Poker Faces in the Crowd: Sia Layta

Ben Saxton

I was starting to understand I needed a whole new way of playing poker if I wanted to compete as a woman, and win. Devising a way to play against men more effectively was the only way I could become a champion

— Sia Layta, Black Widow Poker

Sia Layta, a pseudonymous West Coast poker pro, is planning a bold social experiment: to compete in this year’s WSOP Main Event disguised as a man. The benefits, Sia believes, are twofold: (1) she’ll increase her winrate; and (2) she’ll bring attention to gender imbalances in poker. Last year, 114,479 men and 6,516 women participated in the World Series of Poker. What accounts for this staggering disparity? Why aren’t more women playing poker? Is it more profitable to wear a beard or a mustache? Sia explores these and other questions in her new memoir Black Widow Poker: A Woman’s Guide To Winning a Man’s Game.

When I spoke with Sia last month over email, she was still planning to enter the Main Event in disguise, which may result in disqualification. As a result of Phil Laak’s shenanigans a few years ago — he arrived at the 2008 WSOP Main Event disguised as an old man — the WSOP Tournament Rules prohibit participants from covering or concealing their facial identity. “My advice is that she take her idea to another event without that rule,” Seth Palansky, WSOP.com’s editor-in-chief, said of Layta’s plan. Sia and I discussed gender dynamics in poker, the process of writing Black Widow Poker, and her plans for the future.

Ben Saxton: How’s your WSOP going so far?

Sia Layta: The WSOP so far has been an absolute blast. The cash games are amazing and the trip has been so much fun. I wish I could say I was seriously ahead but so far I’ve only broke even between tournaments and cash games. Unfortunately, I have not been able to play the games disguised as a man which, in my experience, has improved my winrate. Because the WSOP has contacted my publicity company directly to state they will disqualify me if I show up wearing a beard, I have been trying to decide whether or not I’m willing to take that risk. So, thus far I have been playing as a woman.

That being said, I have been doing so with a strategy and have been playing tournaments as various types of women: sometimes I play as a very glamorous woman with long blond hair, and sometimes I play as an androgynous, studious-looking woman in very short dark hair with glasses. What I’m trying to do is play while looking very different than my natural appearance, but in ways that I believe I would not earn a DQ from a tournament for doing so. In other words: it’s okay for a woman to wear a wig and lots of makeup on her face in the “appropriate places,” and it’s okay for a woman to dress very “butch” and not wear any makeup at all. But, for some reason, it’s not okay for me to represent the look of a “man.”

Although Seth [Palansky] believes that my efforts are only part of a publicity stunt, this is not the case at all. I honestly do not care one bit whether or not my book sells. I wanted to share this experience and my perspective and start a social dialogue about the fact that women rarely make it to final tables and big events.

I know, I know. The first thing everyone says is: “Of course there are many amazing female poker players!” But there are also female serial killers. Both are extremely and extraordinarily rare. Why? In the book I discuss that, in both cases, the reason might be because women do not have Killer Instinct.

What’s your strategy heading into Day 1 of the Main Event?

My strategy will be to stay in the present moment, eat right, rest, exercise and and play the most perfect poker I can. I am hoping my disguise will be acceptable to the WSOP.

On the Gambling With an Edge podcast, you raised (but didn’t answer) a question about the role of women at the WSOP, and I’d like to toss it back to you. Why aren’t more women playing poker?

In a nutshell, I would say the main issues are:

  • Poker has only recently become more popular with women and 40 years ago it was considered quite unfeminine to play. With this in mind, I expect poker rooms to become more and more balanced in the years to come.
  • When you sit down in a poker room as a woman — especially if you’re remotely attractive — you become a focal point and sometimes even a Target. As women, we learn to avoid these situations where we are outnumbered by men and might be looked at as a sexual object. I hate to say it, but those are the facts. On a very deep level we’ve learned it is better for our survival not to put ourselves in situations like that.
  • A lot of men don’t like women in the poker rooms and they make it apparent by bullying at the table, making inappropriate comments. I can’t tell you how many times men have told me that women are unlucky. So overall, while things are getting better, women have not felt especially welcome at the tables.
  • Women are taught not to be aggressive but, in poker, we need to be aggressive to win. Unfortunately, many men take this as an affront to their masculinity and make it extremely difficult for us if we show aggression. Most people tell me that this is an advantage. This has not been my experience. The first reaction I get from most men when I raise them is for them to reraise. It’s a statement of dominance.
  • Poker requires a singleness of focus and long hours. Women are naturally multi-taskers and poker can become very boring to women.

You claim to win “four to five times more often” when posing as a man. In response to the Gambling with an Edge podcast, one listener wondered about the relevance of this claim. “Even if [Sia] plays a full slate of events,” he wrote, “she will not gain any significant data to support her hypothesis. (Remember: Sia would need to play events both as a man and a woman so that she would have a control group and an experimental group.)”

How concerned are you with generating a meaningful sample size of live tournaments played in (and out of) disguise?

Between live poker and online poker I have played hundreds of tournaments disguised as a man and hundreds of tournaments as a woman, and use this as my basis for declaring that I win many times more when disguised as a man.

How was the process of writing Black Widow Poker? Did any memoirs, poker-related or otherwise, inspire you?

There are so many amazing poker books out there, and I’ve really enjoyed reading them, but sometimes I found them to be very stats-oriented and dry. I wanted Black Widow Poker to be easy to understand, fun to read, and written from a female perspective. As women, we get disinterested in complex calculations and charts. The book is written for a woman who is in her first couple of years in poker. It does have some advanced strategy but all of it is written in a way that is conversational, easy to remember, and, of course, weaves in my story of my playing as a “man.”

What are your plans after the WSOP?

PLAY MORE POKER. I have a motorhome and travel place to place playing tournament poker, and So the plan is to continue the next year playing each week in different cities.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I think the #MeToo movement is improving things for women in poker. I noticed right after the Harvey Weinstein incident that fewer men were making inappropriate comments to me at the table. I also believe that as more women come into power in the government and in politics (as they certainly are these days) men will not feel threatened by a woman’s aggression. If that trend continues, I believe we will see a lot more balance in poker — and that would be great for the industry.

I also believe that “ladies” tournaments and “all-women” events at the WSOP and elsewhere are completely sexist. We don’t have special tournaments for Japanese or African Americans, and we should not have special events just for women.

*Originally published in the July 2018 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

Written by

reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade