Racism & Sexual Harassment: The Reality of My Experience on Poker Night in America
In November 2014, I taped several episodes of Poker Night in America at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. Until now, I have remained publicly silent about the reality of my overall experience on the show, but, most specifically, with the production team. Now, however, I am no longer comfortable sitting idle and covering up what I believe to be abhorrent and inexcusable behavior.
That November, I arrived in Pittsburgh with the misconception that I had been invited to play on the show by creative director Nolan Dalla because of my background in poker, which seemed obvious: the entirety of my income over the last three years has come from playing cash games full time. The first night there, I attended a cast outing at a bar near the casino where they were filming pre-game interviews. When I approached Todd Anderson (the show’s Creator and Producer) his first words to me were, "Why are you here? What, does Nolan have a thing for you?” I found this comment to be offensive, but could have never anticipated at the time how perfectly it would foreshadow events yet to come. Anderson went on to explain that he thought I would be appearing in an upcoming ladies only show, filming at Hard Rock in Florida, but that he had no idea I was coming to Pittsburgh. This made no sense to me: for over a month my name and photo had been widely circulated on internet promotional releases associated with the Pittsburgh tapings. As I perceived Anderson was anything but welcoming, I decided to walk away and speak with other people at the bar.
I then spent a long time talking to various other “behind the scenes” individuals—cameramen, sound technicians, and other crew members—and was eventually introduced to Chris Hanson, the show’s on-screen Host. Outside of my experience with Anderson, it seemed as if the rest of the crew was comprised of genuinely nice people and so I expressed this sentiment to Hanson. His response? He looked me in the eye and said matter of factly, “The thing about Poker Night that makes it so great is that there are no Jews. Every other show on TV has Jews.” There have really only been a handful of times in my entire life that I have heard what I believed to be a truly anti-Semitic comment made, and it has always been by those ignorant of the fact that I, myself, am Jewish. I know very distinctly the difference between someone making a joke about Judaism (I make them all the time myself) and comments that are said from a place of pure hate; there was nothing about what Hanson said, nor his tone, as I perceived it, to indicate he was doing anything other than expressing his genuine feelings, unknowingly to a Jewish individual. My trip to Pittsburgh was off to a wonderful start.
Later that same night, I received an Email from Dalla, addressed “Darling,” and advising me to arrive on set the following day “ready to play.” When I arrived I was immediately met with a sense that no one wanted me there. Anderson rolled his eyes when he saw me and said I could play only until Gavin Smith, who was going to be late, showed up. I sat down and played for about thirty minutes, then was asked to get up. Anderson suggested I leave the premises of the taping and said that someone would call me if a seat opened up. I decided to stay: I had flown to Pittsburgh at my own expense with the expectation of playing poker and intended to do so. I believed Anderson didn’t have any intention of calling me since, to me, he seemed so incredibly, not to mention unjustifiably, annoyed by my presence. Eventually an individual didn’t want to play anymore and I was able to play for the final three hours of taping that day. (As a side note, I was correct in thinking that staying in the room was the only way I was going to get a seat: when one finally opened up, someone at the table texted another cast member to hurry back into the room before I sat down.) At this point I was wearing a patch for the company "Red Chip Poker,” which I had been wearing all day (many people on the show wear patches for various poker related entities.) Soon after I had sat back down to play, Anderson stormed onto the set, incredibly irate, and demanded I remove the patch. He pulled me out of the game and yelled at me in front of the cast, crew, and live audience. I tried my best appear calm and unaffected, but internally I was focused on anything but the game.
The next day I showed up on set again, as per Dalla’s instructions. This time I perceived Anderon’s vibe of “You don't belong here, we don’t want you here” as even more overwhelming. I was allowed to play for only two of the eight hours of taping. After the taping, however, Dalla apologized and told me that they hadn't “treat[ed] me right” and, to make up for it, I could have a seat in multiple upcoming Florida tapings of the show for the entirety of the eight hour sessions. I naively believed him. So, with filming wrapped, I was invited by Chris Capra, representative from 888poker.com, to attend a post-filming party at a local bar that night. Although the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time with these people, Capra had mentioned the possibility of his company sponsoring me, as they do Jessica Dawley, so I felt I had to attend anything he invited me to for the sake of that potential opportunity.
Not wanting to be at the bar and extremely disappointed about my entire experience in Pittsburgh, I decided I was going to confront several individuals. First, I approached Hanson. I said, “Hey, do you remember the other night when you said that what makes the show so great is that there are no Jews involved?” He responded that he did. I proceeded to let him know that I am Jewish myself.
