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Last week, history was made for women in poker as Ema Zajmovic won the WPT Playground Main Event. Playground Poker in Montreal was the setting for the C$3,500 buy-in Main Event, which garnered 380 entries and awarded C$261,000 to Zajmovic for her victory.

There is no debate as to the importance of her win. When women continue to comprise five percent or less of most open tournament fields, their wins in those major tournaments tend to be few and far between. Her first-place finish is big news for the World Poker Tour, Zajmovic herself, and female poker players around the world.

The debate that has risen from the historic event centers on a previous winner of a WPT tournament. In early 2008, the WPT held a then-annual event called the WPT Invitational. While some players earned their seats to the tournament via satellites, most were given free entries at the discretion of the World Poker Tour staff, as the fields usually contained previous WPT champions, athletes, celebrities, and the like. It was an event with an open bar, free food, red carpet, television cameras, and a fun atmosphere. That year, Van Nguyen, who was given a seat as the wife of longtime poker pro Men “The Master” Nguyen, emerged victorious. She outlasted 444 other players to win $100,000 and a seat to the season-ending $25K WPT World Championship.

Invitational Events versus Open Events

Women have won WPT events in the past. There were several female champions, in fact, if one counts the WPT Ladies Night invitational tournaments that consisted of just six women. Those events were played mostly for charity and to feature some of the most prominent women in the game, but the elite and invitational nature of those events kept the winners from being technically declared female WPT champions.

Somehow, though, the WPT viewed the official WPT Invitational tournament differently, despite the fact that most players had seats due solely to free invitations. Van Nguyen won that 2008 tournament and did deserve kudos for besting a field that contained numerous poker legends and champions. She played well, by all accounts, and earned the title.

However, many in the tournament played recklessly due to players competing for various charities and so much of the coverage filmed to highlight the celebrities in the field. Had it been a serious tournament with each player’s buy-in on the line, play would likely have been more intense, serious, and with vastly different outcomes. Of course, that is only speculation, but many players agree with that assessment.

A truly open poker tournament is one that requires players to earn their buy-ins or pay directly to play, and the events are open to everyone, regardless of gender. All WPT Main Events are consistent with this theme and create a completely even-handed and unprejudiced field.

Does Zamjovic Deserve the “First” Title?

Yes. She is the first woman to win an open WPT Main Event in the tour’s 15-season history.

When people talk about WPT titles and winners, they are usually referring to WPT Main Event tournaments, not specialty events, invitationals, preliminaries, or side events. A WPT champion won a WPT Main Event. And Zamjovic was the first woman to do that.

While Zamjovic was not seeking to specifically be the first female WPT champion, as she — like any serious poker player — wanted the championship title, prize money, and trophy, which in this case was a belt. As she told the WPT about her victory, she said she was thinking, “I want a picture of me with that belt. My belt.”

And when she accomplished that goal, she commented on the gender significance of her victory. “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.”

The WPT calls her the “second female WPT champion.” I call her the first.

Either way, Zamjovic’s win is impressive and worthy of congratulations for her personal accomplishment, professional accomplishment, and her breaking a one of those glass ceilings for all women in the game.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.