Vanessa Selbst - Pride and Prejudice (and Poker)

September 2012 Cover

31 August 2012

With $5.4m in tournament earnings and her second bracelet in Vegas this summer, Vanessa Selbst is quite simply the best female poker player in the world. She’s also an openly gay Civil Rights Law graduate who wants to change the world. Bluff decided to find out what makes her tick.

How did you first get into poker, Vanessa?

I played as a kid – you know, just for fun – and then with my friends in high school. In college I found this home game with some players who were pretty serious and they turned me on to online poker. So I started playing online and I joined the 2+2 poker forums and they were pretty instrumental in my development because it was a network of players across the world discussing strategy, and that’s honestly how I got better.

Most young players these days utterly immerse themselves in poker to the detriment of their studies, yet you found the time to study law at Yale. How did you balance the two?

I kind of did them at different times. It was 2008 when I went back to school for post-grad studies and I’d already been playing poker professionally. I realised I wouldn’t be able to balance the two because when you’re playing poker it’s hard not to get completely wrapped up in it. I took out all the money I had online because I knew that if I had money in an account I’d just be tempted to play. So the first few years of law school, I didn’t really play that much poker. I played the Aussie Millions on winter break and a few World Series events on summer break, but I had summer jobs as well. So I played maybe a total of 15 tournaments over the course of those two years, which isn’t very much at all when you think about it – but I was fortunate enough to do extremely well in those tournaments.

When I got to my third year I realised I had really been missing poker a lot and decided I wanted to get back into it professionally. I took a semester off to refocus and then it was really only on my last year that I had to balance it with my studies. It was tough because there was a lot of study, but I knew it was just for one year and I knew I just had to do it because I really wanted my degree. I downloaded all my text books on my iPad and then if I was flying anywhere I would be reading for school. I’d obviously have to miss a lot of tournaments I wanted to play but it was just about figuring out what was necessary. I didn’t take exactly the classes I wanted to because I figured I had to take some classes where attendance was less important. But really it was just one year of solid hard work and now it’s over, thankfully.

There was always this sense in Europe that Americans couldn’t play Omaha very well. The first time we started hearing your name was when British pros were coming back from Vegas saying, “Oh God, they’re catching us up! There’s this girl called Vanessa...”

(Laughs) In terms of the American Omaha “revival”, I got into it pretty early on. I started playing Omaha around the time I started playing Hold’em. I knew about the game and I really liked it because there was a lot of action and it was fun, so as I was developing my Hold’em game I was also playing Omaha pretty regularly. Back then – around 2004 – Hold’em was pretty soft but Omaha was a joke and anyone who knew how to play the game could make money. So I was playing a lot of $2-$4 PLO and it was pretty easy. And then in 2008 I won my bracelet in PLO. I didn’t really play many Omaha tournaments until that summer, so it was pretty cool to win that bracelet.

But yes, the game has been picking up over here. I guess that more people have been taking notice. I’ve been making videos for Deuces Cracked for a long time and I made a few about Omaha, I think around 2007, so there was obviously an interest around then and I think that’s about the time the game was starting to catch on a little bit.

You’re obviously very academically bright. Were your parents ever worried that you were wasting your talents on poker?

When I started playing poker my mom was really into it. She went to MIT as an undergrad and she paid her way through college playing poker. She went on to become an options trader and, as a lot of people know, there’s a big crossover between trading and poker – so she would play poker recreationally with her friends and she was always the winner. So it was actually something we could bond and connect through. I was lucky. A lot of people have that story where their parents didn’t approve until they started getting really successful, but my mom was really super-supportive from really early on. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2005, around when my career started to take off. But I’m sure she’d be really proud of me if she were alive now.

Do you think you have a natural talent for the game or has it been down to hard work?

I do think I have a natural talent. I think the main thing that makes me good is that I love strategy and games. I’ve just got one of those brains. I’ve been a games player my whole life and I’m competitive too. Any kind of game; Scrabble with friends online – anything – I just get really excited about it and just want to win. So I think you need a passion for that, first of all. You have to have a natural talent but then it takes hard work – or at least a lot of work. For me it wasn’t hard because I loved it. When I started playing I was so into it that, for the first three or four years, I really couldn’t do anything else. I was pretty much playing or thinking about poker the entire time. I think it’s that kind of drive and passion that separates the good players from the really top players.

What did winning a bracelet this year mean to you?

