COVER STORY: Vanessa Rousso is the complete package

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Sorry, guys, she’s engaged.

And perhaps it’s that bit of news that gives men at the poker table a fighting chance against the spell that is Vanessa Rousso. How else can you explain why Florida’s favorite female poker player hasn’t won every tournament she’s ever entered? Her dizzying intellect is enough to thoroughly intimidate even the most accomplished scholars, and if looks were a factor, Rousso certainly would be at that final table. So it must be that she’s so happily in love with fiancé and fellow poker pro Chad Brown that opponents can focus on beating her rather than dating her.

Here’s a tip: If you’re sitting across from her at the poker table, be sure to arm yourself with a copy of Modern Bride. You see, Vanessa may check-raise some of the biggest names in poker on a daily basis, but the ice that courses through her veins freezes up when it comes to planning a wedding.

“The whole wedding-planning process is the bane of our existence,” said Rousso, who swam and played field hockey at Wellington High as class valedictorian in 2001. “It’s so hard. I think we’re gonna elope. We’re gonna elope and then throw a big party for everyone at the World Series or something. … That whole thing with the bride magazines, and the this, and the that, and what do I wear, and all the flowers and the colors. … It’s too much. I can’t handle it. I’m so busy, and honestly, that project was just overwhelming to me. I get it; I would love to have a really beautiful big wedding. Problem is it just takes an amount of planning that’s overwhelming for me.”

Yet she finished her bachelor’s degree in economics at Duke University in 2.5 years. Go figure.

You get the impression after talking with Rousso that if her mind were a car it would be a Ferrari and she’d have lost her license years ago for chronic speeding. She’s that smart. Thoughts race through her head as if powered by a Pentium chip, and, by her own admission, she speaks even quicker than she thinks. “If I’m talking too fast let me know and I’ll slow down,” she says.

But the newest “Go Daddy girl” insists she’s just like anyone else.

“I’m just a normal person in a lot of ways,” said the bungy-jumping, skydiving, freestyle-rapping, trilingual, globetrotting Team PokerStars Pro fashionista. “Yes I’m a professional poker player, but before the last three years I did poker the same way your everyday girl does, with her family and at the local casino. It was a hobby in my life for a long time. But it is pretty cool that I took something that was a hobby ever since I was a little kid and managed somehow to make it into my profession.”

Rousso spent most of the first decade of her life in Paris, skipping beneath the Eiffel Tower, enjoying a baguette or two and learning how to play poker at the age of 5. Now she has dual citizenship in France and America.

“Poker has brought me back there quite a few times,” she said of the City of Lights. “I love going back, very nostalgic. I get to speak one of my maternal languages … no wait, what’s the word? (She’s grateful when someone tells her it’s mother tongue). Mother tongue! That’s it! So that’s always cool. I feel a cultural connection to it and I love the food out there. I’m lucky poker takes me there two to three times a year.”

She says she’s lived in more cities than an Army brat, but ultimately she settled in Florida with her mom and two sisters. Upon finishing high school, however, she was on the move again, heading off to Tobacco Road on a scholarship, and it was at the home of the Blue Devils where she found her passion in life. Only Rousso, a.k.a. Lady Maverick, could major in economics, minor in political science and find time to study something as mind-blowing as game theory. And here’s where the dizzying intellect kicks in, so buckle up.

“Game theory is not as it initially may sound,” she said, taking a deep breath. “It’s not like we just play Monopoly and Scrabble all day. It’s actually pretty scientific and mathematical in nature. Formally the definition is the study of strategic decision-making. What that really means is it takes complex human-involved real-world situations and breaks them down into mathematical form. We use variables and other scientific stuff, like equations. The reason we do that is we try to simplify otherwise extraordinarily complex things like human behavior and human emotions. And the purpose of which is to optimize behavior, or find the best way to act in a given situation with given payoffs for different courses of action. This sort of analysis actually applies to a wide array of things in life, everything from whether or not a country should arm itself up with nuclear weapons to whether a baseball pitcher should pitch to the upper left quadrant or the lower right, to the mating rituals of two chimpanzees, which I wrote a paper on in one of my game theory classes at Duke. And obviously poker, which is a very, very dynamic game.”

