Her poker face
A version of this story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
THE POKER MIND of Vanessa Selbst, the world's best No-Limit Hold'em tournament player, works something like this: It's Day 5 of the 2010 Partouche Poker Tour event at Palm Beach Casino in Cannes, France. About 40 players remain, and blinds are 5K/10K. Selbst is the big blind, top 10 in chips, sitting on a 1 million chip stack. At her table, early position opens with 22K. Ronnie Kaiser, a pro from Switzerland, raises to 57K on the button. Selbst looks down at A3 suited. It's junk, a no-brainer fold, and it's tournament crunch time, when a single gaffe can mean the difference between a $23K payday (40th place) and $1.7 million (first). So Selbst does what she does best: four-bets to 120K.
It seems a bit crazy. It might, in fact, be a bit crazy. But Selbst is trying to get her opponents off their cards. And when the early position raiser unfolds a five-bet to 280K, Kaiser goes into the tank, agonizing for about five minutes. That's when Selbst realizes exactly what Kaiser is holding. With aces or kings he would have shoved. Queens or worse he would have folded. Which leaves one hand: AK.
Kaiser begrudgingly folds. This, says Selbst, is when it gets really interesting. If her read on Kaiser is right, there are only two aces and three kings left. What are the odds of early position holding AA or KK? One in 282. Odds he's bluffing? Far better. She slides her whole stack -- and tournament life -- into the center of the table. "Was I a little nervous?" she recalls. "Sure. But even if he has KK, I have 30 percent equity with A3 suited."
Ultimately, there's no need to sweat. Middle position mucks. "The best part wasn't the 450K dead money," she says. "It was the moment I showed everybody the three. They were like, WTF?"
Of the millions of hands Selbst has played, why talk about this one? For one, the hand gave Selbst a commanding chip lead and so freaked out her opposition that she cruised to the tourney title. It also helped forge her reputation as the wildest card in the game. But the hand -- and the 28-year-old Selbst -- is, above all, a prime example of poker's radical evolution. A decade ago, that hand likely would have played out precisely as follows: Middle position raises. Kaiser re-raises. Selbst folds, middle position folds, Kaiser earns a small pot. But times have changed, and when this year's World Series of Poker Main Event kicks off on July 6, there's no telling how Selbst, and thousands of other competitors, will play hand to hand. "Poker has become an entirely different game," says Antonio "the Magician" Esfandiari, winner of three WSOP bracelets. "People are so much more aggressive, it's complete madness. You just have to fasten your seat belt and go for it."
ON MAY 23, poker was among the last things on the mind of Vanessa Selbst. She'd just put to bed her sophomore year at Yale, eight months of rugby club games and Queer-Straight Alliance meetings, sketch comedy classes and campus soirees. She was weighing majors, pondering internships, prepping for an upcoming New Haven-to-San Francisco bike ride with fellow Yalies. And as she packed, she never once thought about the tournament taking place 2,600 miles away.
That day, at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, an accountant named Chris Moneymaker wrote a chapter in poker lore. The 27-year-old amateur, more goldfish than shark, won the WSOP Main Event. More remarkable? It was his first time at the World Series of Poker; he'd won the $10,000 seat via a $39 online satellite tournament. His victory was akin to a country club pro qualifying for, and then winning, the U.S. Open.
The tournament aired on ESPN that August. Combined with the World Poker Tour's 2002 debut on Travel Channel and burgeoning interest in online poker, Moneymaker's $2.5 million windfall sparked a phenomenon that came to be known as the Moneymaker Effect. By 2005, online poker wagers neared $60 billion worldwide (75 to 90 percent of which were generated in America). The following year, the WSOP Main Event ballooned to 8,773 entrants with a $12 million top prize. "Moneymaker ignited imaginations about what could be," says Ryan Firpo, director of BET RAISE FOLD, a soon-to-be-released documentary on the poker explosion. "People thought maybe I can do that too."
