Happy days and dark times
Vanessa Selbst is a player that divides opinion in the poker world. To some, she is the epitome of all that is good about the game. To others, she is an arrogant table bully. In person, she’s far less formidable than you would expect. Her mind is razor sharp, and her answers come flying out at a million miles an hour, but there is a softness you may not expect. There is a lot about Selbst that defies expectation.
Growing up in multi-cultural Brooklyn and then later in a liberal New Jersey suburb where ‘the worst thing you could call someone was Republican’, Selbst’s early life was a mix of academia, business and sport. ‘I was always scheming and being an entrepreneur. When I was seven we would take my mum’s old books and sell them on the lawn for a quarter,’ she says laughing.
Later on in her teens she started a tutoring and babysitting business in an effort to make money. ‘It always had to be a business with referrals and commission payments,’ she adds. Aside from that it was baseball and studying that took up most of her time. ‘My life was math league, science league. I was such a nerd,’ she says with a smile.
Poker wasn’t a big part of her life growing up, even though her mother had earned a ‘bunch of money’ playing poker when she was younger. ‘She never taught me how to play. But I would talk to her about poker hands, and she was kind of excited by it all.’
Tragically Selbst’s mother wasn’t able to see just how successful her daughter would become, as she passed away when Selbst was just 21. Selbst was living in Spain at the time on a scholarship and it hit her very hard. ‘I was supposed to be doing this research project, but I couldn’t do anything so I was just playing poker all night and sleeping all day. I was lonely. It was kind of a dark time.’
Out of that dark time, though, came the emergence of the poker talent we see today. She began to focus on playing online, honing her game and posting on TwoPlusTwo. Pretty soon she was a force to be reckoned with and was taking her game onto the live circuit. The appearance of this aggressive, young female player didn’t go unnoticed, and by the time she took the starring role in her first TV final table her character was already formed in many people’s minds.
Selbst’s fierce, aggressive persona perhaps made its first public appearance in the 2008 WPT Ladies Event. Selbst reached heads-up with old-school player Nancy Todd Tyner and the culture clash resulted in an increasingly nasty war of words with Selbst cast as the villain of the piece.
‘I was 22,’ Selbst says with a smile. ‘I was this young masculine woman who came out and starting berating this old woman. It’s just too strong an image. I should not have trash talked her on TV. She did it to me too, but they didn’t show it. Yes, that was a mistake that I made.’
The table bully
Ever since then, however, she’s been typecast as the table bully. The pantomime villain. ‘It’s a character that has been created for me, that I had some role in creating earlier in my career,’ Selbst says honestly. ‘For a time now I have been trying to eradicate it, but it is what it is and I really don’t mind anymore. I’m not at the table to make friends.’
‘I would be really upset if anyone who knew me in real life said any of those things. But I get that I come across in a certain way.’ She’s always been an overachiever, and has a lot of confidence in her opinions. ‘I roll my eyes and I shouldn’t do that stuff. It’s not that I am berating people, but I spend a lot of time thinking about my game and I see people doing a play where I think, really? I can’t help myself sometimes.’
Selbst has learned a lot about the game and herself since her early days, however. ‘The 22-year-old me was always right and I never played a hand poorly,’ Selbst says with a laugh. ‘Since then I’ve realised there is so much more to learn and I love talking about hands I played badly.’ And luckily for her critics the world of TV cash games has thrown up a couple of blinders in that respect.
‘I’ve only been on two televised cash games, and I have made huge blunders in both of them,’ Selbst says with a rueful smile. Perhaps the most memorable of those was six-betting to $106k with J-7 in the PokerStars Big Game only to run into Prahlad Friedman with Aces. Watching her tortured reaction as the three flops are dealt is hard to do. ‘We all make misreads, but not often for that kind of money and on that big a stage.’
‘The thing with the Big Game is that I played really well until the J-7 hand, but nobody remembers that,’ Selbst says. ‘It’s humbling, but it’s good to make those mistakes and have to deal with it. People think that I am really cocky and overly confident. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I can be overly critical of myself sometimes and say, “yes, that was terrible.”‘
Fail again, fail better
This ability to be self-critical and take on advice has helped her win over $7 million in tournaments so far. That, and a habit of making hands on final tables. ‘People ask me what my secret is and I say you need to make all your sets at the final table,’ Selbst says only half-joking. ‘I mean, how many final tables are you going to make in your life?’
‘I don’t run better than the average person, but I have run well at the final tables I have made and that’s the difference. I have made more final tables than the average person and that’s because I play better,’ she says. And part of that is down to her table image. The fact that she is willing to make crazy plays is a quality that makes her so successful.
‘It makes people play in a certain way against me. They don’t want to re-raise me, and they shouldn’t because I am terrifying. I think the best thing you can do as a tournament player is play tight and when an amazing spot comes up you take it. I would love to have that image, but I am so far past that point now.’
It’s clearly a style that works. In January at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure she took down the $25k High Roller event, wining $1.4m and moving to the top of the all-time leaderboard for female poker players. At the EPT London in March, PokerStars put on a special presentation to note this landmark with Daniel Negreanu presenting her with a trophy to commemorate the amazing feat.
