Vanessa Rousso on being as big as Phil Ivey, flying planes and ‘that bikini shoot’

At the start of 2009 Vanessa Rousso was talked about mainly for doing a bikini shoot for Sports Illustrated. But after a stellar run on the tournament circuit she’s shown there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye. Here we reveal the real Lady Maverick…

‘You’re not the French magazine are you?’ enquires Vanessa Rousso as I stand at the doorway of her Las Vegas apartment. There’s an awkward second or two as I quickly explain who I am, slightly worried that she is about to slam the door in my face. She twigs, giggles and beckons me into the corridor.

Rousso lives here with husband and fellow pro Chad Brown, who has just poked his head out of the kitchen to say hello. The couple have combined tournament winnings in excess of $5m, so the pad is in a prime Vegas location. Although not expansive, it’s lushly decorated with a mix of red hues, dark wood panels and eclectic furnishings – I even spot an electric drum kit lurking in a corner.

It’s late evening and Rousso is dressed to lounge in an oversized T-shirt and comfy tracksuit. ‘I think I need the emergency room,’ she splutters, folding herself into a ball on the couch. ‘I’ve been in bed with flu for eight days.’ I suggest perhaps postponing the interview to a time when she feels better, but she hushes me and hastens me to sit down.

Despite her sniffles, 2009 has been the 26-year-old’s healthiest year in poker yet. She’s notched up $1.3m in nine months and climbed to fifth on the list of all-time top female tournament earners. ‘It’s been a huge year because I made several important goals,’ she says. ‘One being an outright victory on the EPT circuit in the High Roller event and second place in the NBC Heads-up.’

Both results were landmarks for Rousso. She made her biggest cash to date in the EPT and became the most successful female ever in the heads-up. ‘It’s also been my best year so far in the World Series – I cashed four times in 17 events. It was the most money I’ve earned in any one Series. I’ve been going deep in a lot of events, made the final table at the WPT. Everything’s coming together for me poker-wise.’

However, her recent form is no bolt from the blue. She has been chewing up the tournament scene ever since making the final table in the $25,000 WPT Championship in 2006. That same year she won the $5,000 event at WPT Borgata and in 2007 proved her online credentials, finishing second in the WCOOP main event for over $700k. Her natural talent at the poker table has long been evident. She was playing the game as early as she could walk and gave up a promising career in law to pursue poker. But while these aspects of her life are common knowledge among poker observers, I want to dig a little deeper. Over the course of the interview she reveals seven facts that you never knew about her…

1. Chip Reese predicted she would be as big as Phil Ivey

The amazing thing about this is that when Reese said it (to Barry Greenstein) shortly before he passed away in December 2007, Rousso’s tournament CV was good but not spectacular. In two years on the circuit her best result was victory at a side event in Borgata, whereas in his first year Ivey had already won a bracelet and made another WSOP final table. After two years he had amassed over 15 final major final tables. Understandably Rousso is keen not to let the prediction go to her head. ‘When Barry told me I was like, “That’s a huge compliment but I don’t agree.” Phil’s an animal!’

Rousso may not be in Ivey’s league yet but this year she’s taken her game to a new level. It’s easy to snub the importance of her EPT High Roller win when the event drew just 79 players, but with a buy-in of €25,000 it was a star-studded affair: her first table featured the likes of Barry Greenstein and Roberto Romanello. She reached heads-up with a 6/1 chip deficit against Randy Dorfman but played with incredible maturity to turn things around. ‘I never put my chips in as less than a 75% favourite. It required a tremendous amount of patience to stave off tilt and not get frustrated because I wasn’t getting any cards or hitting any flops. I just had to keep reminding myself that if I was patient I would be able to induce him to bluff all-in when I had a hand.’

Another stand-out performance was her runner-up finish in the NBC Heads-up Championship. Again some might say that besting five opponents pales in comparison to making the WSOP main event final table, but the fact that she beat the five players that she did (Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Paul Wasicka, Daniel Negreanu and ElkY) tells its own story.

2. She wants you to think she’s weak at the table

It’s easy to suggest that Rousso was just running hot in the NBC Heads-up. However, she reveals that the secret behind the astounding performance was twofold. Firstly, she did extensive research on each player before the match. And secondly, she capitalised on her underdog status by imitating a weak heads-up player. ‘Against Doyle Brunson I came in with the intention of not raising much from the button early on and waiting till the blinds escalated to get more aggressive,’ she says. In the end the victory was ‘pretty simple’.

She tried an even more extreme version of the ‘weak’ player strategy against Phil Ivey, pretending she didn’t really understand the value of position. ‘I knew he wouldn’t know what to do with me because we’d never played that much together,’ she says. ‘It’s easy for him to underestimate me, to believe I don’t take advantage of position as much as a top-notch heads-up player.’

To pull off this charade, she started folding a lot on the button. ‘I allowed him to chip up in the beginning,’ she says. ‘I played super-tight, not opening up till the third level, at which point he was making loads of laydowns to me. This gave me a significant advantage when the pots were bigger.’

In the semi-final against ElkY it was a similar story, but she puts her loss in the final against Huck Seed down to fatigue and a lack of research. ‘I thought I was going to be playing Sammy Farha,’ she admits. In hindsight, she believes she has the capacity to beat all those players again – including Seed. ‘I feel comfortable that I can beat them,’ she says.

