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Women in Gambling: the Pioneers 2023

Women in Gambling: the Pioneers 2023

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Women in Gambling: the Pioneers 2023

Anyone who has spent time at a casino – online or brick-and-mortar – will be able to attest to the fact that, among the players, men outnumber women.

Though this need not inherently be a bad thing, there are very few individuals left in the world who wish it so. Casinos have no wish to restrict their clientele to half of the world’s potential clients; most women players would be happy to see more women welcomed to the tables; and most men players tend to enjoy the presence of women

It’s true that gambling is not as male-dominated as it once was, however!

Consider the case of Vanessa Selbst, poker’s most successful woman player to date, with over $12 million in lifetime winnings to date.

Or on the other side of the table, witness the case of Denise Coates, the founder and CEO of Bet365, the online gaming powerhouse that continues to thrive and expand.

While the many successes of these and other women participants in gambling should be celebrated, it’s also important to look back to history, and honor the pioneers who laid the groundwork. As we’ll see, there’s nothing new about women in gambling!


Gambling was very popular among the British upper classes back in the late 18th century, but only men were allowed to attend the gambling parlors of the day.

That’s why a group of women made their own path!

The infamous Faro Ladies – Mrs. Albinia Hobart (later Lady Buckinghamshire), Lady Sarah Archer, Mrs. Sturt, Mrs. Concannon, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell – hosted gambling parties at their own homes that went late, late into the night.

(They favored the game of Faro, which has since fallen out of use but was the unquestioned king of its day. Though many liken it to poker, the use of a gaming shoe and a dealer/banker are reminiscent of baccarat.)

While card playing was without a doubt the central focus of these get-togethers, they also became an opportunity for discussions of politics, society, and the issues of the day.

It may seem far from revolutionary, but the simple of act of women gathering, sharing their experiences and playing cards together was too much for the society of the day to handle.

The Faro Ladies were lambasted in the press, encountered countless objections from so-called “moral reformers,” and were ultimately shut down by King George himself! His 1792 “Proclamation Against Vice” was intended to shut them down…

…and succeeded.


The Wild West was a fertile time for the making of gambling legends, and this was not reserved for men only!

“Poker Alice” Ivers was a tremendously player, with lifetime winnings north of $250,000. At least one game ended when she ‘broke the bank,’ forcing the dealer to suspend play as she relieved both the house and all other players of their chips.

She also operated her own saloons (which may also have functioned as brothels), most notably the Poker Palace of Fort Meade, South Dakota. She lived a long, prosperous and fascinating life that included gunfire, rumrunning, gubernatorial pardons, and religious zeal. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

Though Ms. Ivers may be the most famous woman player of the day, she was by no means the only one!

Names like Kitty Leroy and Maria Gertrudis Tules’ Barceló are also worthy of memory, as is the Colorado legendary player and dealer Belle Starr…

…she once spotted a cheater at one of her tables, called him out, and then, after he reached for his sidearm, disarmed him with the quick use of her bullwhip! This exposed the scoundrel’s device, which had held extra cards, and served the double purpose of serving justice while dramatically increasing her own renown.


The decades after the Second World War made for a kind of golden age for Las Vegas.

The modern, corporatized approach to legal gambling had not yet set in, all kinds of shady characters – most notably organized crime – were running the show.

In those wild times, quite a few enterprising women were able to make their mark!

There was Claudine Williams, a groundbreaking entrepreneur who was the first woman to be the top executive of a major Las Vegas casino (the Holiday). She was also the first woman to serve as chair of the board of directors of a Nevada Bank, and the first to serve as President of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. She was also a major philanthropist. In 1992, she was also the first woman to be inducted into the Nevada Gaming hall of fame.

Shirley Brancucci broke new ground as the strip’s first woman baccarat dealer. She later spoke out publicly and effectively about what it was like to work as a woman in the mafia-run era of Vegas gambling. That was another kind of Wild West altogether!

Shirley Varney who came to Vegas in 1963 and was the first woman in Nevada history to be the sole owner and operator of a hotel-casino. She had a tremendous gift for public relations, boosting the reputation of the Strip to such an extent that she earned the title “the First Lady of Gambling.” Like Williams, she was a major philanthropist as well.

Women in Gambling: the Pioneers 2023

Women in Gambling: the Pioneers 2023

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