With the cigars and bluster, poker has long been a game imbued —drenched, even — with testosterone. But it was that world that Vanessa Selbst came, saw, and conquered, becoming one of the top-ranked professional players in the world and the highest-earning female professional poker player of all time, with more than $10.5 million in winnings.
Selbst's ceiling-shattering was recognized last week at the first-ever American Poker Awards in Beverly Hills, where she was named 2014 Global Poker Index Female Player of the Year. Even though the 30-year-old found success with a game requiring a certain amount of chest puffing, Selbst isn't one to expound on her own achievements or even bring up the challenges of sexism or boys' clubs — she's a modest poker genius. When asked what it's like as a woman battling a table of men, she says, "I've never not been a woman at the table, so I have nothing to compare it to."
Though Selbst, a married Yale graduate and former president of the university's Queer Straight Alliance, isn't a typical activist. She approaches effecting change in her own way.
"It's important for me, as a visible presence in the poker world, to put myself out there as both a woman and as a member of the queer community," she says.
Selbst was on the fast track to a legal career when the cards began calling. Growing up in Brooklyn as the daughter of bridge players, Selbst naturally gravitated to poker during her Yale years, first "just messing around with friends at college." She discovered online poker and began getting serious about the game. She played her first tournaments in 2006, the same year she made her inaugural appearance at the televised "final" table at the World Series of Poker. "From that point, I was hooked," she says.
In 2008, she won her first of three World Series of Poker bracelets — like the Stanley Cup of poker — raking in more than $227,000. But even as her poker career was skyrocketing, the overachiever felt like she had unfinished business. Selbst abruptly dropped out of the poker circuit and headed back to New Haven, Conn., to attend Yale Law School. This time, she led the university's graduate LGBT organization and was awarded a degree in 2010. Then it was back to the tables, where she won bracelets in 2012 and 2014.
Selbst says poker will remain very much part of her future, but she did just take the New York bar exam "so that I can keep my options open in terms of philanthropic legal work when possible."
The law degree wasn't just a notch on her belt; it was an extension of her work with the LGBT groups at Yale and a way to do more good. The same year she graduated, she established the New York-centric Venture Justice, which funds projects that fight for racial justice and economic quality. She also serves on the Urban Justice Center, another New York organization working for the disenfranchised.
For those hoping to follow Selbst's lucrative lead, she suggests starting as she did with online games. Aspiring female players need to believe they belong at the same table as the big boys, she says.
"[Learning strategy] was the most important thing for me to improve, and I know a lot of women are intimidated to talk to groups of all men about strategy out of fear of judgment," she says. "In my experience, the women who have put themselves out there have been the most successful."