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I am Vanessa Selbst, the highest earning female poker player, and a member of Team Pokerstars Pro. Ask me Anything!

Feb 28th 2013 by vselbst • 31 Questions • 1458 Points

Hey everyone - I'm Vanessa Selbst.

I started playing poker about 9 years ago, just messing around with friends. I then learned about online poker and online poker forums, got serious about the game, and starting building my bankroll in cash games. In 2006, I played my first couple of tournaments and made my first televised final table at the WSOP. I somewhat infamously busted 4-bet shoving 52s and running into AA in a hand that Norman Chad referred to as a "blowup of monumental proportions" or something along those lines.

Though I had some early success, I struggled with the idea of making poker a long-term career as I wasn't convinced it was sustainable as a way of contributing to a healthy and meaningful life, so I went to law school in 2008. While there, I played and won a few tournaments including the NAPT Mohegan Sun for $750,000. That win catalyzed my signing with Pokerstars and my return to a career as a pro, this time as a tourney donkey rather than a cash game pro who dabbled in tournaments. I'm still not convinced poker as a career is fully healthy or meaningful, but I'm doing everything I can to make it that.

I have since graduated from law school and also become the highest earning female poker player of all time, with more than $7 million in career earnings, and a bunch of tournament wins.

I am also, incidentally, a lesbian, and a strong supporter of civil rights (LGBT and otherwise). I am engaged to my wonderful fiancee and will be married in August of this year in New York.

I'll be back in 2 hours - at 2PM Pacific time. What do you wanna know?

OK - it's about that time to head out. I've had a lot of fun with this... thanks reddit, you've made me a fan for life!

Q:

Couple of fun facts: I met Vanessa and her brother Andrew on a cruise in 2005, a few months before we started reddit.

Alexis and I crashed at Andrew's place at MIT when we were applying to YC.

A:

Hi Steve!!! You're still like, my most famous/accomplished friend :D see you soon I hope!


Q:

Who do you think is the best poker player in the world atm?

A:

Phil Ivey, always Phil Ivey, will perhaps forever be Phil Ivey.


Q:

What are your thoughts on Phil Galfond? Is he one of the best PLO players out there? Is he really as humble as people make him out to be?

A:

He's actually a huge jerk because I never got a chance to slide on his slide before he sold his apartment.


Q:

Good afternoon,

If someone had well-tuned poker skills (obviously a sizable assumption), how would that person begin the path towards playing poker professionally? What kind of a bankroll do you need, where do you go, what games do you start at?

Thanks for doing this AMA and for your civil rights work. I'm a huge fan. Incidentally, it's entirely your brother's fault that I'm addicted to reddit. It was a good way to survive 1L.

A:

Hey there, I'm glad my brother got you, too. He got me into reddit as well.

As far as your question - I think the most important thing is to play online. Putting in ridiculous amounts of volume while studying the game through discussions, videos, and what not is the best way to go about it. I think if you're really serious about wanting to take the plunge, take a few months and go live in Canada, Mexico, Europe, wherever. Play cash games, always making sure that you have 100x the buyin for the stakes you want to play (this is very conservative bankroll management but might be right in the state of today's games). Putting in that kind of volume is by far the best way to prove you can do it while building your bankroll and improving all at the same time.


Q:

Hey, Vanessa! Remember our video project for High Honors French where we went to the mall, you asked people questions in French, and I "translated" them?

A:

I definitely remember... I still cite that project, to this day, as one of my best TV moments :D You have a copy of it lying around somewhere?


Q:

Can you tell us a little bit about what "$7M in career earnings" actually means? How much of yourself did you have? How much have you made or lost staking others? How much have you spent on buyins, travel expenses, and living expenses while accumulating those cashes? How much have you won or lost at side games at tournaments? (I assume you still play cash, even if you're now primarily a tournament player.) I understand if you don't want to go into detail, or if you want to talk more generally, rather than about your specific situation.

A:

As your question implies, these career earning stats are definitely very skewed, and it depends wildly on the player in terms of how much action they had sold, how many buyins they had played, etc etc. Without going into specifics, I will say that I've run decently well with respect to having a substantial amount of myself when I binked big and have not been backed for any of my big scores, though I have swapped and sold pieces in some of them. I play much less than most pros as I value quality of life more than playing all the time... I would say I've probably spent somewhere between $1.5MM and $2MM in my life in buyins. After buyins, travel expenses (which are pretty costly), and taxes, I definitely have nowhere near that $7M stat that I've made from tournaments in my actual possession, but for me those numbers about career earnings are more like a score in a videogame than an actual commentary about anyone's net worth.


