A Change of Pace

Over the last few years, Vanessa Selbst has been virtually unstoppable. What’s left now but crime fighting?

You can’t really run out of superlatives when describing the career of Vanessa Selbst. She’s the most successful female tournament player in history with $8 million in lifetime earnings at the age of 29. Selbst is also one of only two women, along with Jennifer Harman, to win two open WSOP bracelet events.

But she’s so much more — Selbst is one of the most successful poker players in the world over the last five years, with no qualifiers. She had a banner year in 2010, winning the Partouche Poker Tour Main Event and the first of back-to-back NAPT Mohegan Sun titles. After “quiet” years in 2011 and 2012, quiet being a relative term as Selbst won another NAPT title, an LAPC side event and her second bracelet, 2013 has been a return to form for Selbst. What was “holding her back” during that time? How about a law degree from Yale.

Vanessa SelbstIt all started at the PCA back in January when Selbst recorded the second-largest cash of her accomplished career in the $25,000 High Roller, earning more than $1.4 million. After a fourth-place finish in the €25,000 High Roller at the EPT Grand Final, Selbst had a very quiet summer at the WSOP, earning just one cash.

Despite all of the success that she achieved early in the year, the biggest change in Selbst’s life happened far away from the poker table.

“I got married at the end of August, and had a pretty cool wedding,” said Selbst. “It was really amazing. A ton of my friends came in and spent the whole weekend and everything, so that was really great.”

Selbst’s wedding received a lot of attention, especially from those in the poker world.

“I think it is a little weird,” said Selbst. “There’s been a lot of interest in that, I think. Partly maybe because I got engaged at PCA, so it became a story, and I think people have followed that story a little bit. Partly also because I’m gay, and gay weddings are kind of novel, hip right now I guess. It’s a little strange, but the whole idea of marriage is a little strange to me — the fact that I’m now an adult and I have this adult thing that I’ve done. I don’t know which is the more weird part of it, really.”

She traveled to Barcelona for the EPT event there, but Selbst completely bricked the series. Another heater was waiting for her once she returned stateside, though.

“After that I headed back to New York and headed down to WPT Borgata where I ended up getting second and almost got my first WPT title,” said Selbst. “But not quite. It was still, I think, my fourth-largest score of my career, so that was a pretty big deal. My fifth cash of the year, which is a little bit pathetic, but I’ll take it — three of my five cashes have been pretty big, so I’m pretty happy with that.”

Selbst is one of the most successful tournament poker players in the world, but the game seems to change more rapidly than ever these days. So how does she continue to thrive, year in and year out?

“I think for me, the key to my success has really been adjusting my game a lot,” said Selbst. “I started off playing a certain style and I quickly became well-known for that style. I’m getting less and less respect, I think, in terms of a lot of my raises and people over-adjusting to the fact that they don’t think that I have anything.”

“Not only do I obviously have to bluff less, which I have done, but it’s far beyond that,” said Selbst. “I’ve really thought deeply about what I can do to use the way that people play against me now. I basically have taken completely different lines for value where other people might never take that line, because they think it would only called by a really great hand. But people routinely call me down so light that I’ve just completely adjusted so many of my lines. I’m just doing a lot of behind-the-scenes-type theoretical thinking behind those lines to try to figure out how to maximize.”

Selbst’s hyper-aggressive style does seem to be working out well for her so far in 2013, with almost every cash equating to a deep run.

“What ends up happening is, because I’m taking thinner value lines, meaning I’m trying to get a lot of value for my one-pair-type hands a lot of the time, which a lot of other tournament players can’t really do, I run into a lot of variance,” said Selbst. “More so than I used to, which I think is reflected in this year’s results. I’ve had $2.3 million [in cashes], but I’ve also only had five cashes.”

“It’s really interesting because so often I’m just making these huge raises with one pair or with a bad two pair, and sometimes I’ll run into a better hand,” said Selbst. “It’s just one of those things where I have to accept that for me, that was still a good play because of the range of hands I’m getting called by. The times that I run into a better hand, I’m playing these massive pots and I’m just going to be out of the tournament. I think I ran into a lot this summer, I got in with the best hand and lost. A lot of times, one would argue I overplayed my hands, but I would argue that I’m just trying to maximize my value. It winds up sending me into a ton of variance.”

While her sponsorship deal with PokerStars has her on the road quite a bit, Selbst’s tournament schedule is centered around events closer to home.

“I was just talking to someone else about this, I actually prefer to play poker in the United States because I’m so used to it,” said Selbst. “I’ve done extremely well on the East Coast, because I feel really comfortable here. Unfortunately, it’s just not where poker is big right now, but hopefully once online poker comes back and maybe the NAPT comes back, hopefully there will be more poker with bigger tournaments over here again.”

The American fields are not what they once were, though, as the effects of a complete shutdown of the online poker industry have taken their toll.

“I think everybody that plays poker in the U.S. notices that there’s fewer and fewer people that are playing,” said Selbst. “We’ve had to lower the buy-ins. I think there was a big drop off a few years ago and it’s picking back up a little bit now. Obviously, if poker got legalized again, unregulated, it would provide a massive up taking in the field sizes and stuff. Right now, they’re struggling a little bit.”

It’s led Selbst to expand her schedule to include a few more events on the other side of the Atlantic.

