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Selbst eschews gender labels, eyes broader goals in WSOP

12 June 2014

By David Schoen

The darn “f” word. It always gets in the way, turning the sentence into some sort of backhanded compliment.

The word is a grammatical cooler.

And it leaves Vanessa Selbst slightly conflicted.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with being identified as the best female poker player in the world, which, by almost any measure, Selbst is. As much as anyone else, she understands why the “f” word has to be included.

“There’s few women in this industry, and we’re trying to create a more inclusive space,” Selbst said. “It’s natural that we want to seek out role models who demonstrate that women can succeed at the game. In that respect, I’m really happy I get to fill that role.”

But eventually, after enough of her successful five-bet shoves and first-place tournament finishes, Selbst would like to be mentioned in a broader poker discussion.

No extra words, no labels and no modifiers.

“I’d like to start to achieve some of the things that the best poker players have achieved. Those are my goals,” Selbst said. “My goals aren’t about women’s No. 1, or women’s this or that. My goals are about achieving the things that make great poker players great.”

Selbst is the winningest female — there’s that word again — poker player of all time with more than $10.5 million in documented tournament earnings. Last month, the 29-year-old won the $25,000 buy-in Mixed Max No-Limit Hold ’em tournament at the World Series of Poker at the Rio Convention Center, becoming the first woman to win three WSOP open events. The only other women with three bracelets, Nani Dollison and Barbara Enright, each won two ladies events.

“There’s a lot of people who have one bracelet, and a smaller group that have won two,” Selbst said. “I think when you start talking about the people who have won three and above, you’re starting to get into a much more elite group of people, so that’s an important accomplishment for me.”

These are also facts: Selbst is No. 2 in the most recent Global Poker Index, which ranks the world’s top players based on live-tournament results. That’s one spot ahead of six-time WSOP bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu. And she is No. 22 on the all-time money list compiled by the Hendon Mob Poker Database.

Selbst is part of the new breed of players that has revolutionized poker, a sort of Generation Bet that learned the game online and utilizes a hyper-aggressive style that’s deeply rooted in advanced math and game theory.

Selbst’s parents met at a bridge table, and as a child in Brooklyn, N.Y., she played logic and strategy games such as Mastermind. When the movie “Rounders” came out in 1998, Selbst started to dabble in poker but didn’t get serious about the game until college.

Selbst spent her freshman year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then transferred to Yale, where she studied political science, was head of the Yale Queer-Straight Alliance and joined one of the biggest cash games on campus. She also immersed herself in online poker, spending hours grinding at the tables or dissecting hand histories on one of the popular poker forums.

“There’s so much to think about. Strategic elements, logical elements, analytical, psychological,” Selbst said. “It’s just the perfect game.”

After graduating from Yale in 2005, Selbst was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and studied gay marriage in Spain but said most of her time there was spent playing poker. In the summer of 2006, she entered the WSOP, and ESPN viewers saw Selbst’s fauxhawk hairstyle and kamikaze aggression for the first time.

Selbst made a memorable impression, too, as she bluffed off her entire chip stack with 5-2 against pocket aces and finished seventh in a $2,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold ’em event. The move was widely criticized in the poker community and, coupled with her playing style and appearance, it helped shape a caricature of Selbst that was not always flattering.

“Especially early on in my poker career there were times when the TV shows wanted to create a certain image,” Selbst said. “People look at me and I think there’s a lot of stereotypes when you look at a masculine woman about the way she’s going to act. There are people that meet me or play poker with me at a table and tell me, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect you to be so nice.’ ’’

Over the next two years, Selbst played poker full time, and she won her first WSOP bracelet in 2008 in a Pot-Limit Omaha event. Soon after, she enrolled at Yale Law School and for the next two years only played in local tournaments.

But Selbst resumed her poker career in 2010 and won two events that year, including the Partouche Poker Tour Main Event in Cannes, France, for more than $1.8 million. She added her second WSOP bracelet in 2012 and continues to grow in stature.

This year, Selbst defeated tennis star Rafael Nadal in a heads-up charity match and said it was one of her top five life experiences. Her most recent cash in the $2,500 buy-in Omaha/Seven-Card Stud Hi-Low Split-8 or Better event on Wednesday boosted her WSOP career earnings to more than $2.1 million.

Selbst and her wife, Miranda Foster, split time living between Brooklyn and Toronto. Selbst graduated from law school in 2012 and has put her degree to use in a number of social-justice projects, but she said she doesn’t see herself spending her days in a courtroom.

Instead, she’ll keep fighting the good fight at the poker tables, hoping to earn more recognition along the way.

“For me, poker is never something I’m going to do 100 percent of the time, but I’m definitely going to be a pro player for a long time in the future,” Selbst said. “If they keep going like they’re going, I’d be an idiot to quit. But as I kind of proved to myself in 2008 to 2010, I just love the game too much to ever stay away from it.”


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David Schoen
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