Ema Zajmovic Becomes First Woman to Win Open WPT Main Event

It is not often that something historic happens in the world of poker. People win major tournaments all the time, have great performances at the World Series of Poker, things like that, but aside from the importance of the accomplishment to the player him or herself, most of these events are still just run-of-the-mill happenings on the poker calendar. What Ema Zajmovic did this week, though, was truly historic. In winning the World Poker Tour (WPT) Playground Main Event at the Playground Poker Club in Montreal, Zajmovic became the first woman to win an open Main Event in World Poker Tour history.

Prior to Zajmovic’s victory, the only woman to have won a WPT title was Van Nguyen, who triumphed over the field at the 2008 WPT Celebrity Invitational. That was an invitational, though, not an open event, so while it was without a doubt a wonderful success for Nguyen, it does not count in regards to the accomplishment we’re celebrating right now. Zajmovic won an “open” event, that is, a tournament which had no restrictions on who was allowed to enter (legal gambling age aside). As long as someone could put up the buy-in, they could play.

Invitationals – tournaments in which the players involved were hand selected by tournament organizers (or “invited” as the name implies) – clearly aren’t “open” events. The WSOP has a few closed events each year, as well: the Ladies Championship, the Seniors Championship, and recently, the Super Seniors Championship. While they are bracelet events and anyone who wins should be proud of themselves (the fields at these events are enormous), they aren’t exactly in the same category as an open event.

In an interview with the WPT after her win, Ema Zajmovic reflected upon her place in history:

Honestly, I am really happy that I proved women can do it. The funniest and nicest part of this experience was all the women who came and were so supportive of me. It was amazing. When I started playing poker, there was so much competition between girls. It was hard to be good and be supportive of each other. Now it has evolved so much and it is nice to see I had support from older women, younger women.

Many readers may wonder why this is a big deal. In fact, there have been many throughout the poker community over the years who not only don’t think a woman winning a major poker tournament (and in this case, the first to ever win an open WPT event) is a big deal, but get offended that women get special attention for it.

2016 WPT Playground Champ Ema Zajmovic Photo credit: WPT.com

2016 WPT Playground Champ Ema Zajmovic
Photo credit: WPT.com

Here’s why we should not just care that Ema Zajmovic won, but should be celebrating her and her accomplishment. Since the beginning of time, or at the very least since the rise of poker in the U.S., poker has been a “good old boys” club. Poker has not just been dominated by men, but up until the last decade, it has been dominated by men to the complete exclusion of women.

Even though anyone with half a brain understands that poker is a mental game and therefore men and women should have equal standing, there has been this chauvinistic attitude in poker is a man’s game, that women don’t have the competitive drive that men do in order to succeed in the game. Zajmovic didn’t have to “prove” women could win at poker, but even though there are women in the Poker Hall of Fame, she kind of did.

Women have always been a novelty at the poker table. It is not because they can’t play, aren’t smart enough, or are not competitive enough, but rather because the poker community has historically been unwelcoming to women. Things are definitely changing for the better, but for the longest time, if a female sat at a table, she was almost certainly the only one there and was without a doubt going to raise the eyebrows of the men.

“Oh, that’s cute that she wants to play. Her husband is probably playing in a higher stakes game.”

Women would – and still do – have to deal with sexist comments while they played; words, looks, and vibes from their tablemates that they didn’t belong. Even today, when successful women permeate the game, female poker players are usually evaluated based on their physical appearance rather than their poker skill. How good looking is the last woman remaining at the WSOP and how would her attractiveness benefit poker? Men are rarely judged on the looks in the poker world. Aside from Patrik Antonius, I don’t know if I can think of one. Maybe Gus Hansen, but he was first and primarily known for his super aggressive style of play.

And it is reasons like these that we have – and should have – ladies events at the WSOP and elsewhere. Why don’t we have men’s-only events? Because historically all poker tournaments have been men’s tournaments. Women don’t need protection from male poker players, they just enjoy having a tournament of their own where they can play with and against other women without the slightest bit of concern about how the guy across the table is looking at them or respecting them as players.

So congratulations to Ema Zajmovic on not only her first major live poker tournament win, but on becoming the first woman to win an open World Poker Tour event. Here’s to hoping that this is the beginning of this not having to be a big deal.

Lead photo credit: WPT.com

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