Rebel With a Cause

Vanessa Selbst wants to take on more than poker

If you were to write down everything you know about Vanessa Selbst you’d probably quickly come up with a few things that have been driven home about her since she burst onto the poker scene.

  1. She went to Yale.
  2. She’s a lesbian.
  3. She’s the all-time leading money earner for women.

There might be one or two other items on your list (she’s a Team PokerStars Pro!) but in reality there’s much more to Selbst than some bullet points on your notepad. At just 28 years old, Selbst is one of the most accomplished poker players on the planet, yet that’s not the impact she hopes to have. It goes beyond poker.

Vanessa SelbstShe didn’t just attend Yale. She graduated from Yale Law. With two Yale degrees in her back pocket and a better-than-solid grasp on the legal system in the United States, Selbst finds herself in a position to do more than just run good at the tables and rack up tournament wins.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Selbst played baseball. Not girls baseball. Not softball. Baseball. A self-described tomboy as a youngster, Selbst loved the game and put in the work necessary to become a pitcher. Her efforts paid off and she pitched her way onto the freshman team in high school. Heading into her sophomore year she was looking forward to a shot at making varsity.

“I basically worked harder at that than I’ve ever worked at anything in my life. Every day, from freshman year to sophomore year, I was practicing my pitching,” recalled Selbst. “Whether it was playing with someone else or throwing balls against the wall, it didn’t matter.”

She readily admits she was no superstar on the freshman squad but when tryouts came up the following season she never got the opportunity to show what she could do. Not one to wait for her name to be called, Selbst kept asking the coaches when she’d get a chance to show that she could hang.

“I remember multiple times saying, ‘Are you guys going to give me a chance?’ They were just like, ‘Oh yeah, maybe next practice,’” said Selbst. “One time they even called a special practice for pitchers and catchers. It was a nighttime practice and tryout. I was the only pitcher that showed up, and there were two catchers there. They just canceled the whole thing and they didn’t let me go in.”

Selbst could see what was happening. This wasn’t about her talent, it wasn’t about her work ethic, this was about Selbst not being “one of the guys” in the most literal sense possible. Selbst gave up on playing baseball and even feigned interest in softball that year.

“It was frustrating. Especially baseball for me, it was tough. It was really, really fun when I was younger. Then when I was on the freshman team in high school, it was fun because I loved the sport, but I got hell for it,” said Selbst. “I was already teased a lot for being a tomboy before I knew I was gay. It was already difficult enough for me in that respect, where I wasn’t getting the respect of my peers for the choice I’d made to be on the boys team. I stuck with it because I loved it so much.”

Long before she became a law student, she considered taking her case to court, just to get what she felt was a fair chance.

“I thought about doing a lawsuit or something, but ultimately the coach ended up resigning because he knew it looked pretty bad for him. By that point, the whole process had taken so long,” said Selbst, who actually gave a speech her senior year about the injustice she felt being denied the opportunity to play the sport she loved so much based on her gender.

After finishing high school, Selbst made her way to M.I.T. where she was majoring in math for one year before transferring to Yale where she shifted her major to political science. That was also where she discovered poker, making trips to Foxwoods on a fake ID to play live cash games while also grinding away online from her dorm room.

Yes, her major was Poli Sci but really it was Advanced Theorem: Poker. Selbst spent hours in poker forums, posting hand histories, asking questions, getting involved in in-depth, high-level poker theory discussions. She felt she fit in there and the more she contributed, the more she learned about poker and the better she got.

“Everybody was just openly discussing really high-level strategy. That was, for me, the best way to learn for sure,” said Selbst. “Making those relationships and having those discussions about poker theory and being at a high level back when people were creating the new era of poker theory, I think led me to become the player that I am, and also just the incredible thinker in terms of poker that I am.”She graduated from Yale in 2005 and earned a Fulbright Scholarship, allowing her to study abroad. Selbst headed for Spain to do research on same-sex marriage. She also played a lot of poker.

“That was around the time I was getting really into poker, my bankroll had started to really skyrocket the summer before. I had played for a couple of years, and (my bankroll) kind of stayed around $15-$20K,” said Selbst. “That was the summer that I really hit my groove, playing $10-$20 No Limit online and playing live and just started to grow my bankroll and get a lot better at playing poker.”

