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[Vegas on My Mind]

The winningest woman in WSOP history is renewing interest in the game

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At 29, Vanessa Selbst (right) has won millions at the poker table.

The last time I paid much attention to professional poker was around 2011. It was just before I moved away from Las Vegas, and my sense was that the game had pretty much expanded to its natural limit in terms of public interest and popularity. It was largely dominated by a set of “stars” who mostly happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right personality when poker became a TV phenomenon, and those folks were likely to hog the spotlight for years to come.

I wondered in these very pages how new stars might be minted. Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and Annie Duke have attained fame that transcends the game—and Phil Ivey would if he wasn’t such a miscreant to reporters—but poker is largely an insular world. Those inside it think it’s the most important thing ever; the rest of the world largely shrugs.

So if the question is who could break through in this post-hype era, I think I’ve found the answer: A married, butch lesbian with a fauxhawk and a law degree from Yale. Her name is Vanessa Selbst. Learn it.

At 29, Selbst is already the winningest female player in tournament history and 22nd overall with $10.5 million in prize winnings. That includes three World Series of Poker tournaments, including one last month in which she took home more than $871,000.

Her very existence took me by surprise last month. A Time magazine piece on tennis star Rafael Nadal included a passage about him playing a poker match with Selbst in Europe. The piece spoke of her impressive winnings in passing, but it was news to me.

This week, I met her as she played one of the many smaller events that make up the World Series of Poker at the Rio. Her table demeanor is all business, a severe look perpetually on her face as she fidgets with her chips. She’s known, I’m told, for a revolutionary, aggressive betting strategy that intimidates opponents and—obviously—for being terrific at reading the people sitting around the table.

She’s also entirely self-aware of her significance to the game, as evidenced by the fact that she appears in her customary black jacket and gray T-shirt on the cover of two free glossy magazines available in the halls outside the WSOP playing venues.

“Any time there’s someone who looks like me who is getting attention, it’s a good sign,” says Selbst, once the head of the Yale Queer-Straight Alliance. “It think it’s cool that I can be on TV and representing for lesbians and not even lesbians but masculine-gendered women, which is something that you don’t really see a lot of depicted in the media. I don’t know what effect it’s having, but it’s got to be pretty positive.”

Whether Selbst is butch or femme, lesbian or straight, WSOP officials and others in the poker universe are just happy she’s a woman. Women typically make up a modest 5 percent of the field in the WSOP Main Event, that biggest and most famous tournament and the one that ESPN turns into a reality show in the fall. That’s up from 3 percent in 2004, WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky says.

“She’s terrific because she breaks down barriers and proves to people that the game of poker is for everyone,” Palansky says. “Despite the belief that it’s a male-dominated sport, she’s proven she can dominate this game. Everyone who can get two cards or four cards or whatever variance of poker you’re playing, the cards and your smarts decide your success in the game.”

Later this month, Palansky notes, Selbst becomes the first woman ever to play in the $1 million buy-in WSOP tournament that benefits Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s clean-water charity, One Drop. The event offers a $20 million top prize, the most in poker history. She isn’t seen as a woman or a lesbian player, he insists, but simply one of the greats.

Selbst says she’s been well-received by fellow players. Mostly. “One time I was at a WSOP event, there was a very well-known player who made a comment about my sexuality, said something about how he didn’t even know if I was a woman or a man,” she recalls. “Everyone at the table came to my defense and called him out and said that was completely inappropriate.”

That is amazing. I knew that Vegas had changed. I knew America had changed. But I always thought that the game that began in the most masculine of environs—Binion’s Horseshoe, for goodness sake—would take much longer to embrace someone like Selbst.

Instead, poker sees her as a way to expand its audience and to renew interest. And that’s a very smart bet.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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