[toc]Vanessa Selbst leaving the poker says as much about the current state of the game as the most successful female player in poker history’s relationship to it.
The 33-year-old Brooklyn, New York native wrote in a New Year’s Eve post on Facebook that she is parting ways with sponsor PokerStars and moving on from her career as a professional poker player to pursue a job in finance.
Strictly by tournament earnings, Selbst is the most successful female player ever. In fact, she is currently the top-ranking female player on tournament poker’s all-time money list, ranking 41st overall with $11,851,384 in career tournament earnings.
Selbst said goodbye claiming her experience with poker over the past 12 years has been intellectually challenging, exhilarating, fun, and rewarding. But poker is apparently not challenging, exhilarating, fun, or rewarding enough for her to continue to pursue it full time. However, for Selbst, it may never have been.
Selbst treated pro poker as a part-time pursuit
Selbst attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before transferring to Yale. Poker boomed at that same time. Millions of Americans got caught up in it, and Selbst was one of them. She played in underground clubs in and around New York City and online any chance she could. However, she still stuck with school.
Selbst spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship after finishing up her undergrad degree at Yale. Upon her return to the US, she took a job with the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company. Poker continued to be a part-time pursuit. Even after two final table appearances at the WSOP in 2006 and 2007, and her first bracelet win in 2008, it remained that way.
In fact, the same year she won the bracelet, Selbst started law school at Yale.
Two years into the program, she was still playing poker part-time when she won two major titles and booked $2,865,830 in tournament cashes. She spent the next two years finishing up her law degree and earning close to another $2 million playing poker as a weekend warrior.
Before poker became a real job
In the two years after she graduated, Selbst played a little more poker, earning $2,665,231 in 2013 and $2,369,550 in 2014. However, she still split time between poker and putting that law degree to good use. In fact, she became heavily involved in fundraising and working on legal and social justice projects as a board member with the Urban Justice Center in New York.
Selbst still cashed for more than $1 million in tournaments in 2015. However, things have really gone downhill over the past two years. Selbst cashed for $115,975 in tournaments in 2016 and just $8,231 last year.
Among the reason she now says she’s leaving professional poker is the idea it has become more difficult to find success without making a full-time commitment to the game:
“Poker recently turned into a real job, requiring hard work and discipline to succeed. I had never treated the game that way–I always kept a very light poker schedule–I showed up and played for fun and did other projects back home as my real work.”
The game theory game-changer
The rules of Texas Hold’em haven’t changed. However, the average player’s approach to the game certainly has. Game theory and a more mathematical approach to the game adopted by the masses has driven out players who relied on their instincts and went with their guts.
Cowboys, road gamblers, and hustlers dominated poker prior to the boom. Now they have been replaced by players who take a scientific and studious approach to the game.
Weekend warriors and old school players can still find a home in the micros and mid-stakes. However, the true high-stakes professional player can hardly succeed these days making the kind of part-time effort Selbst once did.
It takes a certain kind of maturity to admit you can’t be successful at something you were once so successful at. Selbst should be applauded for finding it.
It’s just sad to see that poker has now become something people with a life outside of it can no longer pursue. For many years, Selbst represented the best of poker. She pursued her education and a career in her chosen field all while achieving great success playing the game. As a result, she helped the poker community see poker for what it truly is: A game.
Selbst worked part-time at a police misconduct plaintiffs’ law firm this year before transitioning into a job four months ago with a hedge fund doing trading research and developing strategy. Now she’s decided to give a career in finance the old college try. She’s saving poker for something fun to do every now and then. Hopefully she’ll continue to find success and good luck in both pursuits. And for her, and all of us, find a way to make poker the same fun game it always was.