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Vanessa Selbst -- One of The Best Poker Players In The World

by Erik Fast |  Published: Sep 19, 2012

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Vanessa Selbst appeared on the cover of Card Player magazine in May 2010. Although it has been just over two years since then, a lot has changed for her in the interim. At that time the 25-year-old pro had firmly cemented herself as one of poker’s most promising up-and-comers with $1.7 million in tournament earnings in a short career, a World Series of Poker bracelet and a year of law school at Yale under her belt.

Now 28, Selbst has since graduated from the most selective law school in the United States, cashed for almost $4 million more in tournaments and became the second female poker player in history to win two open event bracelets at the WSOP. Needless to say, it’s been an incredible couple of years for the Brooklyn-born pro. No longer a rising star, Selbst is now rightfully known as one of the game’s best players, period. While winning millions, Selbst is also shifting poker’s paradigm by reaching the game’s upper echelons as an out gay person, and a woman to boot.

Playing Less, Winning More

“I feel like everything has changed a lot in the past two years,” said Selbst, who reignited her desire to play tournaments after winning the 2010 NAPT Mohegan Sun main event and subsequently joining Team PokerStars. “I’ve been really loving poker, having a lot of fun with traveling and playing the deep stacked main events.”

As a result of being a full time law student, Selbst has played a significantly lighter schedule then a lot of other top players. Despite less time on the road, she has still put up extraordinarily consistent results. In 2010, she finished the year fourth in the Card Player Player of the Year race, followed that up with a 20th place showing in 2011 and is currently 24th in this year’s standings. Playing less frequently than other top players, Selbst was still able to win titles and money at an alarming rate.

“Obviously I ran extremely well. The first two years of law school I played 15 to 20 tournaments, with 20 being a high estimate,” said Selbst. “Since spring 2010 I have been playing more consistently, but I still don’t play as high volume as a lot of people. I’m someone who really needs to take time off and make sure that I have time outside of poker.”

Selbst posits that her amazing success could be a result of playing less frequently, not in spite of it.

“I think I play a lot better if I’m not playing everyday, because it doesn’t feel like a grind or an obligation, it feels like fun. Out of a month I probably play three or four days a week, and then take two weeks off.”

Light and Truth

Yale’s motto is Lux et veritas, Latin for “light and truth.” It certainly seems that Selbst found light searching for the truth at the New Haven law school that boasts alumni like Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, as well as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, ten Supreme Court justices and countless other influential individuals.

“I loved my time there, and I met some of the smartest and most motivated people that I will ever get to meet. I’m really happy that I got to do that.”

Selbst found herself drawn to issues of social justice, and gained valuable experience and knowledge in her years of study.

“I focused on civil rights law, taking a lot of clinics of different forms of human rights law. I did one where I represented clients at Guantanamo, one where I worked with a public defender representing people who were incarcerated, and another with impact litigation for police misconduct.”

Balancing her studies and her lucrative poker career was unsurprisingly a difficult undertaking, often requiring a lot of compromise.

“It was tough. My third year especially, as I was playing [poker] full time and also going to school full time. It was difficult for me in the respect that I had to make a lot of tradeoffs that I didn’t want to make, such as not taking clinics I wanted to take because they would require that I didn’t miss any school, and similarly I missed a lot tournaments that I wanted to play because of school.”

With law degree in hand, Selbst left Connecticut not knowing exactly how her time at Yale was going to shape her future, but pleased with the decision to spend the time and effort on her education.

“Maybe I will use it down the line, but honestly even if I never practice law, I still think that it was a very positive experience for me,” said Selbst. “I think that it reconfirmed my passions for working in those fields. Maybe I just play poker forever and become super rich, and maybe use money to work on the issues. Or maybe I will be more directly involved working with different organizations. I do know that working with clients directly and having that close connection made me much more passionate about those issues.”

Winning Gold Again: Gender and The Media

Late on July 1st, 2012 Selbst became a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, topping a field of 421 players in the $2,500 buy-in shorthanded 10-game mix. For the win Selbst earned $244,259 in prize money, but the win was perhaps even more important historically than it was financially. With this title run Selbst became only the second female player to win two open events at the WSOP, with the other being Jennifer Harman. Selbst’s first bracelet in 2008 marked the last time a woman had won an open event at the WSOP.

“This summer winning a bracelet meant a lot to me, because it had been a few years since I’d won my first, and I think it really distinguishes you to be in the group of people that have multiple bracelets. Nowadays, with so many bracelets being awarded, some people think that it has lost a bit of its glamour and prestige to win one. So to win multiple definitely puts you in the elite group.”