Vanessa SelbstThe time in her life where Selbst believes she “hit her groove” was actually one of the darkest periods in her life. The hours she was keeping while in Spain meant for a lot of late nights and sleeping weird hours. That’s when tragedy struck. Selbst’s mother, Ronnie, passed away suddenly. Selbst returned home to handle the funeral, and mourn.

“Then I went back to Spain. It was probably because the choices that I was making, it wasn’t healthy once again. I didn’t really have a lot of good friends in Spain,” said Selbst. “I had a few friends from my program and I had a few Spaniards, but no one that I was super close with obviously at that time. I think for me, it was easier to retreat into poker and just play as much poker as possible.”

She came back home in late spring of 2006, found a job and tried to make things as normal as possible. She fell back into the same routine she’d kept in Spain though. Sleeping during the day, not leaving the house much and continuing to play cash games online. While her game was improving, the rest of her life wasn’t where she wanted it to be and it led Selbst to make an admission not many could face.

“I was pretty, I would say depressed. It wasn’t clinically diagnosed or anything like that. I just looked back at my behavior and understood making unhealthy choices,” said Selbst. Around this time Selbst sought help and began seeing a therapist in 2007. A decision she looks back as a turning point for her and something she steadfastly recommends for other poker players.

“That was really, really awesome for me, I think. It’s something that I recommend, especially for poker players, because it really helped ground me and for me to understand the choices that I was making, and where my feelings were coming from,” said Selbst. Before seeing the therapist, Selbst turned to online poker to get her through rough patches.

“Whatever thoughts I was having, instead of dealing with any hard issue that I was feeling, it was just like, OK let me fire up some tables and just put my mind in a totally different place. It was easier at the time to retreat into poker and put that ahead of making healthy choices for myself,” admitted Selbst. Through her therapy though Selbst came to realize the decisions she was making had some short-term benefit but the long-term impact made it a –EV decision.

Looking back on it all now, Selbst doesn’t deny that putting all of her energy, her anger and her frustrations into becoming a better poker player have made her what she is today.

“I reflect on a few things. One is, I really do think that there is some degree to which, in order to succeed and get really good at poker, you do have to have blinders on to the other things in your life, for better or worse. It’s good for your poker game,” said Selbst. “Some of that was a necessary evil I would say, but some of it was just me being young, immature, and not really understanding myself well enough to know what makes a healthy lifestyle.”

The maturity came to light after her huge success at the 2008 WSOP. She won her first bracelet, in a $1,500 Pot Limit Omaha event, then followed that up by finishing third in the $10,000 Heads Up Championship. Sitting on top of the poker world, Selbst could easily have just continued to increase her live tournament schedule, put even more hours in online. Instead, she took a step back and looked at what she wanted her life to look like.

“I started to equate those two things — a poker career and a non-healthy lifestyle. That’s why I decided, even though I was doing what I loved, the summer after I got third in the heads-up in the World Series, I won a bracelet. That was the summer that my poker career was blossoming, and I decided that I wasn’t going to go down that route. I went back to law school,” said Selbst.

Back at Yale, Selbst had another transformative experience that has gone a long way in shaping the things she pursues away from the world of poker. While at Yale, Selbst was co-president of the OutLaws, an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students on campus. One night in November 2009, the OutLaws were having a party at a member’s apartment. Sometime not long after midnight campus police arrived to shut the party down.

“There was a number of other parties in the apartment probably that weren’t getting broken up. So I, as the president of the organization, just wanted to make sure that everything was on the up and up, and it wasn’t like someone called it in or something like a gay party,” said Selbst. “I didn’t think that was the case, but I just wanted to make sure. I asked the officer what the complaint was in a really respectful way.  She was really short with me and rude.”

Selbst allowed the officer into the apartment to begin clearing people out. She then started talking to the other officer and once the apartment was basically cleared out Selbst again asked the original officer for some clarification on exactly what the issue was with the party. Not satisfied with the answers she was getting, Selbst asked the officer for her name and badge number. A few minutes later, Selbst found herself in the back of a squad car, handcuffed.

“The officer was just having a bad day, and decided to overuse her power, and just trumped up a bunch of charges that weren’t true,” said Selbst. “Just the experience of going to jail and feeling completely, completely powerless, it was just one of the most shameful and just dis-empowering feelings. It was so awful. It was literally a few hours in jail; it wasn’t really that big a deal, but it was more the effects it had on my understanding of where I fit in society, and how it doesn’t matter if you do something wrong or right.”

