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.

Selbst's success at poker may be genetic. Her mother—who died in 2005, just before Selbst became a poker superstar—was an MIT graduate who paid her way through college by playing poker, and her parents met during a bridge game. Growing up, Selbst's mom acted as her poker mentor, and the family encouraged competiveness by playing games like cribbage and Mastermind.

Perhaps unfairly (see Susan Rice or Serena Williams), overt competitiveness and confidence is still perceived differently between the genders. Selbst's sometimes-abrasive public demeanor has made her a polarizing figure. A recent televised Selbst outburst ignited a harsh backlash on TwoplusTwo.com, poker's biggest online forum. But her intellect (she's a former Fulbright scholar and recent Yale Law School Graduate) and impressive results have earned her an undeniable level of respect and celebrity that is practically unequalled by any other woman in the history of poker.

Selbst's rise—both as a player and teacher—began in the online poker world. She has made or been featured in over 100 coaching videos on the popular poker training site Deucescracked.com. Those videos have been viewed 693,000 times by over 34,000 unique subscribers.

Sylvia's main event coach selection and Selbst's popularity as a Deucescracked coach indicates that today's poker players, most of whom learned to play online, are younger, savvier, and more open-minded than their predecessors. Selbst is proud of the impact she's had. "I think being a woman in the spotlight who is succeeding at what she does is great, but personally it's more important that I'm a gay woman in the spotlight—particularly a woman who is non-gender-conforming." Things have clearly come a long way since 1973, when Amarillo Slim proclaimed that he'd slit his neck with a dull knife if Vera Richmond (a well-known female player at the time) ever won the WSOP main event.

Back in 2006, the year Selbst shoved her way onto the scene with that infamous 5-2, Jennifer Harman, a cash game pro currently featured on TLC's reality show Sin City, took women players to task for failing to raise their game to the level needed to compete with top male players. "At this rate it'll be a couple hundred years before we're winning half the events," Harman said.

For a while, though, it looked like online female players would make quick work of Harman's depressing prediction. Women, like Selbst and Anette Obrestad, a Norwegian poker wunderkind who began playing online at 16 and won the WSOP Europe main event at 18, were learning, thriving, and teaching online and then transferring their skills and confidence to wins in live poker tournaments. In fact, author and poker historian James McManus estimated in Cowboys Full that 30 percent of online players in 2009 were women, as compared to just 5 percent of live tournament players.

But on a day known to poker players as "Black Friday," the Department of Justice shut down online poker in the United States. It was the biggest poker story of 2012—and the ban threatens women's recent rise in poker. Now that online poker is outlawed in the U.S., there is a fear that the growth and acceptance of American women players will stall without a convenient, non-gender-biased place for them to nurture their games. Selbst is also concerned, explaining, "A lot of women feel that it's still an intimidating and unfriendly environment at the [live] poker table, and I can't say that I don't agree in a lot of circumstances."

Many women players, including me, do in fact share Selbst's concern. A couple of weeks ago, I was playing Pot Limit Omaha at a Southern California casino, and a male player at the table sneezed grossness all over me. When he didn't apologize I said, "You realize that sprayed all over me, right?" He sneered back, "That's what she said." After that, I did my best to empty his pockets. By the end of the night, he left exasperated, saying, "I quit. I can't beat this game—no, I just can't beat her." I'm a poker veteran—and this wasn't the first sexist comment directed at me at a casino—but if it had been my first experience at a live table, I don't think I would have known how to respond. And wanting to avoid more abuse, I doubt I would have ever come back to that casino.

While Selbst might be worried about the overall progress women are making in poker post-Black Friday, she feels great about her current game. She's playing a full schedule this year, beginning with $10K, $25K, and $100K buy-in events in Australia and the Bahamas. Then she'll return to the U.S. to play the LA Poker Classic again in February. With that kind of pace, she could very well rack up enough victories to achieve gender parity among poker champions all on her own, and mentees—from both genders—will no doubt keep paying big bucks for her coaching expertise.

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

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