After approaching Hanson, I decided Dalla was next. I let him know that Anderson had asked me if I was there because he “had a thing for me.” I genuinely expected some kind of apology, or perhaps for him to confirm that I was, in fact, there because I am a cash game poker player. I was completely appalled when he responded, “I do.” He then told the surrounding group, “Hey, watch this! I have wanted to do this for a long time.” He proceeded to thrust his head directly into my chest and cleavage and shake it back and forth. Capra witnessed this event while cheering on Dalla, along with a long-haired crew member named Mike. Prior to the motorboating, Dalla had given a toast to the cast/crew. After he touched my chest, he put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, “I was going to say something pretty disgusting about you during that toast, but I decided not to because you probably have to deal with that sort of thing all the time.” Yes, Dalla is such a noble man that rather than publicly embarrass and degrade me in front of 100% of those in attendance with his words alone, he opted for touching me in a manner that would legally be defined as sexual battery.
My significant other at the time had accompanied me to Pittsburgh and was on the other side of the room during all of this. When he eventually crossed the room to join me, Dalla said to him, “I give you a lot of credit. It’s not easy having a hot wife. I know because I have had one for many years.” My boyfriend, of course, had no idea why this comment was made and I soon took him aside and let him know what had just occurred. We both agreed we needed to leave and said our goodbyes to a handful of people. Still, Dalla managed to find me yet again and informed me that he had found out about Hanson’s Jew comment. He said, “Really? You are Jewish? Usually I have strong opinions about Jews and Israel, but somehow the fact that you are Jewish makes you even hotter.” Although I shouldn’t have been surprised by what he said at this point, I was speechless.
That night on my way back upstairs to my hotel room I passed Shaun Deeb. Unprompted, he informed me that, “women will always be inferior poker players” citing, “you are all too emotional” as his reason. Yes, the same Shaun Deeb who mockingly dressed up as a woman and played in the ladies event at the World Series of Poker.
The next day I had the “pleasure” of encountering Dalla downstairs at the hotel lobby. He was discussing a neighborhood that he had visited for a meal with an African American man who was working at the front desk. The man said he had never heard of this neighborhood and Dalla responded, “Really? I would have thought you would know it, it’s filled with blacks.” I had spoken to this employee several times during my trip and had developed a friendly relationship with him. He looked over at me after Dalla said this and made a face that I can best describe as, “what the fuck?” I gave him my best, “I am so sorry, this man is out of his mind” look in response.
A few days after the Pittsburgh tapings concluded, I received an email from Dalla with Anderson cc’d, informing me that I could no longer play on Poker Night at the Florida tapings. I was already incredibly upset about how I was treated by Anderson, how I was forced to endure anti-Semitic comments by Hanson and Dalla, and how I was publicly groped by Dalla, but now I was being cut from all of the Florida tapings. While I had mixed feelings about ever being associated with the show or any of these individuals again, I still didn’t think it was fair that I should miss out on an opportunity in the industry to promote women in poker just because the show’s Creative Director is in my opinion, ironically, a misogynistic asshole. Within a few days of being cut from the show, and after a series of Emails and texts, I was told I could play in Florida again by Capra.
When the Florida tapings occurred a few weeks later, I was given more insight into Anderson’s character and agenda. The night before taping “Ladies Night,” a group of about twenty of us headed to dinner and Anderson ended up on my side of the table. Someone brought up Melissa Burr’s name and how she was supposed to do the show, but had unfortunately canceled. Anderson then asked me, my boyfriend, and Tommy Bates (Poker Room Director for Hard Rock Tampa), “What? Is she really hot or something?” I refused to respond, thinking that it was both inappropriate and degrading to openly debate her physical attributes. Melissa has proven herself to be amongst today’s top poker minds and, in addition to her track record, has a public persona that is more than qualifying. Furthermore, I wondered, are the men who are invited to do the show “really hot or something?” Or is that only a requirement for females? Take a look at the recurring cast of men who appear on the show and ask yourself that very question. I understand many will respond, “that is just how TV works” and that it is the nature of our society to want to stare at attractive females on TV, a topic which is outside the scope of this blog. However, I will preemptively counter that argument by pointing out that poker is a game of skill, one that many consider a “sport”, and that accordingly this show aired on a sports network, perhaps one of the only places on television where physical appearance doesn’t get you very far.
The next day, when the taping of “Ladies Night” began, the energy towards me again felt extremely negative and reminiscent of Pittsburgh in that I felt unwelcome. While playing, I looked across the table and saw a man who had grabbed my ass at the bar in Pittsburgh. I had not known then that he was a cameraman for the show: when it had happened, I thought he was a random Pittsburgh local. I don’t know the cameraman’s name, but he is very tall and overweight and I could certainly recognize him again if given the opportunity. I was then aware that there were two people in the room who had inappropriately groped me, both working for the show.