It felt like a tremendous accomplishment. I’ve really worked hard this year, especially at mixed games. I think a lot of people saw me as a big bet specialist who didn’t know anything else about poker and so to win it in the 10-game was really special for me. Beyond that, it felt good to win a second bracelet because people always think the first one might just be a fluke. My goal coming into the Series was to make two final tables and win a bracelet – and those were pretty high expectations for myself, so to be able to accomplish them was pretty special.

You’re the most successful female poker player of the last five years and you’re also the only openly gay high-profile female poker player. Do you feel any responsibility to be a role model for women and the gay community? Is one more important than the other to you?

I feel much more responsibility as a gay poker player. I think being a woman in the spotlight who is succeeding at what she does is great, but personally it’s more important that I’m a gay woman in the spotlight – particularly a woman who is non-gender-conforming. People joke that I look like a boy and I’m fine with that. I know how I come across and I’m totally comfortable with who I am. Being someone who has received a lot of media attention despite not looking traditionally feminine is something that’s very important to me because there are a lot of kids out there who are struggling with their sexual identity or their gender identity, and to see someone like me receive positive attention in the media is very important because they often don’t know there are people out there who are like them. There are so few people like me in the spotlight that I just feel it’s really important to be honest and open about who I am whenever I can.

Poker’s quite a male-dominated and conservative environment. Have you faced a lot of prejudice?

Poker’s definitely male-dominated and it’s definitely sexist at times, but at the end of the day it’s also a meritocracy. The cards don’t care about your gender or sexual orientation. But there are negative attitudes towards women in poker; maybe less so towards gay people, although I notice that people are always commenting on how mean or angry I am, which is pretty much the opposite of the truth. I mean, I’m very focused at the tables and stuff, but I think people see what they want to see and it’s part of a preconceived notion about butch lesbians. They expect me to be angry and negative and so I think there’s a little bit of homophobia in that. But in terms of the people I associate with – the people who are travelling the circuit – it’s always pretty much positive. I think the very top poker players are more intelligent, liberal, well-travelled and so on – so that helps, I think. There’s no surprise that the players at the top are more accepting because they’re the smart ones and they know sexism and homophobia are just stupid.

It was tough coming up. I probably did play into the stereotype a bit because I probably was a little angry. I was more insecure about who I was and also my poker-playing ability. I was 21, 22, and I think all 21- and 22-years-olds have a lot of insecurities. I don’t think I dealt that well with people who were negative or sexist or homophobic towards me and I think I reacted poorly. But it’s just a question of maturity and being more secure about who I am. Success is a part of that but it’s also just about growing up and realising that when people are angry it’s something to do with them rather than you.

Will you always be a poker player or is Civil Rights Law your true vocation?

I’ll always be a poker player. I may not always do it for a living but I’ll always be a poker player, if you know what I mean. There’s the part of me that will always be talking about odds or thinking in terms of strategy. Will I always do it for a living? I don’t know. It depends on what happens to the industry and how I feel. I mean, I’m a “take things as they come” kind of person. I don’t have plans to become a lawyer immediately but I do know that I will use my law degree eventually. I don’t know when that’s going to be but I’m just pleased I got it because I do have a lot of aspirations in terms of working for civil rights – whether that’s through making a lot of money in poker and then using that money to achieve those goals or whether it’s actively working in the field – I don’t know... it depends.

You obviously have a social conscience. Does the money you’ve made give you the power to change the world for the better?

Of course. Every organisation needs money. I feel really lucky that I get to do something that I love and I can use the money that comes with it to do good things. But it really depends on how well I can keep doing and how much I can keep winning – whether I can one day start my own foundation or whether it’s a question of just donating a percentage of my income – but it’s something that’s very important to me and it’s about recognising how lucky I am.

Is there a sense that, as such a bright individual, you might end up regretting a life devoted to poker rather than one devoted to making the world a better place?

Well, I don’t know. I think that if I end up loving my career and being in the position where I’m doing really good things with my money I won’t have regrets. But if I wind up blowing my bankroll and find myself 50 and broke and I haven’t done anything for anyone – then yes, I will have lots of regrets. But either way, I think it’s going to be important to me to not play poker all the time and do positive things outside of poker, no matter what the state of my poker career is. I think when you’re young, especially as a poker player, it’s easy to ignore those social responsibilities; to put them off to a later date, but we’re old enough now. We’re able to make a real difference and I think it’s important that we do.