Q:

You seemed shocked with the call by Sylvia that ended the main event. (as a lot of us were) How much was Jesse playing based off the advice you were giving him up to that point? In other words, were you giving him more advice on spots to be more or less aggressive, or was it much deeper than that? Also, do you think fatigue was a factor in the hand, or did Jesse think Greg had a huge edge against him and was willing to take a huge gamble to try to end the tournament? Thanks and good luck!

A:

Great question, actually. Jesse is typically a cash player and a lot of the stuff that he was doing throughout the final table, like 5-betting light based on ICM, limping in certain spots or checking back certain hands that might be autobet in a cash game, was pretty new territory for him. I think he played really really well with relatively few mistakes until the last couple of hours, and I do think fatigue played a decent role in the mistakes he did make. As far as the final hand, I wasn't shocked at the call so much as the overall play - 3betting QJs on those stacks wasn't optimal just given the chance that Greg decides to 4bet shove light. I think Jesse hadn't realized they were only 30-something BBs effective because two hands ago they had been 45ish effective, and he was planning to 3bet to 5b shove. Once he 3bets and gets shoved on, I think it's actually a mandatory call given Greg's probably range (discounting extremely strong hands which he would probably 4bet small).

I didn't really want to be so hands-on at the final table because I wanted him to play his own game and to play it with confidence, but I guess I ended up talking to him quite a few times just because I kept seeing opportunities that I thought Jesse was missing. I just can't imagine how difficult it is under that kind of pressure, 3 handed for so long on poker's biggest stage. Most of the time I was just telling him to start bluffing more, and then he didn't, and then I told him again, and then he didn't, and then I yelled at him to do it... and then he ran a 3 barrel bluff and we were all good again :)


Q:

Why don't cash games get more attention? Especially on TV.

What were the best and worst things about your experience on High Stakes Poker (the show)?

Which tournament players are also really good at cash games?

A:

Cash games don't get more attention probably because stacks are deeper and thus decisions are more complex (thus bad TV). I also think a tournament tells more of a story with a beginning and end point, triumph and glory... cash games, while interesting to really serious poker players, just don't excite the casual viewer as much as seeing someone beat out 6000 other people to become a multi-millionaire.


Q:

Hey Vanessa- What is the biggest challenge of being a queer woman in the professional poker world? Have you experienced outright homophobia from your peers/fans of poker?

Thanks for the AMA!

A:

Heya. Happy birthday! (Is that what that slice of cake means? I'm a reddit noob!)

Um, being queer is awesome because it means I get to be in an amazing relationship with a woman, and it also means I get an extra community of really f-ing cool people. It also caused me to take all of these classes about race, gender, class, etc., which just made me so much more of an empathetic person generally.

If all that means that I have to block a few more trolls on twitter every week than I otherwise would have to, then so be it, I'll take it any day of the week. No one that is actually intelligent has ever given me any sort of trouble, so it's mostly no problem.

Digging a little deeper to answer your question, I would say my biggest challenge lies in perception. I think as a masculine lesbian, there is a tendency for people to expect me to be mean and aggressive. When I live up to that stereotype (which I do, sometimes, though not nearly all the time), the media wants me to play that character, so that's what gets shown. So honestly, I think a lot of what people see and characterize as me being "angry" results from selection bias of which moments the media is going to show from me, and I think some of that results from me being typecast based on my gender presentation. And that, I would say, is by far the toughest challenge.


Q:

Vanessa, two questions:

What was your thinking behind 6-bet shoving in the infamous J7s/AA hand with Prahlad?

Do you get pissed with people calling you 'probably the best female poker player in the world' rather than, as it should be given your results, 'one of the best poker players in the world'?

Thanks for doing this, you're one of my poker heroes.

A:

Hmm - well at the time my thinking was that Prahlad's 5-bet range is super super polarized as deep as we were. Like, even with pocket kings I thought he would have just flat-called my 4-bet. I'm sure I'm right about all of that still, the problem is a polarized range to {AA, bluffs} is still super strong if it's AA 95% and bluffs 5% :D One of my bigger leaks is assuming people are as crazy in certain spots as I am, and that was just a giant misstep in assigning him a much bigger bluff frequency than he actually has in that spot.

As far as the female poker player comment - I don't get pissed, per se. I wish those distinctions didn't have to exist, but I understand that people want to make them, given how relatively little success women have had in poker thus far. As women get better and better and a few of the up and coming players become really elite (which WILL happen), hopefully that distinction will be made less often.