This next bit is very important so we’ll pause to let you catch your breath. … Ready?

“In poker, how we use game theory is very complex,” she said. “We break down different variables, like for instance the tendency of a person to bluff. Let’s say zero-to-one, zero being he’ll never bluff and one being he’ll always bluff. Well, usually people fall in some spectrum in between there. Having that information will help you make your decision, given the amount of chips it takes to call that person’s bet, given how many chips are in the pot should you call and win, given how many chips are in your stack and how much it’ll hurt your stack to lose the amount of chips you’ll need to call here, and given the amount of chips in your stack how much it will help you should you win this pot by calling this guy. Also, we try to include in the equation things like how it affects your image should you call and actually show that you raised the pot with 3-5 suited. So there are some detrimental effects to your image even though you’ll end up winning the pot. Those kinds of things are factored in also. So honestly there’s just a million different things and it kinda gets complex.”

Did you follow that? Excellent. Want to learn more? That’s good, because Vanessa’s coming to a card room near you.

“I actually teach game theory in poker seminars, and I’ll be doing a tour of Florida with those clinics. So if people are interested it’s definitely something they should check out.”

Her first scheduled stop is March 21 at Orange Park Kennel Club in Jacksonville, follwed by an event March 28 at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

“I’ll basically be giving a two-hour lecture or something to that end before hosting a tournament. And then it looks like we’ll be giving out some sort of prize, like maybe the final table will get seats in a game theory and poker clinic I’ll be teaching. And obviously I’ll also be doing pictures and autographs and stuff.”

She says she’ll likely have more dates in Tampa, Daytona, Fort Myers, Miami and Hollywood, but that schedule hasn’t been confirmed. Rousso also said she’ll try to get Brown to appear in at least half of the clinics.

“I’m pretty excited because it will help me come back and see my parents a little more because they both live in Florida. Also they’re helping me run these boot camps so to work with them is pretty cool. I really do love to teach, and even more specifically love to teach about game theory in poker because it’s such a unique topic. And this is one of the few ways that people can learn about that topic through my clinics. I’ve had great feedback on the ones that I’ve done and I can’t wait to offer that to the people of Florida.”

Rousso credits a lot of her success to game theory, but if it weren’t for the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood she might never have been a poker player.

“At the Hard Rock, that was awesome,” she said. “I didn’t realize at the time how great I had it. I was in law school (at the University of Miami) and on the weekends I would play poker with a great group of friends of mine that are still really close friends with me. … They introduced me to the Hard Rock, and within a couple of weeks I was pretty consistently making a decent chunk of change every weekend, more than any of my law-school peers. It was pretty sick.”

As it turned out, two of her college poker friends also had their pilot’s license, so they “took it to the next level,” as Vanessa said, and would shuttle to neighboring states to play in bigger events.

“So here I am during the week going to law school and then on the weekends … heading out to these out-of-state locations to go play in tournaments, coming back, playing at the Hard Rock, coming back to law school. I mean I was living this really very unique lifestyle, and it obviously allowed me to sow the seeds for what eventually became a really rare but awesome job. It was just a great period in my life.”

With such an affection for the Hard Rock, does she get back to play there often?
“I didn’t for a long time because there are no big major events here, which I don’t understand why they don’t bring some major events here because everyone loves Florida. I hope they do eventually bring like a WPT event or a major circuit event … you know, some sort of major buy-in to Florida. I wish that would happen. So I didn’t (come back) for a while, but I do come back to teach a bunch.”

It wasn’t long after those Hard Rock days that Rousso began making her name in the poker world, though in one instance it wasn’t for her playing ability. Flash back to the 2006 World Series of Poker Circuit Event in Atlantic City. Turns out Ms. Rousso should have asked for a wakeup call.

