Here's Why Playing Poker Is The Best Way To Spend Your Next Ladies Night

One group of high-powered New York women is bending stereotypes and putting the fun back in girls’ night.

Bake-offs, book clubs, clothing swaps—there’s a familiar rhythm to the typical women’s gathering: A friend invites you to engage in some extracurricular work disguised as fun, though it actually involves whipping up a batch of dairy-free chocolate-chip cookies, or coming prepared to discuss War & Peace like the best version of your college self.

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But one group of high-powered New York women is breaking the mold with an unlikely hobby that bends stereotypes and puts the fun back in girls’ night.

girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo

Assembled around Millstein’s dining table, the group includes women from every professional field, from fashion and interior design to law and finance.

Manhattan’s most exclusive monthly poker game isn’t played in the boardrooms and back parlors of Wall Street’s power brokers, but rather in the living and dining rooms of some of the city’s most accomplished women.

Retail executive Ella Kim (she’s currently the chief global merchandising officer at the luxury fashion brand MCM) created the group more than seven years ago as a social club reminiscent of the gatherings she enjoyed as an undergraduate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, getting women from different backgrounds—fashion, finance, law—together to socialize in an adult setting while honing their card shark skills. There’s even a legit dealer present to oversee each event.

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girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo

A dealer from the professional croupier service Tumbling Dice presides over the event each month.

“This is better than [a] book club because there’s no preparation beforehand,” says Robin Allstadt, chief operating officer of New York design firm Apparatus Studio, who joined the group early on, when she moved to New York from Toronto for work. Another reason: All the proceeds go to a charity of the hostess’s choosing.

The women share an easy camaraderie that’s fueled by the pace of play. “As the game gets going and the conversation gets flowing, things gets really interesting,” says Hellessy designer Sylvie Millstein, who hosted the ladies one evening in February at her apartment in SoHo (proceeds went to the New York Center for Children). “We talk about family, relationships, work. Nothing is taboo. It’s kind of like therapy.”

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girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo

Lori Kaufthal cleans up in the first round.

But these women aren’t just in it for the camaraderie. There’s a real competitive streak to the proceedings. “Some play tighter than others, some have more stamina than others,” says Heather Windt Stopnik, who recently left her job as senior vice president of litigation at Viacom to start her own legal consulting firm, citing fashion designer Doo-Ri Chung’s tenacity during particularly intense rounds. The group agrees that Amy Mulderry, a managing partner at hedge fund Tavio Capital who regularly finishes with a stack of chips in her corner, is perhaps the club’s most aggressive player.

girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo
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Millstein prepares to ante up.

“When I joined the group I barely knew what I was doing,” says Millstein. Now, she’s beating professional players at their own game in charity tournaments, including the one fellow group member Joanna Darling’s husband Ron hosts each year. “You learn a lot playing poker with those guys, sitting at a table with them. You’re always underestimated,” says Darling, one half of the interiors firm Schoeller + Darling Design. “They’re reckless,” says Millstein.

“So are we,” says Darling. “But we’re playing for charity.”

girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo
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Ella Kim started the club seven years ago as a way to encourage networking and empowerment among her female friends.

For a game dominated by masculine tropes, there’s a not so subtle undercurrent of female empowerment. “A lot of the skills that you learn in poker can be leveraged in business,” says Kim. “Most women would never bluff, but it’s one of those practices that if you put yourself in a situation where there’s skin in the game, you learn to push it a little and work through your emotions. You teach people to get out of their comfort zone and be a little aggressive. More women should play poker.”

Kim also acknowledges the benefit of professional women from different fields creating a community. After all, men have used the game to network new business opportunities for centuries. “We graduate more women at the high school, college, and graduate level, yet at the CEO level we’re not represented,” says Kim. “It takes time, but I think these communal efforts will help move the needle.”

girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo
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Ella Kim, Sylvie Millstein, and Joanna Darling, all wearing Hellessy, discuss their winning strategy in the living room.

It’s also just a lot of fun. “We see each other more than some of our friends,” says Millstein. Perhaps that’s because no one asks for a term paper on arrival.


Much of the beauty of poker night lies in its refreshing lack of formality. Hostesses eschew elaborate floral arrangements and multi-course meals in favor of a no-frills approach that puts the focus on play. But if you simply must make a party of it, here are a few ways to up the aesthetic ante.

girls night poker
Genevieve Garruppo

The Food

Opt for easy-to-eat finger foods that let you stay in the action. Millstein caters tacos from La Esquina and serves mini cupcakes from Baked by Melissa.

The Drinks

Don’t play bartender all night. Instead, mix a batch of a signature cocktail of your choice and let guests serve themselves. Millstein offered Palomas made with fresh-squeezed grapefruit and lime juices to complement the tacos.

The Décor

Take your cues from the cards in your hand and embellish invitations with spades, clubs, hearts, or diamonds. Customize cocktail napkins with playful images of poker chips, or write guests names on playing cards to create whimsical place settings.

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