Lunch with the FT: Vanessa Selbst

Over octopus in Brooklyn, the poker star talks about her reckless reputation, being a gay woman in a male-dominated profession and using her winnings to fight inequality

The world’s most successful female poker player has picked a neighbourhood Greek restaurant for lunch. Yet when I arrive at Faros, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, it is deserted, not just of diners but apparently of staff. Is this another of Vanessa Selbst’s elaborate bluffs, I wonder?

The 31-year-old has taken home more than $11m from live tournaments and wowed TV viewers of the game with her aggressive play and apparently reckless betting on weak hands. I have been looking forward to our meeting for weeks, so I am not willing to fold immediately. I go hunting for a waiter, and find one twiddling thumbs at a table tucked in the back. Contrary to impressions, the kitchen is open, so I pick a spot near the window and await my guest.

When Selbst arrives — without a coat, since she lives only a few blocks away — she glances round in horror and suggests we find another venue. She explains that she has been looking for a replacement Greek restaurant since her go-to, Okeanos, a few blocks down, shut; she had remembered an enjoyable summer evening at Faros when the outdoor garden was rammed with patrons.

We decide to stick it out, in the service of culinary investigation. “I like Greek because it is usually really fresh vegetables,” she says. “I just like to eat light food.”

A modest local restaurant is a world away from the brattishness and bling of the professional poker circuit, and from the hedonistic antics of stars such as Dan Bilzerian, filmed last year throwing a naked porn star from a roof into a swimming pool. But Selbst, a gay woman who prefers campaigning on social justice issues to collecting guns and motorbikes, is not your typical poker star.

“I never really considered myself a poker pro,” she says. “I think poker is more like a theme in my life. It’s like an annoying brother that just keeps nagging at you like, ‘Come play with me.’ I’m always trying to get away and do my own thing and the sibling is just like, ‘No, come back.’ It is addictive, in a way. I know some people struggle with gambling addiction. For me I find it really addictive in the same way that I find Candy Crush really addictive. It’s not about winning and losing money.”

Indeed, Selbst sometimes drops out of competition altogether. Having previously taken a break from poker to complete a law degree at Yale Law School in 2009, this year she passed the New York bar exam and has been considering extending her work with non-profits such as the Innocence Project, which works to overturn miscarriages of justice, and Make the Road New York, a group of community organisers.

Lately, though, she has felt the little brother tugging her sleeve once again. She will be on the professional circuit more often in 2016, she says, although she prefers domesticity in Brooklyn.

Even after a decade and three World Series of Poker bracelets, the game’s most coveted non-monetary prize, Selbst says she feels like an outsider on the tours, where players spend days on end playing for prizes that can reach into millions of dollars.

“I don’t actually hate them,” she says of her fellow players. “It’s just kind of seedy. Men around other men, they’re just at their worst. It’s gross, the way they talk to and about women. Whereas when other women are at the table, they might restrain themselves because there’s a — I’m using air quotes — ‘lady present’, with me, because of the way I look, it’s like I’m some weird grey area.”

Has she, I ask, experienced discrimination? “I have been discriminated against but not for being a woman. For the way I look as a gay woman, I’ve had opportunities not be presented to me for sure.” She says she knows of at least one TV presenter role where this happened. “They say we wouldn’t get as many viewers, or whatever,” she says. “That might or might not be true. I don’t care enough. It’s not my battle. It could be, but I don’t want it to be.”

The underemployed waiter has quickly taken our order: salads to start, then octopus for Selbst and a souvlaki dish off the specials menu for me. Lunch specials come with a beer — a bargain $15 all in — and Selbst orders a coffee.

Perhaps our presence has emboldened passers-by — by the time the first course arrives, the restaurant has attracted three other covers. Selbst’s classic horiatiki is a huge pile of tomato hunks and slabs of feta; my Faros salata includes avocado and dried cranberries as well as mixed leaves and crumbled feta. Both are dauntingly large.