“It was crazy. I woke up that morning and I was running late. I actually woke up 10 minutes into the start of the day. I had one of my friends with me and I called him up and I was like ‘All right, do I show up late and miss some hands, or do I just throw on a bathrobe and head down there and just wing it?’ First he thought I was kidding, and then he was like ‘Go for it! But add a cowboy hat and boots for effect!’ And so I did, and it was so funny. I mean, these guys did not know what to do with me at the table. It was a lot of fun; I’m glad I did it. … I ended up going on to win (almost) $20K that day so it was pretty cool.”

It wasn’t the usual chic outfits she’s become known for on the tournament circuit (it does put the Lady Maverick moniker a little more into perspective), but the bathrobe incident proves she doesn’t take herself too seriously and has a dynamite sense of humor. Again, sorry, guys, she’s engaged.

Rousso, who once described herself as a fluid player because of her ability to change playing styles instantly, had a nice start to 2009. She just missed the final table of the WPT Southern Poker Championship’s main event at Beau Rivage, but still took home $79K for her seventh-place finish. And, as if right on cue as Ante Up was going to press, she placed second in the NBC National Heads-Up Championship, knocking off Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Paul Wasicka and Daniel Negreanu along the way before falling to Huck Seed in the final. She now has more than 25 “live” cashes, including seven at the WSOP.

Plus, she recently had her 26th birthday in February. Notice the word “celebrate” wasn’t used in that last sentence.

“It’s the first birthday milestone that I have nothing really good to celebrate,” she said with a chuckle. “At least last year I could celebrate that I could finally rent a car. … This year there was nothing to celebrate; I was kinda bummed. My next big thing is like retirement benefits, wow!” 

Perhaps Rousso can celebrate the fact that PokerStars and Sports Illustrated teamed up to put her in SI’s 2009 swimsuit issue. And again, for all her coolness at the table, Rousso was all a quiver in front of the SI lenses when they photographed her in the Bahamas back in January.

“Any girl would be nervous,” she said. “That’s pretty much a girl’s worst nightmare, having a picture taken of them in a bikini is pretty scary. But I’m really thankful to PokerStars for getting me that opportunity. … You can bet I hightailed my butt to the gym right after (I found out) and I worked out once or twice a day every day before the shoot for three weeks. I was happy to have a reason for once, given that I’m a poker player and I sit on my butt all day, to go to the gym with a consistency and really focus on being healthy. So for me that was a really good outcome from the shoot.”

She also says feel free to bring copies of the swimsuit issue to any of her clinics around the state and she’ll gladly autograph it for you. Of course Ante Up wouldn’t mind if you had her sign the copy you’re holding right now as well.

“I’m laid back about that kind of stuff,” she said. “I’ll sign it; I really don’t mind at all.”

With so much going on in her life, does she ever feel like she’s going to burn out?

“It’s kinda like the exuberance of youth right now,” she said, laughing. “I’m sure there’s gonna come a time in my life where my priorities will change. Eventually I do want to have a family and all that, and I definitely couldn’t keep up this pace with a family. There’s just not enough hours in the day. I’ll probably still be playing poker, just not also doing the boot camp business, also running a charity, also teaching a lot of other boot camps, on top of that I also put in 15 hours a week online. I do do a lot right now, but I kinda like it that way. When I have too much free time I get antsy.”

How did she become known as the Lady Maverick?

When one thinks of a maverick, thoughts of rebels, loners and John McCain come to mind. But with such a large family, lots of friends and a devoted fiancé, how did Vanessa Rousso get a nickname like Lady Maverick? Here’s her answer: In the movie, Maverick, the main character sells shares in himself to go play the world championship main event, which I think was $20K in the movie. Believe it or not that’s how I played my first big main event in 2006; the $25K WPT event at the Bellagio, the one I ended up getting seventh. At that point $25K was way too much for my bankroll to go play. But I had this pipe dream … so I went and sold shares of myself, like shares between $100 and $1,000 apiece, so I could sell a bunch of shares to friends and family in hopes of heading out there and doing well. And I ended up doing well and returning 10-to-1 on each investor’s investment… Then when I came back one of my dad’s friends actually said to me “What, are you the Lady Maverick of poker?” and he reminded me about the story from the movie and I kinda just thought it fit.”