Some of those people, like Selbst, had a special knack for numbers. As a child, instead of dressing Barbie dolls, she'd solve logic puzzles. When teaching Vanessa to play Mastermind, her mother, Ronnie, an MIT grad and options trader, hadn't simply shown her daughter how, but challenged her to know why. "Why are you doing that?" Ronnie would ask. "Why not do something else?""She wanted us to maximize the information of every move," says Vanessa today. "And get as much understanding as possible from what we didn't do." As a teenager, Vanessa was a mathematics prodigy, boasting Star Ledger Scholar honors and the title of Essex County Calculus champion. "She had the best grades in the history of Montclair High School," says her brother Andrew, a research academic lawyer at NYU.
After a year at MIT, she had transferred to Yale. And it was there in New Haven, Conn., that she gradually fell prey to the Moneymaker Effect. During the school year, she joined the 1-1 NL Trumbull College game alongside future poker progeny Alex Jacob and Ariel Schneller. Summer nights back in New Jersey were spent commuting to infamous New York City underground poker clubs like Playstation and Mayfair.
More important, she discovered online poker: countless hours grinding at PokerStars.net and PartyPoker.com; constantly debating other geeked-out poker junkies about hand histories, strategy and "deeper math," aka game theory, at TwoPlusTwo.com. Online poker proved invaluable to her, and other amateurs, in two ways. One, the speed and convenience of online play meant 10 years' experience could be gleaned in 10 months. And the massive data collected online -- every tournament, hand and bet -- could be analyzed and correlated.
And what all this collective number-crunching ultimately revealed were exploitable patterns in most players' games. Online poker had all but created a new game. "Basically it made sense to re-raise with more hands than initially thought," says Matt Matros, former Yale math major and winner of three WSOP bracelets. "You get more value when called, and opponents might also fold." Which translates into what poker cognoscenti call "level wars" -- in layman's terms, multilayered psychological battles, with players leveraging their chip stacks, their histories and their reputations in the hopes of outsmarting one another. "In the old days, one guy called, one guy raised and you went from there," explains WPT analyst and poker vet Mike Sexton. "Six or seven years ago, it became all about pre-flop betting. Three, four, five bets."
By her senior year, Selbst admits now, she might as well have been majoring in this "new" poker. Yet she didn't consider gambling a career choice: "Education was highly valued in my family. I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, not a poker player." Although Ronnie Selbst had herself earned spending money in college playing poker, she wanted well-rounded children, not robots. She insisted they develop progressive social values, drove Vanessa to every tennis lesson, sat in the stands for each of her basketball games. The Selbst clan hosted a lesbian rabbi couple. And when, at 16, Vanessa announced that she had a girlfriend, Ronnie didn't question her only daughter. She embraced her and said, simply, "great."
So in the fall of 2005, instead of starting a typical card player's life in Las Vegas, the 20-year-old Vanessa went to Spain on a Fullbright scholarship to study gay marriage -- before the trip was cut short by tragedy. That November, Ronnie unexpectedly passed away, and a distraught Vanessa rushed home. After three weeks in Montclair, she returned to Barcelona but found herself mired in depression. The lone respite? Immersion in poker. "Playing online helped me escape and lose myself," she says.
Today, Selbst describes her early playing style as "insane." Crazy bluffs. Improbable raises. Losing enough money that a PartyPoker blogger named her one of the worst players on the site -- a label Selbst now laughs about. "People didn't understand what I was doing. I wasn't worried about losing. I was experimenting, being creative. And, fair enough, I made some really bad plays."
And it just so happened that one of her more infamous implosions coincided with her first national TV appearance. After returning from Europe in the spring of 2006 and entering her first-ever WSOP, the 21-year-old, with her K.D. Lang haircut and tiny silver stud in her nose, found herself at the final table of the 2K NL event. She shoved all in pre-flop against two players -- with 5-2. A pair of aces ended her tournament in seventh place.
Still reluctant to commit to the poker life, Selbst took a job in New York City with McKinsey, the Apple of consulting firms. The numbers, however, didn't quite add up: "I was working 70 hours a week for $50K. And I knew I could play poker 15 to 20 hours a week and make three times that." Six months later, she quit and began to take the game seriously. She honed her aggro style. She hit a groove. And by the summer of 2008, she'd placed third in a WSOP Heads-Up NL Hold'em event and won a bracelet in the WSOP $1,500 Pot Limit Omaha, becoming only the sixth woman in the post-Moneymaker era to do so in an open (non-"ladies only") event.
