Gambling, Gambling / Gaming

Yale Law Student Takes Her Turn as a Poker Star

We’ve written previously about Vanessa Selbst, a Yale Law Student and professional poker star. She outlasted 716 competitors at the North American Poker Tour event at the Mohegan Sun. Top Prize = $750K. Now that she’s won more than enough to cover her high-priced legal education, she’s taking a break from law school to concentrate on poker.

You can check out Vanessa’s victory tonight on ESPN2 at 11:00 pm. Or you can catch it online at More importantly, you can vote for Vanessa to be one of 27 inaugural “poker all-stars” in a June tournament with a million dollar prize pool. Winning your education funding at the tables seems a lot more noble than asking people to pay you. Click here to vote.

As many of you know, I love poker. I know many of you do too. Vanessa also coaches poker at Deuces Cracked, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pick Vanessa’s brain about poker and law school. Luckily for Yale Law students, she has a kind heart and won’t be rolling around campus looking to take all of your money. But she could…

I’ve long believed that it’s easy to spot the lawyer at the poker table. Lawyers play logically, tight, and fear taking risks. But Selbst doesn’t spend enough time slumming around with her fellow law students to have a particular taste for fresh lawyer meat:

It doesn’t appear to me that many people do play at Yale, and I don’t really play with law students. A couple of times just for fun. But I’m not trying to take my classmates money… It would be like a [baseball star] playing in a little league game and trying to hit home runs.

That’s not a slam on the skills of your average Yale Law student. At her level, the kind of game most of us play would just be boring to her:

Sometimes it seems like I can’t take anything below 5/10 [$5/$10 no limit Hold ‘Em] seriously. And often the higher stakes live games running are really bad, because everyone plays so tight and I get bored easily. I try to only play live cash games when I can play higher stakes in a good game.

Selbst said that she started off playing cash games, but now she almost exclusively plays in tournaments. Why? Because she finds them more challenging:

There are a lot more variables [in a tournament]. I feel like I have a big edge over a lot of people. I think in a tournament there is so much more going on, it’s easier to show an edge. You can’t just play tight. In a tournament people are forced to open up their game, but a lot of times they simply don’t know how…

That is exactly why … I prefer cash games. In a tourney there is so much going on. You’re constantly trying to asses your position against those with bigger stacks, and stamina becomes so crucial. And the blinds, oh the blinds that go up with nightmarish speed bleeding you into bad decisions. Arrggghhhh!

Sorry. [Elie pops Valium, returns to happy place where cowboys ride on rockets.]

Given how exciting poker is, especially for one that can keep all of these variables in her head and win three quarters of a million dollars, why the hell did Vanessa Selbst go to law school?

I never did poker exclusively, I had a passion for other things … Civil rights and social justice,

Yes, yes, yes. I love social justice too. But if I had the skills, I’d also love to deal some justice out to that blabbermouth Phillip Hellmuth.

Selbst explained that when she first got to law school, she didn’t think she could pursue a career of legal significance and a career of poker domination at the same time. But now she thinks differently:

I want to play poker a significant part of the year, and also devote a significant amount of time practicing law or just doing something else related to the field in civil rights law.

It seems like Selbst is still looking forward to a career where she’ll take on clients facing an uphill battle. But she says she’s learned an early lesson about playing around with dominated cards:

I never play deuce/five suited. The first time I was on T.V. [in 2006] I went all in with 2/5, and the other guy had aces… When you have an unconventional style, if it goes bad you wind up looking like an idiot and a bunch of people are going to criticize you… After the 2006 World Series episode, everybody thought that I was the biggest donkey in the world. A lot of people didn’t understand 3-betting, so they thought my 4-betting was crazy.

She wasn’t crazy. I can deal with (and employ) 3-betting techniques, but the few times I’m caught in a 4-betting crucible I go running for the hills looking for my mommy. I’ve folded made hands to this strategy, the fear of calling and looking like an idiot trumps my desire for money.

And overcoming fear, is one of Vanessa’s most salient pieces of advice to beginner poker players looking to step up their game. She says too many players are more concerned with not losing pots, instead of winning pots. So she’ll see a lot of players over bet to protect hands from getting outdrawn, and wind up winning a series of small pots instead of letting people call you when you are the favorite to win. She counsels a “disassociation between feelings and math.”

I know a lot of lawyers aren’t going to like it, but if you want to play poker well, you’ve got to overcome your fear … of math.

If you want to learn more about Vanessa Selbst, check out her poker tips on Deuces Cracked, or her blog: FslexcDuckTales.

World Series of Poker, Tournament of Champions [WSOP]

Earlier: Poker: What Lawyers Can Learn About Bankers at the Table

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