previously, would have been overwhelmed by the tournaments and other poker politics that’s been going on. One of those things that I’ve caught up with is the documentary Poker Queens, an entertaining film that really found its footing when it left the tracks from the director’s original vision.
The Usual Information For the First Half
Poker Queens, directed by Sandra Mohr, produced by Liz Bolwell and narrated/starred by Sia “Black Widow” Layta, starts off as a look at women in poker. The documentary opens by featuring a montage of the great champions of the World Series of Poker Championship Event, including the winning moments from such times as Bobby Baldwin’s victory over Crandall Addington (with pocket Queens, naturally, against Addington’s pocket nines) in 1978, “Treetop” Jack Strauss, the 1997 third championship by Stu Ungar and many others (Scotty Nguyen, Phil Hellmuth, Martin Jacobson, Scott Blumstein, John Cynn). It finishes off this montage with a black screen and the statement “No woman has ever won top prize in the World Series of Poker.”
To be honest, Poker Queens lined up a quality list of female poker players to take part in the film. Players such as Poker Hall of Famers Jennifer Harman and Linda Johnson, European Poker Tour champion Liv Boeree, defending and three-time Women’s Player of the Year Kristen Bicknell, former WSOP National Champion Loni Harwood, Gillian Epp (who proves to be a major part of the making of the film, serving as a “sounding board” for the crew), Kelly Minkin, veteran Kathy Liebert, Academy Award nominated actress and former WSOP Women’s Event champion Jennifer Tilly, World Poker Tour Vice President of Global Tour Management Angelica Hael, Lexy Gavin, Kristy Arnett and Kayla Voogd all bring their wealth of knowledge to the doc. The ladies also provide some insights and some levity in the first half of the film.
Johnson came up with perhaps the funniest line of the film, calling herself a “poker enthusiast” (if you can call someone who has a WSOP bracelet, traveled the world as a tournament director and promoter and founder of the Tournament Directors Association an “enthusiast”), while other ladies spoke about their desires for more women to play the game. Hael points out that, while participation by women in live poker is about 4% (the filmmakers say 7%, but this is nitpicky), ClubWPT shows that 25% of their subscribers are women and that a similar number watch the WPT broadcasts. Epp also talks about how significant it would be for a woman to “just get deep” at the WSOP Championship Event (the only woman to have made the final table of the WSOP Championship Event is Barbara Enright, surprisingly not given much attention by the documentarians). But this information is really kind of uninteresting because it is something that most people involved in poker already know.
Second Half is Where the Documentary REALLY Begins
It is the second half of the documentary where the story really takes shape. Layta, as the focal point and narrator of the documentary, is followed as she undergoes a makeover to change her appearance from female to male. Her story, basically, is that she wants to play the 2019 WSOP Championship Event in her male disguise. Layta does this – and tells the story – at some smaller casinos and finds that the men at the table treat her differently during a tournament than if she were to show up as a woman. This provides some interesting insights from other women and the men that show up for commentary in the doc, such as Poker Hall of Famer Daniel Negreanu, Steve Blay, Jeff Boski and Elliot Roe.
It is only when Layta starts her trek to Vegas for the WSOP when she receives a rude awakening. The WSOP hears of her plans and states, in no uncertain terms, that she will be disqualified (and out $10,000) should she even attempt this ploy. With no other choice, Layta has to abandon her plan of playing in the WSOP Championship Event.
Mohr, at this point, has to adjust her documentary, too. In a discussion with Epp, Mohr says, “You don’t tell what the documentary is about; the documentary tells you what it is about!” and it becomes clear the documentary wants to go in a different direction. A “well-known” female poker professional who had previously agreed to an interview – and Mohr had planned on making a feature point of the film – backs out of said interview (Mohr, for her part, graciously doesn’t name this person), while some other female oriented poker organizations pull their support (and usage of logos) from her effort. And this is even before the first cards fly for the Championship Event!
The 2019 WSOP Championship Event was, for better or worse, memorable, to be sure. A 7.1 earthquake hit on Day 1C, as did the infamous “mooning” incident by Ken Strauss and the chip scooping incident by Georgii Belianin. But Mohr passes by these things in setting up a suite in the Rio where women can come to relax and rejuvenate. Mohr dubs her suite the “Poker Palace” in an ode to one of the original women to be a part of poker, Alice “Poker Alice” Ivers, and the documentary then dives into its best part.
For essentially the last 20 minutes or so of the film, many of the women who are a part of the documentary reflect back on why they took the course that they did. In many instances, the women recount how they had significant competitive drives, which poker allowed them to exercise, and that poker (because of its mental and not physical nature) allowed them to do it on an equal footing with men. In many cases also, these women reflect on how their parents didn’t hold them back from their ambitions – these women were encouraged to do what they wanted to do. This is a critical point in anyone having success in any endeavor, but it is good to see that these ladies were driven for success and had the support of their loved ones in achieving their goals.
Poker Queens really finds its voice at this mark and it is what makes it a film worth seeing. If it had just been about “women in poker” (as it started) or Layta’s attempt at playing as a man (there’s a twist here that I won’t ruin for you), then I don’t think that the movie would have been as good. Taking the entirety of the women in and getting them to open up for the documentary – that proved to be the most significant thing worth viewing in the film.
Poker Queens is currently on Amazon Prime for the low price of $2.99 (rental) and it would be a good way for any fan of the game to pass 80 minutes. The documentary provides a historical outlook on women in the game, the current state of the sport and, in my opinion, the most important thing – why these women do this for a living. All of the women involved with the documentary – from Mohr to the litany of poker stars who provided their input – should be proud of this effort and it should be a staple of any poker player’s viewing.