On the Button: Q&A with Vanessa Selbst

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Vanessa Selbst is coming off the best year of her young poker career. She tells Ante Up’s Chris Cosenza she’s learned a lot on her way to making millions, admitting she’s toned down her bluffing blowups and has acquired patience at the table. Oh, and wait till you see what she thinks of cops.

Let’s face it, 2010 was an amazing year for you with two major live victories and about $3 million in live tournament winnings. What do you attribute to your great run? Obviously there’s just a ton of luck and variance, and whenever I run like that you know I had a lot of good luck at the final tables, which is really important. I think what I attribute to getting that deep in that many tournaments, I guess it was three majors I went pretty deep in, was just sort of learning how to be more patient at the tables.

At Mohegan Sun I kinda had a breakthrough moment. There was a mishap with the tournament scheduling and essentially there was a little room with all of the late registrants that was about 75 people big. They decided to essentially play a mini tournament in that room until there were enough (open seats) to put them in the main room with all of the online qualifiers and PokerStars players. It was really weird because we were playing our own little mini $25K World Championship of Poker trying to break into the $5K main event with all the online qualifiers. I think at that point it really sunk in for me just how bad my table draw was relative to the rest of the field. I had always known that that concept existed of waiting for a better spot, but in practice it’s hard to say “OK, I’ll get a better table later.” Here it was more than clear I had every superstar at my table and it was just not a tough field.

So I just waited it out and honestly, after that table broke I just didn’t have any hands so I didn’t try to force the issue. I left with just my starting stack and went on an absurd heater the rest of the day, and ended the day, in those last two hours, from starting stack to chipleader. So that was a breakthrough moment for me on waiting for better spots. That was always the thing I had struggled with beforehand, sort of playing too aggressively and just making too many bluffs in unnecessary spots. While I’m obviously still aggressive and obviously I still bluff a lot, I’ve toned it down considerably where I’m not just busting out of every tournament by bluffing. I think that is why I’ve learned how to get deep into these big-stacked events. And running good at the final tables has led to me being able to take them down.

Since you attend Yale and live in Connecticut, how special was winning the NAPT event at Mohegan Sun in April? It was amazing to win here. I had my friends from law school that were able to come up and watch me. … But also, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have played it otherwise. It’s funny because I just didn’t really play any poker the first semester of school. … And then I didn’t play another event until the World Series of Poker at the main event. … I just got lucky at the right times and was only able to play the events that were close to home.

What are the cash games at Yale like and did you take down any trust funds? (laughs) They were juicy, but not trust-fund material. They were juicy for a college game, but Yale cash games are where I got my start. I met some really amazing players that were very talented and very into poker and I was the fish when I joined the game. They turned me on to online poker forums. … We were playing $1-$1 blinds but there’d be straddles and stuff, and on any given night people would lose a couple hundred dollars, which in college is nothing to shake a stick at.

How did your NAPT win differ from your Partouche victory in Cannes? The structures of the tournaments made them vastly different tournaments. Partouche was hour-and-a-half levels the first day, followed by two-hour levels after that. So it really was just like, you did not have to force the issue at all. You could just wait and wait and let something happen. That’s not really my style but I noticed that it was other people’s style and subsequently I almost amped up my aggression because I noticed that people were more content to wait on things and wait for a better spot.

Mohegan Sun, well it’s funny because I guess I played super crazy in that one, too, only because people were playing less passively so I had to play even more crazy to get them to fold. (laughs) … It was just a shorter stacked tournament and I think the competition was probably a little bit more talented at Mohegan Sun as a whole. Poker’s been around in the U.S. for a little bit longer and I think that field was a little but tougher. It’s getting more popular over in Europe. I think Partouche in its third year people finally heard about it. From what I heard the first and second years the fields were incredibly soft. I definitely ran into some tough players, especially as the field thinned out, and I thought there were some very good players at the final table.

You have an NAPT, WSOP and Partouche Poker Tour title; how important is winning a World Poker Tour main event to you? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. (laughs) You should ask me, ‘How important is it for you to CASH at a World Poker Tour main event?’ and I would say that would be awesome; let’s try it out! (laughs) I’ve played about 15 main events by now; I played a lot in 2007 when I was just awful at these events, and I’ve played about three or four this year I guess. I’ve gotten deep in a couple of them but got unlucky in a few situations late. I’ve been unable to make any money; I guess I got second in a WPT ladies event if that counts.
In terms of the title, I love winning; I love winning tournaments. I think titles are great. People remember the first-place person, and I’m also very good at closing tournaments. It’s something that’s important to me. That’s a skill that I have. I’m very good at short-handed, and you know it is a very important skill; you don’t make many final tables. If you make 10 final tables in come in third or fourth, or if you make three and come in first you’re breaking even essentially. It’s just a huge skill to be able to play short-handed and be able to close final tables. Let’s see what happens when I make it to a World Poker Tour final table or two and in that case I think it would be incredibly important. The WPT is a historically important event, but there’s a lot more circuits out there that’s becoming almost bigger. Like the European Poker Tour is just getting huge and I think for me it might be more special to win an EPT because those fields are getting so much bigger nowadays.