So how does it feel to be the most successful female player of all time? ‘I don’t really think about it,’ Selbst says looking a mixture of confused and embarrassed. ‘At the PokerStars party I was getting congratulated by people like ElkY with higher earnings than me that just happen to be men. I just don’t see it as that meaningful,’ she says evenly. ‘All the individual accomplishments along the way have had a lot of meaning for me for all kinds of different reasons.’
World Series madness
One of her more interesting achievements in the past 12 months was coaching Jesse Sylvia to second place in the WSOP Main Event. After playing together on Day 6, Sylvia contacted her on Facebook and asked her to coach him for the November Nine final table. They worked together for about a month looking at theory, running simulations and watching videos of other final tables.
Then, sat on the sidelines she found herself drawn in, offering advice from the rail and trying to get him to push on for the win and be more aggressive. Be more like her. ‘Jesse wasn’t bluffing at all,’ she says. ‘We worked a bit on not bluffing and I think he took it a little overboard.’
Selbst had also spotted young Jake Balsiger was looking like he was going to crumble under the pressure and wanted Jesse to go after him. So she called Jesse over and started shouting at him to picture Jake as a big fish to get him to start attacking Balsiger.
‘I was saying: “That guy there is a fish. Literally think of him as a big guppy or something”,’ she says. But unfortunately the mics from the live broadcast picked up her shouting and the world heard her calling Balsiger a fish. ‘It was a little bit awkward,’ she says with a laugh. ‘But luckily he didn’t take it to heart.’ The final hand, where Merson shoved all-in with K-5 and Sylvia called it off with Q-J saw the cameras pan to the stands where Selbst could be seen mouthing: ‘He called?’ She looked a little shocked, and admits she was really surprised he had that hand to begin with.
‘He was three-betting to five-bet all-in, but if he got shoved on he was in a terrible spot. Two hands earlier he had the perfect stack to do that, but he had lost 10BB and he was tired and misread the stacks. Once Greg shoves then it’s a mandatory call.’
The result might not have been what she wanted, but the experience was one she loved. And for anyone looking for a final table coach this year, the door is open. ‘I would love to do it again. It was so much fun, and there is nothing like the Main Event of the WSOP, to be a part of it was really cool.’
The final hand
It’s obvious that Selbst gets a huge amount of satisfaction from poker, but it’s also clear that her life doesn’t begin and end at the tables like some. She spends a lot of time away from poker with friends from home and college and says that time away from the game is a huge part of her success. ‘When I’m relaxing is when I do my best thinking. You have these epiphanies. And because I’m not playing as often as everyone else I’m having more fun when I’m playing.’
More than anything you get a sense from Selbst that she loves her life right now. She recently got engaged, her poker career couldn’t be going better and she has other goals outside of the game that keep her motivated. ‘My personal goal is to raise a million for a non-profit foundation and I am a good way there. I want to have enough money for it to be going for five years without needing outside money.’
The endless life on the road doesn’t quite sit with her though. She divides her time between a home in Toronto, a home in Las Vegas and a life out of a suitcase on the EPT circuit. ‘Having a home base would be awesome, and I would love to settle down and coach a little league team and take cooking lessons,’ she says.
But for now, the poker life is where she belongs. And she’s happy. ‘I love my life. It’s not about money, it’s about how you want to live your life and who you surround yourself with. I think I accept my faults. My friends might disagree sometimes, but I just do the best that I can.
That Big Game hand
How Vanessa Selbst went broke with J-7 on the Big Game.
The hand in question has rapidly become an internet classic. Selbst leads out with J-7 and gets three-bet by Prahlad Friedman with Aces. She four-bets to $13k, he quickly five-bets to $35k and she thinks for a while before sticking in a six-bet (this is a pot-limit game preflop) to $106k. Friedman insta-calls and despite running it three times she walks away with zero.
‘That was not a good hand,’ Selbst says with a laugh. ‘I thought that given the stack sizes his range was Aces and bluffs. I still think his range is Aces and bluffs, but it’s 95% Aces and about 5% bluffs. One of my leaks is thinking people are as crazy as I am. My range in that spot would be a lot more bluffs. It’s a sick spot and a great spot to be bluffing.’
‘It was a misread, but I can laugh it off. You make decisions, and you learn some really expensive lessons. That hand is a constant reminder for me to think “are they making a bluff or do you think they are because you would bluff here”. That has saved me a lot of times in tournaments where I wanted to play back at someone but I didn’t.’
Final table skills
One of Selbst’s biggest strengths is in the closing stages of a tournament. ‘I am very good at playing final tables, and a lot of players are shockingly bad at it,’ she says. ‘Even bluffing machines, who play 60% of hands, will raise-fold pocket Eights from 20BBs. They don’t want to bust.’ But she’s reluctant to give away too many secrets.
‘There is so much you can do based on ICM and putting pressure on people,’ she finally admits after trying to dodge the question. ‘If one stack is 5BB and another stack is 50BB and you have 200BB and the 50BB stack raises, what is my move? I shouldn’t even look, I should just go all-in.’
‘The math is around what the value between first and second is and what the stack sizes are, and you change your shoving ranges based on those factors. But I see so many people not adapting to this.