And you're welcome! This is pretty fun!


Q:

how many nights a year do you sleep in a bed that you own?

A:

Well probably around 180, but only because my primary residence is actually Las Vegas so I'm there for the WSOP and all the Bellagio tournaments. If you don't include Las Vegas, then maybe like 70-80?


Q:

Hi Vanessa, congrats on your success at the PCA! It was fantastic to watch.

My question for you would be when you were starting to think you would like to turn professional and use poker as your main source of income, was there any moment that really rocked the boat and made you think "hang on, is this what I want to do" and if so, what was this moment and how did you overcome it?

Thanks a lot, I look forward to your continued success in 2013!

A:

Hey, great question. I don't know that there was a moment that rocked the boat for me... it was more of a long series of moments. In 2007-2008 I was playing full time - mostly cash games, though I was also traveling around to tourneys as well. I kept awful hours, often playing all night and sleeping all day. I rarely went to the gym, and I didn't keep in very good contact with my friends from outside of poker. Long story short, I was depressed, even though I was doing well at the game. That time made me think poker wasn't sustainable as a career if I wanted to be happy.

I left poker at that point and went back to law school, intending to leave poker for good. When I missed poker too much and decided to get back into it, I just decided that I was going to be healthy while doing it because I refused to go back to what I was like during that pretty dark year in my life. Now, I make sure that I take significant time off to catch up with old friends and to spend time at home with my fiancee and dogs. I play sports or go to the gym and eat healthy, I [sometimes] make time for other activities outside of poker, and I go see a therapist as regularly as I can.

For me, that's the biggest difficulty with life as a poker pro - the balance between a normal life and "poker life" and keeping it healthy even while on the road. Ever since making all that stuff a priority, I'm much much happier than I was 5 years ago.


Q:

What was your most embarassing poker moment?

A:

I think I was probably most embarrassed by my QQ hand on HSP, just because of how god awful it was. I was really really thrown off by the lights and cameras and scrutiny of each hand on my first big televised cash game, and I hadn't played cash in quite some time. I think my nerves caught up with me, and what should have been a super easy fold just cost me like $170k. So yeah, that was probably my most embarrassing poker moment.


Q:

Hi Vanessa, thanks a lot for taking the time to do this AMA! I'm interested in hearing your take on the state of the poker economy and in particular, poker in the US.

1). Do you think the poker economy is in a good place right now?

2). How about the legalisation of online poker in America, what time frame do you think we are looking at here?

3). Assuming online poker does get legalised some time in the future, how large of a poker boom do you think will undergo in comparision to the Moneymaker boom?

Good luck with your future tournaments!

A:

1) I definitely don't think the poker economy is in a good place right now - I don't think anyone would think that. The "poker boom" happened in the 2000s, and the poker economy will never be what it was in 2006. That being said, I am hopeful that we will experience another mini-boom when online poker comes back to the US and new sites pop up with more secure regulation, and all the television programming returns as well.

2) I really have no idea, but a shot in the dark would be 2-3 years. That's based on no more information than any of you have, and you should be wildly skeptical of my guess.

3) Sort of answered that in #1 - but yeah, I think definitely less than its 2006 peak, but a mini-boom is imminent for sure.


Q:

How much math goes into your live poker game?

A:

It used to be a lot, but now in my old age I usually try to do it for all of 3 seconds, and then give up and get the dealer to spread the pot and make a bet size based on approximately "whatever it looks like there is out there." :P


Q:

If you could give amateur players one tip what would it be?

A:

Be more aggressive. If you think you might have the best hand, bet or raise. Don't be worried with the times you might not have the best hand... be worried about the times you do.


Q:

I've heard you talk about how balance isn't as important for tournaments because the player pool is more diverse. Can you give some examples of your frequent unbalanced play against players other than nits or showdown monkeys?

A:

Well I'm probably not going to tell you exactly which spots I'm always bluffing in, but there definitely are some of those. Probably some where I'm always for value, too, though those are harder to think of :D In general, I'm extremely balance-aware (maybe overly so) when I'm playing high rollers, or against anyone whom I know I will be playing again soon.

One easy way to think about balance being overused is with opening-raise bet sizing. Let's say you're playing at a table with a bunch of people who have no clue about poker... wouldn't you raise 4x with aces rather than 2x, since they'll probably call anyway, and you build the pot much better that way? Or let's take the example of bluff-raising a K73r board when an amateur bets out with like 30BB behind... I might float that board very often for balance against better players (or bluff-raise, but also value raise some good hands) but why not just minraise against someone who will fold every single unpaired hand, despite the fact that there's basically no hands I would ever take that line for value with?