Selbst’s bracelet win was one of many great accomplishments by female players at the 2012 WSOP, and the trend of women finding success was given a lot of attention by the media. Selbst often found herself in the spotlight, not just on the merits of her poker game, but because of her gender.

“At the end of the day I get what [the media] are trying to do. I am happy to be able to do well for women. I wish that it weren’t a thing and I wish that people didn’t care about who the best female players are and who the males are,” said Selbst. “At the end of the day, it is because women haven’t done as well historically as men. I hope to get to the point that we aren’t talking about female poker players, where we are just talking about poker players, but I understand we are not there. Given that, I don’t blame anyone for separating us.”

Women are often held to a different standard in poker, with ESPN highlighting the last woman standing in each year’s WSOP main event. In 2007 Selbst’s friend Maria Ho earned that distinction, but when interviewed about it years later Ho declared, “I’ve never been looking to be the last woman standing. I’ve been looking to be the last person standing for years now.”

Selbst seems to have a similar mindset, looking for achievement not as a woman but as a poker player.

“I am just happy that I have done well enough that I am starting to enter the conversation when people start to talk about the players [of either gender] who have had the best success overall in recent years. That is an honor for me to be there, and to be one of the only women that’s there. Other women are looking for women to be successful and see that they can be there to.”

Gay, Out and In The Spotlight

Selbst admits that although she is mostly concentrated on playing poker, she has given some thought to how she is represented in the media in regards to gender, but also that there is another issue of representation that is even more important to her.

Selbst is an out gay person, and during her time at Yale was head of the Yale Queer-Straight Alliance. Being at the forefront of the poker community, Selbst is looking to take advantage of the international media attention she receives.

“How I’m represented is really important to me,” said Selbst. “There are so few people who are out and don’t fulfill traditional gender stereotypes. I don’t dress traditionally feminine, but I can show people that I am comfortable with who I am, that I can dress the way I want to dress and act the way I want to act, and that it’s fine. You are still not seeing this that often in the media. And so, to be able to be able to do that is really important for a lot of people out there. People who didn’t have many role models who are out and visible in their community, so they looked to TV, but frequently they didn’t have role models there either.”

When Selbst won her first of two North American Poker Tour Mohegan Sun main event titles, the final table was broadcast on ESPN. Those airings frequently feature shots of player’s rooting sections, identifying player’s wives and girlfriends. Selbst talked to the producers about how they planned on identifying her girlfriend.

“I told them that I really hoped that they didn’t sell it short and put ‘Vanessa Selbst’s friend,’ when they showed my girlfriend Miranda. They were really good about it, they wrote that she was my girlfriend and showed me going up to give her a kiss after I won. It meant a lot to me that they did that, and it meant a lot that I was able to put ESPN in that position.”

“The Conversation Is Changing”

Poker has long been considered the province of men, despite the game being one that both genders could equally excel at. When road gamblers played for high stakes in the smoke-filled backrooms of Texas, they could probably couldn’t imagine 936 women putting up a $1,000 buy-in for the 2012 WSOP ladies no-limit hold’em championship.

“It’s a sexist culture, and sexist cultures don’t just make it difficult for women to thrive, they make it difficult for anyone that’s not traditionally masculine to thrive,” Selbst notes. “That’s arguably why I’ve had more success, because I am more masculine than many other women, and also maybe why gay men who may be more feminine don’t feel comfortable in the community. It’s not anything that anyone specifically does, but it’s definitely the general attitude. It’s been traditionally a man’s game.”

Selbst says that manifestations of sexism can still be found around the game, even though things are improving.

“Even by accident people will make comments, even at the World Series of Poker. The people that run that event have been very responsive, and very good about correcting their behavior,” said Selbst. “But they have done things that imply that it is a man’s game, like saying ‘Let the best man win,’ before the tournament starts, or not having female restrooms anywhere near where we are actually playing, suggesting that women don’t belong there. But it is changing and getting better for sure.”

Selbst made a deep run in this year’s WSOP main event, finishing 73rd out of 6,598 entrants. A number of other female players also made deep runs, with Elizabeth Hille ultimately finishing 11th and Gaelle Baumann 10th. During her run, Selbst saw evidence of the evolving attitude towards women in the community.

“This year at the World Series was incredible for women in poker. It was really energizing and very heartening to see the number of people that were so excited about women’s success in the main event and were so hoping for women to make the final table. I would talk to people about who they were rooting to make the main event final table, and every one said that if a woman made it they would be very happy. To see more people cared about that shows that the conversation is changing.”

As with all things complicated, attitudes towards gender and sexuality in the poker world will not transform overnight. But with an incredible champion like Selbst leading by example, the poker community can’t help but progress. ♠