The experience was certainly an emotional one for Selbst. The most overwhelming emotion she felt that day was anger but there was also a real sense of powerlessness and a loss of control. The frustration she felt that night and the next morning became less about her, and more about other people who might not have the ability or understanding to stand up for themselves legally.

“For me to feel those feelings in one day, and realize that there’s people for whom that’s a deal every hour, it just makes my heart hurt. It makes me so angry,” said Selbst. “It shook my interest. They made police misconduct and government abuse of authority just more personal for me, so that’s the issue that I have.”

Making the issue more personal seemed to mobilize Selbst. While finishing her education at Yale, she volunteered with a lawyer in New Haven, Connecticut, that specialized in police misconduct cases.

“A lot of people have blinders on to the amount of bad things that are happening, especially in communities of color and poor communities. They exist in bubbles and they’re shouldered from these things. In cities, the conservative mayors do a great job to shield people from the bad things that are happening,” said Selbst.

To be clear, Selbst is not anti-police. She recognizes and understands the value a trusted, law-abiding police force has in society. Growing up in New York City, and attending a Reconstructionist Synagogue both went a long way in framing her mindset. Selbst recently joined the Board of the Urban Justice Center in New York City. The group acts as an umbrella organization with projects touching a great deal of that city’s more vulnerable residents. They work with sex workers, street vendors and homeless youth among others. Initially, Selbst hopes to be able to help them with fundraising efforts.

The current project Selbst is working on is a website that takes advantage of the modern technology in an effort to catalog police misconduct and turn those videos from a viral hit into something much more important.

“Now you take a video, it knows exactly what time you took it, what the date was, where it was — it has GPS coordinates. All of that data’s being lost because it’s just being posted to YouTube,” said Selbst. “I want to create a place where you can upload these videos and it can actually be really useful in terms of the specific data of where these things are taking place. We can use them to hold specific departments more accountable than others.”

The hope would be that anybody who happens to catch an incident of questionable police conduct on their smart phones would then upload the video. Potential victims could then search the database for any video of the incident to use in a legal proceeding.

“A lot of people in this world think that as long as you don’t do anything wrong, then you’re not going to get in trouble. That is true for a lot of people, especially for upper middle-class white people,” said Selbst. “You go about your business, you’ll probably be just fine. That’s not true for so many people. There’s so many people for whom having cops rough them up and give them charges that are bogus; that happens all the time, on a daily basis.”

Subsequently, the issue of police misconduct isn’t front of mind for a lot of people. The Rodney King incident and the 2013 Oscar-nominated movie “Fruitvale Station” are two of the more well-known cases. Getting the issue in front of more people is an important part of the process and one that Selbst thinks she has a handle on.

“Those are the two examples that I talk about when I talk about video evidence being hugely important. Those are the ones that people really know. Before Oscar Grant’s case was made popular — by “Fruitvale Station” — people really didn’t know about him that much,” said Selbst. “That is happening all the time. Maybe that people aren’t being killed all the time — although sometimes they are — but it’s also people are being beaten up all the time.”

Selbst plans to give more attention to the project once the World Series of Poker wraps up and hopes to have the website live by next summer. It might seem like her focus is on her poker career and her social justice interests but the last year has seen Selbst’s private life come front and center. Last August, she married her girlfriend Miranda Foster and the two are looking forward to starting a family soon.

“Right now, I’m going to all of the EPT events, hoping that the North American Poker Tour comes back some day soon, and I can start doing more domestic travel. Even if that doesn’t happen, I imagine we’ll probably have kids in the next few years, let’s just say.”

How soon?

“When the cops stop beating people up,” joked Selbst.

Being a poker pro, traveling the world to play in tournaments, doesn’t make it easy to plan for kids but Selbst knows it’s the next logical step for her and Miranda. The continued regulation of online poker in the U.S. — coupled with the return of PokerStars, the site Selbst represents — could speed up the timeline.

“Right now, I’m going to all of the EPT events, hoping that the North American Poker Tour comes back some day soon, and I can start doing more domestic travel. Even if that doesn’t happen, I imagine we’ll probably have kids in the next few years, let’s just say.”

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June 2014