People often fall into a robotic playmaking mode based on what's best against the entire set of all players, rather than exploiting the fact that when playing weaker players, you can be completely unbalanced, and in fact, it's more profitable to play that way.


Q:

When was the first time you won a considerable amount of money? and how did it feel?

A:

Mohegan Sun NAPT was my first huge score, for $750,000 (and I had most of myself since I had just quit my backer before law school). It was... um, surreal. I still never really understand when I win a lot of money - like I've said before, it's more of a score in a game than anything else. I never really buy things that are very extravagant, so the money doesn't change all that much honestly. The only thing I've spent real money on are law school, my condo, one nice car, fancy sushi, and now my wedding.


Q:

I attended a short poker talk of yours during the WSOP a while back that I thought was extremely insightful. Any plans to write a strategy book in the future?

A:

Great, I'm glad you liked it. I don't have plans to write a book any time in the near future both because I'm extremely busy with tons on my plate, and also because it just isn't that profitable honestly. Mostly though, it just doesn't appeal to me the same way discussing poker through coaching or live seminar or the like does.


Q:

Who is the most talented cash game player on Team Pokerstars Pro?

Thanks!

A:

Really tough to say as I haven't played cash with many of them. Isaac, Jason, Elky, Eugene, Ville, and I'm sure tons I'm forgetting are great cash game players as well as tournament stars.


Q:

Hey Vanessa! I'm a big fan!

So, I'm sure you get this a lot, but of course you remember the Heads Up Championship match against Peter Eastgate... Some would call what you did a sick slowroll. Can you explain what you were thinking at the time?

Thanks!

A:

Yeah, I'm not sure how the misconception that I slowrolled came from, but I guess it might look like that from TV.

Anyways what happened was we were the last two people playing in our group after each of us doubling up and the match swinging quite a bit. The TV team had just made us take like a 20 minute break to get us to the feature table, despite our protests since we only had like 12 bigs and it was super annoying. Finally we are all set up and the very first hand I raise and he shoves and shows JJ and I guess I shook my head a little in disgust before flipping my QQ over. I just thought it was so absurd that the match would end that way and I felt bad for him that he had this setup on the very first hand after this whole thing had gone down. So my head shaking was part "lol what a cooler" and part feeling bad for him, and I guess it came across like a slowroll on TV. Peter definitely didn't think it was so that's what's important, I guess.


Q:

I have so many questions!

How have you adjusted your game as you have had more televised hands?

Do you like the way that the WSOP is getting around excluding men from the Ladies event?

Do you think a women only poker league would help more women get involved with poker?

A:

Hi there!

I have definitely adjusted my game in certain ways - I can't take all the most obvious bluffing spots I used to be able to take, which is sorta lame. I have to look for more suicidal bluffing spots nowadays to be able to get away with them :)

As far as the WSOP - I don't like the idea that they have to use semantics to get around the laws since the laws should just allow for protected classes to have exclusionary events. (And women should be a protected class). Given that it is what it is, I like the fact that the WSOP is committed to doing everything in its power to keep the women's event women-only, so yes I do support their efforts.

I think any time you create a more inviting space for women who don't have to deal with annoying misogynist BS from guys that they often have to deal with, it's going to get more women involved with poker.


Q:

Hi, Vanessa- thank you for taking the time to do this! As a lawyer and a fan of poker, you were always my favorite to watch on televised games. You mention still not being convinced that poker as a career is your endgame; do you have any areas of law you're attracted to? I seem to recall an interview where you mentioned wanting to do something in the area of LGBT rights- is that still the area of law you'd practice if you decided to put that degree to work?

A:

Hiya - I'm still not 100% sure what my end game is. I doubt I'll be a full-time lawyer in any traditional sense, but I'll always work on issues about which I'm most passionate, in whatever sense that happens to be. It might be doing charity poker tournaments, or volunteering with organizations, or funding start-up non-profits with my poker winnings. I wish I had a more specific answer for you, but I don't. As far as what field, I would say I'm most interested in fighting for racial and economic justice, though the gays need love too, so who knows?


Q:

Are you ever going to make more vids for DC?

A:

Honestly, I'm not sure... it really depends if I start playing online a lot more again, in which case I could see myself making more videos. In the past when I have tried to make videos about live play, they have tended to not come out very well.