Some say WPT titles are more important than WSOP bracelets because there are fewer WPT titles to be won. How do you feel about that? I think the reason World Series titles seems so valuable is both marketing and historical nature. Once upon it time, it was the only real big tournament series out there, so it was the most important. Just having that historical aspect, which has been played up in the media and their marketing, is why people value it so highly. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they value it so highly more people want to play and so it becomes a valuable thing. At the end of the day their structures are much worse, they’re three-day tournaments as opposed to five- or six-day tournaments, you’re not getting as much poker, there’s a lot more luck involved. People ask me how did you win NAPT Mohegan Sun and Partouche and I say I think played my A game and made some really crazy sick moves. … And at the World Series they ask me (how I won my bracelet) I say I got aces in PLO and they held every single time I had them. I do think the deeper-stacked events are more prestigious for actual poker players. And I do think for that reason I would also agree the WPT events, I would value those more than bracelets. … It’s more impressive to win those deepstack events, whether it’s WPT or EPT.

You were once nearly brought to tears when you were heads-up with Nancy Todd Tyner for the 2008 WPT Ladies Invitational title. How frustrated were you in that match and have you ever been that frustrated since? Tears might be a slight exaggeration. (laughs) I was frustrated, but it wasn’t just the poker. I mean the poker was frustrating because she was just God-awful and just winning every single hand. But it was her antics. This is something I’ve just given up trying to explain to people because it sounds like I’m making excuses for myself, and I don’t care enough. If people want to think I’m a terrible person and I’m really rude to people at the tables then that’s fine; if that’s how (they) want to market me good for them; I’m glad I got the air time.

The actual story is that she was incredibly rude to me and slow-rolled me and had all these antics and was taunting me and saying things to me. She was really good friends with one of the guys who was one of the WPT executives. They basically edited out all of her antics and left in all of mine, which was sort of astonishing and shocking when I was watching the broadcast to see what you could do through editing. It was a really tough lesson to learn in a really hard and nationally televised way. That was the source of my frustration, I would say mostly 80 percent her being so, I guess, cocky in what she was doing while she was so bad in poker. But I’ve also matured in terms of my poker. I don’t know that I could’ve beaten her with my cards (today), but I do think I adopted a good strategy, which was never bluffing and value-betting fourth pair, knowing that I was value-betting and knowing it was good. … I’m definitely a much better player now; I don’t get nearly as frustrated; I’ve taken a lot worse beats. … I do think there’s a maturity factor there as well, and have not gotten that frustrated since.

You’ve cashed or won a few ladies tournaments. Some women are in favor of ladies events while others frown on them. What’s your stance and do you still enter them? I don’t care (laughs) about this whole stupid debate. I think that ladies events are great. They bring more women into poker; people love them, or whether or not they bring more people in to poker, there’s a thousand people every year that look forward to that one day during the World Series that they get to come and just have a fun time and play poker with each other. … It’s funny because I’m not usually the one who says, “Oh, there’s a political struggle here and it’s all semantics, blah, blah, blah.” I’m someone who is very principled and will often fight politically for things I believe in. … I don’t believe 99 percent of the people that take issue with this actually have any political inclinations at all. I’ve never heard them say anything about any issue that they cared strongly about except for their own expected value. They’re like, “Ladies events are terrible; this is misogynist and blah, blah, blah.” The majority of them that there’s a soft tournament out there they’re not able to enter. I think they’re fun events. … I think it’s a good way for beginners, that might be intimidated otherwise, to get into a poker. I do think there’s some merit to that because I do see the way women get treated at the table and it’s frankly disgusting at time.

Tell me about DeucesCracked. I’m an executive producer for them so I’ve been with them since the inception in January 2008. I make videos, training videos, I make a podcast called Tournamentality. I was sort of making videos a lot more before, but now I make about one a month, mostly about tournament strategy. … I’m hoping this year to launch a project where I take The Big Game footage and do analysis with maybe another very good cash-game player. Sort of a voiceover commentary. I think it would pretty fun and interesting. I also do private coaching.

You’ve had some good heads-up success, what makes a great heads-up player? Fearlessness and a good ability to read hands.

What is the one thing about you that would surprise our readers? I hate these kinds of questions. (laughs) … My desire to practice civil-rights law. I’m real interested in policemen’s conduct litigation and sort of abusive authority. Sort of worked on prisoners’ rights, like illegal detention, defended some clients down in Guantanamo, I’ve defended indigent criminal defendants, just sort of all of that kind of work. I guess (I’m) motivated in large part by my own experiences with cops, been in some tussles with cops, I really hate cops. (laughs) I think there’s a lot of problems with the way policing works and so that sort of my big passion to try to fix some of the problems. So that’s something people don’t know about me; I don’t know if they’d be surprised. Probably not. “Oh wow! You mean the girl that’s always really confrontational on TV gets in trouble with cops?” I know that’s shocking. (laughs)