Selbst has worked hard to separate poker the game (good) from poker the lifestyle (unhealthy) — yet it was not always so. She had a comfortable upbringing, first in Brooklyn and then in Montclair, New Jersey. Her parents were talented card players — they met at a bridge game — and kindled an interest in logic puzzles in her and brother Andrew. Her mother, an options trader by profession, taught her Mastermind and cribbage.

At high school, inspired by the Matt Damon movie Rounders, Selbst and friends started playing poker and when she took up the game again as a political science undergraduate, it coincided with the online poker boom.

“We were the first generation of online players, the first really good poker players,” she says, in the tone in which one delivers statistical fact. “Most of the poker pros in the past were these rough-and-tumble guys that didn’t have a great opportunity in their lives who were like, ‘I don’t see myself having a traditional career, so I’m going to go out and try my luck in Vegas.’ They’re not these nerdy math guys and girls who were sitting at home or at college with plenty of options but who then started making a lot of money by doing statistical analyses. That’s a different generation and that’s what we were.”

It has been clear from the minute we sat down that Selbst is terrifyingly smart, but what seems to have pushed her to a level above the rest of the “nerdy math guys and girls” is something else: a tragedy.

When her mother died suddenly from an intestinal condition in 2005, Selbst was on a Fulbright scholarship to study gay marriage in Spain. In turmoil, she effectively abandoned her studies for all-night poker sessions and what she has described as a near-depression which, in a dark sense, made her a great player. It prompts me to ask if she ever fears her present happiness and balanced approach to poker could be upended. “It’s an interesting question. My gut reaction is ‘No’, but if something happened to my wife or something, I guess it’s not unheard of that I would be so miserable that I would just retreat.”

She continues, “Not that you should only play if you’re miserable, but it was such an escape. If I hadn’t had such a difficult year, I’d maybe never be at this level. That was my most intense year of playing poker, which is a kind of weird, morbid take on the whole thing.”

Questions of addiction and life choices are once again current in the US. Online poker really took off in 2003, when an unknown called Chris Moneymaker became the first world champion — and a millionaire — to have qualified for the World Series of Poker from an online site. The so-called “Moneymaker effect” led to a huge rise in the numbers of poker players worldwide yet, for the past decade, this has not included players from the US.

In 2006, Congress shut down access to online poker sites for US citizens, citing concerns about money laundering and a rise in addiction, and the US authorities prosecuted several companies and executives. Now the industry is going state by state to try to persuade local authorities to legalise and license poker sites within state borders. Selbst hopes this is just a precursor to another poker boom.

“Anything’s dangerous but we don’t live in a paternalist society. Some gambling’s legal and some is not. A lot of policies are just based around which lobby gave them more money,” she says. “Online poker is so great because you have access to a billion people. Now your pool is cut down to a few million. The network effects are really big. We’re hoping that, if enough states regulate it, then they get their act together and realise they’re not getting the traffic that they could be getting [so] they’ll pass a resolution to allow interstate poker.”

Reconnecting the US to the rest of the world could also help the professional game — including Selbst and her sponsor PokerStars, an online card room — by bringing back viewers who have deserted televised events and drained money from TV licensing deals.

Our main courses, which arrive while we are still scaling our salad mountains, are more sensibly sized. My cubes of pork come in a delicious, tangy marinade. Selbst expresses enthusiasm for her octopus, which is charcoal-grilled and presented with a red wine vinegar. She is a keen cook and says that preparing the perfect octopus remains an elusive goal, despite many attempts — one of which when she was dating her now-wife, Miranda, a teacher who she met on the website OKCupid.

The meal was designed to impress, early on in their relationship. “She was the least adventurous eater ever so I was testing her and she ate it. It was terrible too. I was, like, ‘OK, you must really want to get to know me because you ate that and it was really bad.’”

While Selbst is looking for Greek cooking tips, I am rather hoping to come away from lunch with a cute poker trick or two, anything to improve my timid occasional games of ultra-low stakes Texas hold ’em with friends. The truth, I’m not surprised to hear, is that there is no substitute for study. In fact, my question on how to tell if a rival is bluffing is greeted with the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll.

“People always want to know, ‘What are the main tells?’ Let’s just say it doesn’t work like that. One thing that you look for: is someone’s heart racing? It often means that they’re nervous, but sometimes they’re nervous because they just have a really great hand. You have to look, to see what hand they turn over and then you can associate.”