Q:

Of all the poker pros who did as well as you as quickly as you, how many of them do you think achieved it due to luck triumphing over skill?

(i.e. what percentage of meteoric pros like you do you think have true winrates that are accurately reflected by their results?)

A:

Most poker pros that have had as many results as I have had are genuinely good players. It's hard to win consistently and just be terrible. That being said, none of us have true winrates and we've all run exceptionally well... that's just how variance goes. Personally, I don't think that over time, I've flopped more sets or had my AA hold more than the average person... I've just gotten extremely lucky in terms of running good at the major final tables I've made. And that's the most important skill to have in the world - knowing how to get lucky when playing for 6 or 7 figures.


Q:

Thanks Vanessa!

  1. When in a downswing or losing streak, how do you go about keeping motivation levels up, confidence up, and head level?
  2. How do you improve your tournament game? Do you study board textures and use calculators (ICM/Chip equity) or do you approach it in more of a logic deduction way?
  3. How much time is dedicated to bettering your game?
  4. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become the best possible tournament player they could be?
A:
  1. What's a downswing?
  2. Talk to friends. Review hands. Talk to friends. That's me, anyways. If you're an online player, looking at HEM and stuff would probably be helpful too, but I'm much more theoretically-motivated.
  3. It's really hard to quantify - I used to spend a lot more time on poker forums reading about poker and also a lot more time talking to friends about poker. It's definitely less now, but it's difficult to say just how much. I still think about it far more than is healthy, probably :)
  4. Flip well, young jedi.

Q:

How do you feel about the future of poker? Do you think online poker will be allowed to come back nationally in the next couple years? If not, will poker stagnate with less new money coming in?

A:

Here it is, I think. Nothing too flashy, that's not my style.


Q:

Do you listen to any podcasts or watch any poker shows you could recommend?

A:

Mmm I don't really watch any or listen to any myself as I'm pretty busy, but I guess this is as good a time as any to plug some - Rootbone Radio is run by a few friends and if they're still making them, I'm sure they're hilarious. The twoplustwo Pokercast is usually a pretty good listen, if you have 5 hours/day to kill. Thinking Poker is another one that I've been on that's pretty sweet and run by a couple pretty smart dudes. Deuces Cracked runs a few podcasts, strategy and otherwise, that are pretty good.


Q:

awesome player, really enjoy watching you. you haven't been playing much cash recently, as you said, but how do you think you would fare in today's online lineup? who have been the toughest players you'd faced when you were grinding online cash?

A:

I think I'd probably get destroyed in cash by the game's toughest players. I haven't been playing much cash in recent years and the game's elite are so far ahead of where they were when I played a lot. Given how many amazing players there are right now, it's extremely rare for someone to be elite in all forms of poker - and that's what makes Phil Ivey just so awe-inspiring.


Q:

Hey Vanessa, big fan of your play.

When you started getting into high buy in tourneys did you get staked, try to get in via satellites, or buy in the full amount?

What about now, does Pokerstars cover most of your buy-ins? How does your sponsorship deal work with them?

Anyways interested to see the results of this thread!

A:

Hi there. I started playing high buyins in 2007 I believe, and I was pretty new to tournaments generally. My friend just put the word out that I was "pretty good" and that was all it took in those days. Timex and Steve PA picked me up and all my friends loved how one of my backers was 17. Anyways, I wasn't that good at the deep-stacked tourneys and I would typically bust day 1 or 2 running a giant bluff for all my chips and getting called every single time :) Luckily dudes were still folding to me at the WSOP and my success there in 2008 led to a decent profit for myself and my backers.

As for now, Stars covers some of my buyins and travel and some I pay myself... hopefully once I bink the main (3 times in a row) they'll begin to put me in everything and anything I want, but for now this is how it goes and I couldn't be happier with representing them.


Q:

Thanks for doing this AMA, Vanessa!

  1. Please describe your thought process and the factors you weigh before reaching the conclusion, "this is a good spot to raise and take down the pot". We know this happens a lot :)

  2. You've had great success at tournaments with large fields. What do you think it is that you do better at these types of tournaments than other good poker players?

Thanks again for doing this. It's always fun watching you play.

A:

Usually if the board texture is one that is unlikely to hit someone (J53 or the like), or if someone tends to give up very easily to aggression, or if someone is shorter stacked and it's near the end of a tournament where there are ICM considerations they have to worry about... those are all great spots to raise to take down the pot.