Vanessa Selbst is fighting a war on and off the tables to get the respect she deserves
Heading into my interview with Vanessa Selbst, I was more than a little apprehensive. For years she’s been portrayed as a fiery, overly confident brat who’s more likely to berate you for donking out on her than to shake your hand at the tables. But as the old adage goes: don’t believe everything you hear.
As we take our seats in the lobby of London’s Hilton Metropole, the PokerStars pro picks up a back issue of PokerPlayer and begins to laugh. ‘Liv Boeree, the hottest player in poker, reveals all,’ she says, repeating the cover line. ‘That’s nice.’ As she finishes, she turns to me and raises an eyebrow. I’m not sure whether she thinks the line is genuinely funny or something else entirely, but her easy nature breaks the ice between us. Fast forward an hour or so and any preconceptions I had about Selbst are all but eradicated.
Despite all the rumours, Selbst is eloquent, honest and self-deprecating. She knows how the world sees her, and frankly she doesn’t care. And while she’s often outspoken and intense, she’s also very likeable. ‘At the start of my career, people remembered me for being a bitch or whatever,’ she says. ‘Poker is a very meritocratic game. The cards don’t know if you’re a woman, a man, gay, straight or whatever. You just play the hand you’re dealt and if people want to talk shit they will.’
Success has come relatively easily for Selbst. Since making her first ever live final table at the 2006 WSOP, the pint-sized New Yorker has gone on to capture several big-money titles, including the Partouche Poker Tour main event, a WSOP bracelet and two NAPT titles. In five short years she’s amassed $4.7m and sits second only to Kathy Liebert in the women’s all-time money list. But her talents aren’t just confined to the poker tables.
Now in her final year at Yale Law School, Selbst is gearing up for a possible second career as a civil rights lawyer. And back in 2008, after winning her first bracelet, she took the rare decision to quit poker for a year to concentrate on her studies. Upon returning to school, some people would expect her to be inundated with praise from her peers. But as she explains, being a poker player at Yale is nothing special.
‘Law school is the only place where I’ve felt like I’m not the smartest person there,’ she says candidly. ‘Some of my classmates go on to work for presidential campaigns, or are big-time movie producers, so being a poker player isn’t that remarkable. To me it’s just something I do. It’s just life.’
Since returning to the game, Selbst has distinguished herself as the leading light in poker’s current female pack. Yet, despite her glowing CV, she’s still largely unknown outside of the US. Part of that is due to fate – her PPT win was overshadowed by the Ali Tekintamgac cheating scandal in 2010, while her back-to-back NAPT wins in April coincided with the events of Black Friday – but part of it is arguably due to prejudice.
Unlike the Liv Boerees and Vanessa Roussos of the poker world, Selbst’s baggy jeans and tracksuit tops aren’t conducive to lad’s mag spreads, and as a result her achievements have been unfairly overlooked. For those in the know, however, she is the one the best tournament players around. Even if she doesn’t see it that way entirely.
‘Everyone’s results orientated,’ Selbst says. ‘So if I go on to win three tournaments in a year, like I did between 2008 and 2009, then people are going to say that I’m the best. If I have a cold year, then I’m sure five other people will come along and be tarred with the same brush. In terms of live no-limit tournaments I probably am one of the best. But in terms of other forms of poker, I haven’t had the time to put in to become anywhere near one of the best. I’m lucky that the form of poker I like best tends to be one of the most profitable.’
Selbst has inevitably been pigeon-holed because of her gender. Female role models are few and far between in the game, but given her strong views on equality, you might think that being categorised by her chromosomes annoys her. ‘You take the good with the bad, and I’m not going to complain if I get pigeonholed as a female player,’ she explains. ‘I am a woman, and I’m happy to represent women, and I think I provide a lot of inspiration for other women.’
But while Selbst appears happy to take what comes, her experiences on the negative side of poker have been more brutal than most. Not only have TV producers ‘cherry-picked’ her time on camera to portray her as something she isn’t, but as the most famous openly gay player in the game, she unjustly carries a target on her back for the more narrow minded to hurl abuse at. None more so than Michael Bernstein.
In April last year, the pro published a controversial blog entitled ‘Vanessa Selbst Sucks – A better case for why online poker should be legal’, in which he discounted her abilities at the tables and branded her as a reason why poker is still seen as a game of luck. But it was his description of Selbst’s bested opponents as ‘cum-banks that are at the receiving end of her sodomizing, bone-headed plays’ that raised alarm. And as we ease into the interview, I’m keen to know whether she felt his comments were an unsubtle form of gay-bashing, or something less sinister.