The game was to tape for eight hours with a dinner break at the halfway point. There were nine women in the game and three alternates on site. We were told that the alternates would only play if we busted out of the game and did not rebuy. The first alternate gained a seat after a player was stacked twice and chose not to buy in a third time. While filming, I got up to go to the bathroom and the second alternate told me excitedly, “They promised me they would have a seat for me after dinner.” I returned to the game wondering how they could make such a promise without knowing if someone else was going to voluntarily leave the game. I saw Dalla and Anderson whispering off set and looking at me; I got the sinking feeling that they were going to give my seat away and kick me off the show yet again without warning. Between this and the sighting of the cameraman (the ass grabber), I was completely distracted and had an incredibly hard time focusing on the game. Sure enough, at the dinner break, Anderson told me he was giving my seat away, and, “I don’t want to hear a fucking thing from you about it.” My seat was then given to a woman on the alternate list. When the third alternate wanted a seat they had the ladies in the game play a hand blindly. The winner got a little over 2K in exchange for her seat. I was the only player who got kicked out of the game when I wanted to keep playing without compensation.
In the aftermath, I did several interviews about the show, but decided not to speak negatively about my experience even though I was well aware that what occurred was outrageous and beyond inappropriate. I even found myself making excuses for things such as why Anderson kicked me off the show. Why did I do this? Why did I stay silent about what had occurred? Why was I protecting them? I did this in part, because I was embarrassed. Additionally, I did this because I was afraid of how the show would edit the footage of me (or retaliate in some other way.) Mostly, however, I stayed quiet because I was worried I’d burn way too many bridges in an already very small poker community. Dalla has been a huge name in the poker world for several decades and is extremely well connected. As a purely cash game player, my name is not “known” for tournament scores. Additionally, when I play online I use Bovada (which does not display screen names) and am thus anonymous in the internet poker world as well. I felt Anderson and Dalla had done an excellent job of making it clear to me in Pittsburgh that I was “no one” in my industry and that I didn’t matter. Jennifer Tilly attended the same Pittsburgh tapings I attended and Dalla would never have done to her what he did to me. Why? Because her name “matters.” (This is in no way a dig at Jen, I always find her a complete pleasure to be around.) I sat with everything that had occurred at Poker Night eating away at me for over a solid year, reminded of it every time I heard an episode was airing, every time I read a discussion online about the treatment and shortage of women in poker, or anytime anyone asked me about my appearance on the show. I knew I didn’t deserve to be singled out or harassed. I had behaved professionally. In my opinion, it was the employees of the show who did not.
In December 2015 the taping of the second Florida “Ladies Night” show occurred. Just knowing that the crew was back in town was so disturbing to me that I refused to even show up at Hard Rock at all (the cardroom I was playing the most hours in during this period.) It was at this point I realized staying quiet about what happened was affecting me more than it had ever before. I was contacted by many of the women who played previously, and also some male players, all asking if I would be playing again. But I had no decent response as to why I wouldn’t be there. It felt like retaliation for events that were perpetrated upon me, none of which were my fault, but, rather, the fault of employees of the show. Why should I miss out on opportunities in the industry because Dalla is a sexist pervert, Dalla and Hanson are anti-Semites, and Anderson and Capra condone their unprofessional behavior by knowing about it and doing nothing? At this point I made it clear to the show that I would no longer stay quiet.
An investigation then began by Human Resources for Rush Street Gaming and a man named Marco Leal. His first offer to me, in exchange for signing a release stating I would not speak about what occurred on the show, was to appear on Poker Night this coming August at Hard Rock, along with a $5000 “appearance fee” or, alternatively, to take a $7500 cash settlement. I turned down both offers. I let them know that no amount of appearances would be worth my future association with their show. I had no desire to put myself in physical proximity with the individuals who run and operate the show ever again and didn’t even want my likeness to be associated with the show in any way, either. I informed Leal that I had never signed a release with Poker Night to begin with and that I would like all recordings of me removed from the internet. Leal responded by saying that all episodes in which I appeared were being removed and that the cash offer to stay silent was increased to $20,000. I let him know that while the videos that I appeared in had been made “private” on Poker Night’s YouTube channel, many videos of me still appeared in various other places online. He asked me to send him links of everywhere the footage remained and promised to remove them all. So I did. He then made reference to looking for video footage of Dalla touching me and said the “settlement number would be higher” if there was some kind of evidence to support my claim.