What I do learn is that Selbst’s own aggressive style is partly a made-for-TV fabrication. In her major TV debut in 2006, a disastrous bluff lost her all her chips and knocked her tournament prize money down from $800,000 to $100,000, but gained her a reputation that she has been cashing in ever since.

In fact, she says she plays relatively tightly when the cameras are not rolling. “There was a number of years where, whenever I was on TV, if there was an option between a crazy play and a not crazy play, I just always made the crazy play because I was like, ‘I can just keep bolstering this image’,” she says.

“I don’t mind saying it now because, first of all, I’m sure the people that I’m going to be exploiting aren’t probably going to be reading this. No offence. Also, it should be clear to everyone that I’m not playing every hand crazy, but it doesn’t matter. You can tell them that I’m exploiting this and doing this and people are still like, ‘No, I won’t get bluffed, and I especially won’t get bluffed by a girl’.”

Selbst turns down dessert but, since she is under no particular time pressure and I still want to hear about her life beyond poker, she gets her coffee refilled and I nurse my beer. When, eventually, I return to the office it is to learn that Mark Zuckerberg, who is the same age as Selbst, has promised to give all but a sliver of his Facebook fortune to philanthropy. Selbst shares this millennial desire to impact the world for good.

In the past, that meant student activism — during Selbst’s law studies she led the Queer-Straight Alliance at Yale and railed against what appeared to be discrimination in the way police responded to complaints against gay and straight student parties — and volunteering for community organisations.

“I was working on behalf of people who hadn’t paid their electric bill of $60. I’m spending seven or eight hours on the phone trying to get this bill paid or trying to get them to waive it, and meanwhile I’m gambling thousands of dollars and I’m like, ‘This is so stupid.’”

Since then, Selbst has gone on to establish Venture Justice, a foundation that funnels her poker winnings to dynamic young entrepreneurs starting up non-profits aimed at tackling inequality. As some commentators took care to point out to Zuckerberg last week, setting up the foundation can be the easy part; finding the change-the-world ventures, which she expects to begin in earnest next year, will be the real, time-consuming work.

So that’ll be a ‘no’ to going into hedge funds, then? “A lot of bored poker players go into hedge funds or vice versa,” she says. “I imagine it would be fun, but I just feel like I’ve already spent enough time playing a zero-sum game. I’m also anti-capitalist at heart, so it doesn’t really fit in with my values, I guess.”

A first step is to bring philanthropic work to the professional poker community. Recently, she organised a “Blinds & Justice” charity tournament for the Urban Justice Centre, which provides legal services to the poor. The event, which she co-hosted with fellow poker star Daniel Negreanu, attracted several big names and raised $160,000.

According to Selbst, poker stars often do not realise how privileged they are, and have been tricked into thinking that they are winning through innate ability alone. “I had the safety net of my family. If I lost my money playing poker, there wasn’t an actual risk because I know I would have something to fall back on,” she says. “But [the reason] you’re not afraid to take risks comes from the fact your parents brought you up in a world where you didn’t have to be afraid. You probably were from a white upper middle-class background where you weren’t getting harassed by the police. There weren’t gangs or whatever, where one wrong step was going to land you somewhere you shouldn’t have been.

“In poker, the cards are the same for everyone, and anyone can sit down in a game, so people extend that to think it’s all meritocracy.”

I pay the bill and we prepare to head out into Park Slope, the neighbourhood in which she was born and to which she has returned. With rows of beautiful brownstones and pricey apartments, it could not be a better illustration of New York’s “tale of two cities” and the inequality she wants to help tackle.

“I feel I live such a comfortable life that I feel like a fraud every day,” she says. “I don’t feel selfless at all. If I were really selfless, I wouldn’t come to a restaurant like this; like, what have we spent? $60 on a lunch we could have had for $6 and that money could have been a lot better spent on something else.”

This article was originally published on on December 11, 2015. The author, Stephen Foley, is the FT’s US investment correspondent. The illustration is by Luke Waller.

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