Photo: Christine Bird, founder of K-W Poker Chicks

Leena Thampan had never played poker before. So, when she finally sat down to play one muggy Thursday night in June, she figured she’d be the worst player ever.

Instead, Thampan – Chief Marketing Officer at Wagepoint, a payroll startup in Communitech’s HYPERDRIVE accelerator – ended the night as the latest K-W Poker Chicks (KWPC) champion.

KWPC is the brainchild of Christine Bird, co-founder of Plum, a human resources people-assessment tool.  Bird started the women-only group out of frustration at not finding the type of networking events she was looking for in Waterloo Region.

“I would talk to men and they would say, ‘Oh, I connected with this guy you need to meet,’ and I’d say, ‘Where?’ ” Bird said. “And they’d say, ‘Oh, playing hockey, or poker.’ And I’d say, “Well that sucks, because I don’t want to learn how to play hockey.”

Bird loves playing poker, yet, despite having played since childhood, she didn’t feel confident enough to join popular local tournaments such as the Waterloo Poker Classic co-founded by Nabil Fahel, Communitech’s Director of Business Services.

When she found out only three women from the regions’ tech community typically show up at Fahel’s tournaments (despite many more invitations), she decided it was time to start something.

She emailed about 20 women and floated the idea of a regular poker game, and it resonated.

“A lot of women wrote back immediately and said, ‘Poker sounds awesome, but I have no idea how to play,’ ” Bird said. “There was a level of intimidation. It was obvious why they weren’t joining in to tournaments like the Waterloo Poker Classic.”

So, with Fahel’s support as an instructor and dealer, Bird launched KWPC.

About two dozen women came out the first night in April. The monthly events have followed the same format: The evening starts with a free half-hour lesson, followed by the tournament, which runs until a winner is decided.

The buy-in is $10. Players bring their own drinks and shareable snacks.

Four months in, Bird is happy with the results. The group has grown beyond 75 players and, most important, she’s seen their confidence flourish.

“It was really just a false barrier,” Bird said, explaining why women felt intimidated to play. “[The tournament] is an example of how much [women] can do but maybe don’t see that we are able to, because people don’t give us the opportunity.”

She sees parallels between playing poker and working in the tech industry, which is why she feels the game is such a great skill for women to pick up. A good poker game involves research, some number skills, selling, pitching and bluffing, as well as a competitive drive. A little bit of lady luck doesn’t hurt, either.

Bird sees herself as uncovering the confidence women already carry, but too often suppress.

“I’m not doing anything in particular for these women,” she says. “They manage to learn the skills in one night. You can’t provide those skills for someone; they have to come into it on their own. It’s instant gratification too. You can walk away from one night and I say, ‘Look, you did this, you tried it, you can do this.’ ”

The work of confidence experts Claire Shipman and Katty Kay aligns with Bird’s observations. In their book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, they discovered that even the most successful businesswomen let the fear of being seen as a fraud or an imposter sap their confidence. Shipman and Kay interviewed such business superwomen as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and IMF president Christine Lagarde in their research.

“Women need to get in the game, dare to compete and be prepared to lose,” Kay told CBC Radio’s The Current this week.  

While genetics do affect confidence levels, how we are raised and how we interact with our environment can also be factors. To become more confident we have to rewire our brains, Shipman and Kay explain. Leaving your comfort zone to face a challenge is an easy way to do that, Kay told CBC.

Learning the art of risk-taking and believing in yourself are also part of it, Shipman said. Learning a new skill, especially one that scares you, makes you more confident after the fact.

Leena Thampan believes that. She says she was scared of losing and nervous about playing in a poker tournament, no matter how casual and friendly it was, but that she played anyways. The first time she played, she lost quickly and was one of the earliest to leave the table. But she came back for another game, determined to do better.

“You can’t control what happens, but you have to be OK with the outcome,” Thampan said, reflecting on poker skills that also apply to her startup day job.

“Women need to be OK competing, even if we lose. We also need to remember that luck is such an important part of the game. And sometimes, no matter how well prepared we are, we may lose.”

Thampan is eagerly anticipating the next KWPC game night on July 23. She’s been playing poker at home to sharpen her game. But even though she’d like to win again, she also values the relationships she’s building.

“[Bird] is such a huge supporter of all of us. She’s found a really good and fun way for us to be together.”

As for Bird, she’d love to see her women-only poker group continue to grow. If you’re interested in playing, you can email her to be added to the mailing list.

“These are all smart women,” Bird said. “I think we are going to give the Waterloo Classic guys a run for their money some day.”

If playing cards isn’t your thing, there’s a lot more going on this week. I see and hear that…. It’s the Kitchener Ribfest & Craft Beer show this weekend in Kitchener’s Victoria Park. Starting Friday night at 5 p.m. you’ll be able enjoy delicious barbecue from Ontario favourites such as Crabby’s BBQ Shack and Boss Hog’s BBQ. Wash it all down with a stellar list of Ontario craft beers from the likes of Block Three Brewing Co. and Muskoka Brewery. Admission is free but you can buy advance tickets to bypass the food and drink lines… If you wander through uptown Waterloo this weekend you’ll find it’s a hot spot for live jazz. The 22nd annual Sun Life Financial Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival kicks off its free programming Friday morning with the festival’s Youth Jazz Ensemble on the Waterloo Public Square stage at 11 a.m. The festival runs for three days, with music, food and drinks available at the Waterloo Public Square and at the main stage at the Waterloo City Hall parking lot…. Open Streets Uptown Waterloo is planning on enhancing your Saturday night out in Waterloo. Open Streets will run during the evening, and starting at 6 p.m. on July 19 they will be shutting down King Street between William Street and Bridgeport Road to cars and opening it up to art exhibitions, performances and local artisans.

Have suggestions about events I should be checking out? Drop me a line or tweet me @write_girl.