‘I think a lot of people write attention seeking blogs and this guy was no exception,’ she explains. ‘He was just being an idiot. People write negative things about me a lot, and the more well known you are the more positive and negative stuff you’re going to get. I don’t even know why that got so much attention. It didn’t bother me at all.’
Her answer seems surprisingly circumspect. Guarded even. When you look at Selbst’s background, her plans to establish several legal foundations, her ongoing higher education, not being bothered doesn’t ring true. When I ask directly if she viewed the comments as homophobic, her calm veneer slips a little.
‘There are always people that have been homophobic and will continue to be that way,’ she replies. ‘But I’ve always been someone that is very confident, sometimes overly so. My attitude gets me in trouble, but for the most part it’s helped me succeed when other people would have done otherwise. It would be easy for me just to focus on the negative things that are written about me, both in terms of my sexuality and my gender appearance, but I’m happy with who I am, what I’ve done in life. You can’t get upset about what random people who don’t know you are writing.’
Stand Up For Your Rights
Dealing with people like Bernstein is child’s play to what she’s been through, both at the poker table and in broader life. ‘I’ve seen a lot of injustices happen,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve stood up to cops, within my rights, and argued fairness. But I’ve only had bad things come of it. Growing up in New York City, in a very liberal community, activism was a value we all shared. I believe strongly there are a lot of communities that are disadvantaged and don’t need to be.’
A few years ago, when not destroying the live poker circuit, Selbst organised a party back home for her local LGBT society. Police broke up the event, and when Selbst’s pleas for a reason were repeatedly ignored, she found herself arrested. It wasn’t the first time she’d felt the strong arm of the law, and again and again she tells me how she was routinely ‘roughed up’ for standing up to the authorities back home. Judging by the strained look on her face, her wounds are the reason she still juggles poker with law school.
‘I remember how powerless I felt in those situations as an upper middle class, wealthy white woman,’ she says. ‘If I can feel that way, then just imagine what people who are less “powerful” or poor have to go through every day – all sorts of racial minorities. I was able at least to pay a fancy lawyer to get me off and get me out, but not everyone is so lucky.
‘Ideas like that have always been really important to me and that’s the reason I went back to law school in general. I’ve always been the kind of person who can’t focus 100% of their time on any one thing. Having a joint career between the two helps. I can go back and forth, and I don’t get too bored by any one thing. I’m very passionate about poker. I love the game, it’s super fun. I can have fun and make money, but I can also do the things that are important to me from an ethical and moral standpoint.’
Life Imitating Art
There are some obvious comparisons to be drawn between Selbst and Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott in Rounders. Like McDermott, Selbst balances her legal studies with a keen poker habit. And like McDermott, Selbst was a regular at the underground poker clubs in New York. Back before she was famous, she would grind out a living on the illegal scene, fine-tuning the poker skills she’d learnt at law school and online in an aggressive live environment. But it wasn’t always easy pickings.
‘I had a lot of near misses,’ she confesses. ‘There were a few times when I would quit a game, and then hear a week later about how it was robbed and everyone had all their money stolen. Seven or eight years ago those clubs were really big, and they had like ten or 12 tables each. Now it’s really hard to find games that are bigger than one or two tables, and even then you have to worry about them getting broken up, raided or robbed or you getting arrested.’
As we continue to discuss how she’s ‘basically doing the Rounders thing’, Selbst admits to getting ‘a lot of stick’ for saying on High Stakes Poker a few years back that Matt Damon would play her in the movie of her life. Although her choice was clearly meant as a joke, a lot of people in the poker world questioned her. ‘They were like “don’t you know you’re a girl?” That wasn’t the point really,’ she adds, chuckling.
But while the whole situation seems trivial, the reaction to Selbst’s answer goes a long way to explaining what’s been undermining her media career to date. Poker pros come in many shapes and sizes, but Selbst seems forever destined to be defined for who she is away from the table. This is not necessarily to her disadvantage, but it certainly is to poker as a whole. The game is now so desperate for compelling TV personalities that Selbst could be an ideal candidate to pick up the Hellmuth and Negreanu mantle, if only people could move away from certain aspects of her personal life.
As our time together comes to a close, I ask her whether she gets annoyed by how often reporters choose to focus on her life outside of poker. ‘No, not at all,’ she says to my surprise. ‘Sometimes reporters are scared to ask me about it, but I understand that there are no other openly gay, famous poker players, and I want people to ask.
‘Politics has always been really important to me, and there are very few role models in the LGBT world that are on TV, so for me to be open and honest about who I am, it reinforces the fact that I haven’t become famous because of my sexuality. I’m very honest about who I am, and most of the time when people talk negative shit,it’s because they’re jealous of my success.’ And quite frankly, who wouldn’t be?
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