What It's Like to Be a Woman Who Plays Professional Poker

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As Vanessa Selbst's impressive career shows, it's possible for female players to succeed in this male-dominated world—but challenges remain.

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Vanessa Selbst competes on the first day of the 2011 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. (Eric Jamison/AP Images)

­Female mentors have been a hot topic lately—from the fictional and funny Liz Lemon to the fallible Ina Drew. This is true in the poker world as well, where poker professional Jesse Sylvia's $5.295 million second place finish in last year's World Series of Poker main event was overshadowed by Sylvia's choice of Vanessa Selbst, a woman, to be his coach.

As Mathew Toles pointed out in "How Men Benefit From Having Female Mentors," this type of relationship is now commonplace. But it's still rare in the sometimes-retrograde world of poker.

To be fair, Selbst is not the first well-known female poker player to mentor a male player—Annie Duke coached Ben Affleck to a win at the California State Championship back in 2004. But Sylvia is no celebrity-novice-wanna-be poker player; he is a respected professional cash game player. And the WSOP main event final table is no ordinary achievement—it's the Super Bowl of poker, which makes Sylvia's choice of a mentor much more significant.

Selbst and Sylvia met on day 6 of the main event when they played at the same table. Soon after, Selbst was knocked out and Sylvia was one of only nine players left vying for the first place prize of $8.5 million. Selbst believes Sylvia picked her as his final table mentor because of their similar styles of play, her coaching experience, and her extensive short-handed poker experience (the majority of online games, where Selbst honed her game, are played with six or fewer players), which would be valuable as the number of players at the table shrank from 9 to 1.

Selbst's impressive poker resume was also likely a factor in Sylvia's choice. Only 28 years old, she has cashed in 45 major poker events, earned ten first-place finishes, and collected two WSOP bracelets (which are given for winning a WSOP event). She is also the second most successful female tournament poker player in history with $5.579 million in winnings.

Selbst achieved these enviable results by being arguably the most aggressive player in the game today. These video clips illustrate just how gutsy and brazen she is. Similarities between Sylvia and Selbst became apparent at the 2012 main event in the sixth hand of ten-handed play, when Sylvia tried to use his gigantic stack of chips to push four opponents out of a pot with just an unsuited 10-5 in his hand. That play was contrary to the 'play tight early and put yourself in a position to get lucky in later rounds' approach that used to be considered the optimal way to win poker tournaments.

Selbst was an early adopter of a relentlessly attacking, boom-and-bust style that is now popular among many top tournament poker professionals, including Michael Mizrachi, who has played in twelve WSOP final tables and won three WSOP bracelets. "You pretty much never see [Mizrachi's] name near the bottom of the chip counts. If he is still in the tournament, he's the chip leader," Selbst said, in what could also qualify as a good description of her own tournament performances.

Selbst's results in 2006 provide a good example of the dramatic ups and downs associated with her way of playing. During that year, Selbst cashed in two WSOP events but also became famous for bluffing away all her chips, crash-and-burn style, during her first ESPN-televised final table. With 5-2, she got into a raising war against a player with pocket aces. On the surface, the play looked self-destructive and reckless, but Selbst still believes the innovative play is defensible, based on the situation and her opponent, even if it didn't play so well on TV.

Time has shown this hand to be a turning point in poker. Before the hand, poker fans knew that Internet players thought differently about the game, but Selbst showed us all just how different the internet approach was. "Because of that [hand], for a long time, everyone thought I was just some dumb aggressive monkey who had no idea how to play poker. It turns out they were only half-right!" Selbst said.

I can personally attest to what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Selbst's betting jackhammer. In 2008, she was seated two players to my right in the LA Poker Classic's $1,000 no-limit hold 'em ladies event. In tournaments, players have to steal blinds to stay afloat, and Selbst was in the perfect position to pilfer mine. On the first hand of the tournament, after seven players had folded their cards, it was her turn to act. She looked at me, raised, and said, "Well, let's see how this goes." I interpreted her comment to mean, "I'm going to beat you. The question is: How easy are you going to make it for me?" She was on a mission to abuse me, and true to her threat, Selbst raised the next five times the action folded around to her while I was in the big blind. She was relentless.

I wasn't the only player Selbst bullied, though. She antagonistically pounced on weak opponents and tried to win every single pot she entered. In spots where most players would resign themselves to defeat and wait for a better hand, Selbst seemed to see a puzzle to be solved. She never let up, and her focus was intense. Playing with her was an educational experience. It was also so brutally frustrating that I imploded and lost all my chips within a few hours. Selbst, however, went on to win the tournament, proving herself a woman among girls.

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Shawnee Barton is a writer and artist based in Austin, Texas.

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