3. She doesn’t know how to play female poker players

You’d think that if she can beat the best players in the world she wouldn’t be scared of anyone, but Rousso reveals she has an Achilles’ heel: ladies’ tournaments. ‘Women confuse me at the table. I’ve definitely stopped trying to figure it out. I have one cash in a women-only tournament – they’re a different sort of animal.’ The one cash was back at the WSOP 2005, when she finished 45th for a meagre $1,640. She says the main difficulty is the level of aggression. ‘Women in a women-only tournament play differently from women in a regular tournament. I think it’s something about the competitive nature of women when they’re together. They’re as aggressive as the most aggressive male players. They scare me!’

In contrast, she finds female players in standard tournaments considerably more straightforward. ‘If they are not a fellow pro they generally try and stay out of hands with me. If they are a pro, it seems like they always think I’m up to something! I remember one well-known female player saying, “Vanessa, I’m not sure what you’re up to in this hand.” I wasn’t up to much, but I guess I have the image that I’m tricky to them.’

4. She runs her own boot camps

As someone who has always considered herself an academic first and foremost, Rousso’s natural propensity to teach has grown recently in the form of her own boot camp. ‘I had a bunch in Florida and I had another in Biloxi, Mississippi in September,’ she explains. The Art Of Poker – so called because it parallels the strategy of poker with Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War – is a one-day event built on the precept that ‘the most successful playing tactics are based on uniform strategic manoeuvres’. In other words, Rousso draws directly from her expertise on game theory to deliver what she claims is a very different offering from anything else out there.

She doesn’t share the floor with anyone else. ‘I’m teaching my intro to game theory, which no one else does. My camps are different because they’re totally unique and a different angle on tournaments. It’s just my own personal experience, anecdotes and advice as opposed to the generic canned tournament theory camps.’

To ensure that students don’t feel daunted by what is probably their first exposure to game theory, she explains that she has pared everything down to its most basic level. ‘Over the last few years I’ve found out how to simplify the very complex ideas involved in game theory. I have a giant equation that I use for every decision. It takes into account eight variables like image, stack size and betting patterns and I teach how each variable in the equation changes what you ought to do. I make it pretty easy to understand. The eight are just what I teach but I probably incorporate over 30 in my own game.’

5. She flies planes

People often talk about the idea of self-improvement but it’s rare that they actually follow through on their intentions. Rousso is different. She is constantly adding to her non-poker skill set. Backgammon, chess, and debating were just a few of her high school interests, but even as poker has infiltrated more and more of her life she still finds time to develop new skills.

In 2006, she wanted to get her pilot’s licence and started taking flying lessons. Last year, she learnt the drums (hence the electric drum kit) and this summer took up Italian. ‘I’m driven by the idea of constant self-improvement, not just in poker but life in general. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the idea of self-actualisation in Buddhism. Basically you try to achieve nirvana through self-improvement. I’m not a Buddhist but that idea of constant self-improvement always appealed to me.’

It’s obvious why poker was such a perfect fit for Rousso: it offers an almost infinite number of ways that you can – and have to – improve your game. ‘Slowly etching away at a very big stone, sculpting something over the course of a long period of time, becoming a master of the game, other opponents and myself, and the synergy between them. I’m driven by that,’ she says.

There’s no better insight into Rousso’s psyche than the source of her biggest frustration during the EPT High Roller event. It wasn’t the fact that she went card-dead for so long or the fact that she was running so bad, it was the opportunity she missed to play ‘perfect’ poker. ‘The one time I got frustrated was when Tony G was short. I called with a baby Ace when he had a big Ace. It was a small pot relative to my stack, but I ruined what could have been a perfect final table. That’s what poker’s about – constantly making as many correct decisions as possible.’

6. She ‘only posed in a bikini because the thought of it terrified her’!

At the start of the year, Rousso appeared in Sports Illustrated’s renowned ‘Swimsuit Issue’ but it was far from being an ego trip or an attempt to make a quick buck. Her reasoning was actually counterintuitive – she was petrified! ‘You know how some guys might make a really big weight bet, I knew that the prospect of being in a bikini in front of millions of people scared the crap out of me and it would motivate me to go to the gym twice a day for a month and get in the best shape possible.’

Although the pictures were well received, Rousso warns that it was a one-time deal and she doesn’t ever plan to do it again. ‘I’ve been asked many times since to do bikini shots but I’ve turned them down. I’m a modest girl and it’s not my style. It was an out-of-the-box experience for me. It was about the self-improvement. It was an opportunity to dedicate myself to really getting in shape. And it worked!’

7. She wants to be a US Senator in ‘ten years’ time

Poker might be the passion that Rousso is pursuing most fervently at the moment but she envisages a change in priorities in the next few years. In 2007, she was part of the contingent of poker players and industry representatives that travelled to Washington DC to try to convince Congress of the fallacies of the UIGEA. ‘I’m interested in working for the legalisation of poker. Actually, I’ve thought about working towards the Senate in my 30s.’

She hopes that being a US Senator won’t get in the way of poker, but is keen for the game to work as hard for her as she has for it. ‘I’d like to be more in the poker business. I’m not sure how but I’m looking for the right place, whether it’s a fashion line, the boot camp business, book writing. It would be nice to make money while I’m sleeping.’

But don’t think for one moment that Rousso would give up the game altogether. Like most players, she is keen to start notching up a bracelet tally. ‘I believe I’ll have many wins, hopefully multiple bracelets by the time I get to 90. I think setting a number is kinda absurd, it’s like trying to predict the future. I believe strongly that if I continue to apply a better and better version of myself to poker tournaments, the results will come.’

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