"I played her in '08," says the 26-year-old Jason Mercier, a onetime aspiring math teacher who's earned almost $10 million since turning pro six years ago. "She made big bluffs and played with relentless aggression. She was capable of anything."
With her results starting to match her reputation, Selbst had seemingly found her calling. Still, the now-23-year-old was tired, burned out. So on the precipice of stardom, she broke from the game. Not to escape to a remote beach or travel the globe. Selbst's idea of a "break"? She enrolled in Yale Law School.
ON A late-February afternoon, Selbst, in jeans and a blue striped shirt with team sponsor PokerStars.net emblazoned on the front, finds herself on the second floor of Commerce Casino, 20 minutes south of Los Angeles. It's Day 1 of the 10K LA Poker Classic Main Event, and she is one of 517 entrants hoping to claim the $1 million first prize. If oddsmakers set favorites for poker tournaments, Selbst would certainly be labeled a front-runner.
During her first two years of full-time law school, which included working with Yale's LGBT Rights Litigation Clinic, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Innocence Project (an NYC-based organization established to help wrongfully accused prisoners), poker was relegated to a part-time gig -- Selbst "only" won $1 million during that time. But by the fall of 2010 she was, in her words, "enjoying poker again," and over the next 24 months she won nearly $4 million. "Her last two years have been ridiculously impressive," says Lance Bradley, editor-in-chief of Bluff Magazine. "It's the epitome of poker success."
The pinnacle of that success might have come this past January, when Selbst topped the PCA $25K High Roller event. The $1.4 million prize money there catapulted her lifetime tally to $7 million, making her the winningest female player ever and 43rd on the all-time list. All of which begs an obvious question: Why doesn't everyone employ Selbst's hyperaggressive style? "For the same reason not everyone can perfect French or become a violin soloist," says poker veteran and WSOP bracelet winner Phil Laak. In addition to the conceptualization of the math and the thousands of hours of study and the years of practice, aggressive play requires precision.
"Running an aggressive bad bluff in the wrong spot can cost you your entire tournament," says Selbst.
Or worse, as was the case in her debut in 2011 on the PokerStars Big Game, where Selbst's attempted strong-arming with J7 (she ran into Prahlad Freidman's AA) cost her $170,000 in real cash. Another reason it's not easy to play like Selbst? Fear. "It's easy to talk about three-betting with a hand like 8-9," says Sexton. "But what about when it's a $1 million tournament and you have to put it all on the line? To get to Vanessa's level, you have to have a lot of balls."
Still, at Table 22 in Commerce, Selbst is not lacking in physiology -- but in cards. "Super aggro play isn't effective early in tournaments," she explains. "People have so many chips that if they have 5-7, they want to see a flop. It's tough getting them off their hands." She's also drawn a tough table. And what concerns her tonight is not the white-haired old-timer to her left or the 40-year-old in sunglasses or the bizarre Asian fellow in the fedora and weightlifting gloves. No, the issue is two tablemates who don't look old enough to buy a beer: 25-year-old Isaac Baron and 25-year-old Brian Hastings, who in 2009 won $4.2 million playing online poker -- in a span of five hours. Both players are young, aggressive, sharp.
This, perhaps, sounds familiar.
And so it is that two hours into Day 1, Selbst finds herself in the scenario she most hoped to avoid: heads up in a pot against Hastings.
Holding A-10, Selbst flops top two pair.
She checks. Hastings bets. She calls.
Although wary, Selbst thinks he might be trying to push her around, but the turn and river don't help her.
And then, with more than half her chips in the pot, Hastings reveals ... a set of 2's.
The hand cripples Selbst, and before the last break of the night, she'll go on to bust the tournament. It is an ironic coda. An audacious genius millionaire dying, for the night, by the cruelty of randomness.