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Classes are over, poker is in session

7 Jun 2012

By Howard Stutz
Vanessa Selbst didn't hide her professional poker career from professors and classmates while attending Yale Law School.

She just put the game on hold for a couple of years. Selbst closed out her online accounts and stayed away from the tables.

"When you're in poker, you're really into it and you want to play all the time," Selbst said. "I tried to force poker from my mind. I pretty much had to remove myself from that while I was in New Haven [Connecticut]."

With law school now behind her - she graduated in January - Selbst, 27, is pouring herself back into poker full time. She placed fourth on May 28 in the World Series of Poker's second event, winning $161,345 in a $1,500 buy-in no-limit hold'em competition.

Many poker bloggers and chat room participants have been talking up Selbst as a player to watch this year at the 43rd World Series of Poker, which is under way at the Rio. She's won more than $5 million in tournament poker prize money, including more than $800,000 at the World Series of Poker.

"I've had a pretty good record and some good results, so maybe people are taking notice," Selbst said.

By the time Selbst returned to Yale after earning her undergraduate degree, she had already made her mark on the poker world, both in live cash games and online.

Selbst earned a World Series of Poker individual event championship bracelet in 2008, had two first places in World Poker Tour events that same year and amassed some $3 million in prize money.

Those facts weren't lost on her Yale professors.

Unlike Matt Damon's poker-obsessed Mike McDermott in the 1998 poker movie "Rounders," Selbst didn't keep the game a secret in law school.

Several professors asked her to play in charity games for the school. One professor, from Yale's school of management, invited Selbst to play in his home game.

"I didn't have him for any classes and he reached out to me a few times," she said.

In an early scene in "Rounders," Damon's McDermott offers his law professor, played by Martin Landau, some pointers during a game. After correctly sizing up all the other players' hands, McDermott ups his professor's wager.

Selbst didn't have any of those moments at Yale.

"I played a few tournaments here and there and I did well," Selbst said. "But it also reminded me how much I missed poker."

With Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino nearby, Selbst did break away from the books a few times to play in events sponsored by PokerStars, winning a combined $1.1 million in 2010 and 2011. She took a little time off from law school to get back into the game.

During her final year at Yale, Selbst balanced poker and her classes.

"Honestly, it was an intensive experience," Selbst said. "Whenever I was traveling, if I was done playing, I'd be studying. If I busted out [of a game], I'd read for class. It was just a year and it's done now."

Selbst said she plans to take a bar exam somewhere, possibly in California, next year. After the World Series of Poker is complete this summer, she plans to spend time in Los Angeles volunteering at a law firm to gain legal experience. Her goal is to work in public interest law, such as civil rights work, racial injustice and economic equality.

For now, Selbst's attention is on the Rio. She is unsure how many World Series of Poker events she'll participate in, but was encouraged by reaching a final table in her first event. It was the 12th time she cashed in a World Series of Poker event.

Internet poker's demise in the United States forced Selbst to move to Toronto for part of last year, but without American players, the online game suffered. Selbst used online poker to better her skills in some of the less well-known poker variations.

She is still considering playing in the $50,000 buy-in Players Championship, which rotates between eight forms of poker.

"I'm really comfortable in four of the games, I'm sort of average in two and in the other two I'm a bit behind," Selbst said without identifying the different variations. "I'm not going to be a huge favorite if I play, but I won't be a dog either."

In "Rounders," McDermott gave up law school to chase his dream of winning the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Selbst, who began playing poker at age 19 and is considered one of the original generation of Internet players who successfully graduated to live games, is delaying the bar exam for a similar goal.

"You look around and I'm one of the older ones [in the poker room] these days," Selbst said. "What really helped me learn the game was from talking with like-minded poker players. They were young and energetic and we would hang around and talk strategy."

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