It was not until Leal made mention of the word “evidence” that I realized that all events that occurred were being disputed. When I questioned Leal about this, he informed me that Dalla said I was making absolutely everything up, now, over a year later. I brought up the fact that I had text messages that were sent between Capra and myself, in which he acknowledged what occurred, apologized for Hanson’s remarks, called Dalla’s behavior— which he witnessed— “inexcusable,” apologized for “instigating it”, and then was so kind as to jokingly suggest that maybe I needed Linda Kenney Baden, an attorney who also appeared on the show, with me at the bar. Leal told me that when Capra was questioned about these text messages he replied that they had not been “authenticated” (clearly advice from his legal team, in my opinion.) Outraged by Dalla’s denial of the events and by Capra’s implication that I was being untruthful, I suggested that Leal obtain the text message records from either Capra’s cell phone carrier or my carrier (as I know the texts exist and I have nothing to hide.) In fact, I emphatically encouraged him to obtain the records. In my possession, I still had a physical iPhone with these messages attached to his cell phone number and let Leal know he was free to take a look at that, as well. Additionally, I informed him that I had an Email that went out to thirty friends, family members, and fellow poker players detailing my experience on the show, sent just a couple of days after the events occurred, and that he was free to “authenticate” that Email if he so chose. A close family friend and fellow poker player had responded to my account of the events in Pittsburgh that he was not surprised by Dalla’s behavior, as he had witnessed Dalla being thrown out of the Bellagio in 2009 after an altercation with a cocktail waitress: I told Leal of this, too. Also, I informed Leal that I had told fellow female poker players Danielle Anderson and Lauren Billings about my experience right after it occurred and that Danielle had even made reference to it in this interview: http://www.pokerupdate.com/interviews/01294-danielle-andersen-moving-motherhood-and-misogyny/ Leal told me that he was going to authenticate the text messages, look at my Email from the days after the Pittsburgh filming, speak to Lauren and Danielle, and get back to me.
At this point I suppose my “evidence” was becoming a little too overwhelming because I never heard from Leal again. Instead, I received a letter from an attorney stating that she represented Rush Street Productions, LLC (“RSP”) and informing me that: a) I was no longer to communicate with Leal, and b) their offer was $15,000 with the expectation of me signing a release not to discuss my claims. I never, at any point in time, accepted this offer. I did, however, respond by asking what had become of the previous offer of $20,000. In response, I received an incredibly condescending and absurd letter stating I was “bluffing” and that the number had never been $20,000. This letter also informed me that Poker Night would not be removing any footage of me from the internet. The attorney then gave me an extended deadline to accept their money. I purposely let this deadline pass, instead choosing to tell my story publicly. I want to be crystal clear that $15,000 is not “pocket change” for me: in fact, I still have six-figure debt from attending medical school and could certainly use the money. I turned down the money because I decided my story was far more important than money. I decided that compromising my integrity did not have a price tag and that my silence could not be bought.
On March 14th, a female poker player who knew about what Dalla did to me, sent me this video in which Dalla urges women who have been harassed in the poker industry to come forward with their stories and call out the perpetrators: https://youtu.be/WOBqFfWTOgQ. The video was so disgustingly hypocritical that I took to Twitter that same day and announced that I would be telling this story. Given that I had elected not to accept the settlement offer by Rush Street Gaming, LLC, that I had recently mentioned having a negative experience with Poker Night, and specifically Dalla, on Limon’s weekly Poker Sesh podcast, and, along with having stated on that same podcast that I would soon be discussing these events in detail, I have to believe that Dalla knew his time was running out. To me, it seems that the release of this video was his pre-emptive attempt at damage control. Given his reputation in the industry, (so many people who have heard my story have told me they were “not surprised” by what he did) and given my story itself, which is based on events witnessed by others and backed by evidence, I find it laughable: I genuinely laughed (while appalled) the first time I saw it.
It was suggested to me that I provide pieces of evidence within this post (texts, emails, legal letters, etc) and I have decided not to, as I will first give all parties involved the opportunity to come forward, apologize, and acknowledge that my account of these events is in fact accurate. Should any parties publicly proclaim that I am being dishonest, I will then release relevant documents.
One female poker player has already apologized to me for not being able to promote this blog post once it goes live. She said she is afraid that if she does it will damage her relationship with various entities related to her poker career. Can I blame her? Certainly not, as it was a similar sort of fear that kept me quiet about my experience for well over a year.
That being said, I am clearly no longer afraid of any consequences related to coming forward with this story, and am not, in the least, concerned with any potential repercussions or bad press I may endure.
As a final note about Poker Night, I do not want Dalla, Anderson, Hanson, or Capra’s behavior to in any way reflect negatively amongst other individuals who are closely tied to the show and who did nothing wrong. I got to know both Tom Schneider and Greg Mueller while in Pittsburgh and think very highly of both of them. Matt Glantz, David Baker, Jennifer Tilly, Gavin Smith, and Phil Hellmuth were also all in attendance at this taping and none of them have ever done wrong by me. It is my understanding that everyone I have listed above knew nothing about what occurred until recently, if at all.
So, Dalla, in your interview with Matt Savage you said it was incumbent upon those being mistreated to call out their harassers. I’ve done as you’ve instructed: you’ve been called out.