“The fields in Europe, on the European Poker Tour, are just huge,” said Selbst. “Their numbers are going up every year; it’s pretty crazy over there. I think EPT Barcelona might have just gotten over a thousand people or something. It was really big. I definitely think I play over there a little more than I used to.”

Despite spending a lot of time on the road, Selbst has moved away from playing a high volume of online tournaments during most of the year.

“I don’t travel that much to play online,” said Selbst. “Occasionally I will, but I’m on the road so much as it is, I’m almost never home. I’ll travel back to Toronto for big events, WCOOP and stuff like that, but in terms of regularly driving, if I’m somewhere on a tournament stop that allows online poker on a Sunday, then I’ll play. Otherwise I prefer to play live poker, just as a personal preference.”

While Selbst really cut her teeth in the online world, her live results speak for themselves. In the tournaments she plays in the United States, she’s found a noticeable decline in the quality of play from the young up-and-comers, players who haven’t had the benefit of millions of hands of online play.

“It’s kind of sad to see, but the younger players that are in the States, you don’t have the phenoms that are 21 and 22 anymore in the states, really,” said Selbst. “I think the players that are coming up now in the States are just not getting those theoretical underpinnings and not playing the buy-ins that they need to play, to really understand how to adapt to situations very well. You see a lot of play that a pro wouldn’t have made five years ago. When you go over to Europe, the younger players are, I think, much stronger nowadays compared to the American players.”

While Selbst continues to tear through fields at an alarming rate, she continues to draw motivation from the nuanced aspects of the game of poker. Her success thus far in 2013 is all the more impressive when considering where the majority of her energy and focus in poker have been in recent months.

“For me it’s always just about the challenge,” said Selbst. “Sometimes I’ll go through phases where I’ll play a lot, [but] now I’m in a phase where I’m not playing [tournaments] as much. I’m switching up what I’m playing because I like the new challenge of learning mixed games and playing more mixed cash games.”

“I think for me it’s always just when it’s fun, it’s an intellectual challenge, then I’m going to get really excited about it,” said Selbst. “When it gets to be not as fun, when I’m in a downswing or if I’m playing every day, then I’ll take a break and focus on something else outside of poker for a little while.”

In those times, Selbst has plenty of other responsibilities and interests to fill her time. She’s looking to utilize her law degree to help benefit the less fortunate, and sinking a lot of her time in New York into issues she believes in.

“Yeah, I have a lot of goals,” said Selbst. “Outside of poker I have a project that I’m working on right now, I’m hoping to turn into a big thing in terms of helping to fight police misconduct. That’s what I’m really passionate about, I’m spending a lot of time on that right now. Hopefully that will turn into a really big website and movement. I’m sure once I develop that more, there will be other projects that I will be super excited about within the legal realm.”

Goals in poker are a little bit harder to quantify.

“I think in tournament poker if you’re only going to celebrate your wins, you’re going to have a really tough career,” said Selbst. “I think it’s important to celebrate your deep runs, too. For me, that was a huge accomplishment. People are telling me ‘Congratudolences’, congrats and condolences. Yeah, I would have liked to win, but it’s still just a huge accomplishment to get that deep and have a big score. My goal is just to keep going deep and be really consistent, rather than winning the titles. I think consistently making final tables and consistently putting myself in contention, that’s much more important to me than which titles I win.”

Despite the tremendous run she’s on, Selbst is taking her foot off of the pedal a little bit as 2013 winds down.

“For the rest of the year I’m taking it pretty easy actually,” said Selbst. “I’ll be at EPT London, and after that I’ll be playing WPT Montreal. I’ll probably be playing Premier League which is going to take place before that, I haven’t confirmed with them but I’ll probably be there. And then I’ll be at EPT Prague for that series. Other than that I don’t really know, actually.”

Shortly after this interview, Selbst took full advantage of one of her limited opportunities in London, taking down a £2,000 side event for more than $100,000 and her second win of the year. With her recent run of success, she’s rocketed all the way up to second in the 2013 BLUFF Player of the Year standings with less than three months remaining. If she can find one more big result, Daniel Negreanu’s current lead could be in serious jeopardy.

A player that’s at the absolute top of her game would be a valuable resource for someone preparing for the Main Event final table, as she was for 2012 WSOP Main Event runner-up Jesse Sylvia. So is Selbst helping out any of this year’s November Niners?

“No one reached out to me, and honestly I really scaled back the coaching that I’ve been doing,” said Selbst. “I used to do a lot of coaching, and I found it got harder and harder to make a huge impact for players as online poker isn’t legal in the States anymore. It was so much easier when you could sign online and look at someone’s screen and watch them playing four tables, they’re getting so much value.”

“It was tougher and tougher to do live,” said Selbst, “So I still had a few students here and there but without a consistency of relationship, I just felt like it wasn’t necessarily the best move for either myself or my students. I actually don’t have any students right now.”

With her attention turned toward home for the time being, Selbst won’t be adding to her WSOP bracelet collection for the time being. What she will be doing, though, is finding a stronger balance between her poker career and her life away from the table.

“I’m going to skip WSOP Europe,” said Selbst, who even elected to skip the early events at EPT London in order to dedicate time to some recreational activities. “I joined this basketball league and they were having this draft for the new players so I wanted to go meet everybody there,” said Selbst, “I had to be here for that. My life when I’m not traveling on the road is back and forth between New York and Toronto, and so that’s what I’ll be doing.”

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November 2013