Laying Down the Law

Vanessa Selbst divides opinion, but everyone agrees she’s one of the games biggest talents. Alun Bowden finds out what makes the most successful female player tick…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. As the final card was dealt at the Mohegan Sun casino, Vanessa Selbst took in the applause and the cheering from the crowd. She was the PokerStars NAPT champion, $750,000 richer and back on the live tournament circuit. It was probably the most unsuccessful attempt to quit poker in history.

Back in 2008 Selbst won her first WSOP bracelet, but was rapidly becoming disillusioned with poker. As a perennial overachiever, who graduated high school aged 16, she felt there was more to life than winning a few hundred grand playing cards. So she quite publicly quit the game. ‘I was done. I didn’t like the lifestyle and I went back to law school,’ Selbst says.

But there is a difference between quitting playing for a living, and quitting altogether. ‘I played here and there,’ Selbst says of her poker habits at law school in Yale, just an hour’s drive down the road from the Mohegan Sun. Then as fate would have it, PokerStars launched its North American Poker Tour with a stop at the Mohegan Sun.

She is no believer in fate, but there is a certain serendipity about all of this. ‘A large reason I played that NAPT was because it was in my back yard,’ Selbst admits. ‘I didn’t want to be travelling to tournaments, so I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to win anything otherwise. It was really fortuitous.’

She admits that, at the time, it didn’t feel real. She was supposed to be leaving poker behind, but poker reeled her back in. ‘It was surreal in one respect, but it felt really natural in another. Even though I had dropped a hundred grand on law school there was no doubt in my mind that I was going back to poker. There was something about that win that helped everything fall into place. When I got off the track of doing the thing I was supposed to do and started doing the things I wanted to do, I started focusing on being happy.’

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